Some Thoughts on Port…Part 1

sierra-5As you may know, every February Madroña celebrates Port. For twenty eight days (29 some years) we open and sample older vintage Ports from the library, pair Ports in the conventional way with chocolate or cheese, and explore unusual pairings of Port with foods of all kinds. This blog was originally intended to inform you about Port Month, and Portopia (which I’ll get to later), but as I was compiling my notes, I realized that some people may have one simple question that I completely take for granted: Why?

Why all the fuss? Why spend an entire month celebrating a dessert wine – a SWEET wine? What is so special about Port?

And I get it. I completely understand. I really do. Once, I, too, was one of the uninitiated. After all, there is a lot of bad Port out there. Too sweet. Pruny. Too heavy, yet too simple. Syrupy…cough-mediciny. Alcohol! Burning your nose; scorching your sinuses. And what’s with this weird amber color? Has this gone bad?

new-world-port-black-bgI too shared all of those impressions of Port, at one time. And then I didn’t.

It was early November, 1993. I had just participated in my first harvest at Madroña, and had a whopping three months experience in the cellar under my belt. As the harvest had progressed I had been introduced to a series of first-time experiences, and I was now going to participate in yet another – the Harvest Celebration dinner.

The Bush family, winemaker Hugh Chappelle, Cellar Rat Don Bush (Paul’s Unca Don), and temporary crush help (me) were at Tower Cafe, celebrating the completion of another (my first) successful crush with exotic food and amazing wines. Lots of wines. Wines from out of the library at Madroña and from great wineries all over California. Wines from beginning to finish; wines of all types at every stage of the meal, from crisp whites to heavy reds…to dessert wines. The late harvest Trockenbeerenauslese was a dessert wine I had had before and appreciated, but then Hugh opened a wine that Dick had brought. It was an old bottle (1983 vintage), from some winery that I had never heard of (St. Amant? Where is that?). Not knowing what kind of wine it was, I leaned over the table to get a look at the label; in very distinct, plain white font on black label, it said simply, Vintage Port.

My reaction was pure puzzlement. I’d had port before; a couple of times. It was sweet and hot and what bums drank. But everyone at the table was excited to have this wine; just as excited as for the ’82 Cab or the ’87 Cab Franc. As Hugh carefully poured the wine I saw a fair amount of sediment in the bottle; isn’t that a flaw, I thought? In my glass the wine had a density and opacity that surprised me. It was very purple and opaque, not the thin brown/amber liquid I had been expecting. I swirled and smelled, cautiously, bracing myself for the blast of alcohol I had unexpectedly received upon my first experience with Port (a tawny that had come from a supermarket wine aisle). But there was no alcohol. There was blackberry, and blueberry, and plum, and a little spice, and the nose just went on and on. And just a little alcohol, at the end.

port-tasting-2014I didn’t hesitate to taste it. It was an explosion of dark fruit and spice, like a berry cobbler, with a supple mouthfeel and very fine, silky tannins in the warm, lengthy finish. I kind of realized all at once that I had formed a very narrow and false impression of what Port was, from a very small sample of poor quality Port wines. I had a prejudice that was really unjustified, and kind of silly. I had been very excited to try some of the desserts that were on the table, but I had completely forgotten about them, until the murmurs around the table were about how well the Port paired with the Tiramisu, and the chocolate mousse. They were right – the chocolate in particular was incredible with the Port.

It was a lesson about Port, and about tasting wine in general, that I took to heart. Preconceptions don’t help you; and ditching them can lead to unexpected and rewarding discoveries. My Port experience that night kind of formed my philosophy of tasting wine, both personally and in the tasting room.

Stay tuned for Part 2 – What is happening with Port Month and Portopia…

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