Port Wine

Call of Port

By Broos Campbell

My brother has begun a family tradition that I like very well. For my birthday every year, he gives me a bottle or two of fine or unusual port. One year it was a 1985 that I made the mistake of opening after Christmas dinner. Had I waited until this year, or better yet, until the turn of the century, I would have truly enjoyed the subtleties of one of port’s exceptional vintages.

Briefly, port is wine fortified with brandy, and there are three basic kinds: ruby, tawny and white. The original port comes from Portugal–from the Douro Valley, to be exact, by way of the aging houses of Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Oporto, Portugal’s second largest city. Like many delicacies, port wine got its start as a substitute for something else. During England’s many troubles with France, French claret became difficult to get in England. As the English were usually on more-or-less good terms with the Portuguese, they began importing their wines. The vintners began adding brandy to stabilize the wine for its trip down the Douro to Oporto and over sea to England. Not only did the wine stay potable, but lo, it was delicious and packed a wallop.

The British love affair with port wine also gave rise to a port industry in Australia. “There’s much more of a tradition in making and drinking port in Australia than in the U.S.,” explains Mick Schroeter, an Australian winemaker who now makes ports and other wines for Geyserville’s Geyser Peak Winery. “Some of the Australian tawnies are quite old. And they make fantastic blending material.”

Nowadays the process is less haphazard, but more or less the same. The grapes are allowed to ferment only two or three days, and then neutral grain spirits are added. The infusion of alcohol kills the yeast, which normally would continue to eat the sugar and secrete alcohol. Hence the signature sweetness.

Adding to its snob appeal, port comes in vintages–which are declared about three times in a decade after the port houses seek the blessing of the Vila Nova de Gaia’s Port Wine Institute. Extraordinary vintages of recent times include 1963 and 1977.

A vintage is declared when the winemakers are convinced that the port from a particular year will age exceedingly well in the bottle, or at least remarkably well. They’re not always right. Sometimes non-vintage years are actually better.

At Geyser Peak, the winemakers turn out 400 to 500 cases per year of their Shiraz-style port. “For us, the main drive in making this was to have a port for ourselves,” says Schroeter. “It’s a unique and interesting product, and it’s fun for us to make.”

And according to Schroeter, port seems to be catching on in the United States. “It seems to have taken off,” he says. “We mainly sell 375-milliliter bottles through our tasting room, but we’ve seen an increase in sales recently.”

Only ruby ports can be vintage ports. Tawnies are blends of wines from several years. They get their golden-brown color from spending more time in the wooden cask before bottling, and tend to be drier and less fruity than rubies, leaning more to butterscotch or caramel.

A good tawny is the product of skillful blending, and the growers and winemakers of Portugal prize it highly. Vintages are expected to vary, but a winemaker’s skill and craft shines through in the ability to produce consistent tawnies from year to year. Because tawnies are filtered before they are bottled, further aging won’t change their taste.

Colheitas are blended from wines of a single year, but are aged in wood for at least seven years, and are also filtered before bottling. Because they are taken from a single year, they sometimes are confused with vintage ports, but it’s a harmless error; they’re good stuff.

Neither age nor cost is a reliable yardstick for deciding what tawny to select, by the way. In a recent issue of Wine Spectator, Niepoort’s 1983 tawny port colheita topped the charts with a rating of 95; price, $34. Trailing at No. 9 on the list with a rating of 90 was Ramos-Pinto’s 1937 tawny port colheita. Price: $200.

The tasters’ conclusion? “We discovered,” writes James Suckling, “that it made little sense in most cases to pay a premium for tawnies with more than 20 years of age.”

The quinta (Portuguese for “estate”) designation and year that some bottles carry indicates an unofficial vintage. The confusion with declared vintages is intentional, but, owing to the educated guesswork involved in declaring a vintage, sometimes the quintas are every bit as good, and sometimes better, than the official vintages.

“Late bottled vintages” are a less costly but potentially rewarding way to go. LBVs are aged in wood a few years before bottling. Most are filtered, making decanting unnecessary, and most are intended to be drunk as soon as they are put in the bottle. The time in the wood allows the wine to breathe, which allows it to be opened and closed without compromising the flavor.

I’m not convinced that that last advantage is an advantage at all. In the absence of airless storage, a good vintage port begins to lose its flavor almost immediately, and when one is opened it should be drunk up right away. Now, isn’t that a happy thought?

From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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