You Can Take The Port Out Of Portugal

Other countries' vintners are finding a fruitful niche

From the glass before my nose waft hints of honey, almonds, and raisins--the classic scents of Portugal's noblest contribution to the good life: port wine. A taste of the russet-hued liquid reminds me of great vintages from Portugal's rustic Douro region. Is this a Taylor Fladgate? A fabulous Fonseca?

No. It's not an authentic port at all. In fact, it's a heresy--a tawny port crafted in a California barn. The maker: Napa Valley's Praeger Winery & Port Works, one of the leaders of the porto novo movement. Around me in this unheated room of ratty furniture and candlelight, two fellow port worshippers swirl their glasses and nod their heads. Getting tipsy, we exclaim in hushed tones: "This tawny is truly a masterpiece."

SOARING SALES. Port is a sweet wine, usually sipped after a meal, that's fortified with distilled grape brandy and aged in the bottle anywhere from three years to half a century. Like makers of sparkling wines who swiped Champagne techniques from France, vintners from Australia, South Africa, France, and the U.S. are crafting unique port-style wines of great excellence. Instead of traditional Portuguese varietals, such as touriga nacional, most porto novo winemakers use more robust zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon grapes.

The result is fruitier, brighter port-style wines. Some are so spectacular that they're popping up at such stellar restaurants as Australia's Lizard Island Lodge and Manhattan's Veritas. "Some of the Australian ports, such as the Yalumba Galway Pipe, are just brilliant. And the fortified grenaches from France, like the Maury, are about as port as you can get," says Veritas sommelier Ned Goodwin. But not everybody agrees. In his superb guide, The Port Companion (Macmillan; $23.95), Godfrey Spence writes: "Few of these...reach the quality of even middle-ranking port."

Classifications of port are much simpler than those for wine. Ruby ports are the youngest and fruitiest, usually aged three to six years. White ports, made with white grapes, are lighter and less fruity, more like sherry. As port ages, its color turns tawny, and the flavor gains a buttery richness of dried fruit and nuts. Better yet are aged tawnies, from 10- to more than 40-years-old. All these ports blend grapes from different years. Best of all, though, are vintage ports, which are unblended. Two great Portuguese vintages: 1963 and 1977.

The port industry originated in the late 17th century, when British merchant ships ventured to Oporto, a Portuguese harbor town, in search of claret after wars with France shut down the cross-channel wine trade. In 1678, according to Spence, an abbot in the town of Lamego handed two British merchants glasses of a hearty red from Portugal's Pinhao region, that had been spiked with local brandy. The Brits took word of the wonder wine back to their homeland--and soon returned for more.

The porto novo trend started in the early 1980s--and production of premium non-Portuguese ports is still a boutique affair. Australian ports can be found in major liquor stores, but for fine U.S. ports, you'll have to contact the vintners (table). Praeger sells his port only in Napa Valley. Doug Shafer, of Shafer Vineyards, also in Napa, says the 100 cases of port his family produces each year are sold only on premises. "I would say the premium port producers nationwide are well under 50,000 cases a year," says Peter Ficklin, of Ficklin Vineyards in Madera, Calif.

Yet the market is ballooning. Portuguese producer Taylor Fladgate reports that U.S. sales of high-quality ports have soared 240% since 1995. The porto novo makers risk missing the wave. Get your production up, folks. Those luscious libations are just too good to miss.

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