Port Authority: Warm up With Portugal's Prized Wine
My brother-in-law, although from Ohio -- a place with very few fine wine traditions (I'm from there and can confirm it) -- loves port. But he hasn't come to adore it living in the States. Years ago, he moved to the quaint little town of Broadway in England, thereby adopting the estimable British custom of hunkering down through the frigid winters with more than a few bottles of this wine on hand. Over the years, he's been converting the rest of us to port's charms by sending a bottle par avion each holiday. Given the barrage of abominable snow and generally hideous weather this year, a discussion of port and why you should embrace this wine of many personalities seems appropriate.
Port has endured a long, dramatic history and comes from a difficult place to farm. There was a time when the French and British hated each other (and they still don't mingle in the same global vacay spots -- the Brits trample Ibiza, the French relax in Corsica). Port came to popularity during the 17th century trade wars between the two countries, an era in which French wines were first prohibited from importation into England, then later allowed but heavily taxed. This drove the English to look for alternative wine sources along the friendly shores of Portugal.
To get their new supply of wines to England in good condition, the British discovered adding a measure of brandy to the juice helped to stabilize the wine before the rocky, hot, boat ride home. They later learned from a Portuguese abbot in a monastery (those clever monks!) that adding the brandy before fermentation finished -- killing off the active yeasts that'd otherwise covert the remaining sugar to alcohol -- would result in the high-alcohol, sweet red wine we know as port today.
The other reason port is so intriguing is because the place where the grapes are grown seems, at first glance, horribly inhospitable to any kind of agriculture, let alone fine wine grape growing. There's virtually no soil -- just deep schist that, in times past, has seen a stick or two of dynamite used to crack it open in order to drop in new vines. The vines work hard for their water and nutrients, often stretching their roots down as much as five feet to find sustenance. Plus, the region around the Douro River Valley -- the true home of real port -- is steep, requiring terraced vineyards that make vine management and harvest extremely labor intensive, especially in the extreme heat of the summer. And, after all that work, yields in the Douro are still some of the lowest in the world.
One of port's charms is the diversity of styles and prices, though this can also make it confounding to the consumer. The gist of port is that it's usually sweet, red (there is also white port, which is seldom seen in the states but refreshing in summertime cocktails), and made from five main grapes: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, and Tinta Cao. Port can be broken down into two styles: barrel-aged and bottle-aged. Wood-matured ports are aged in wooden casks (sometimes cement tanks) and are ready to drink once that cashier hands over the bottle. Bottle-aged ports are aged for a short time in wood, and then they're bottled without filtration with the intention of developing in your cellar for the next 20 to 30 years. That'd be your vintage port (and a few others, but we'll keep this simple).
See my picks on the next page.