In Britain, drinking Port wine around Christmas is about as quintessentially English as drinking cups of tea, hiring a chimney sweep, or being rain-soaked. Technically speaking, Port should have all the boxes checked for a blockbuster, 100-pointer, trendy wine: huge and full-bodied, rich multilayered depth, sweetness (that is Amarone sweet, not sickly sweet) and most of all high in alcohol.
Suffice to say, Port has an image problem. Maybe because it’s the festive tipple of choice for old Aunt Rose and Uncle Harry or maybe it’s not as fashionable as Pinot Noir, who is to know? What we can say however, here in Santa Barbara, port and other fortified wine has a lot going for it, mostly the diversity in choice.
There are a handful of wineries making some sort of fortified wine style. It might be the traditional Port using grapes found in Portugal, or a New World take on one of the oldest of Old World wines. It’s not all Port in Santa Barbara though, as there are also some fine examples of other types of fortified wines.
Port is one of the oldest traded wine commodities and its roots are deep in British culture, mostly because they discovered it. In the late 1680’s, King William III of England embargoed and later heavily taxed any trading with France. In search of quenching their wine thirst English merchants traveled south and eventually found their way to Oporto, the second largest city of Portugal, and the mouth of the Douro River.
The Douro is a beautifully winding river with steep cliffs on either side, terraced with vines. It is also considered the oldest demarcating region in the world, having its appellations mapped out in the late 1700’s. Due to the heat the grapes tend to get very ripe resulting in fermentation that is quick, fast, and culminates in a wine deep in color and high in alcohol. This type of wine proved to be a major hit back in London and donned the name ‘blackstrap.’ Evidently, it was also perfect for fortifying.
Rick Longoria walking his vineyard
It was while shipping this wine from Portugal for its rough sea journey to the Britain that merchants would top the barrels up with a measure of brandy, to help with stabilization. However, the wine that Port derives from today, was actually being made by an abbot in a monastery of the town of Lamego, located in the high altitude mountains above the Douro river. It was discovered by sons of a Liverpudlian wine merchant, they found the abbot adding brandy to partial fermented wine rather than the finished wine and thus started the British love affair with Port.
Fortified not Late Harvested
Fortified wine is any wine that has had a high alcohol spirit, usually brandy, added to it. Although port wine grapes are usually picked later, it is not to be confused with late harvested wine. These are grapes picked late to make dessert wine, high in sugar content but low in alcohol.
- Daniel Gehrs Fireside Port
The winemaking process for fortified wine is very much like that of regular still wine, only with a few added steps. Of course starting off with the grapes, you set them off on their primary (alcoholic) fermentation. However, instead of letting the wine stop fermenting naturally, you prematurely stop it by adding the brandy. The brandy will kill all the yeast thus disallowing the fermentation to continue and leaving you with a rich, full-bodied, sweet wine, high in alcohol (because of the brandy).
Here in Santa Barbara or half way across the world in Portugal, the process is the same, the difference being that California, unlike the Old World wine producing countries, has no governing body monitoring the process. This in turn allows for a variety of styles from the producers, all making fortified wine, all making it similar to the process above, yet all with a twist of uniqueness making it Californian in its own right.
Gypsy Canyon Winery and Vineyard
While scoping out her new property to plant Pinot Noir in Lompoc, Deborah Hall owner and winemaker of Gypsy Canyon, in Santa Rita Hills, happened upon a vine, then another and another. Soon thereafter she discovered that she was standing in a three acre Mission grape vineyard, mostly like planted in the late 1880’s by Franciscan monks. It had been hidden for all these years, under sage brush.
Since very few wineries use the grape any more Hall headed to the Santa Barbara Archives Library figuring the padres had the most experience with the varietal. What she found was that the local padres did in fact use the grapes to make wine and actually used it to make a fortified wine called Angelica. Hall uses the same winemaking recipe she found in the archives. In the archives she also found a note by Father Dúran to Governor Figueroa stating that although the white wine made at the San Gabriel Mission was used at the altar, the wine called Angelica should be used for—whatever. The vines used are on still on their own roots and not grafted, and it is only producing Mission vineyard in California over 100 years old. “I’ve named the v
ineyard, Dona Marcelina’s Vineyard, in honor of the first woman wine grower in California.”
