Blackberry Farm

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A Tale of Two Ports

Port is an amazing wine. After a recent trip during which I was able to visit the incredible Douro Valley in Portugal, I was reminded of the greatness of these wines as well as the fact that by and large, these wines are misunderstood by many.
Port was born out of necessity. Because of the questionable relationship between the English and the French, the English turned to Spain and Portugal for their wines. Because they had to be put on a ship and sailed north to England the wines would turn bad if they were simple wines. However fortified wines that have sugar in them would not turn bad and so that became the style of the wines of Porto.
Port falls into a category of wine known as fortified wine and into a subset of that category called “Vin Doux Naturelle” or Naturally Sweet Wine.
There are two broad categories of Ports – Ruby and Tawny. Both of them begin life the same way. The grapes are grown on the steeply terraced hillsides of the Douro River Valley that flows through northern eastern Portugal out to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. Once the grapes are grown, they are pressed (often by foot) and then they are allowed to begin fermentation. During the fermentation process, yeast eats sugar in the grape juice and produces alcohol and other byproducts. Once the wines have reached around 8% alcohol, a neutral grape brandy is added which brings the alcohol level up to around 20%, thusly killing the yeast and halting fermentation. What’s left is slightly naturally sweet, deep red wine with about 20% alcohol.
From here, the wines can go two directions.
The first is that the wine can be put into large barrels that allow only small amounts of oxygen to come in contact with the wine age for 2-4 years and then be bottled and sealed. This produces a wine with a deep ruby red color that then can age in the bottle much like a great Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux. This is called Ruby Port. I had a great vintage Ruby Port with  a steak au poivre in Portugal at Dirk Niepoort’s house and it was a stunning pairing so these wines are not relegated to desserts or after dinner they can be treated much like a powerful red wine like American Zinfandel.
The other direction this wine could take is that once the brandy has been added, the wine could be put into small “pipes” or traditional barrels which are smaller and allow more oxygen to come in contact with the wine. When the wine is left in these barrels for around 7 or more years, the ruby color that it once had turns to brown and the sugar takes on a bit of a caramelized nature. These ports are called Tawny Ports. Typically, these ports are aged in barrel until they are ready to be consumed. Then they are bottled and shipped. Tawny ports from a single vintage are called Colhieta Tawny Ports and are rarely found but worth the trouble to locate as they are beautiful, elegant tawny ports. Again, Dirk Niepoort is the leader in this category and we carry a full line of his single vintage tawny ports here at Blackberry Farm.
In general, ports should be consumed more than they are. They are a wonderful digest if at the end of a meal, they can be appropriate within a meal as with the Ruby Port example above and they aren’t as sweet as most people think. Serve them at Cellar Temperature and enjoy. Andy Chabot, Director of Food & Beverage May 1, 2011