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Hard to port: Navigating the seas of this classic Portuguese treat
Randall Murray
Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at His column publishes monthly.

​Around here it’s not like January in North Dakota, but it’s also not like August in northeast Georgia. I’m sweating thinking back 2-3 months to hellish heat, a disappearing lake and brown lawns. 

​Time to move on from the nicely chilled, light white and rose wines of summer to the bolder, more fully structured wines that make us comfortable when the mercury starts its downward slide.

And speaking of Ficklin Vineyards

I received a note last month from Peter Ficklin, president and winemaker of America’s oldest port winery, that two of his wines have been selected by the U.S. Embassy in London to be served at Embassy dinners. They are Old Vine Tinta and Aged 10 Years Tawny Port. I have sampled the latter and it is just luscious.

This is quite an honor, as Peter acknowledges, especially considering the key role Britain played in developing the port industry.

"We're aware Ficklin Vineyards Ports are well known and it's exciting to see that awareness continue to grow," Peter noted, adding that he will meet with UK distributors with an eye to exporting there. 

​Time to consider sherries and ports.

​These are not wines generally served with a meal. Lighter sherries, and white port, are considered aperitif wines, or wines served with — or as — an appetizer. The heftier editions are looked upon as dessert wines, or as after-dinner digestives. A tot of tawny port after a big meal makes your tummy happy.

​Ports and sherries are fortified wines; wines to which clear brandy is added before fermentation is complete. This does two things: The added alcohol kills the yeasts devouring the sugar in the juice. That means the wine will be sweeter than if those little yeasties had been left alone to consume all — or most of — the sugar. It also raises the alcohol level in the finished wine.

​​True sherries come from Spain. True ports — also called porto or oporto — come from Portugal. Other countries also produce wines of this type, but most simply abuse the names. In California three high-quality producers stand out: Ficklin, Prager and Quady.

Today, however, we’re dealing with products of the Iberian Peninsula.

​Sherries come in three primary gradients based on sugar level. Fino is the driest with a crisp, nutty flavor. I enjoy sipping a lightly chilled fino, although the bride turns up her perky little nose — “too dry.”

​Similar in style, but not as easy to find, is manzanilla, made in one specific region in Spain.

In the medium-sweet range is amontillado, a nice aperitif, with lush flavors and textures. 

​Finally there is oloroso, also known as cream sherry — as in Harvey’s Bristol Cream, perhaps the best known of the breed. It’s rich, sweet, almost syrupy and a lovely ending to an evening of fine dining (think Christmas dinner).

​We visited the Sandeman winery in Jerez, Spain, and I find their sherries to be notable values. I especially like the Don Fino and the Character Amontillado. They’re priced under $25.

I’ve recently encountered a trio of impressive sherries from Gonzalez Byass, one of Spain’s best producers. These three are not as easily found as the Sandeman, but are worth the search. These are, in bar terms, top-shelf stuff.

Tio Pepe Fino en Rama is a limited release product of Gonzalez Byass’ La Constancia Cellars. And it is classic fino; crisp, dry, yeasty and expressive enough to be served with foods such as seafood or lighter cheeses. A 375-ML bottle (half the standard size) is about $28.

Wine Of The Month

Cline Ancient Vines Carignane 2017

The wine: Medium-bodied, dry red table wine.

The grapes: 100% Carignane.

The source: Contra Costa County, California.

The verdict: I’ve been a big fan of Cline family wines for many years. And the ancient vines series has only boosted my respect for these folks. While not wildly popular in this country the carignane grape (known in Spain where it originated as Carinena) is a widely grown grape, generally used in blending. But this dark, ruby edition stands alone quite well, thank you. It is rich and plummy, with bright acidity that makes it a great partner for a meal. The finish is long and satisfying. Very few U.S. wineries produce a carignane, but once you taste it you will wonder why. Why “ancient vines”? Some of the vineyards date back to the early 1900s; the youngest to 1940. Others in the ancient vines series are a zinfandel, mourvedre and rose of mourvedre. All are quite good.

The price: About $25.

Vina AB Amontillado is a puzzle. Flavorful and long in the finish, it’s not what I expect from an amontillado. It comes across in color, aroma and flavor much more as a fino on steroids. I compared it side by side with the Sandeman amontillado and found it wanting — as an amontillado. It boasts a nutty flavor with overtones of toasty vanilla from oak aging. It’s about $25.

Noe Pedro Ximenez is nectar. PX, as the grape is called, is at the heart of top-quality sherries. The grapes are sun-dried, concentrating fruit flavors and sugar. The wine is produced in the solera method in which wines from different years are blended. It is viscous, silky smooth and mouth filling. The press release called it “dessert in a bottle.” A 375-ML bottle is about $50.

In the port family you begin with blended wines given proprietary names by producers. A good example is Warre’s Warrior, produced by the respected Symington family. This is a lovely introductory port, and sensibly priced around $23.

​Climbing the ladder of quality (and cost) you encounter ruby and then tawny, my port of choice. Some tawny ports are aged up to 30 years, most others much less. At the top of the list are late bottle vintage and vintage port. Vintage ports require 12-15 years of bottle aging before they are considered ready to drink.

​Dow’s is one of Portugal’s historic port houses and their tawny — so named because of its red-brown hue — is a wonderful introduction to this tasty style, with a hint of caramel. It’s a deal at about $18.

​To end on a high (excuse the pun) note, here’s the finest port I’ve had in ages: Taylor Fladgate’s 325th Anniversary Tawny. It was created to celebrate the 325th anniversary of this legendary producer and contains a blend of oak-aged tawnies ranging from 10 to 40 years.

​It was like Mozart in a glass.

This column has been updated from its original version.

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