Set Yourself a-Port…

As we close yet another life-changing year, perhaps now is the perfect time to indulge yourself with one of the truly timeless libations ever created…fortified wine.

As defined, fortified wine is a dry wine to which a distilled spirit has been added, usually brandy. There are numerous fortified wines that have been produced (for centuries) from around the world, with incredible history and pinpoint identity. The ready-for-prime-time players include Sherry, from Jerez (sherry) Spain; Madeira, the pride of its namesake islands; Marsala, from Sicily, which dates back to 1772; Commandaria, the often overlooked and underappreciated prize of Cyprus; and of course, Vermouth, the herb and spiced aperitif that owes its modern-day success to the Italian city of Torin.

All of these are beautifully distinct, and I hope to introduce you to them in a more specific fashion in future columns. For this month, however, we travel to Portugal and explore what is really my favorite fortified wine of them all…Port.

While port-styled wines can be found around the globe, with notable bottlings in Argentina, Australia, France, and Spain, those from Portugal, and only Portugal, are allowed by the EU governing body to have the word port on the bottle. Origin is everything.

Without getting lost in the historical weeds of it all, it’s important to note that port’s international reputation took afoot in the late 1600’s, when two English merchants traveled to Portugal to explore the wine trade. Their discovery of a sweet, fortified red wine defined their entire journey, impelling them to purchase all they could and take it back to England. Upon the signing of the Methuen Treaty in 1703, port wine from Portugal became a household libation throughout England, setting the stage for future transports throughout the rest of the wine-drinking world.  

Port hails from the Douro Valley, the 3rd oldest protected wine region in the world, dating to 1756. The wines that come from the Douro, as it’s known, are some of the most distinct wines in the world, especially the red wines. As most port is made from red wine grapes, the fermentation process is halted with the addition of a brandy-esque alcoholic beverage somewhere between 30-60% abv, which allows for the ultimate creation of a sweet red wine, which can be aged to very lengthy extents, tapping out at 20% abv.

As for the grapes themselves, there are dozens that are recommended (and over 80 permitted) for the production of port, and there may be even more in the vineyards. Traditionally, certainly in the older vineyards throughout the Douro, large numbers of different grape species were planted together, and the growers were often unaware of what they specifically had. The modernization of vineyards brought about the plantings of specific grape blocks, allowing grower to control more of the final usage of any given grape. Still, port is almost always a blend; Of the multitudes of grapes grown, these five have become globally recognized as the most significant….

Tinta Roriz (tempranillo) is lightweight, has low yields, but adds finesse to the blend. Touriga Nacional is considered the finest grape of the Douro, giving exceptionally low yields and small berries. Its wines are full-bodied and concentrated, and it’s found primarily in the best ports. Touriga Franca (formerly Francesca) is also a premium grape, producing robust and aromatic wines. Tinto Cao is the least abundant of the collection but is useful for its tannic qualities. And finally, Tinta Barroca is a thick-skinned, early ripening grape that makes for soft, fruity wines.

There are many port styles, ranging from the young white port (white wine grapes) to the single-quinta vintage ports, which can be aged for decades. Of them all, the three most well-known are Fine Ruby, Fine Tawny and Aged-Indicated Tawny.

As expected, there are numerous (and great) port producers throughout the Douro; but there’s only one house that precedes them all…

Kopke (kop-kuh).

Nicolau Kopkë was producing wine as early as 1638 and pioneered what we now know as port wine. Fast forward almost 4 centuries later and Kopke is acknowledged by the Portuguese Commercial and Industrial Association as the oldest port house in the Douro Valley. They produce 64 ports, starting here:

Winemaker Carlos Alves produces Kopke Fine Ruby Port, a style that’s the most popular throughout the world, certainly in the UK and here at home. It’s young and non-vintage, yet full-bodied and deeply colored. It’s generally sold at less than 3 years old, with a profile that leans towards the sweet side…firm and fresh, fruity, and harmonious. Priced around $20.

Kopke Fine Tawny Port is produced in the style well favored in France. A blend of both ruby and white (white wine grapes) port, it’s rich and aromatic. A vivid orangey-brown color complements a bouquet of ripe and honeyed fruit, combined with fragrant notes of vanilla…velvety smooth and beyond delicious. Also priced around $20.

If time is marked by special moments, Kopke‘s history is written in exceptional years. And to that point, Kopke 10 Year Tawny is a number for the ages. The grapes are hand-picked at the optimum time, destemmed, crushed and converted into wine through a process of careful maceration, extracting color, tannins, and aromas. Once the right degree of sweetness is achieved, grape brandy is added to create the final fortified wine. A blending of vintages matures in oak casks for an average time of 10 years, producing the resultant wine. Dark golden in color, with an amber rim, elegant and complex. Aromas of spice, with prevailing notes of dried fruit and hints of wood and honey set the stage for the palate. It’s glorious. Price around $35, it’s a gift worth giving and receiving.

So, this last month of Holiday celebration, distinguish yourself with a Kopke port. And until next year, Happy Holidays and Happy Vino’ing!

Mark Luna
About Mark Luna 37 Articles
Mark Luna is a Portfolio Rep for Roanoke Valley Wine Company. He holds a WSET Level 3 (Advanced) certification through the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. He is also a certified Italian Wine Scholar, graduating with Honors, through the prestigious Wine Scholar Guild. Both certifications are industry recognized post-nominal accreditations. Through and beyond his work for RVWC, Mark writes, teaches and guest-speaks about wine in a variety of both industry and privately held events. He lives in Warrenton with his family. Mark can be reached at info@winespique.com.

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