California Port Wines

Port has been made in California at least since the days of the Gold Rush and is one of the most popular of all dessert wines. Conforming to the present tendency in the American taste, it is, on the whole, sweeter and deeper red in color than the red Port wines from Portugal.

VARIETALS AND GENERICS

California port is produced from many different grapes, only a few of which are used for the wine in its native Portugal. To this selected group belong the Tinta Madeira, Tinta Cao, Alvarelhao, and Touriga. Another is the Trousseau, which has been identified with the Portuguese Bastardo. This grape was once quite popular in California as a varietal, but is now generally considered to lack sufficient color for that purpose, owing to the current preference for darker wines. There are plans, however, to produce Trousseau Port in Contra Costa County.

The grapes most commonly used for California ports include the Carignane, Grenache, Mission, Petite Sirah, Valdepenas, and Zinfandel, while the Alicante Bouschet, Alicante Ganzin, a crossbreed, Grand noir, and Salvador are useful for the color they contribute in blending. California ports are generally sweet, rich, heavy-bodied, and fruity, but often rather neutral in flavor unless produced from the finer and more flavorful grape varieties. Older ports, and those where the better brandy has been used in their production, are naturally smoother and mellower.

The three generic names for the red wines of this group are California Port, California Ruby Port, and California Tawny Port. A few varietals have recently been produced, notably Tinta Madeira and Tinta Cao in Madera County. When blended with other grapes, with either or both of the Tinta varieties predominating, they are known as “Tinta Ports:” Vintage Ports, matured partly in the bottle and derived from grapes harvested in one particular year, are available in Sonoma County and plans are to produce them also in Madera County. When matured in the bottle, port will throw a natural deposit, so these fine wines should be poured carefully or decanted before serving.

California Port and California Ruby Port — There is little difference, if any, between these two wines. Most of those, labeled simply as “Port,” are ruby red and could equally well be marketed under the latter designation.

California Tawny Port — This can be a port wine which has been aged for some years in small oak casks and thereby acquired a russet or tawny shade. Such wines will be fully mature and soft and mellow. It can also be a wine made from grapes such as the Trousseau, which naturally yield a wine of a tawny hue. In the least expensive brands, there is little or no difference between the tawny and other red port types.

California White Port — A different wine entirely, but is discussed with this group because of its name. White Port is a light-straw-colored, medium-bodied, sweet dessert wine with neutral flavor. It is usually not as sweet as Angelica, which it otherwise often resembles. The wine is made both from white grapes, including the Thompson Seedless, and from dark varieties, such as the Grenache and Mission, fermented off the skins. Sometimes a decolorizing process is applied, as the typical coloring of the wine is very light.

Port, whatever its type, can be served at any time during the day or evening. In British countries, it is traditional with the sweet, or dessert, always passing the bottle to the left.

In many countries, including the United States, the less sweet port wines are also popular as aperitifs. It is the typical wine to serve at the end of dinner with cheese, fruit, and nuts, as well as with the dessert.

Port is served at room temperature. It is much used in cooking, especially in ham dishes and in fruit and other desserts. It makes a good base for flips and cobblers, as well as for negusses and sangarees.

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