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. 

Image result for free port wine photos
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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