Pennsylvania Wine School: What is Port-style wine?

Chambour-huh? Vidal who? Need some help demystifying some of Pennsylvania’s most essential wine words? The PA Wine Land Post is at your service, schooling you on the grapes you need to know.

Style: Port

Produced: Across Pennsylvania

Similar to: Sherry, Madeira

Port-style wines are becoming increasingly popular in Pennsylvania. These sweet, fortified wines can be made from a multitude of grapes, and are often billed as dessert wines thanks to their rich flavor and slow-sipping vibes.

The actual term “Port” only refers to a specific style of wines from Portugal. In 2006, the United States made a deal with the European Union that prevents the use of iconic, geo-specific wine brands such as Champagne, Chianti, and Port on products produced outside those protected regions. So PA winemakers can no longer use “Port” on their wine labels. (There is a loophole: wineries already employing the name were grandfathered in, but must identify the wine’s true origin on the label.)

This means that you might see some creative names on Pennsylvania fortified wines that fit this category — Courtyard Winery calls their “UnEven Keel,” punning on the seafaring associations of “Port,” South Shore Wine Company sells a “Forte of Chambourcin.”  But if you ask for a “Port-style” wine, the tasting room manager, bartender or staff should be able to point you in the right direction.

The process for making these wines involves adding brandy (a spirit produced by distilling wine) to fermenting grape juice. The high alcohol of the brandy halts fermentation — stopping all yeast activity — and ending the process wherein sugar is converted into alcohol. The addition of Brandy also raises the final alcohol level of the wine. The resulting product is sweet and high in alcohol (18 to 20 percent).

One upside of being free from the Port name is that these fortified wines are also free from the Port rules. Winemakers are increasingly experimenting with different varietals such as Chambourcin, Petite Verdot, Cayuga, and Cabernet Franc. Most of the Port-style wine made in Pennsylvania is ruby Port, which means it is bottled after only a few years of barrel-aging and still boasts some fresh fruit character. When you crack open a bottle, expect flavors of raspberry, blackberry, caramel, cinnamon, and chocolate sauce.

White, rosé, and tawny varieties can also be produced — tawny wines are aged in the barrel for much longer, taking on dried fruit, almond, and toffee notes.

Here’s a good reason to invest in a bottle of Port-style wine: The high alcohol content acts as a natural preservative, which means an unopened bottle can be kept for decades with only subtle changes. And an open bottle, stored in a cool, dry place, will keep for two weeks; pop it in the refrigerator, and you can sip on the occasional glass for a month.

Serve these wines in two-to-three ounce pours at just below room temperature. For a fun warm-weather twist, finish off your outdoor barbecue with a glass of Port over ice, topped with a lime-peel garnish.

Port-style wines are really fun to pair, as they can stand up to bold flavors. Try savoring a glass alongside powerful blue cheese or a funky washed-rind wheel. Another classic companion is chocolate, but any rich dessert with bitter notes — salted caramel, sour cherry pie — will bring out the best in these wines. If you want to get wild, serve a small pour of Port-style wine alongside a barbecue platter; it will enhance the sweetness and the smokiness.

You can also try Port as an actual ingredient in molten chocolate cake or hot fudge, or as the base for a mindblowing steak sauce (crumble some blue cheese on top to send things into the stratosphere.)

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