Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Pleasures of Port

More things happen by accident than we know. Supposedly cheese was discovered when a Roman Legionnaire filled a sack, made from an animal's stomach, with goat's milk and placed it between his leg and the horse's body. During a vigorous ride, the contact heat curdled the milk, helped along by the rennet inside the skin, and fresh cheese was born. 

Port History
True or not, it's a nice story. A more political scenario evolved with the discovery of the fortified Portuguese wine we know today as Port. 

(I pause here, during this holiday season, remembering (vaguely) a time in my boyhood when my mother would take a little port. Mom was an enthusiastic practitioner of folk medicine,
Dining in Portugal
believing, for instance, that port was an elixir that would "build the blood."

Mom and I lived in a small one bedroom unit in the back of a converted tavern. Clara Ellis, her World War II amputee husband, Howard and their young daughter, Corinne, lived in the front unit. We didn't have a car so Mrs. Ellis would occasionally run errands for my mother in her torpedo-back Pontiac. 

One day, Mrs. Ellis stopped by to tell my mother that she was going to the state store and did my mother want anything for the holidays. Mom gave her the money for a bottle of port. 

In the 1940s, the only way to buy a bottle of wine, spirits or beer, in fact anything with alcohol, in Pennsylvania, was to go to a state store. Licensed restaurants also served alcohol, or you could drive across the Delaware River to New Jersey where alcohol sales were more relaxed.

I was outside playing when the Pontiac returned, easing up to the curb in front of the house. On the way back from the state store, Mrs. Ellis must have stopped by the tavern to get here husband, because I saw them arguing about something. The disagreement didn't last long when Mrs. Ellis got out of the car, and leaning over to look across the front seat, snarled: "Well, Howard, you can just stay there!"

And he did, for a while. But eventually, with some effort, Mr. Ellis lifted himself out of the passenger side of the car, struggling to maintain his balance, while holding onto the car with one hand and his artificial leg with the other. 

Then he looked across the street and seeing our nosy neighbor peeking out her window, Howard Ellis waved his artificial leg in the air and yelled, "That's right, you old bat, I'm drunk again!" Howard Ellis never got over the loss of his leg in the war and how that trauma kept him from being the man he wanted to be after the war.

As I stood there watching  this little drama that I didn't really understand, Clara Ellis  came out of the house and helped her husband inside and then brought the bottle of port around, likely from a Finger Lakes winery, for mom, who nursed it through Christmas and New Year.)

But I digress...In the early 1690s, the scenario in Portugal involved a trade war between the French and English. Seems the English were enjoying their French wine until a disagreement occurred prompting harsh tariffs to be imposed, driving English wine merchants to look elsewhere for wine. That place was northern Portugal. 

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Terraced vines in the Douro River valley
What was available to the merchants was a thin acid white wine (probably Vinho Verde), which the merchants quickly rejected. Instead, they went inland along the Douro River and found a deeply colored, big and lusty red wine. The trick was to get the wine to London in good condition, so the crafty merchants added a little brandy to stabilize the wine for the sea journey. 

Similar scenarios apply to the almost instant popularity of three fortified wines from the Iberian Peninsula: Spanish Sherry and Portuguese Madeira and Port. And it was all because the English and French did not like each other very much.

The evolution of port as we know it today didn't happen overnight. One version of the change holds that the English wine merchants discovered the way to make port when a merchant found monks in a mountain monastery adding brandy during fermentation, killing off active yeasts and producing a sweet red wine. Most of the changes that came after, between the 17th and 19th century, were economical and political. But then the port business took a severe hit when phylloxera (a small root-feeding aphid) swept through the Douro. 

By the 1980s, the port industry slowly clawed its way back with new innovations such as reducing vine density, planting new vineyards on vertical rows rather than horizontal terraces with costly retaining walls.  

Port Varieties & Winemaking
Since the 1970s, most port wine has been made from just five grapes -- Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao and Tinta Roriz. Touriga Franca was formerly known as Touriga Francesa and Tinta Roriz is the same as Spain's Tempranilllo.  Following extensive research and experimenting in the vineyards by the port houses of Cockburn and Ramos Pinto, a selection of 80 authorized grapes was narrowed down to five. Some growers also prefer traditional varieties like Sousao and Tinta Amarela.  

In the process of making red wine, the extraction of color and tannin happens over an extended period. Not so with port, where the aim is to get as much color and tannin as possible before adding grape spirit, stopping the fermentation. 

