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You Say 'Oporto'

...I say 'port'

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OLD SCHOOL  Sonoma Portworks relies on low-tech boot power to stomp their grapes.
  • OLD SCHOOL Sonoma Portworks relies on low-tech boot power to stomp their grapes.

When a rich and potent wine like a Zinfandel is called "porty," the word often drips with disparagement. It's a good time to remember that, whether you like your Zinfandel crisp and light or super-ripe and sweet, there's an entire, centuries-old category of respected wines that are exactly that: they're porty port wines.

Unlike a sweet, late harvest wine, port is made to retain sugar when the fermentation is doused with actual booze—high-proof grape brandy. Wine yeast can only continue working up to around 17 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), leaving whatever sugar remains in a late harvest wine, for instance, for the eventual consumer to metabolize. Port wines, though they may be fortified to 20 percent ABV, don't have to start with particularly overripe grapes.

Port, sometimes called Oporto, doesn't even have to come from particularly Portuguese grapes, according to Bill Reading, owner of Sonoma Portworks. Reading notes a movement among some wineries to discontinue using the word "port" on their labels. In January of this year, several members of Napa Valley Vintners announced such plans, citing the need to preserve the "Napa" brand by playing nice with other international wine regions.

"I don't think we should be so cavalier about the use of the word," says Reading, who points out that port is not an actual place, like the Champagne region. But, Porto, sometimes spelled "Oporto" in English, is a place.

"I'm all in favor of protecting the label 'Oporto,' and many ports are labeled as such," says Reading. "But there is no place in Portugal called 'Port.'"

But there is an Oporto.Reading argues that the entire port category was developed and driven by English and colonial markets, including the former American colonies, where port-style wine has been made for 300 years. The story goes like this: During a spat with the French in the 1600s, Londoners were cut off from their beloved Bordeaux. Sailing farther south, shippers found a ready supply of wine in the ancient Douro region of Portugal, and juiced them up with spirits for the longer return trip. After an overly dulcet vintage, the sweet-toothed English couldn't get enough of it, and entrepreneurs backed by London banks packed up for Oporto.

Sonoma Portworks is one of the few local producers for whom port is not just a sideline, and currently enjoys the "grandfathered" legal right to the word. They also employ a very old and rare method of pressing the wine: foot-treading.

There's a brief window of time to press the mass of bubbling, purple muck at the right sugar level, so Reading relies on whatever help is on hand; this evening, it's a Portworks employee and a Canadian backpacker who happened to poke her head in the door earlier, who don rubber boots and improvise stomping and marching patterns across a wooden platform inside a half-ton macrobin, to the sounds of classic rock.

The finished product is delicious with ice cream, says Portworks' Caryn Reading, but there's more to pairing with port than dessert. Stilton cheese is a traditional pairing that Point Reyes Bay Blue approximates very well, while Reading says that Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam inspired one taster to exclaim, "Oh, it tastes like Christmas!"

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