American vintners have been making port-style fortified wines for almost two centuries. Prior to Prohibition, port wines accounted for about 20 percent of all domestic wine production.
Following Repeal and well into the 1950s, domestic port consumption plummeted to only three percent of all wines. Maynard Amerine and E. H. Twight of U. C. Davis described domestic ports as, “cheap, common, insufficiently aged, and made from the wrong grape varieties.”
California wasn’t the only region of the country to use port as a vehicle to revive an industry decimated by the prohibitionists. From the Great Lakes to the Ozarks, the Mississippi to the East Coast, states with once significant grape growing histories slowly began to get back in the wine business. Of particular note were ports from Ohio and Michigan using native grape varieties like Catawba, Norton, and Concord often augmented by wines and brandies from California.
Today, the image of cheap ports in brown paper bags has all but vanished as wineries from California to New York are making exquisite, hand-crafted port-style fortified wines of exceptional quality.
It’s the mid -1830s. Don Luis – Bordeaux native Jean Louis Vignes – confidently strode the dusty streets of the Mexican pueblo of Los Angeles having completed California’s first “port” wine. Not a young man when he arrived in the new world, Vignes had a vision of establishing great vineyard estates as France and is credited with bringing the first viniferas to California.
By 1857, Los Angeles vintner William Wolfskill was so proud of his “fine old California port that he sent a case to President James Buchanan who graciously accepted the gift predicting that California would be “a great wine producing country”. As good as those first fortified wines may have been, no-one was under the illusion that California port was to rival the true ports of the Douro valley.
The turn of the 20th century saw port as California’s best selling sweet wine. In the years prior to Prohibition, California wineries made about 5 million gallons of port annually. Even during Prohibition, port accounted for about 20% of all legally produced California wine.
In the years following Repeal, port was a principle product of California’s rebuilding wine industry. Zinfandel grown in the Central Valley was the chief component of most California ports and was often blended with Carigane, Mourvedre, and Alicante Bouschet. California producers also continued to make “white port” in the tradition of mission grape-based Angelica.
The first wines to come from California following the repeal of Prohibition were a far cry from the great table wines of today. Most of the surviving vineyards were in the hot Central Valley and produced oceans of inexpensive “jug” wines often dull in color and low in flavor and alcohol. To “kick-up” these insipid wines, grain alcohol was added to produce a cheap “port” wine most often associated with the street bum and the brown bag.
History is cyclic. Fortified wines easily accounted for a quarter of all California wines over a century ago. After World War II, fortified wine accounted for less that three percent of all California wines. Recent U. S. wine sales indicate that dessert wines now account for 7-1/2 percent of all U. S. wine shipments. Growth in dessert wine sales has increased 61 percent in the last five years. Port-style wines are the greatest contributor to this increase.
From the dusty streets of Los Angeles to an emerging popularity in dessert wines, port has been a player in California’s dynamic wine industry for a over a century and a half.
How American Port is Made
Port-style fortified wines can be based on a wide array of both red and white grapes and individual style preferences will often dictate which specific grape varieties are used. Winemakers wanting deep color and rich varietal character will make ports from dark-skinned varieties like Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Petite Sirah. White ports are most often made from Chardonnay, Malvasia, and occasionally Mission grapes.
Picking at the right time is very important to California port winemakers who look for balance and maturity in the grapes at harvest. Most vintners hand-pick grapes when ripe – somewhere around 25-26 brix and pH at 6.5-7.0.
The early stages of port-style wine fermentation differ little from that of dry wine. Most producers de-stem and crush into stainless steel tanks. For smaller lots, many producers will crush into open top half ton containers or bins. Usually, natural yeasts are retarded with SO2. Some warmer climate producers will cold soak the must for 24-48 hours prior to inoculation. Some long-time port makers have developed “house blend” yeasts, but most producers use a healthy commercial yeast like Pasteur Red.
Port-style fermentation goes fast – between two and four days at temperatures in the mid 80s. The trick is to maximize both color and sugar. The longer the skins are in contact with the juice for extraction of color, the more sugar is used up. Pumping over the juice through the cap three to four times a day is a preferred method of maximizing extraction. Small lot producers may punch the cap down into the juice at least twice daily.
When the fermenting wine reaches 13-10 brix and 7 to 8.5 percent alcohol, port makers will arrest the fermentation using a high proof wine spirits or brandy. Neutral Spirits, Fruit Grape or NSFG, is grape wine distilled to 190 proof (about 95% alcohol) and runs about $12-$15 a proof gallon. Some port makers prefer to use “unaged”, neutral brandy for fortification because of the lower alcohol (around 80%) but at a higher cost.
When and how to fortify is a major decision point in the port-making process. It is critical to stop the fermentation at the right level for the desired style of wine. Some winemakers add the brandy on the skins to get more depth and color while some press before blending the brandy.
Most domestic ports finish with alcohol levels between 17 and 19 percent with residual sugars between 7.5 and 9 percent. The type and quality of the fruit often determines the final alcohol/sugar ratio.
When fermentation has completely stopped at the desired alcohol and sugar levels, the new wine is usually racked into stainless steel tanks or wood vats and allowed to settle for at least two months. However, some winemakers will rack directly into barrels for aging. Others let the new wine settle a couple of months in the tank then rack into barrels three or four more times in the year to clear the wine.
At this point, port-makers may be faced with another decision – what and how much to blend. Often, larger producers have the luxury of fermenting individual lots of wine from specific grape varieties. The winemaker can then blend these individual wines to achieve the desired color, sugar, acidity, and flavor. This process is most often used for traditional ports from true Portuguese varietals.
Once the wine has settled, the majority of producers rack the young port into used, neutral barrels for storage and aging. Most producers want to avoid the influence of oak in their ports so use well maintained older barrels to allow the wine to slowly develop character.
Port-makers barrel or bottle age their wines relative to traditional port styles. Ruby ports typically receive two to four years barrel aging before bottling, which preserves the wine's red color. Tawny ports are barrel aged up to 10 years exposing them to gradual oxidation and evaporation causing color to mellow to a golden or reddish brown. Vintage port is aged in barrels for a maximum of two years before bottling. They often require another 5 to 15 years of aging in the bottle before reaching what is considered proper drinking age.
American Port-style Wine