Traditionally, grapes for port wine were crushed by foot in low granite troughs or lagares. Pairs of men, thigh-high in grape skins, seeds and juice, would trod the mass for up to three hours. The combination of increasing heat caused by the trodding and body warmth, starts a fermentation. Eventually the juice is run off the lagar into a vat partly filled with grape spirit, killing the yeasts, stopping fermentation. 

Today, stone lagares have mostly been replaced by automation. Faced with a shortage of labor and the fact that many quintas, a farm or wine estate, in the Douro valley did not have electricity, port producers turned to autovinification tanks which do not require power. As the fermentation begins in the tank, carbon dioxide causes pressure to build up, forcing an automatic pump over, extracting color and tannins. 

Some port producers still use the lagar for the processing of premium ports, while others employ automated treading machines known as "robotic lagares." These automated innovations,however, are too expensive for the production of large volumes of port.

Port Styles
The style of a port wine is determined by two broad categories. Ruby is the most common and least expensive. Aged in wood, and sometimes cement, for up to three years, a ruby port is filtered and then bottled. A premium ruby carries the designation Reserve.

Tawny is a port aged for much longer than a ruby, changing the color from ruby red to an amber brown. An Aged Tawny has been in wood for six years or more. Tawnies with age indications of 10, 20, 30 or 40 years are approximations since tawny ports are blends. 

Colheita ports are tawnies from a single year, with the date of harvest on the label. Colheitas are aged in wood for seven years or longer. 

Vintage Port represents about 1% of the total port production, is the most expensive, yet is the most popular of all the styles. Vintage port, from a declared vintage, is aged for up to three years in wood and is then bottled. The consumer ages the wine further in bottle, sometimes for up to 40 years if the wine is from a declared vintage. Single-Quinta Vintage is usually from a undeclared vintage and bottled unfiltered.

Other port styles: Garrafeira, meaning "private cellar," a term more often associated with Portuguese table wines; Late Bottled Vintage, a port from a single vintage, bottled between the fourth and sixth years after harvest; Crusted Port, a wine bottled unfiltered so that it throws sediment requiring decanting.

At the western end of the Douro river, are the cities of Porto and Vila nova de Gaia where port houses have their aging lodges. Today, port authorities use the term "Porto" on port labels, both as a reference to the city and to identify the wine as the authentic product of Portugal. 

Porto, Portugal, City, Tiles, Building
Porto river walk on the Douro
Port and Food
There are traditional foods such as walnuts and Stilton cheese that marry nicely with port, but in general port is a fortified wine enjoyed by itself with savory bites or after a meal. As with sweet dessert wines, the rule to remember is balance the sweetness between the food and the wine. 

Port is one of the world's great wines an deserves to be a part of everyone's collection and on everyone's table.

Next Blog: Gerald D Boyd On Wine will kick off 2020 with an Italian Wine Tour.

Happy New Year!

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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Holiday Bubbly

For almost as long as I can remember, the good folks that represent (French) Champagne have worked diligently to persuade sparkling wine makers from throughout the world to stop misusing the word Champagne.  At times, their efforts must have seemed futile.    
Open Champagne Bottle Near Two Cocktail Glasses As a prelude to the holiday season, then, as well as an homage to one of the world's great wines, here are some tips on enjoying Champagne during the holidays and throughout the year. 

All references here to wine with bubbles produced in a delimited area in northern France, will be called Champagne. All other wine with bubbles will be known simply as sparkling wine. I make that distinction because there are still wineries in California and South America that abuse the name Champagne. 

For some unexplained reason, the Champagne houses that make sparkling wine in California label their product sparkling wine, while those same Champagne houses that make sparkling wine in South America use Champana, the Spanish word for Champagne. 

The governmental body that looks after such things is the Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC). The CIVC also gets a little annoyed with people who insist that Champagne is just a celebratory wine not to be enjoyed at other times. Although the focus of this blog about Champagne is mainly for holiday sipping and dining, I urge you to enjoy Champagne any time of the year. 

The Region and Grapes
The region of Champagne is a short car ride north east of Paris, in the Valley of the Marne river. The relatively small region, shaped like a mushroom, is composed of just over 85,000 acres of vines mainly in the Montagne de Rheims and the Cote de Blancs, along with three other districts. Epernay and Rheims are the main cities, with the smaller, but important town of Ay, not far from Epernay.

Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier are the three grapes used in making Champagne. Although all three varieties are grown in each of five districts, the bulk of the best Pinot Noir is planted in the Montagne de Reims, Chardonnay mainly in the Cote de Blancs and Meunier in the Vallee de la Marne.  

