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A Winemaker's Journal

‘Tis the Season for Port

By Elias Fernandez

With the chill and early darkness of the holidays it’s little surprise that this season has inspired songs with lyrics like, “The weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful.” What’s my wine of choice at this time of year? Easy – it’s the rich flavors and warming appeal of Port. Few wines pair as beautifully with a cold, bleak winter night.

Port is a fortified wine, meaning that brandy is added partway through the fermentation process. This addition stops fermentation leaving generally an eight to 10 percent residual sugar level, resulting in a rich, dessert-like style.

For a wine to bear the name Port, legally it must come from Portugal, where most is produced in the Duoro Valley. In truth winemakers throughout the world make wines of this style from many different kinds of red and white grapes.

At Shafer Vineyards, I’ve enjoyed making a fortified Port-style wine from the Cabernet Savuginon that grows on the hillsides surrounding the winery. Partway through fermentation I add a neutral spirit distilled from grapes, which leads to an alcohol level of about 18 percent and a lot of delicious, monumental Cabernet flavor.

The only unfortunate thing about the world of Port is the bewildering label jargon. Here are some key words to watch for:

White Port
Made from white grapes, this wine is produced in a wide range of styles from austere and dry to very full, nutty, fruity and sweet. White Port is not a well-known wine here but has a loyal following in Portugal where it’s sometimes matched with food early in a meal.

Ruby Port
This term on a label indicates a port that is released young, receives no barrel aging and is made for simple enjoyment

Tawny Port (young and aged)
There are two types of tawny: young and aged. In terms of style, young tawny bears similarity to ruby port in that they’re both easy-drinking simple fortified wines. The term tawny comes from a lighter color, which results from less juice to skin contact in the winemaking process. On the other hand, aged tawny ports are twenty or more years old, a blend of various vintages and can be outstanding examples of Port.

Late bottled Vintage Port
These Ports are barrel aged four to six years and are ready to drink on release. Unlike vintage ports they are typically filtered and so you won’t find sediment in the bottle and don’t require decanting.

Vintage Port
The climate in Portugal is such a rollercoaster that only a few growing seasons are declared “vintage” years. However, this small number of years produce Ports of exceptional character and are highly prized (and priced). Typically vintage ports are aged only two years by the producer and aged by the purchaser for ten years or more prior to consumption. Because they are not filtered these ports do require decanting to remove sediment.

To learn more, the simplest advice is this: it’s Christmas – give yourself the gift of Port.