Port: The competition is sweet Wine: Producers from all over the world are making fortified dessert wines, and some of them rival the Portuguese originals.

January 04, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

The only true ports come from the Oporto region of Portugal. Any wine that comes from somewhere else and purports to be a port is a fake, a phony and a fraud.

Of course, some of those fakes, phonies and frauds are mighty fine wines.

From Australia to South Africa, from the Finger Lakes of New York to the Sonoma Valley of California, wine producers are making fortified dessert wines and labeling them as ports.

Some of these wines are barely a step above Skid Row quality, while others are worthy rivals to the Portuguese originals. In particular, Australia is producing some ports that compete on equal terms with Portugal's finest tawny ports.

In one respect, however, Portugal remains alone and unchallenged. No other part of the world has made a serious run at duplicating the sheer magnificence of the finest vintage Portos. There is no California or New South Wales equivalent of 1994 Taylor Fladgate Porto, nor is it likely there ever will be.

But worthy challengers can be found for ruby port and tawny port, as well as for some of the late-bottled vintage ports from famous brands.

Ports sampled

In a recent series of tastings, a bevy of bogus ports was tasted alongside a highly regarded example of the "real thing": Graham's 10-year-old Tawny Porto, by far the most expensive of the wines, at $32.

Surprisingly, the Graham's was a bit of a disappointment. Although it displayed the classic flavors of a fine tawny port -- caramel, orange fruit and peel, vanilla, nuts and honey -- it also showed a bit too much obvious alcohol in the finish. Several of the bogus ports surpassed it in quality.

Not surprisingly, one of them was the Seppelt Para Tawny Port Bottling 116 ($20). Seppelt has long been one of the leading producers of Australia's "stickies" -- fortified dessert wines that often bear the name port.

The Para port is a smooth, richly sweet wine with the distinctive floral aromas that come from muscat grapes -- a staple of Australian viticulture. It offers intensely honeyed flavors with overtones of caramel, orange, chocolate, coffee and creme brulee -- with a finish that warms without becoming hot.

For those with a more restrained sugar craving, Seppelt's D.P. 30 Trafford Tawny Port from the Barossa Valley ($13) offers many of the same flavors in a somewhat more elegant package. While still a sweet wine, the Trafford's restrained approach lets the subtle flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove come through more. There's a definite touch of brandy in the nose -- giving the impression of a dry Cognac trying to burst free.

The Yalumba Clocktower Australian Tawny Port ($11) is a smooth, opulently sweet wine that adds a touch of prune flavor to the mix in the Para. It's not excessive or obnoxious, as long as the taster has no moral objection to prunes.

The Maduro South Australian Port ($25, 500 milliliters), bottled in Santa Rosa, Calif., by the Sonoma Valley Portworks, is an excellent example of a wine without borders. It's a prototypical Australian sticky -- with oversize flavors of caramel, spices, honey, orange and chocolate -- but some roughness and heat in the finish stop it just short of excellence.

South Africa has a long track record with fortified wines, but it is still rare to find one on the American market. But with the days of embargoes and apartheid over, it's likely that we'll be seeing more wines such as the 1983 KWV Vintage Port, W. O. Boberg Library Reserve ($23).

Despite the name, the KWV bears little resemblance to actual vintage Porto. This 1983 is quite mature, where a top-notch 1983 Porto would still be quite youthful. The South African wine also displays flavors of caramel and prunes that are more reminiscent of Australia than Oporto. It's an appealing product, but the Australian wines offer more quality for the money.

Tastes from California

California's track record with pseudo-port is less distinguished than Australia's, but it can boast a handful of high-quality examples.

One of the most interesting -- and most unlike actual port -- is the 1989 Marietta Alexander Valley Port ($20). The wine is lightly sweet but packed with blackberry, peppery, dusty flavors. It's a distinctly Californian product -- a late-harvest red blend that apparently includes zinfandel and petite sirah.

The 1992 Woodbridge Portocinco Limited Edition, Lot 592 ($15), produced by Robert Mondavi, comes much closer to an actual port style. It's a soft, medium-sweet wine whose lush blackberry flavors are reminiscent of a good late-bottled vintage port. Could Mondavi be on the way to producing a legitimate rival to Porto?

The lowest level of port pretenders falls into the $5-$6 range. These wines can be useful for cooking or for getting drunk in a hurry, but bear little resemblance to actual port except for their alcoholic strength.

Of the three tasted, the simple, grapey Brotherhood New York State Ruby Port ($5.49) was the least offensive for sipping. Gallo's Sheffield Tawny Port ($5) is best suited for hot wine drinks, while the cotton-candy flavors of Taylor's New York Port ($5) seem to be one step up from Richard's Wild Irish Rose.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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