While the importance of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay cannot be over stated, creating a blend of the two, sometimes with a small amount of Meunier, allows for the seamless consistency of a house style. 

Making Champagne 
The method by which a wine gets its bubbles through a second fermentation in the bottle is called methode champenoise. The process is long and labor intensive, some estimates claim more than 300 steps, from fermentation to finishing the bottle with a protective hood. 

The first fermentation of a non-vintage cuvee (blend) produces a dry, high acid, relatively neutral base wine. High acidity is necessary to keep the wine fresh throughout the long process. Varietal character is not desirable during the first fermentation since the aim is for character and quality to develop during the process. Next is the balancing of the characteristics of the different base wines in a blending process known as assemblage. Assemblage may also include reserve wines from previous vintages. 

(Blending with Richard Geoffroy. On a visit to Moet et Chandon in the mid-1990s, I was given the opportunity to formulate an assemblage with Richard Geoffroy, then the
winemaker for Cuvee Dom Perignon, Moet's prestige Champagne. Geoffroy had a reputation as a brilliant winemaker, so I was thinking to myself that he may have felt obligated to be patient with the American wine writer.

Not to worry. Richard Geoffroy was a friendly, patient teacher as well as a master blender. I had participated in component blending sessions in Cognac and Scotland and was impressed at the blender's skill and knowledge, faced with dozens of samples, and then to quickly smell and sometimes taste each sample, deciding "yes" or "no," whether or not, to add that sample to the final blend. Champagne blenders may taste up to 70 different base wines before making a final decision on the blend.

We were faced with an array of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier base wines from various vineyards owned by Moet or from contract growers. The Champagne blender must know the different soils and micro-climates of each vineyard and the influences each have over the different varieties. And the blender must evaluate base wines that are out of balance and will only attain balance following the second fermentation.

As we tasted through the samples, Geoffroy asked for my impressions and then he would comment on each wine. Knowing that youthful Chardonnay is citrusy and acidic, Pinot Noir has more body and finesse and Meunier offers a floral note, helped me, but more often than not, I miss-identified the varieties, especially the difference between Pinot Noir and Meunier.

It was a humbling experience and I came away from it with aching teeth from the high acid base wines and a new appreciation for blenders who unerringly practice their skill and art so that we can enjoy our favorite fizz vintage after vintage.)

The second fermentation is where the wine begins to develop style and quality. Liqueur de tirage, a mixture of still wine, sugar and yeasts are added here. The amount of sugar determines the amount of bubbles: light sparkle (petillant), medium fizz (cremant),
mousseux. Today mousseux is used mainly for other French sparkling wines. In all there are seven sweetness levels, with these four the most commonly seen: Brut Nature, 0 to 0.2%; Brut, 0 to 1.5%; Sec, 1.7 to 3.5%; Doux, 5% plus. 

The wines are then bottled and sealed with a crown cap (like the ones you see on soda bottles) and placed in cellars for aging. Champage aging cellars, known as crayeres hold millions of bottles at various stages of aging.

Depending on the producer, the second fermentation can take up to three months or longer. During this period sediment settles on the inside of the bottle, requiring a riddling (remuage) to shake it loose. Today, remuage is done by placing a large number of bottles in a gyropalette (a sort of mechanical riddler) or by the traditional method of mounting the bottles neck down in a pupitre, an a-frame device with holes for the bottles. Manually turning the bottles in a pupitre takes about eight weeks to complete, while riddling in a gyropalette takes just eight days.

Finally, the bottles are placed neck down in a bath of very cold brine, freezing the sediment that has gathered inside the crown cap in to a solid plug. The crown cap is popped off, the sediment plug dislodged (degorgement), sweetness level adjusted, a cork  pressed in place, topped by a metal cap and the whole thing secured by a wire muzzle, then the package is finished with a hood.

The result of this long process is a bottle of non-vintage Brut Champagne, the most popular style. Also available are Vintage Brut, Brut Rose and a prestige bottling, such as Roederer Cristal and Moet et Chandon Dom Perignon. Prices for non-vintage Brut range from $35 to $70. Prestige Champagne prices: Moet Dom Perignon and Krug, $170, Roederer Cristal, $270. 

By comparison, California's Scramsberg Reserve Brut sells for $120, J Vineyards Brut, $23 and Domaine Chandon California Brut, $24.

Champagne and Holiday Food 
Holiday meals are often a mix of something sweet, something spicy and something vinegary, and that makes finding a Champagne that won't fight with at least one of those dishes a challenge. 

