Ken Robertson

Seek out Port-styled wines

There’s no bad season to seek out tasty Port-styled wines

After sweltering through a record-hot summer that sent pickers into the Northwest’s vineyards by mid-August, perhaps it seems premature to begin talking about Port-style wines, which traditionally are sipped in the chilly months when their extra alcohol adds a little warmth to our lives.

Really, there’s never a bad month to buy Port, because the extra alcohol added by fortification preserves it almost forever. You needn’t fret that your pet Port will go over the hill when you aren’t looking and decline into a shabby old age. While your cocky Cabernet may stay youthful for a decade, the seedy elements of middle age may show up too soon. And the crisp allure of a perfect Pinot Grigio can seem to fade almost as fast as a prom date’s corsage.

In contrast, I’ve drunk Port crafted 100 years ago that seemed likely to last for at least another decade. Here’s a brief summation of how Port is made, drawn from The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia:

Ports owe their durability to the infusion of brandy (usually clear grape-distilled spirits that are traditionally 77 percent alcohol) in the late stages of fermentation when the alcohol from fermentation has reached about 6 to 8 percent. Typically, they end up being in the range of 20 percent alcohol. They are sweet because their fermentation stalls when the alcohol kills the yeast, leaving residual sugar. Sweetness and final alcohol level are determined by how long the winemaker lets fermentation continue and the amount of spirits added.

Ports also are usually fermented at temperatures as high as 90 degrees, which is believed to add some of the “chocolaty, high-pH complexity.”

Our young Northwest grape-growing industry and the region’s innovative winemakers have combined to create scores of Port-styled wines from throughout our region. Most follow traditional practices that lead to smooth, lip-smacking nectars redolent with dried fruit, spices, chocolate and aromatic herbs layered with a smoky oak.

Traditionally-styled Ports can range from white to bright red ruby to long-aged brick-colored vintage bottlings to caramel-toned tawny. In Europe, the oldest may spend their first 50 years in a cask; the youngest may not have seen their third birthday. The oldest Northwest versions I’ve encountered have seldom turned 10 years old by the time they’re being sold.

Many of the Port-styled wines from our region follow Portugal’s lead in the choice of grape varietals used in their making, including some of the “big six” traditionally used to make Port: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (commonly called Tempranillo outside Portugal), Tinta Baroca, Touriga Francesca and Tinta Amarela, plus an occasion dose of Souzão. Don’t be surprised to find another Portuguese variety or two.

The rising popularity of Tempranillo in the Northwest, in addition to enriching our region’s stock of bold red wines, has added momentum to a trend that has prompted more wineries to add a Port-styled wine to their offerings. And once Tempranillo is planted, why not grow a bit of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão as well and make a blended Port or perhaps several different varieties?

Wade Wolfe, the veteran winemaker based in Prosser, Wash., is a longtime fan of Port and offers an array of them, including a tawny that spends eight years in oak casks, a vintage-dated bottling and a blend using Cabernet Sauvignon. His Ports are only a small part of a broad range of Thurston Wolfe wines, but, like everything else he makes, they are reasonably priced, superb examples of what our region has to offer.

Making a Port-styled wine from grapes other than the varieties favored in Portugal is a tradition dating back at least two decades in the Northwest. I’ve encountered Port-styled wines made with Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and even the French hybrids Marechal Foch and Baco Noir.

You can find a wide variety of styles and blends of these wines from every corner of the Northwest, including entrancing combinations with fruit, especially blackberries, or even straight fruit wines made in a Port style with peaches or cherries.

Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia all make outstanding examples, Wine Press Northwest’s tasting panel discovered when we gathered recently to taste the 40-plus wines featured in this issue.

Wine words: Solera

Since the focus of our major tasting in this edition is Port-styled wines, it’s only fitting that we should spend a few minutes on one of the techniques developed over the ages to create Port and some of its fellow Mediterranean relatives in the world of wine, including Madeira, Marsala and Sherry. And, of course, it’s also used to make some kinds of vinegar, beer, rum and whiskey.

Basically, a solera is traditionally a stacked system of barrels through which a Port is moved from barrel to barrel, top to bottom, until it reaches the ground-level barrel. At each step, the wine is aged and blended with its predecessors remaining in each barrel below. By the last barrel, the wine has become a blend of an array of vintages, theoretically reaching back to the start of the solera, which can be many decades.

The oldest soleras can claim a pedigree as distinguished and probably as carefully traced as a European royal family. And perhaps as many secrets? Some Port makers in the Northwest have experimented with the technique, which ideally produces a Port with the wondrous elements created by decades of aging and smooths over the vagaries introduced by vintage variation.

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