Lucas and Llewelyn Vineyards
L&L has been a making a port style wine for about ten years. What is unique here is that each year the port variety changes. Sometimes it’ll be Merlot other years maybe Syrah. It changes because they like to use the grapes that will gain the most ripeness each year. Megan McGrath Gates, head winemaker, (who I incidentally went to high school with at Midland, in Los Olivos) very much enjoys this non-dedicated method.
When not making wine Megan doubles as a hand model.
“We are very humble in our approach to making port. I’ve been to the Douro and wouldn’t try to sell our wine as traditional, rather we are almost throwing caution in the wind, we are trying to be creative and have had really good results.”
Daniel Gehrs Winery
Dan Gehrs has been making port wine in the California since the late 70’s and continued to do so when he moved to Santa Barbara in the early 90’s. For his port wine Gehrs sources fruit, a mix of traditional Portuguese grape varieties, from Amador and Madera County. He finds that he really like the grapes coming out of northern California, also soils, particularly in Amador, are similar to those found in the Douro. “Port is the most fashionable of fortified wines, it has a great history with the Portuguese and the English. I have always admired Portuguese ports, I enjoy the wine and making it, but it’s a challenge as a winemaker to work along those lines and produce something that is reasonably outstanding. Striving for perfection the Fireside Port is the wineries mainstay, while Gehrs also makes a ten year old tawny as well as various other single variety ports.
Brett Escalera has made a Zinfandel port since the inception Consilience, in 1999. Originally, he thought o make a Zin table wine but it came in so ripe he ended up making it in to port. “I love port and love dessert wines. The genesis of my port was out of a necessity. Here I was with these grapes that I knew make a decent table wine out of, so what do you do when life hands you lemons—you make lemonade.” “The flavor profile really exudes Zin. That’s what distinguishes it from traditional port. It’s a California port in the fact that it tastes so much of and has loads of Zin character.”
Rick Longoria is making a port style wine from Syrah, just enough for the tasting room pretty much every other year since 2004. Much like Escalera at Consilience the original vintage was a matter of consequence. When some Syrah grapes arrived he felt they were way too ripe for his style of Syrah. “I know for a lot of guys it would have been ideal to make some killer Robert Parker scoring wine, but for me, it wasn’t the winery’s style, I said gosh, let’s look into a dessert wine.” It has worked out well for Longoria, and Vino Dulce ended one of the bestselling wines. He feels like Syrah is good grape to use as it keeps its spicy character and wants to offer a different take on the traditional style.
Margerum Wine Company
Magerum Amaro….aka ‘the bomb’
Doug Margerum is making more of an herbal digestif than a port-style wine. It’s called Amaro and its closest known relative on the shop shelf would probably be Fernet-Branca. Much like port the wine is fortified with brandy, however with a few added ingredients, “roots and bark, lemon and orange peel and just about anything else I can find” explains Margerum. He found when traveling through Italy, all the little wineries would have a house Amaro, each time similar in taste yet unique to the winery. Upon returning he decided Margerum too would have an Amaro to share with its visitors.
It is made in the solera system where barrels all bleed into each other, vintage after vintage or in Margerum’s case – batch after batch. It is an aging style used to make Sherry wine and creates wine that consistently tastes the same year after year despite using different vintages in the process. Although Amaro goes well by itself, especially after dinner, Margerum like mixing it into his ‘Perfect Manhattan.’
Fess Parker Winery
Fess Parker Winery has had made a non-vintage port off and on since 2000. The original idea came when Eli Parker (Fess’ son) planted a vineyard of traditional port wine grapes, at his house. Now with Blair Fox at the helm the tradition continues. “Fortified wines are cool because they have that aged, nutty, oxidized character that you don’t typically look for in young still wine. The uniqueness here is Fess Parker are using traditional port style gr
apes, the likes of Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao–grown in Santa Barbara County.
Although we may not have the rain and sleet of British weather, our nights do get cold. What a perfect time to crack open a bottle of port to warm yourself up with a few sips. Santa Barbara is spoiled for choice when it comes to fortified wines and any of the above would be perfect after a meal, with cheese or dessert, or better yet, in your favorite seat next to a log burning fire. Enjoy.