With the exception of Brut Nature which is usually bone dry, all levels of Champagne have some sweetness. The equalizing thing with Champagne is the brisk acidity and the bubbles. This sweet/salty/spritzy combination makes salty foods or snacks like smoked salmon, nuts, potato chips and popcorn good choices as appetizers or starter course. 

Caviar and Champagne is a marriage that appeals to some, while others suggest that caviar goes better with Chablis or a lightly oaked Chardonnay. The same suggestion holds true for clams and oysters.

The natural acidity of Champagne is a good foil for creamy dishes and those with high fat content. Turkey and Virginia ham work, but not cranberry sauce and candied yams. 

Desserts of all kinds are favorites during the holidays and if you fancy a Champagne with your pie or cookie, remember the balanced sweetness rule - the sweetness of one shouldn't overpower the other. 

There is so much more to say about Champagne, but I'll close with this ode to Champagne from Madame Lilly Bollinger:

                     I drink it when I am happy, and when I am sad.
                          Sometimes I drink when I am alone. 
                        When I have company, I consider it obligatory.
              I trifle with it if I am not hungry, and drink it when I am. 
                       Otherwise I never touch it -- unless I am thirsty. 

                                    Image result for champagne line art
                                              A voltre sante!

Next Blog: The Pleasures of Port

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Thursday, December 5, 2019

Sherry for the Holidays

It won't be long (I know, I know) before we begin thinking of which wines to have for the holidays. Even though there are many choices, most of us will stick with the tried and true. I'd like to suggest that this year you think outside the box and consider Sherry. 

Throughout this article, all references to the fortified wine from Spain will be "Sherry," while those wines from other places will be noted as "sherry."

Interest in Sherry has never been better, but sales are still slow and the reason may be that Americans don't understand the value of Sherry. Before the wine boom in the early 1970s, the image of Sherry in this country often meant wines called "sherry" made in large quantities by big New York wineries, like Taylor, Great Western and Gold Seal. I remember my mother drinking New York sherry then, probably thinking she was enjoying the real thing. 
The list of reasons for declining Sherry sales in late 1990s and early 2000s is long, with some industry observers pointing to the sale of Sherry houses and their stocks to multi national companies in the 1980s. Advertising stopped and investments dried up as multinationals had no interest beyond quarterly profits. Fortunately, things began to slowly turn around as wine consumers developed an interest in all things Spanish.

While sales of Sherry may be creeping along, the good news is that new interest in Spanish red wines and Spanish cuisine has been a bright spot. And the taste for Sherry appears to be moving toward drier styles like Fino, Manzanilla and dry Amontillado, rather than the sweeter styles like Cream Sherries.

The Jerez region, centered around the city of Jerez de la Frontera, is in Andalucia, in southwest Spain. The production of Sherry lies in a triangle of land defined by three cities: Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda. The English word Sherry is from the Spanish word Jerez.  

Image result for free photos of Sherry wine
Jerez de la Frontera
The two main types of Sherry are fino and oloroso and you might palo cortado, a special rare Sherry. The time-worn trope that wine is made in the vineyard is certainly true in Jerez where a first selection of grapes is made to determine if the wine will be a fino or an oloroso. The second selection is made at the end of fermentation, with the addition of grape spirit, raising the alcohol level from 12% to a minimum of 15%. At this stage, a spongy yeast known as flor, resembling cottage cheese with a dusting of dirt, develops mainly on those wines destined to be finos. Olorosos do not mature under flor.

At one time, it was believed that the thin layer of flor somehow appeared on its own. However, the growth of flor is determined by the amount of fortification: finos are fortified to 15% and olorosos are fortified to 16% or more.

Three general types of Sherry: Fino: These dry Sherries are both a class and an individual wine. Finos are pale colored, with a crisp, delicate bouquet often described as almond-like, dry crisp flavors with good acidity. The Fino class includes Manzanilla, a pale dry wine, with a "briny" character, possibly from the aging bodegas near the sea in San Lucar de Barrameda; and Amontillado, an amber-colored Sherry with a nutty (hazelnut) aroma and flavor. 
Oloroso: Sherry with a dark brown color, full-bodied nutty flavor and a smooth texture.  Sweeter than Oloroso are the Cream Sherries, made by blending Oloroso and sweet wines made from Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez grapes.  
Palo Cortado: The style of this special Sherry offers the bouquet of an Amontillado and the taste of an Oloroso.

