Missouri’s delicious fortified wines make it easy to pull into port

If the folks doing the Gallup Polls were to ask, “What is port?” the top answer would likely be, “What old men drink when they smoke cigars.” Although the port-and-cigars connection still has merit, there is certainly a great deal more to this wonderfully sweet wine.

To understand what makes port unique, we must first understand the basics of how grape juice becomes wine. A quick explanation of winemaking would be this: sugar (grape juice) + yeast = alcohol (wine). A winemaker would probably be insulted by my formula, but it does help to describe how we make fortified wine such as port.

Port is the style of wine made by fortifying the must (grape juice) with spirits during the fermentation process. As the yeast consumes the sugar and alcohol is being produced, spirits (distilled alcohols typically at 160 proof or higher) are added to the juice, which does two things virtually instantly. First, the yeast, which was happily eating the sugars and producing alcohol, immediately dies, stopping the production of alcohol. This leaves a large amount of unfermented sugar that was potentially going to be converted to alcohol and gives port its signature rich sweetness. Second, the addition of high-proof spirits boosts the alcohol up to the 18- to 20-percent level usually found in port wines, whereas the average alcohol for normal table wines is 12 to 14 percent.

So why was this process developed? The British love for French wines was disrupted when England was at war with France in the 17th century. To make sure the flow of wine was not interrupted, Britain approached its longtime friend Portugal, which unfortunately did not produce wines of the same quality as France, to supply Britain with libations. It was at this time that Britain became involved in the Portuguese wine industry – a relationship that is still very strong. Brandy was added to the weak red wines to make them more stable for their ocean trek to England. A few years later, the current process of adding spirits during fermentation was discovered, and the current sweet style of port was born.

The center of the port world is the town of Oporto in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal. Port wines from this area are actually called Porto, which technically distinguishes them from the nearly generic term “port.” There are basically two types of port: ruby and tawny. There are multiple categories within each type, but they are all versions of these two. Ruby port is dark and fruity and receives only a minimal amount of barrel aging. Tawny port is aged in oak casks – some up to 40 years. This long wood aging gives a pale, tawny color to the wine. Although both types are sweet and have high alcohol, the flavors are dramatically different.

Although most New World ports are made in a similar way, very few are produced from the same types of grapes that are used in Portugal. One of the finest American ports that I have ever tasted was from the St. Amant Winery in central California. Owner and winemaker Tim Spencer grows five of the same varieties used for traditional Porto: Tinta Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain), Souzão, Touriga, Tinta Cão and Alvarelhão. The St. Amant vintage port is the closest New World wine that I have ever tasted to the real Porto. Spencer is also a great friend of the Missouri wine industry. I have been to three port-making seminars given by Spencer for our local winemakers, and I really believe that his passion and experience have helped to make Missouri ports some of the finest wines that we make.

From Mount Pleasant Winery’s first vintage port in 1982 to the present, Missouri ports have had a meteoric rise in quality, which makes for a very highly regarded national reputation. Most of our ports are Norton-based. The depth of flavor and color of this variety makes it well-suited for fortification. Mount Pleasant makes three styles: vintage (ruby-style port made from grapes of a single harvest), tawny and a unique white port. Even though there are many styles of port, most of what is made in Missouri is ruby-style, and most of that is vintage-dated.

Stone Hill Winery has had great success with its vintage port and has won the coveted Governor’s Cup at the Missouri Wine Competition multiple times. Stone Hill also makes an incredible cream sherry. A similar fortification process is used to turn the Catawba grape into a stunning sherry, very much in the style of the beautiful sherries of Spain. Stone Hill’s sherry was recently honored at the 2005 Jefferson Cup Invitational Wine Competition in Kansas City, Mo., in early December. The Jefferson Cup was awarded to only 17 of the 540 wineries hailing from all over the country.

The Adam Puchta Winery in Hermann won a gold medal at the Missouri Wine Competition this past summer for its Signature Port. The style is dark purple, fruity and sweet but with a slightly softer 17 percent alcohol, making the wine a bit friendlier. There’s also a newly available vintage port called Anniversary Port in honor of the winery’s founding 150 years ago.

The Montelle Winery calls its wine Cynthiana Port, a reference to the other, less-common name for the Norton grape variety. The really innovative port from Montelle, however, is the Framboise. For those of you who may have had high school French class, you already know that “framboise” means raspberry. This raspberry port captures the essence and intensity of ripe, sweet berries with the hit of higher alcohol. I always want to head for the nearest Bissinger’s store for chocolate truffles when I taste this distinctive and amazing dessert wine.

The number of wineries becoming players in the Missouri port business continues to grow every year. Crown Valley Winery near Ste. Genevieve, OakGlenn Winery in Hermann and Sugar Creek Winery near Augusta have all begun to produce port. When you visit wineries, ask to taste the ports. (Some wineries may not offer tastes of these expensive wines unless you request them.) Drinking Missouri’s great ports, though they might not be true Porto, can be a very memorable experience.