Returning to port

Wine: Upscale drinkers explore the sweet, complex delight that for centuries has intrigued British, French and Portuguese.


Peruse many a dessert list around the country, and you'll spot a minitrend in upscale drinking: by-the-glass offerings of fine port. Long a part of the privileged European lifestyle, especially in Britain, port is catching on with American explorers of fine wine and alcohol, albeit not at the rate of premium vodka martinis or single malt Scotch.

According to the Instituto do Vinho do Porto in Porto, Portugal, America still lags behind Great Britain in the consumption of quality port, with France leading the way in total consumption.

That poses something of an irony, as it was Britain feuding with France that got the whole port category started in the first place. Over some 500 years, since 1152 when royal marriage brought the two countries closer together, the British developed a taste for French wines. Because of hostilities, by the mid-1660s the delicious Bordeaux and Burgundy wines that British gentlemen craved were not available. Another source needed to be found, and the English made their way up Portugal's upper Douro River valley.

What they found in the city of Oporto in no way resembled today's port wine, which is a sweet fortified wine with a high alcohol content near 20 percent. Rather, they discovered an old wine culture (since the Romans) that didn't possess the sophistication of the French industry.

What did eventually enamor the palates of the English turned out to be the wine made of some 20 grape varieties, including the now-dominant touriga nacional grape, which had its fermentation cycle stopped mid-cycle by the addition of brandy. This arresting left plenty of sugar in the grape must, which, in turn, gave port its characteristic flavors.

Exactly how and when this technique came about is open to speculation. Apparently, wine merchants would add brandy to their Portuguese barrel shipments as a stabilizer before the ships sailed the rough-and-tumble ocean waters to British ports. But adding brandy to the wine to halt fermentation was another matter.

In 1678, two sons of a Liverpool wine merchant, in search of wine for their father's business, visited the monastery in Lamego, Portugal. There, the abbot was in the habit of adding brandy to his wine for both flavor and punch. The concoction was called priest port. After sampling it, the two sons bought as much as the abbot would sell and returned to England, where an industry was born.

Getting the hang of the port styles is not difficult. For everyday consumption, there are two styles, ruby and tawny. Both are blends and both are aged a minimum of four years, with the tawny being lighter in style. There is also a white port, made from white grapes, that is served chilled.

On the premium side, aged tawny port differs from vintage port in that it is aged in wood casks. As oxidation occurs, the original ruby-red color changes into a reddish brown, thus the name "tawny." Law requires that tawny be stored either 10, 20, 30 or over 40 years in wood. You can see the storage length on the bottle's label.

Next comes the late bottled vintage (LBV) wines, which spend four to six years in wood before being bottled. These wines should be drunk when released.

The port that everyone thinks of when they hear the name is vintage port. The various producers name a vintage year only when the quality of the grapes has been exceptional. Recent vintage years include 1985, 1991 and 1994. Because of the huge tannins in these wines, they age in glass bottles for upward of 20 years before becoming the complex treat that has made them justly famous.

Pub Date: 05/09/99

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