Winning The Keys/She Was Dark, Rich, Sweet And Highly Intoxicating

By Steve Caulderwood

Yeah, in my dreams, but if you know anything about my love life, it’s any port in a storm! (All right, already, I’m just kidding.) Today’s topic is that wonderfully sweet concoction — Port.

So what is Port, how did it come about and what’s with all those different types?  First of all, Port is what is referred to as a fortified wine.  While the wine is going through the fermentation process (those little yeasts eating all the sugar and farting alcohol), the wine maker adds alcohol, normally clear grape brandy, to the point where the yeast die. Remember, the poor little guys can’t live if the alcohol percentage goes over 15%.  Since the yeasts die before they’ve eaten all the sugars, you end up with a sweet wine and the added grape brandy gives these wines a nice little kick.

Port came about because of England’s need for wine.  The English have always loved their Claret, their name for the red wines of Bordeaux, but in the 17th century, the French and British weren’t getting along too terribly well.  In fact, they were shooting at each other, so the British government put very high taxes on all French wine sold in England.  So in the late 1600’s several British wine merchants headed down to Spain & Portugal to find a replacement.

They finally found what they were looking for in the town of Lamego on the Douro River in Northern Portugal.  Here they found a monastery that was making a wine that was sweeter, more complex, and smoother than anything else they’d tasted.  The abbot finally admitted that they were adding grape brandy to the wine while it was fermenting and Port was born.  At least that’s the romantic side of the story.

The truth is that wine didn’t travel well back in those days and it couldn’t make the voyage from Portugal all the way back to England.  So they started adding small amounts of brandy to stabilize the wine.  Then, in one particularly good year, sales in England went crazy and so the next year, in order to try & keep things going, they added more brandy and added it earlier in the fermentation and it worked.  Sales kept going and they kept tweaking the brandy addition until  they got what we know of today as Port.

Even today, you can still see the hand of the British all over Portugal’s most famous wine.  Names such as Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Graham, Taylor and Warre are British and still amongst the largest shippers.  Also, Port wine did not derive its name from Portugal; it came to be called that because it was shipped from the town of Oporto on the Douro River.  So much for your fun facts of the week.

Now, what about all those different styles?  The ones you’ll see most often are ruby, tawny and vintage; but occasionally you’ll also see late-bottle vintage and vintage character, among others.

Simply put, ruby is the youngest & cheapest style of Port.  Tawny used to mean that the ruby Port was aged so long that it lost some color and turned from ruby to a tawny color.  Today, that color is more often than not achieved by blending in a little white port.  Both of these are blends of multiple vintages so that they can maintain a consistent character.

Vintage Port is the finest and most expensive.  A vintage year is declared by the shipper when they think their wine is of sufficient quality to pass the Port Wine Institute’s quality standards.  This is only done in the best of years.

Vintage character Ports are not vintage ports; they should really be called a super ruby Port.  It gets slightly more aging than a ruby and is generally made from better quality grapes.  A late-bottled vintage Port does come from a single vintage, but they are made every year and won’t have the same character as a vintage Port.

One final note on Ports: if you’re ordering a glass at your favorite restaurant, ask them how long it’s been open. Some restaurants believe that an open bottle can last for a year, but in reality, very few can last more than four months and most are only at their prime for two to four weeks.

So until the next time – wine a bit, you’ll feel better.

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