Making Port at Home


A lot of people don’t really care for sweet wines, but Port
can be a wonderful and complex beverage.

Though it may not be widely consumed in this country, there
are plenty of people all over the world who drink it regularly on its own, with
a favorite dessert, or as dessert itself. Though there are many types of Port,
it’s typically made from red grapes and is fortified (has alcohol added to it)
about halfway through the fermentation. The resulting product is sweet,
alcoholic, resistant to spoilage, and often described as thick, rich, and even
chewy in texture. Cassis, dried cherry, tobacco, and tea are all classic Port
aroma and flavor descriptors. The finish is long, the aftertaste is persistent,
and it should be consumed in small amounts because it usually weighs in at
about 18 to 20 percent alcohol.

Port’s Origins

During the Renaissance land often changed hands. In the
early 17th century, even though it was legally controlled by Spain, Portugal
came under the influence of England. The Portuguese willingly let England use
their ports as a staging ground for the long journey between England and Brazil
in exchange for goods. When Portugal won its independence from Spain, Britain
and Portugal continued this mutually beneficial relationship.

When France and England went to war, England could no longer
get French wine. The British wine merchants turned to Portugal. The first wines
to come out of Portugal were thin, acidic, and barely palatable. Some of the
wines that came out of the port city of Oporto at the mouth of the Douro River
even had to have brandy added to them so they could survive the sea voyage to
England. This treatment didn’t improve the white wines of Portugal. It seemed
that only the sweeter, tannic red wines of the Douro area benefited from having
alcohol added to them. Not only did they travel better, but they had the
propensity to be ageable (something the earlier Portuguese wines lacked) and
were quite quaffable.

Even after the trading relations between England and France
relaxed, Oporto, or Port, remained a popular beverage in the British
Commonwealth. Other drinks came and went and caused Port to lose popularity,
but it still remained fashionable enough to keep many of the old Port companies
solvent. To this day you can find some of the oldest names in the business
still prominently displayed on the labels of ruby and tawny Port.

Making Port at Home

Making Port at home may be simpler than making most red
table wines. The stability and antimicrobial protection provided by the added
alcohol make spoilage less of a concern. When making Port-style wines, many
winemakers don’t even follow a recipe; they wing it by taste and experience
alone. If you don’t feel confident enough to do so, refer to the recipe that
follows for some step-by-step instructions. If you are one of these adventurous
individuals, the instructions are easy:

Start with a red must (Zinfandel works really well) that’s
at least 24° Brix. Adjust the acid up a bit higher than you normally would by
adding tartaric acid or your favorite commercial acid blend; shoot for a pH of
about 3.2 or so. Macerate the heck out of it by doing at least four punch downs
a day until it reaches 12° Brix and by warm-fermenting it (no chillers, please)
down to about 12° Brix or 6 to 7 percent alcohol.

At this point dump in your fortifier. Brandy works best,
though some people use other liquors such as rum or vodka. Depending upon the
proof of your fortifier (proof equals percent alcohol times two) and the volume
of your initial must, shoot for a final alcohol concentration of 18 to 20
percent. You can bump it higher if you’d like, but if you’re going to have a
higher alcohol concentration, you need to have enough acid and sugar in the
must to be able to carry it.

Once the fermentation has been arrested, press the juice,
put it into casks (or store in carboys with a few handfuls of oak chips), and
bottle when you get around to it. Port is hard to over-oak because it has so
many concentrated aromas and flavors that they — along with the ethanol —
steamroll the oak.

There are two major processing concerns when making Port.
The first is that you must add sulfur dioxide to Port-style high-alcohol wines.
Even though ethanol is a great antimicrobial agent, there are some Lactobacilli
bacteria that thrive in a high-alcohol, high-sugar environment and can spoil
the appearance of your wine by producing colonies in the bottle that look like
wads of hair. Yuck! Luckily, these little guys (Lactobacilli fructivorans is
the main culprit) are really sensitive to sulfur dioxide and so will not be a
problem if you use 40 ppm sulfur dioxide just as you would in table wine production.

Choose a Style

There are two main types of Port in the United States: ruby
and tawny. Ruby Port has a bright, deep red color, wonderful red fruit aromas,
and is the “hurry-up” Port. It needs minimal aging before it’s ready to drink,
typically up to two years in a cask or in a bottle. Tawny Port, on the other
hand, requires at least three years of barrel aging (coupled with a
less-aggressive maceration program of once a day) for its characteristic
browned color and oxidized, muted aromas and flavors. The more time a tawny
Port stays in the barrel, the longer it’ll have to drop it’s tannins and
anthocyanins out of solution and develop its typical soy, acetaldehyde, and
caramel aroma profile.

Serving Tips

Port is best served in small, clear wine glasses that have
enough nose room to allow you to stick your nose in and get a good whiff of the
wonderful collection of aromas sure to be wafting around. Many people use Ports
as dessert wines and pair tawny and ruby Ports with sweet foods that will complement
their unique styles. Port is sometimes served during an appetizer course. Tawny
goes especially well with nutty, pungent cheeses.

Ruby Ports should be served slightly warmer than room
temperature, and tawnies can be slightly chilled if desired. There’s no need to
throw out a bottle of Port that’s been sitting open for a few days, either.
Port’s high alcohol content keeps it from changing too much or getting spoiled
once it’s opened. That’s one of the great things about Port. It’s easy to keep
around, that is, if you just remember to go down to the cellar and grab a fresh
bottle every couple of days or so.

Alison Crowe is a graduate of the University of California,
Davis, winemaking program and works in the university’s Department of
Viticulture and Enology.

Port-Style Blackberry Wine

(5 gallons, concentrate and fresh fruit)


• 20 lbs. blackberries

• 8 oz. dried elderberries

• 8 oz. banana powder

• 13 lbs. sugar

• 2 tsp. yeast nutrient

• 2 tsp. pectic enzyme

• 8 crushed Campden tablets

• 1 packet wine yeast with high alcohol tolerance

• 1 tsp. gelatin finings

• 4 oz. glycerine

• 1 oz. Sinatin 17

• 12 oz. brandy

• 1/4 tsp. sulphite crystals

• 10 oz. wine conditioner

Step by Step:

Crush blackberries and place in primary fermenter. Add elderberries,
banana powder, sugar, and 1.5 gal. hot water. Stir until sugars dissolve. Add
yeast, pectic enzyme, Campden tablets, and 2 gal. cold water. Mix well. Make
sure must is 75° F. Add yeast to a cup of warm water and let stand for 10 min.
Stir into must. Seal fermenter with plastic sheet. Keep at 75° F. After 24
hours, check to see that fermentation has started. Surface should foam and
bubble. Stir twice a day. Check specific gravity every other day.

When gravity reaches 1.020 scoop fruit into straining bag
and squeeze juice gently into fermenter. Discard pulp. Rack into carboy. Top up
to 5 gal. with cold tap water. Attach fermentation lock. Move to cooler
location, ideally 65° F.

After 10 days or at SG 1.000, whichever comes first, rack
into clean carboy. Top up to 5 gal. with cold tap water. After three weeks rack
into clean carboy. Add finings. Top up with cold tap water. Let rest 10 days.
Rack into clean carboy. Add Sinatin 17, glycerine, sulphite crystals, and
brandy. Bulk age three months. Rack. Add wine conditioner.

Recipe from Winemaking Recipes, Equipment, and Techniques
for Making Wine at Home by Stanley F. Anderson and Dorothy Anderson (Harcourt
Brace & Co.).

Issue: December 1998