Sunday, January 9, 2011

Any Port in a Storm

"They're talking about 12 inches of snow this week," exclaimed a buddy of mine last night after he'd tucked into a couple. I thought Canadian hip-hop/reggae sensation Snow was coming to town for a reunion tour. Immediately, the convoluted lyrics of "Informer" ransacked my thoughts..."Informer, you know say dummada slow me I go blam, I licka boom boom down..." Those are the lyrics, right? Whatever they actually are, I always wondered how a song about ratting to the cops ended up in repeatedly licking the boom boom down. I don't know what that means, but it sounds mighty inappropriate. Must be Canadian slang. Oh, Snow, we hardly knew ye...

But, no. No Snow concert for me, and tens of other disappointed fans. My friend seriously thought there could be a foot of snow on the ground in Atlanta. Southern weather sensationalism if I've ever heard it, and I've heard it a lot in my seasoned tenure as a denizen of the Peach State. I can't recall a time I saw that much drop from the Georgia sky, but any chance of frozen precipitation sends cities across the Southeast into a sort of apocalyptic frenzy. Load up and run for shelter...squall's a comin' (though the typical 1/4" accumulation stays off the streets and is melted by 9 AM the next day). Logical thinking notwithstanding, I immediately knew that there would be no milk, eggs, or bread at local grocery-stores-turned-loony-bins. Plenty of spreadable cheese food product, potato crisps, and lima beans left on the shelves; but milk, eggs, and bread are the southern winter weather-equivalent of a carton of Lucky Strikes in the joint.

It's a consistent phenomenon I've never really understood. When inclement weather rears its toboggan-brandished head, I guess there's a primal instinct triggered; one that tells human beings that they better have plenty of French toast on hand. Screw energy-packed and highly-storable superfoods like nuts, dried fruit, and jerky. No, we need an ample stash of French toast, in case other snowed in neighbors who hastily purchased only frozen Eggos are desperate for another carbohydrate-based breakfast option. I imagine an intimate understanding of these winter weather eating habits is the key to the Mrs. Butterworth's fortune.

But, as they say, "any port in a storm," meaning when faced with adversity, what may not seem to be a great option is still better than the alternative. Perhaps folks- knowing that they could be stranded indefinitely in a frozen hell- opt for the warm, economical, and gullet-filling promise of French toast.

Personally, I choose to take the famous idiom much more literally. If I know we're going to be stuck in the house for a day, perhaps with no heat if the ice knocks out power lines, then I'll reach for another warm, economical, and gullet-filling form of sustenance: Port.

When I say "Port", I mean the real stuff. You'll travel around California and see a lot of "Zinfandel Port", "Merlot Port", etc. They're making some tasty stuff, but it's not technically "Port". The real juice is a fortified wine from the Douro region of Portugal...thus, the name. And when I say "fortified", I mean that a neutral grape spirit is added to the fermenting juice, arresting fermentation, which leaves some residual sugar in the final product, yet "fortifying" the drink with a final alcoholic content of generally around 20%. Teetotalers need not apply.

Though potentially made from a slew of different grapes, the most notably cultivated for Port production are Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (known as Tempranillo in the Rioja region of Spain), and Touriga Francesa, among a few others. After fermentation and fortification, the wines are left to age in either wooden barrels or in the bottle. Depending on the aging regime, the happy tippler is left with many different styles. The most common are:

Ruby Port: aged in stainless steel or concrete vats after fermentation, then bottled. These wines see no wooden barrel and are not exposed to oxidation (thus retaining the "ruby" color). They are generally the cheapest and most widely-available type of Port.

Tawny Port: these wines are aged in wooden barrels, in what is called a Solera system. In the simplest terms, a Solera is sort of a wine-aging-and-blending pyramid, where wine is taken from the bottom barrels, which is then refilled from the barrels above it. Tawnies can age in these barrels for a very long time, and the exposure to air imparts the effects of oxidation, including not only the rusty, tawny color, but incredible nutty and caramel flavors. Depending on where the wine is pulled to be bottled out of the Solera, wines can have an average duration in the wood of 10, 20, or even 40 years. Bottles with such average age are labeled with the year, and fetch a heftier price tag than plain ol' Tawny.

Vintage Port: the previous two styles are blends from several years' worth of wine. It's impossible to put a single vintage year on the bottle. However, a few times per decade, the grape quality is deemed worthy enough to make a vintage bottling, and the fermented and fortified juice from one year is barreled for a maximum of two and a half years, then put in the bottle to do most of its aging. These wines, strengthened by not only the tannin and acidity of the grapes, but significantly by the preservative nature of high alcohol content, can be laid down for a damn long time (and usually need to be to hit maturity). While not cheap, when compared to some of the greatest aging wines of Bordeaux, Barolo, and Burgundy, Vintage Port offers incredible value for the complex and sublime experience it offers.

Late-Bottled Vintage: often simply referred to as "LBV", this is essentially leftover wine from a vintage batch. It is left in the barrel to age beyond the 2.5 years max for a vintage Port. The extended time in wood allows oxidation to mature the wine more quickly, so LBVs are generally ready to drink sooner than vintage.

Other, styles include Colheita (single-vintage tawny), White Port, Vintage Character, Single Quinta, etc. I don't normally see these as often as the 4 styles I highlighted, sort of like hearing a Snow song on the radio in just doesn't happen much.

In any case, if you find yourself snowed in this winter, leave the French toast to the foolish masses and snuggle up to a warm, inviting glass of Port. I'm sure your neighbor has milk, eggs, and bread for you to borrow.

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