What's in a Name? 

Port fights for its rights

I've called tissues "Kleenex" for as long as I can remember. I'm sure this pleases the Kimberly-Clark people, since I spread their brand name like a sneeze spreads the flu. But some brands aren't as happy about being genericized: port, for instance. When's the last time you used the phrase "fortified wine" when you meant "port?" Probably never, right?

But "port" is a trademarked word. Portugal has a 250-year history of fortified-wine production, and it's fed up with people riding its hard-earned rep. (The wine is fortified, by the way, with brandy, which halts the fermentation. This causes a sweeter wine, higher in alcohol.) Portuguese producers expend loads of effort and money to uphold quality levels year after year and wineries slapping "port" on bottles of often inferior wine works against them. The Port Institute, the governing committee for port production, holds court over quality control. It begins in the vineyards, authorizing 83 grape varieties (but only about five are used), and cataloging the steep, rugged vineyards that border the Douro River based on their climate and soil attributes. Every port that gets released must be sent to the Port Institute for approval, where it's judged for color, taste, aroma and chemical composition. The Port Institute even limits production to maintain availability, consistency and keep prices healthy from year to year. Once a bottle passes muster, it merits a unique Port Institute seal that can be traced from winery to store shelf.

Enveloped in tradition, port production hasn't changed much for years. When many people think about grape harvest, they picture purple-stained feet stomping vats of thick-skinned fruit, an aging institution that continues today in Portugal's Douro Valley. But some wealthier port houses have developed monstrous stainless steel machines that mimic feet and are as effective in extracting color, tannins and aromas.

Considering the rising cost of labor in Portugal (it takes 22 people to tread a traditional tank for two hours), machines could eventually be the answer to some pricing pangs that we feel. But, according to Rupert Symington, a fourth-generation port house owner, the lowest cost the industry can currently produce is $12 per bottle. And that's their cost, not the cost to you.

Compare that with the value-priced Benjamin Port from Australia that I guiltily sip. It's $9 a bottle, compared with $25 for real port. But these guys avoid the rigorous quality control methods that Portugal employs. Their prices are no doubt better, but Australia (and South Africa and California) is definitely using the name to unfairly market its fortified wines.

Should you choose to support the cause, the best values in Portuguese port are tawnies and rubies. Ruby port tastes fruity, light and young, and is the most unrefined. Tawnies are mellow, rich and caramel-tinged. Both tawny and ruby are blends produced from several years, so they're not tagged with a vintage, but some tawnies carry a 10, 20, 30 or even 40-year designation, indicating the average amount of time the wine spent aging in the barrel. Ten- and 20-year are wonderful, so don't feel pressured to shell out the extra bucks for older ones. For the best experience, serve ruby and tawny ports with a slight chill on them, and store airtight for up to six months in a cool, dry area. Just buy the real thing and karma will reward.

Recommended Wines

Fonseca Bin 27 (Portugal) SW = 5. $18. An almost feminine, young special ruby with lively blackberry and dark roasted cherries. Balanced alcohol and dangerously easy to drink. 4 stars

Sandeman 20-Year Tawny (Portugal) SW = 8. $40. Honey with dried orange and roasted almonds. A bit of astringent alcohol, but quite nice. 4 stars

Cockburn 1998 Late Bottled Vintage Port (Portugal) SW = 6. $20. Aroma of almonds steeped in rose water, with the sip giving dark roasted or grilled berries. Finish of intense caramel and raisins. 3.5 stars

Graham 10-Year Tawny Port (Portugal) SW = 7. $30. Like ripe black cherries soaked in brown sugar, butter and maple syrup. After some time in the glass, it offers a pecan praline flavor that lasts for minutes. 3.5 stars

Sweetness (SW) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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