The driest Sherries, fino and manzanilla, are made solely from the Palomino grape, and are sometimes referred to as "flor Sherries." Flor blocks oxygen from the maturing fino allowing the wine to develop a pale color and light texture and flavor. Palomino makes very good fino but very ordinary, even bland wine, not unlike the relationship of Folle Blanche to Cognac, odd but fortuitous quirks for those of us who love Sherry and Cognac.

True finos vary in taste and character depending on where they are from: Jerez Fino, Puerto Fino or Sanlucar Manzanilla. Manzanillas are finos aged in bodegas in Sanlucar de Barrameda. Some Sherry aficionados attribute the “briny” character of manzanilla to the bodega's location near the sea. Supposedly, a butt (500 liter oak cask) of fino taken from a Jerez bodega to a bodega in Sanlucar will become a manzanilla, but no such transformation takes place when a butt of manzanilla is taken from Sanlucar to a bodega in Jerez.  

A second factor that is crucial to the character and consistent style of Sherry is the solera, a fractional blending system that is used most commonly in Jerez. The object of solera blending is to smooth out the differences in vintages, resulting in a consistent style. Soleras are not commonly used for amontillado and oloroso, as they vary less from year to year.

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Sherry solera
Basically, a solera consists of three tiers (known as scales) of barrels, with the barrels closest to the floor, containing the  oldest wine, called the solera, and those above called criadera. Thus, the oldest wine is drawn from the solera for bottling. A like amount is then taken from the 1st criadera and put into the solera barrels. The 2nd criadera then replenishes the 1st. criadera, and so on up the scales. In a three tier solera, new wine goes in to the top scale.

True Amontillado is a fino that has lost its flor, allowing the wine to come in contact with oxygen, causing the color to darken from a pale gold to light brown and the aromatics to take on a nutty character. To keep the cost down, many commercial amontillados are blends of fino and oloroso, sometimes even with a little sweet wine made from the Pedro-Ximenez (PX) grape, resulting in a medium-dry amontillado finished at about 16.5% alcohol.  If the alcohol rises above 15% alcohol, flor will disappear, so amontillados have no flor character.  

The absence of flor and higher alcohol (up to 18%) are the main characteristics of oloroso. Without the flor contact, an oloroso ages in contact with oxygen. Olorosos are sold dry or sweet, with sweet-style olorosos far more popular among American Sherry drinkers than Oloroso Seco.
Sweeter yet are Cream Sherries, a blend of oloroso and concentrated, raisiny PX an unctuous treacle-like sweet Sherry made from the Moscatel grape. 

Palo Cortado, a rare Sherry that falls between amontillado and oloroso, are expensive but a complex treat that should be a must-try for anyone starting a Sherry exploration. 

Other sherries outside the regular fino-oloroso offerings include vintage-dated Palo Cortado and unfiltered finos out of cask. Before the latter part of the 19th century, and the introduction of the solera system, all Sherry was vintage dated.

Select Sherry Producers: Gonzalez Byass, Pedro Domecq, Emilio Lustau, Valdespino, Emilio Hidalgo.  You'll find popular brands like Tio Pepe and Bristol Cream in most stores, but talk to your local merchant about Valdespino Inocente Fino and Deliciousa Manzanilla, Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla, Lustau Los Arcos dry Amontillado, Domecq La Ina Fino, Gonzalez Byass Alfonso Oloroso Seco and Matusalem Oloroso Dulce

  Image result for free photos of Sherry wine
Sherry and tapas
Sherry with Food: In Spain, rules for pairing Sherry with food are simple. Tapas, small bite-size foods like olives, cheese tarts and marcona almonds can be found in every bar in Jerez. Dry Sherry such as Fino and Manzanilla are the perfect aperitif wine with salted nuts, olives and other salty holiday snacks, including popcorn. A lightly chilled glass of fino, manzanilla or dry amontillado is a good match with oysters and clams or lightly cooked shrimp. Sweeter olorosos and cream Sherry are best with a simple cake or fresh fruit. The rule here is the dessert should not be sweeter than the wine.

George Saintsbury, the early 20th century English gourmand regretted in his famous diary, “Notes on a Cellar Book,” that his fellow countrymen paid little attention to the lighter sherries such as Manzanilla. “It goes with anything from oysters (with which Chablis, though orthodox, does not please me, while Champagne, though it has Thackeray’s sanction, seems to me a sin without solace) to anything short of ‘sweets.’”  Wise words from a man who knew his wine, to which I would add a glass of fino and a salute! 

Next Blog: Holiday Bubbly

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