Portuguese Grapes in California
A couple of recent events came together to make me think about Portuguese grape varieties, particularly the red ones used in making Port wine. First, long-time Beverage People customer Patrick Taylor dropped off a proof copy of his new book, "Making It Into Port." This little book (74 pp.) will soon be published and we will be delighted to offer it to our customers along with other winemaking books. Taylor, who has long made Port-style wines at home himself, does an excellent job of covering the real thing, Portuguese Port, and providing guidance on how to make Port-style wine at home. (For simplicity, I am going to violate the EU rules in the rest of this blog and call all such wines “Port.”)
For his Ports, Taylor notes that he grows Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Carignane. Those, along with Syrah and a few others, are commonly used to make Port in California and other “New World” locations. In Portugal, however, it is much different. The grapes allowed in Port over there are restricted by official regulations. The most popular are Touriga Nacional, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Roriz. Touriga Francesca and Souzao, a red-fleshed grape prized for its color contribution, also appear.
The second event came about when my wife, Marty White, and I were guests at the Sacramento Home Winemakers annual harvest banquet on Sunday. Over tastes of delicious homemade wines and Russian hors d’oeuvres, we chatted with the friendly members of SHW. One of those, my friend Sonia Baron, had some exciting winemaking news to share. She and three partners have bought a 13-acre ranch that has about 5 acres planted to grapes. Of those, about two acres are Tinta Cão and two acres are Souzao. Her vineyard is located in the Fair Play AVA (American Viticultural Area) in El Dorado County, California. The high elevation of the Fair Play AVA (averaging over 2,000 feet or 610 meters) combined with the hot, dry summer weather make it an ideal location for duplicating the growth of Port grapes. The most popular plantings in the area are Zinfandel, although there are also vineyards with Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Malbec, and other traditional reds (in addition to the Port varieties Souzao, Tinta Cão, and Touriga Nacional).
In all of California, the plantings of Port varieties is sparse. The 2014 California Grape Acreage Report from the California Department of Food and Agriculture lists total red wine grape acreage in the state at 310,000 acres. Of that, there are 90 acres of Souzao, 74 acres of Touriga Francesca, and 258 acres of Touriga Nacional. Tinta Roriz presents something of a quandary for reporting purposes. That is because it has the synonym name Tempranillo in Europe and in the U.S. As Tempranillo, it is the heart of the famous Spanish reds of Rioja and is widely planted elsewhere in warm climate zones. It is reported as Tempranillo in the Grape Acreage Report and occupies a relatively larger 973 acres. How much of that is grown by the vineyard owner for use in the Portuguese tradition as Tinta Roriz is not recorded. All the other Port varieties, if grown commercially at all in California, will be found lumped together in the 5,712 acres of “Other Red Wine” varieties. Disregarding those, but counting all of the Tempranillo as Portuguese, gives the Port varieties less than ½ of one percent of California’s red wine grape acreage! By contrast, the most widely planted red, Cabernet Sauvignon, occupies 87,972 acres or 28% of that acreage.
Even with those small plantings, it is possible to find commercial wines from the Port varieties. In California, as in Portugal, they are most often used in a fortified, sweet dessert wine. As Taylor describes in his book, Port makers crush the grapes and begin fermentation as for a traditional red wine. When the desired level of residual sugar is reached, high-proof grape distillate is added to stop the fermentation and raise the alcohol level to about 19%. While it is sometimes called brandy, and is indeed spirit from grapes, the fortifying spirit is not oak-aged like traditional brandy and does not add other flavors beyond ethanol. Since that spirit can be difficult for home winemakers to acquire, Port is often made at home with the addition of high-proof grain spirits such as Everclear. It may take a few years of bottle age to mellow out, but eventually that provides a satisfactory product. The one time I have made Port I used Syrah grapes from Bennett Valley in Sonoma County and fortified with grain spirits. Bottled in dark green 375 mL bottles, that wine is nearly 10 years old and is drinking very nicely indeed. It is also possible to make a Port at home by allowing the fermentation to finish, then adding both spirits and sugar to achieve the desired levels of alcohol and sweetness. The high alcohol level is essential in a wine bottled with sugar in it to prevent spontaneous refermentation.
Back at the SHW banquet, we talked with Sonia about her plans for the newly acquired grapes. They were already contracted out prior to the 2015 harvest, so she has until next year to decide how (and if) she will use them herself. That brought us to discussion of an emerging trend here and in Portugal: The crafting of fine dry table wine from these traditional dessert wine varieties. Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) provides an easy and readily available example. A great deal of that variety is already used in dry table wine around the world. As for the others, there is still considerable experimentation ahead. Sonia has begun looking into that trend to help make her plans.
Sonia told me about a commercial vineyard in addition to hers with Port varieties in El Dorado County: Shaker Ridge Vineyards. They grow Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo (Tinta Roriz), Tinta Cão, Souzao, and Tinta Amarela. Shaker Ridge is not a winery, but among wineries they have sold grapes to, Bumgarner Vineyards in Camino, California, produces a dry Touriga Nacional table wine. Sonia also told me about St. Amant winery of Lodi, California, that has vineyards with Port varieties in Amador County (adjacent to El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills). St. Amant produces Port from the traditional varieties; their 2013 Bootleg Port is described as containing six of the traditional Portuguese red grape varieties.
St. Amant is also making dry table wines from some of the same kinds of grapes. They describe their 2013 Souzao as dark and inky — not surprising from a grape that has red flesh in addition to the traditional red skin! They also make Touriga and Tempranillo dry table wines. Sonia reports that St. Amant wines even receive supermarket distribution in the Sacramento and Sierra Foothills regions. Next time I get out that way (Fair Play is about 140 miles from where I live in Petaluma), I will be looking for some of these wines to give them a try. Then I may try to talk Sonia Baron and her new vineyard partners into selling me a few hundred pounds of Tinta Cão or Souzao. That way, maybe I can jump on the emerging trend of making dry red table wine from Portuguese grape varieties in California!