July 29, 2008

Port Wine

Portugal has been famous traditionally for its excellent dessert wine, Port, which is fortified with brandy. The country now produces top-quality dry reds as well, mostly from local grape varities. One of the best is from the same area (Douro) where Port is produced: the full-bodied Barca Velha. Douro produces numerous smooth, ripe-flavored red wines of excellent value. In the northwest corner of Portugal, winemakers of The Minho produce the slightly effervescent, highly acidic Vinho Verde (green wine), a refreshing white perfect for drinking during hot summer months.

True Port wine comes from the Douro region in northern Portugal. In recent years, to avoid the misuse of the name "Port" in other countries, the true Port wine from Portugal has been renamed "Porto" (for the name of Oporto, the port city from which it's shipped).

The bottle (and glass) of "Port" shown here is actually from an outstanding Virginia winery, Prince Michel Vineyard and Winery. This outstanding winery is situated along Route 29 about halfway between Lynchburg, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. I make this trip at least twice every week and try to stop at this vineyard at least a couple times each month as long as I leave Washington in time to make it to the winery before they close. You'll notice that the bottle in this photo was signed by the Prince Michel vintner.

Port is a fortified wine, which means that a neutral grape brandy is added to the wine to raise the wine's alcohol content. What sets Port apart from Sherry (the other most well-known fortified wine) is when the winemaker addes the neutral brandy. For Port it's added during the fermentation process. The extra alcohol kills the yeast in the wine and stops the fermentation, rendering Port relatively sweet.

"Port" dessert wine from
Prince Michel Vineyard and Winery

As I was growing up, I was told that fortified wine is intended simply to get people drunk more quickly and that it is the favored wine of winos. While some of that is true (fortified wine's higher alcohol content can cause you to get drunk more quickly than standard wine), if you drink responsibly, this is not an issue and Ports and Sherrys are still wines that you should try and enjoy.

The actual reason for the addition of the neutral grape brandy in the fortified wines is that the higher alcohol content renders the wine more stable and able to survive the long trips required when wines had to be shipped by boat. The early American settlers had significant problems making wine from the native grapes growing in the New World. So they had to rely on wines shipped from Europe. But these wines did not survive the shipping process very well. By the time they reached the New World, they had turned to bitter vinegar and were essentially undrinkable. The vintners found that if they added brandy to the wines, the resultant higher alcohol content allowed the wine bottles to survive the long shipping journey. So Ports and Sherrys became quite popular in the Americas. In fact, the fortified wine Madiera was a favorite of our first President George Washington and was used to toast the Declaration of Independence.

Wine recommendation
For true Port wine, you must look to Portugal. But my favorite Port is the Port shown in this post from Prince Michel Vineyards and Winery of Virginia.

Edgar Allen Poe immortalized the fortified Sherry wine, Amontillado, in his tale "A Cask of Amontillado." And although I don't have a cask of Amontillado and am not particularly interested in walling up any of my enemies, I do have the glass of Prince Michel Port pictured above waiting for me. So I end this post now and am off to enjoy some Port.

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