Randall Murray: Ports, sherries complement that chill in the air
WINE OF THE MONTH
CLINE FAMILY CELLARS LODI OLD VINE ZINFANDEL 2015
The wine: Dry but fruity red table wine
The grapes: 100 percent Zinfandel
The source: Lodi region of California
The verdict: Zinfandel probably is my favorite red wine. And the Cline family has been making very good zin for 35 years. This release, made from grapes grown in an area known as the heart of the Lodi growing region, shows the essence of wine made from very old vines. Some of these vines date back to 1924 — and that’s almost as old as I am. When vines get old they produce less fruit. But what is produced is deep and rich and full of intense flavors. This wine reflects that. It offers the traditional dark fruit and spiciness of good zin, but tosses in a deep richness that fascinates the taste buds. What makes it even more palatable is that it’s relatively easy to find — and easy on the wallet.

The price: About $15.

As the chilly winds of winter sweep ever closer, and we begin waxing the sled rails and fattening up the huskies for the snowy trail, let’s start thinking of just the right wines for a Georgia winter.

Forgive the hyperbole, please. I was channeling North Dakota.

But wines of the summertime seem vaguely out of place as the weather begins to chill, and the sweaters start emerging.

And some of the best — wines, not sweaters — are the rich, semi-sweet to very sweet wines we know as ports and sherries. After a big hearty meal on a chilly night, there’s nothing more enchanting than a glass of port — also called porto or oporto — or sherry, no matter the style you prefer.

Here’s a brief history of these wines, which are called “fortified wines.”

They get that name from their unique wine-making process. Ports and sherries are not allowed to complete the process of fermentation. Instead, clear brandy is added to the still-fermenting wine.

That does three things: It stops fermentation by killing the yeasts; it gives a big boost to the alcohol content; and, because of the demise of the yeast, a large amount of sugar remains and the wines are sweet.

Ports come from the ancient region along the Douro River in northern Portugal, where these one-of-a-kind wines have been made for centuries. Primary grapes are touriga nacional, touriga francesca, tinto roriz, tinto barroca and tinto cao, all red grapes. There is a white port, made from white grapes. It’s medium sweet and not white at all. It’s a light brown shade and is a great aperitif wine, served lightly chilled.

The most popular styles of portos are ruby, tawny, late bottled vintage and vintage. The range is from bright red and best drunk fresh and young, ruby, through the ultimate, vintage port. Vintage port takes 10-12 years from the vintage date to mature to the point it’s ready to drink. It’s big, full-bodied and will last in the bottle for decades. Quirkily, it’s the most delicate and short-lived once opened.

My favorite port is a 10- or 20-year-old tawny, which shows off a dark brown-reddish hue and a wonderful depth of flavor and viscosity. The age rating does not mean all the wine in the bottle is 10, 20 or 30 years old, but much of it is.

One unique aspect of port production is the use of shallow, open vats called lagars, in which the grapes are crushed. This method is rarely seen anywhere else in the world.

Also, all grapes used to make port are hand-picked. The steep, terraced vineyards are too narrow for tractors.

One of my favorite port producers is Taylor Fladgate, which has been around for 325 years. This house just issued an anniversary bottling of tawny port comprising specially selected wines ranging in age from 10 to 40 years. Held in an antique-style bottle, this is truly a special occasion wine; it’s rich, lush and full of flavors and aromas.

True sherries originate in the Jerez region of Spain. The British are responsible in large part for the popularity of sherries. But they had a tough time pronouncing the name of their origin, which in Spanish is “Her-eth.” The Brits stumbled over that and it wound up becoming “sherry.” Oh, well, the customer is never wrong.

Sherries range in sweetness from fino, the driest; amontillado, medium-sweet; oloroso or cream, which is ultra-sweet and quite viscous; and pedro ximenez, also sweet and viscous. There is a fifth category, manzanilla, which is a twin to fino, but produced outside of Jerez.

Fino is a great aperitif wine, best served with nuts and cheeses — and a light chill (no ice, please!) brings out subtle flavors. I enjoy sipping a glass of amontillado, which is similar in style to white port. The others clearly are post-prandial delights.

When in Spain a few years back, the bride and I visited the Sandeman sherry-making facility. Sandeman, with its classic label featuring the black-clad “The Don,” is one of the largest producers, and I have liked their sherries for years. I almost always have a fino and amontillado tucked away in the bar. If your port and sherry supplies are low, grab a parka, some mukluks, hitch up the dog sled and mush for the nearest wine shop. Oh, right, this ain’t North Dakota.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at murrwine@aol.com. His column publishes monthly.

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