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Journey to Harvest … and Beyond

Journey to Harvest … and Beyond
Photo by Melania MahoneyA bottle of GlenLyon estate port.


By Squire Fridell

Now that harvest 2021 is over and each of our wines is in various stages of maturation, I thought it would be interesting to chat about another one of the wines that GlenLyon produces and the way that we make that particular wine. If you remember, we started talking about rosé a few months ago, so let’s go to the other end of the tasting spectrum, and talk about port, and the making of GlenLyon’s port.

What is port?

The broad definition of “port” is simply “fortified wine.” Authentic port, however, is a fortified wine produced only in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal. It is typically a sweet, red wine, often served as a dessert wine, but it can be made semi-dry, completely dry or even as a white wine.

What does “fortified wine” mean?

Fortified wine is wine that has had spirits (traditionally brandy) added to it. When the spirits are added during fermentation, the added alcohol kills off the sugar-consuming yeast and locks in the wine’s natural sugars (glucose and fructose). If the alcohol addition is made after fermentation is completed and the wine’s sugars are gone, then the port is called a “dry” port.

Is all fortified wine port?

Technically yes, but here in the USA, there are fewer and fewer domestic bottles that have the word “port” on the label, and there is a reason. Prior to 2016, some wineries in the U.S. used the name “port” (also “Burgundy,” “Champagne,” and “Chianti”) on the labels of their wines. Those (usually 1.5L) “jug” wines, however, had nothing to do with those famous regions in the world and had little or none of the classic (and expensive) grape varieties in the makeup of those wines. Naturally, the great wine producing regions in the world bristled that their world-class wines could be thus counterfeited and labeled. So, a deal was struck in 2006 with the European Union “forbidding those names to be used in any wine that was not from that region.” There was a “loophole,” however. They could use those names “generically” only if the names had been in use (“grandfathered in”) prior to 2006.

So, GlenLyon uses the name “port”?

Yep. Since GlenLyon began making and labeling our fortified wine as “port” in 2002, we were also home free, as long as we identify the wine’s true origin (Sonoma Valley) on our label.

Portugal’s land has been continuously fought over since prehistoric times and has had a very convoluted history. As a country, it is strategically in an advantageous spot, with its entire western profile bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Spain to its east and north.

Even though wine has been made in that area for the past 4,000 years, Portugal is really famous for its port. Why? Here’s the short version: For centuries, the people of Britain were enthusiastic consumers of wine, and their main supply came from neighboring France. But between 1678 and 1685, Britain placed an embargo on all trade with France, their principal rival and enemy, and that embargo included French wine. So, the merchants of England looked elsewhere.

During the first year of the embargo, two young Englishmen were sent to Portugal (a friendly wine-producing country) to find wines that might be suitable for the British market. During that trip, they were royally entertained by an abbot at a monastery near the Douro River, and the abbot served them a wine with a taste that was unique to them. The abbot called this wine “Pinhão”; it was different than anything they had tasted and they loved it! The abbot then confided to them that he had added several liters of local brandy to the cask during fermentation. Our young gentlemen promptly purchased several casks and shipped the casks across the ocean to England.

The English simply fell in love with this “new wine.” They also discovered a bonus, the added brandy helped preserve those casks of wine on the long voyage from Portugal to England. The Brits then became financially involved in production, and, as a result, many ports to this day carry British-sounding names such as Taylor, Cockburn, Croft and Graham. In 1933, the Portuguese government began to develop a system to differentiate the different styles of port and to authenticate the quality of those ports, using very stringent guidelines. Only the very best vintages, for instance, could be labeled as “vintage port.”

So, there are different ports from Portugal?

Yes. The top of the line is the aforementioned vintage port, only declared on the label when there was an exceptional year of grape growing. On average, that happens only three times per decade. There is also non-vintage port (from the “other” years), ruby port, and tawny port (plus other styles of port, but there’s not enough room to talk about each one). Without much explanation, both ruby port and tawny port (fortified with brandy) are sweet, but ruby port is ruby red in color, sporting a fruity, berry flavor, while light brown tawny port tends more toward a nutty, caramel flavor. Almost something for everyone!

What grape varieties go into Portuguese port?

Great question, and you’ve probably never even heard of any of these varieties: Bastardo, Donzelinho Tinto, Mourisco, Touriga Francesca, Cornfesto, Malvesia Preta and Samarrinho, just to name a few. There are more than forty different grape varieties that can be used, very few of which are even grown in other countries.

How does GlenLyon make its port?

I’ve always enjoyed a late-night glass of authentic (and expensive!) vintage port. Unfortunately, Suzy,

A map of Portugal drawn by Squire Fridell.

my wife, does not share that same enthusiasm. In 2002, when I told her I wanted to try and make a port, she stated emphatically that she did “ not like port!” When I asked “Why,” her answer was simply “I don’t like Brandy. It’s too bitter.” So, I went to Chris Loxton, a fellow vintner, mentor, and friend, who had offered to teach me how to make port and told him of my dilemma. His response? “If she doesn’t like brandy, don’t use brandy. Use pure grape spirits instead.”

What are “grape spirits”?

That’s the same question I asked Chris! “grape spirits” is the alcohol that is distilled, again and again, from wine, ending up at about 196+ proof (98+% alcohol) and is as close to being “pure” ethyl alcohol as you can get. Since GlenLyon is a bonded winery, it would be illegal to operate a “still” to distill our own spirits (often called “moonshine”), so we buy this wondrous and very expensive nectar from a producer in the Central Valley. Since 2002, “grape spirits” is what we have used as our fortification agent. When Suzy tasted our newly bottled 2002 GlenLyon Port in 2003, she took her first skeptical sip and her face lit up with a big smile! She promptly declared it “chick port”! That sort of says it all! We only make our port once every three years as it is both difficult and time-consuming to calculate the timing of fermentation with the alcohol addition. This year was the year for us to again make our port.

Why is port more difficult than making your other wines?

Back in 2002, when Chris Loxton was teaching me about how to make port, he said “Making port is a lot like childbirth…and most babies aren’t born at noon. You’ll have to be up all night because of the critical timing of the alcohol add.” And that has been the truth since 2002. The timing of the addition of the grape spirits is critical and it always seems to happen about 3 a.m. 2021 was no different. Suzy and I, as usual, took our sleeping bags down to the winery with an alarm clock, old photo albums, a bottle of fine Sonoma Valley wine, popcorn and some 60’s rock ‘n roll. I then tested the brix (sugars) until that magic moment to add the gallons of grape spirits. Suzy then stirred the swirling wine and you could almost see the billion yeast cells running away, trying to escape the alcohol and their demise. Maybe because it’s 3 a.m, right in the middle of harvest and we are tired, it’s a mystical moment … it always reminds me of Macbeth’s witches stirring their cauldron!

What does GlenLyon port taste like?

Most port has a sweet, but bitter, quality to it due to the traditional brandy addition. Since we use “grape spirits” in our GlenLyon port instead of brandy, there are wonderful fruit notes and a predominance of fresh berry flavors. Our port is best paired with milk chocolate (sweet) rather than dark chocolate (bitter). It truly is a delightful and refreshing dessert! In fact, Suzy says this about our GlenLyon port: “If you have a bottle of our GlenLyon port in one hand, a red rose between your teeth, and a Hershey Bar clutched in your other hand…even with a Barry Manilow CD tucked under your arm … if you can’t get lucky, check your personal hygiene.” Trust me! Try it! You’ll love it!

Squire Fridell is the Winemaker, Vineyard Manager, CEO, CFO, COO, EIEIO, WINO & Janitor GlenLyon Vineyards & Winery Two Amigos Wines