Ports: The most underappreciated of all types of wines
May 2, 2001
There are many underappreciated wines that need discovering by the typical wine lover.
This is not just a cabernet sauvignon world or a chardonnay planet or a merlot universe. Those are currently the big three of wine favorites. Most are very good and some are even very, very good. But there are others, red zinfandel, sangiovese, fume blance, rieslings, chiantis, pinot noirs and others which sell in limited amounts but could become favorites if only they were given a fair opportunity to prove what they have to offer.
Near the top of that list, perhaps the most unappreciated of all, are the ports. To know this wine is to love it.
Port is a fortified wine produced in Northern Portugal. It came to prominence in the 17th century when wars with France cutoff the supply of French wines to Britain and Holland and those countries had to find something new to pleased their pallets. The first recorded shipment of port was made in 1678 but it was almost 100 years later before Portuguese winemakers figured out how to fortify these wines in order to ship them and have them arrive in the same condition in which they left Portugal.
Then, and now, all port is fortified with the addition of a wine distilled spirit which is 77 percent alcohol. This puts fermentation to a stop, thus preserving natural sugars and sweetness but creates a wine with an alcoholic content of 19 to 22 percent by volume, almost double regular table wine.
In other words, this wine tastes very good indeed but it has the kick of a well conditioned mule. This is a wine made for sipping, not for guzzling.
In late September or early October, the grapes are picked by hand. The traditional pressing by foot is still carried out but now other methods are used as well.
The end result has many variations. Number one on most lists are the classic vintage ports. They are the premium wines of the port family and are only made in years in which climate conditions are such that superior grapes result. Recent examples are 1963, 1966, 1970, 1975, 1977, 1983, 1985, 1991 and 1994. Notice the gaps between the years listed. No vintage wines were produced in those years,
After being produced, the wine is placed in wooden casks for two years and then bottled.
My first experience with vintage port came many years ago when I bought a case of Croft Vintage, 1963. Oh, if only I knew then what I know now. It was sweet and cherry-like and the taste was marvelous. So was the effect, I must confess. I loved it so, I drank it until someone taught me that vintage port must be at least 10 years old, or more, before it develops the smoothness and complexity that makes it one of the world's greatest wines. Today, I'm primarily drinking 18 year old ports from the 1983 vintage and they are just now approaching their peak. Ten years from now, it will still be as fresh and packed with flavor as it is today, only better.
There are various lesser ports on the market from less than great years. Ruby port is one. Late bottled port is another. They are very drinkable and very enjoyable, but they are not the top of the ladder. Vintage port is.
There are also tawny ports, These are blends that are aged in casks for as many as 10 years or more. The oak gives them their tawny color, along with a rich, mellow fruit flavor. They are also offered in wines with a longer aging period, twenty years or more. Young ones aged three or four years are also on the market good but not great.
Port wines, vintage, Ruby or tawny are primarily dessert wines to be served in small glasses or with cheese as an appetizer.They blend with all blue-veined cheese, Stilton, Roquefort, Gorgonzola or Danish Blue. They also goes well with sharp cheddar or Emmenthaler or aged Gouda.
Top brands in addition to Croft include Fonseca, Taylor, Ware, Graham and Cockburn. There are others.
Vintage port is difficult to find and expensive when you do. The lesser bottles labeled a variation of port offer pleasant drinking too but be certain the wine comes from Portugal. The bottles labeled port that have been created in California are not port that is even close to true Portuguese wine and is certainly not worth the price, whatever it may be.
In 1754, a member of the Association of Port Wine Shippers wrote these words in describing Portugal's greatest wine.
I'll buy that.
Stan Torgerson, a longtime Meridian resident, has written a wine column for several years.