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WineInk: Any ‘Port’ in a Storm

The power of fortification

Kelly J. Hayes
WineInk
Porto, Portugal’s old town on the Douro River. (Getty Images)

Fortified. It is a stout word.

When I hear it, it conjures images of cannons poking through the walls of a stone castle defending the kingdom, or a Burberry raincoat cinched at the neck, hood up, providing protection against a piercing rain. Something with substance.

But in the world of wine, the word “fortified” has a special meaning. It refers to a wine that has been infused with a spirit, usually brandy, which kicks the character of the wine up a notch while also offering protection against spoilage. These wines have higher alcohol content and are not for the faint of heart. They are hearty wines. Sherry (Spain), Madeira (Madeira Islands), Marsala (Italy), Commandaria (Greece) and various vermouths are all wines that have had spirits added. They are often associated with dessert wines



So it was, on a recent cold and stormy October evening, that I felt the need for a little fortification, along with something sweet to eat. I went to my wine and spirits rack and searched the shelves, looking for a bottle of Port. There, tucked into the back, was a long-left bottle of Six Grapes, a Reserve Porto from the house of W.& J. Graham’s (a division of Symington Family Estates) that had been last sipped in the early spring. Not to worry, the infusion of brandy kept this opened wine in fine condition for the past few months. I poured a simple snifter and went looking for some chocolate.

Port, or vinho do Porto, as it is called when it hails from Portugal, is perhaps the most well known fortified wine. It is made through a process where the juice from wine grapes is vinified just like other wines. But before it completes the fermentation process it is fortified with a dose of grape spirit or brandy, which halts the fermentation, leaving residual sugars behind. Its origins date to the 1600s, when the English squabbles with the French halted trade between the two monarchies. A new source of wines for England’s ever-thirsty consumers was required, and merchants quickly seized upon the opportunity in Portugal.




In the northern corner of the country, they found a fertile valley called the Douro, where hearty vines on steep hillsides produced dark grapes capable of creating big wines appropriate for the palates of the English consumer. But the task of exploiting the region was formidable. First, the grapes had to be plucked from vineyards that are literally steeper than the Highland Bowl. Then, because of the oppressive heat in the valley (this was before cooling came to the modern world), the grapes had to be transported to the milder climate of the coast to be made into wines. This required the harvested grapes to be shipped down the dangerous Douro River in flat-bottom boats called “Rabelos” which, though no longer used for their traditional purposes, remain romantic symbols of the region with their long tails and distinct sails.

Rabelo boats in Porto (Getty Images)

Once they made it to the coastal town of Oporto, the birthplace and still the home of Port, the wines were processed and barrel-aged prior to being shipped north across the Atlantic, back home to London. To keep these wines from spoiling, a small amount of brandy was added to the barrels, stopping the fermentation while also increasing the wine’s strength.

To this day, English merchants — such as Warre, Taylor-Fladgate, Graham, Croft and Sandeman and Symington— still dominate the Port business, and the banks of the river that flows through Porto are lined with the “port lodges,” as the wineries and tasting rooms are called. Also, to this day, the wines of the region are fortified, not to protect them from spoilage during transit, but rather to give them that special flavor that has come to be identified with Port and to help them age with stability.

The governing body of Port wines allows the use of as many as 80 different grapes in the making of Port. But the ones you need to know — the “Starting Five,” we will call them — are Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cao. There are a number of different styles of port, ranging from light white port, made with white grapes, to the dark red, tannic, vintage port, which designates those wines produced from grapes grown in a single year.

A tawny port is one that has been aged in oak barrels for an extended period of time. The oak makes it a tawny and separates it from ruby ports — those that spend a minimal amount of time in oak and are then placed in the bottle for consumption at a young age — and vintage ports that are aged for an extended time in bottles.

Tawny port, aged in oak, comes in contact with oxygen while in the barrels, which has the effect of changing the color of the wine to a brownish, orangeish, amber color. A tawny will spend at least two years in the barrel, but there are also aged tawny ports. There are, officially, 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-year tawny ports, which refers to the age the wines spent “in wood,” not the year of the vintage.

There are single-vintage tawny ports, as well. These are called “Colheitas” and, while they may have been aged for 20 years or more (the minimum aging for a Colheitas is seven years), display the year of the vintage on the label, rather than the time in oak.

Vineyards above the Douro in Portugal (Getty Images)

In Portugal and the Douro, there is a strong movement toward the production of still wines; that is, wines that are not fortified. In fact, the production of still wines is larger than the production of Port. But Port is making a comeback as a younger generation of drinkers is coming around to the joy of the after-dinner drink.

The first taste of the Six Grapes on that evening just before Halloween with an early season snowstorm blowing outside was invigorating. I felt a sense of warmth and comfort and luxury. The sense that one gets when one is safe and secure.

Fortified.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE


W.& J. Graham’s Six Grapes and Vosges “Mo’s Dark Bacon” Chocolate Bar

It may be unprecedented that an Under The Influence has featured a pairing of both wine and food, but the stunning combination of these two unique products was so complimentary, so hand in glove, that they demanded being teamed together.

Let’s start with the chocolate, a bar purchased at the Vosges shop at O’Hare Airport on a recent layover. Vosge’s was founded 20 years ago by chocolatier Katrina Markoff, who had been inspired by an apprenticeship at El Bulli in Spain. She has been obsessed with finding the finest Fair Trade ingredients to produce Vosge’s innovative and creative chocolates ever since. The Mo’s Dark Bacon bar is made from 72% Cacao and is speckled with tiny flavor-full bits of bacon from a sustainable family farm in New Hampshire. It is enhanced by tiny granules of Alderwood–smoked salt for a complex, sweet, salty, smoky, fatty taste treat that rocked my world.

The Port is one of the great bargains of the wine world. Selling for right around $20 a bottle, the Graham’s Six Grapes is a sweet, indulgent, affordable luxury that can last a lengthy time if one is simply sipping a bit on cold winter evenings. The name derives not from the number of grape varieties used in the wines production, but rather from the traditional scale that Graham’s uses to classify their wines made at harvest ranging from one to six.

Like the Mo’s Bacon Bar, there is a complexity to the flavors in Six Grapes that make it as interesting as it is delicious. There are the fruits, dark sticky and sweet cherries and dried plums on the first taste. Then there is dark chocolate and a hint of toffee at the close. In short, it is a perfect partner for a marriage with a Mo’s Dark Bacon Bar.


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