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Wednesday, June 1,2011

Not just any port in a storm

A recent tasting revealed the many types and tastes of the popular wine

by Michael Brenton

Despite the proliferation of sweet, red domestic wines
self-styled as “port,” authentic port wine comes only from the Douro
River Valley region of northern Portugal and must be grown and vinified
in accordance with strict governmental regulations.


Although a variety of wine styles are produced in the
Douro, when most people think of port, they think of a sweet red wine,
fortified with neutral grape spirits to increase the alcohol content and
stop fermentation while plenty of sugar remains in the wine.


Historically, this style of winemaking can be traced back
to the 1700s, when port wines were exported to England, but frequently
spoiled in transit. Winemakers learned that adding neutral, high-alcohol
grape spirits would protect the wine against spoilage during the long
journey and very poor storage conditions. That objective holds true
today, as port wines frequently will maintain quality for days or even
weeks after opening, unlike the very short shelf life of typical table
wines, which quickly oxidize and turn vinegary within days of opening,
even if properly stored.


Authentic port wine is typically made from five grape
varieties relatively unrecognized in this country, including Touriga
Nacional, Tinta Roriz (a.k.a. Tempranillo), Tinta Cão, Tinta Barroca and
Touriga Francesa. It is created in a variety of styles, several of
which were showcased recently at a Michigan tasting hosted by Dominic
Symington of Symington Family Estates, whose family has been involved in
the port trade since the 1700s. Familiar Symington labels include
Graham’s, Warre’s, Dow’s, and Smith Woodhouse.


Symington brought with him a variety of wines representing
a broad spectrum of port styles and price points. Prices represent
recent special sale prices at Goodrich’s.


An Altano Red ($7.99), served as an aperitif, was a
relatively straightforward, simple dry red wine. Smooth and
approachable, it would be an appropriate choice as an alternative to
sipping on a Merlot or Cabernet.  


The most idiosyncratic of the group was a Warre’s Fine
White Port ($14.99), not a style frequently encountered. Amber colored,
this wine was all about palate coating apricot and honey. As a tasty,
backyard summer aperitif, Symington suggested creating a 50-50 mix of
this white port with tonic water, adding a slice of lime and a sprig of
mint.


“Ruby” port has a color befitting its name and typically
is one of the most affordable styles. Warre’s Heritage Ruby ($14.99) is
an entry-level ruby port with bright, red fruit flavors and ruby color.
Aged in neutral wood, it is ready to drink upon purchase.


Warre’s Warrior Reserve ($14.99), salepriced at the same
as Heritage ruby at the time of the tasting, represents a step up in
quality, utilizing better fruit from better vineyards. This dark ruby
blend of 3- and 4-year-old wines shows black cherry, plum and a more
concentrated, broader palate, with a very long finish. There is more
structure from the modest tannins, and some sharpness of acidity at the
back of the palate. 


“Tawny” port wines have a color that, again, befits their
name. Aged for years in wooden barrels, they undergo progressive
oxidation and evaporation. If there is a year designation on the bottle,
it represents the average age of the wines in the bottle at the time of
bottling. Although oxidation is anathema to a typical table wine, it is
central to the core of a tawny port. As the wine ages it evolves from
bright ruby to amber-tinged.


Warre’s King’s Tawny ($14.69) is a young
tawny, aged an average of three years, and still retaining ruby tones.
It shows undertones of the nutty, caramel flavors typical of tawny
ports, while starting to lose primary fruit flavors and developing some
dried fruit character. As with other tawny ports, it is ready to drink
upon purchase.


Warre’s Otima 10-year-old tawny ($20.99)
represents another step up in price and quality. Amber brown with a pink
tinge, it is less viscous than ruby port, displaying typical nutty
flavors, along with characteristic dried fruit and caramel. Symington
recommends enjoying it slightly chilled so that any alcohol heat is
tamed.  


Warre’s Otima 20-year-old Tawny ($39.99)
is a darker, translucent amber brown. Because Port evaporates at the
rate of 3 to 3 1/2 percent per year from the large, neutral, wooden
storage vessels in which it ages, as tawny wines grow older the juice
becomes more concentrated.


Again, this tawny presents with a
somewhat delicate mouth feel, but more concentrated taste and aroma of
nuts and dried fruit and toffee. Ready to drink upon release, it is not
intended for long-term cellaring. Of course, it already contains juice
more than 20 years old.


Port wine characterized as “late bottled
vintage” refers to wine cellared in barrel for an extended period of
time before bottling, usually four to six years after the harvest.
Typically ready to drink upon release, Warre’s 2000 Late Bottled Vintage
($26.99) was so fresh it could have been bottled yesterday. This wine
was aged for four years in relatively neutral oak, then enjoyed
additional bottle age before release. Exhibiting broad, deep, dark fruit
flavors, this Port had great mouth feel and was a good accompaniment to
Hershey’s chocolates.


The king of the hill was Warre’s 2003 Vintage Port
($73.99). Vintage-dated ports are released only in exceptional years and
represent the pinnacle of the quality spectrum from port producers.
They typically are candidates for as much as decades of cellaring and
can maintain freshness for weeks after opening because of the quality of
the fruit and the underlying structure of the wine.


Everything about this wine was dark — dark color, dark
fruit flavors, and dark chocolate components, with a long, satisfying
finish. Tannins were noticeable, but not overpowering. It paired well
with a fudge brownie and raspberries. 


Is 2003 a special year in your household? Birth of a
child? Anniversary? If so, consider laying down this wine (in a cool,
dark place that isn’t too dry) to open in celebration of your child’s
21st birthday, or your 20th anniversary. Or your 30th, or 40th.


Although a bit counterintuitive when consuming a red wine,
consider serving these wines at a medium chill for maximum lingering
enjoyment on a warm, summer day. Then sit back and savor.


In Vino Veritas

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