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Calif. Port Makers Pursue Tradition

A growing number of wineries are using Portuguese varietals instead of native grapes.

June 23, 2003|Eric Risberg | Associated Press

When it comes to fortified wine, which is better, "Port" or "Oporto"?

A growing number of wineries now make Port with Portuguese grape varieties, instead of "California style" Port using native varietals such as Zinfandel, Petite Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

They still can't call it "Oporto" -- more on that later -- but some winemakers see a real future in Portuguese varietals as they pursue the centuries-old tradition of mixing wine with brandy.

A leader in the trend can be found in the Central Valley, off dusty California 99 south of Madera. Ficklin Vineyards has been producing premium Port-style wine exclusively from Portuguese varietals since 1946, longer than anyone in California.

Winemaker Peter Ficklin frowns on labeling any wine made with California varietals as "Port." After all, "what would people think of producers making a Rhone wine with non-Rhone varieties?" he said.

Port wine has its origins in the Oporto region of the Douro River Valley in northeast Portugal. Port is fortified with a high-proof brandy and has an alcohol content of about 20%, compared with about 14% for regular wine.

Its discovery dates to 1678, when an abbot in the Portuguese town of Lamego gave British merchants glasses of a hearty red spiked with brandy.

The tradition had spread around the world by the time Portugal made a strategic error -- registering the name "Oporto," but not its English-language equivalent.

So while the French enjoy "Champagne" and similarly made bottles elsewhere must be labeled "sparkling wine," even California upstarts can call their fortified wines "Port" with impunity.

Any attempt to label California-style Port wines as "Oporto" or otherwise claim they are authentic would be a problem, however, said Chris Barefoot, the marketing manager of Premium Port Wines, the U.S. distributor of Grahams and Dow wine from Portugal.

The distinction isn't lost on discerning wine drinkers, which is why more wineries are turning to Portuguese varietals.

Prager Portworks, off California 29 near St. Helena in the Napa Valley, has been experimenting with these grapes since 1992. Prager plans to release its first Port made with a Portuguese varietal in five more years, after the vines have matured.

"There are many purists in restaurants who want a Port made with traditional grapes. Some shun California Port because they expect a certain flavor," said John Prager, the winery's vice president of sales.

"The grapes are what make the California Port-style wine unique," said Richard Lenney, cellarmaster and vineyard manager at Prager. "It is the last wine to be rediscovered by the U.S. population."

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