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Edward Peters

Personal Dessert Wines

Port I: In the beginning…

The 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.

Vintage 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 undivided attention.

            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.

People 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.

One 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 Domino. +++

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