Labor of Love - Wines of Passion
© by Sheral Schowe
(Originally published in the Catalyst newspaper in Salt Lake City)

Valentine's Day brings certain images to mind for many people. Love, passion, hearts, red, and sweet. Many French winemakers have a special label for some of their wines depicting hearts, angels, and amorous quotations for this time of year. Some wines come from appellations known for their unique, love-oriented name, such as St. Amour, in the Beaujolais District. Valentines Day means many things in terms of wine. Everyone has his or her own bottle of special meaning, be it Champagne, Burgundy, or juicy, jammy red Zinfandel. But no wine is more talked about during the month of February than Port. Maybe it is due to the labor intensity and passion required to create it. Or maybe it is the final result, which captivates the mind, body, and spirit, in terms of love. What is Port, and where does this love story of wine take place?

Port is a fortified wine from Portugal. It is made from the fermenting grape juice of five main grape varieties, each with their own characteristics of color, flavor, and aromas. More than thirty grape varieties grow in the port wine region, but only five are considered essential ingredients to fine port wine. They include: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cao, and Tinta Barocca. These vines are planted in, and manage to survive in the most hostile of agricultural conditions.

The soils are stone-hard and dry. In order to plant the vines, the schistous sedimentary rock often has to be blasted apart with dynamite. Once the top layer of soil is loosened, the vines are planted on extremely steep slopes, from the bottom, near the Douro River, to the top, around 1,000 feet in elevation. These new vines have to push their roots down as far as 25 to 30 feet in order to find one drop of moisture. The climate is as harsh as the soil. Though it rarely snows, the winters can reach well below freezing. A typical summer temperature is over an unbearable 100 degrees.

Port grapes are harvested by hand by the villagers, taken to the winery, and dumped into gigantic stone tanks called lagares. Each lagar holds about 6,000 litres of grape juice. Many wineries still use the foot-troden technique of crushing the grapes, although mechanical maceration techniques are available. In three short days, the maximum color and flavor has been extracted. Then grape spirit of 77% alcohol is added to stop the fermentation process from consuming all of the sugar, and fortify the wine to a higher degree of alcohol.

Only exceptional years are declared a vintage port year. The port wine declared for vintage, late bottled vintage, vintage character and ruby are placed in large vats that hold between 10,000 and 20,000 liters.

Those wines designated for aged Tawnies are placed in small wood casks called pipes, which contain only 550 litres. The aged Tawnies mature into a rich orange-brown color with lovely nuances of oak. 10 Year Old Tawny Port has been aged for an average of ten years in the small oak casks. When it is bottled, it is intended for immediate drinking. There are 20 Year Old as well as 30 and 40 Year Old Tawny Ports as well. The higher the number of years, the more rich, concentrated, and complex the Port. The older ones are quite rare, but if you can find one, you will discover aromas of spice, nuts, and honey. They are really a treat after dinner, served with dried fruit, soft cheese, and walnuts.

Vintage Ports, which represent a very small percentage of the total production, are a selection of the very best wines, blended from a single exceptional year. The blended wine is kept in the vat for two years, then put into bottles where it continues to mature for many years. Vintage Ports are declared, on average, three times each year. These are the Ports to cellar away, in a temperature-controlled cellar, for years to come. They have the ability to last for decades.

It is possible to pair certain styles of Port with an entire meal, from first to last. Just think of what kind of passion a dinner like that would evoke. If you want to experiment with a variety of Port styles on your own, try each with cheese. Since Port is sweet, velvety, and rich, you might think that a sweet, velvety rich cheese would be just the ticket. Actually, the best cheese pairings for Port are far from that. Leave your raspberry cream cheese in the fridge for the bagels.

Here are a few recommendations to get you started in this passionate world of Port.

  • For White Port, serve a hard, crumbly cheese such as Wensleydale.
  • Ruby Port is best with full flavored goat's milk cheeses like Crotin de Chavignol.
  • Ten-Year-Old Tawny is delicious with hard sheep's mild cheese.
  • Vintage character is a good match for full-flavored cheeses, both hard and soft like mature Cheddar, or Pont L'Eveque.
  • Late Bottled Vintage Ports are actually pretty good with soft, creamy cheeses such as Brie de Meaux or Waterloo.
  • The classic Port and cheese pairing is Vintage Port with blue-veined cow's milk cheeses, and the best, in my opinion, is Stilton.

When you enjoy your Port and cheese tasting, raise a glass and offer a toast to the passion of Portugal for creating such a dramatic, fortified wine with the ultimate labor of love.

February, 2002

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