I: In the beginning…
modern history of port wine reaches back to the late 17th century. According to
one theory, wine sellers, discouraged about the effect on prices that occurred
when patrons spewed out their drinks in a misty arc in response to a cheap wine
gone rancid, tried to mask the inferiority of their product by the addition of
brandy, an addition that sooner or later rendered their customers indifferent to
tastes of any kind. Meanwhile, wine shippers discovered that the
“fortification” of wines with distilled spirits helped them survive more
rugged transport and eventually vintners saw that what started out as a
capitalist scam to save damaged products from the drain could, under the right
conditions, endow even fine wines with a distinct character worthy of
recordation. Port arrived in England on the heels of Shakespeare’s “sherry
sack” and from there it spread quickly around the world under the protection
of the empire that never knew night.
Classical port wine, known as “Porto” or “Oporto”, is shipped
exclusively from the port of Porto in Portugal. Perhaps someday, someone will
come up with a mnemonic device to help us to remember that. For now, one must
simply commit this fact to memory, and note that port differs from its cousins
sherry and madeira chiefly in that brandy is added to the mustum rather early in
the fermentation process, leaving the resulting port with more unfermented sugar
and hence greater sweetness. Port’s alcohol content settles in at about 20%.
In Chesterton’s day, a godfather’s gift to his godson often consisted
of laying down a pipe (roughly 650 bottles) of port to age along with the child.
Both reached maturity at about the same time and both enjoyed roughly equal life
spans. How authentically Christian was such a culture! Today ports are enjoyed
much younger (Alec Waugh noticed this trend setting in after World War Two) and
eight to 20 years is typical. Here in hot, dry, basementless Southern California
where the domestic cellaring of wines is difficult, a wage-dependent family man
who wishes to drink something older than his children, drinks port.
ports, declared by year, age magnificently in bottles whereas wood ports,
chiefly younger rubies and older tawnies, age in oak casks. Once bottled, these
latter do not improve, though their character will perdure for many years. Ports
and sweet sherries are often described as dessert wines, and a soft tobacco
would not distract; but any port should, I feel, be of sufficient quality to
assist single-handed the conversations which all wines were born to foster.
Good port is best enjoyed at room temperature in small amounts, as in,
say, a few ounces at a time. Dr. Andrew Tadie introduced me to a tasting
technique for VSOP brandies but which I find suitable for port as well, not
surprising considering that port is wine fortified with brandy. Place an initial
amount of port in the mouth such that, by the time it spreads back across the
palate, there is not enough left to swallow. The natural urge to swallow can
then be combined with the dramatic effect achieved upon taking a full breath of
air, partly through the mouth, for a tasting experience quite unlike any other.
Later fuller quaffs may be taken. Two small glasses of port complete an evening.
Perhaps I’m abstemious.
My wife and I, and a few friends, recently explored three ports, a
Fairbanks California Ruby (750 ml for $ 4), an Orfila California Tawny (500 ml
for $ 18), and a Graham Tawny Porto (750 ml for $ 21). All three presented
pleasant color and teared well in the glass. None required decanting, of course,
a ritual reserved for vintage ports.
The Fairbanks Ruby reminded us of a high school athlete, all power and
potential. Aged but a few years, the brandy pummeled, though it did not
obliterate, the other flavors. If one’s glass, in moving toward the lips,
paused even slightly, the Fairbanks nose continued on like some ghostly whip to
warn the uninitiated that the ensuing drink was going to require one’s
The Orfila Tawny deserved every award it has received, and they are many.
We bought our bottle at the winery that lies on low slopes just 30 miles north
of our home. Fortunately one of my kids needed to use the restroom during our
visit, which fact excused my walking through the production areas. They were
immaculate. Orfila also makes this delightful wine available in chocolate
candies, perhaps a tablespoon at a time. To think that massive candy makers
daily spew out tons of bland chocolates slabs for only a few pennies an ounce
less than the family-owned Orfila endows milk and cocoa with crimson grace.
The Graham Porto was aged 10 years in oak before bottling. Only a great
house like Graham can be criticized when its product is merely very good. I’m
guessing, but perhaps my oak was fatigued. The brandy was nicely tamed by time,
but it seemed to lounge on the couch rather than sitting comfortably in the
recliner. A finer eye than mine would be needed to declare its color tawny
rather than a light ruby. The aftertaste vanished in a few seconds, whereas I
can recall the impact of the Orfila to this very moment.
seem to like ratings and numbers these days, so let me accord the Fairbanks an
honest 7, the Graham an underrated 8, and the Orfila a warm 9.
ought not drink a glass of port wine without a thought toward the warm
Mediterranean lands which saw it’s birth, and the drizzly English ingenuity
which sounded it’s modern value. After that, may I suggest letting your mind
turn to the similar effects that Chesterton and his English companions had on
what was, till then, the sleepy apologetics of the indolent Christian south. See
if there isn’t a parallel of some sort. Benedicamus