The Noble Writ: A Port for Every Storm, Part 1

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As cool autumn weather begins to settle in, my thoughts turn to richer wines that can keep the chill away. One wine that fits this bill perfectly is port. Typically, port is imbibed while enjoying a good book at bedtime or while sitting next to the fireplace, but it makes a lovely match with cheese or nuts or even a not-too-sweet chocolate dessert.

This week, I'll cover the history and production methods of port as well as the most common form you'll encounter in the market. Next week, we'll delve into the other varieties of port and discuss some food matches.

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Joao Miranda, Wikimedia Commons
The river Douro in Portugal
Port as we know it today is one of the few positives from the long hatred between France and England during the last millennium. When the French cut off the supply of red wine Bordeaux in the mid-1600s, the English went searching for alternatives.They found a suitable one in the convenient port city of Oporto, Portugal.

Prior to the interest of the English, the Portuguese were making red wines from the ancient vineyards lining the steep banks of the Douro river. The vineyards that produce port actually start some 40 miles inland from Oporto and stretch east almost to the border with Spain.

And what special vineyards they are, originally cultivated during the Roman occupation and tended continuously since the 1100s. The conditions are harsh. Soil only a few inches deep over the underlying rock clings to precipitous hillsides, where the remnants of ancient terraces struggle to slow the erosion of this life-giving layer into the river below. The temperatures can be brutal as well, with summer highs above 110° F not uncommon.

Despite this unforgiving environment, more than 100 varieties of grapes are turned into port, though only twenty are "officially approved." However, five dominate production: touriga nacional, touriga francesa, tinta barroca, tinta cão and tinta roriz, which is better known as tempranillo, its Spanish name. The grapes must be hand-harvested due to the steep inclines -- back-breaking work not for the faint of heart.

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