I’d like to welcome you all to the new, expanded version of the Wine Monk. With this expanded article series, I can bring you more information about the history of a particular style of wine, or the genetics and origins of an individual grape varietal, or the specifics of a winemaker and their pedigree and connections to the industry in a wider field; or all of the above. As you’ve noticed, the wine industry in Arizona is bigger than just the Verde Valley; we do not exist in isolation. I hope to also make clear the connections between the wineries and winemakers here with those down south—and beyond. I hope to interview great figures in the history of the local industry also; to know your past is to have a map to the future. Friends, my gut instincts tell me that this is the start of the golden age of wine-making in Arizona. Let me take you along for the ride; I’ll bring the drinks.
Portugal versus Arizona. Who will win?
On my 21st birthday, long ago, I bought two bottles of wine. The more interesting of the two bottles was a 1983 vintage port from Dow, one of the oldest sellers of port wines in the world. I wanted to drink something older than I was, to put myself into a wider perspective. I sipped on the wine while watching the monsoon storms build over the Black Hills and smoking a cigar – a good ending to the day. Perhaps the most famous style of fortified wine to be found in the world, port is unique in the wine world, a relic dating back to the age of wooden ships and iron men. Port and port-like wines have a long history in the English-speaking wine world, thanks to a quirky treaty loophole that allowed for these wines to be shipped to England and overseas to her American colonies much more cheaply than French vintages. Due to their fortification with brandy, they could be shipped long distances with ease, but this was not why they proved so popular—simply put, fortified sweet wines fit the British palate of the 16th-19th centuries.
Somehow, along the way, the cultural association of port shifted from British aristocrats smoking cigars while pontificating over maps to decide arbitrary political boundaries, and became tied with winter and Yuletide festivities. With this association in mind, I decided to take a look at the Bastardo Port from the Jerome Winery/Cellar 433 complex. A couple friends and I drank it over cigars alongside one of its Portuguese brethren: the Six Grapes from W & J. Graham’s Port House, which was also largely made from the same grape. Made by John McLaughlin, the Bastardo Port is a very conscious effort to connect to the long history of traditional port wines and their modern Portuguese versions, since he uses a grape known as Bastardo to make it—a grape very common in Portugal today. Bastardo, known as Trousseau Noir in France, is related to the far more common Chenin Blanc, which is a staple of many Arizona white wines. Somehow, along the way, the grape journeyed to the Iberian Peninsula, and now a total of 3,010 acres are planted there, largely for the production of port wines. As part of Dragoon Mountain Vineyards in the Willcox AVA, John McLaughlin planted this varietal, along with several other classic Portuguese varietals for use in the production of still wines (one fine example being The Chariot) and ports such as this Bastardo Port.
Port wines are relatively rare in Arizona. They are even rarer in the Verde Valley, where only Clear Creek Vineyards and Cellar 433 offer them on a regular basis. Part of the reason has to do with the fact that making port is often more expensive than making regular wines due to the necessities of the fortification process. Until recently, in order to make a truly Arizona port-style wine, a winemaker would often have had to sell wine through a bond agreement to a distiller. The distiller would then distill the wine into neutral grape spirits or brandy, and then sell it back to the original winery. The law has recently changed, allowing such wineries as Flying Leap Vineyards in Sonoita to build distilleries to make spirits on site from Arizona grapes. (I tasted their first barrel samples while visiting the South recently; Rolf Sasse and Rose Suntken are making truly magical stuff down there.)
Playing with the still at Flying Leap during a brandy run. This is one of the most amazing pieces of technology I’ve ever seen.
The other option prior to the law change was to import already made neutral grape spirits from California, which were often made of poorer quality grapes (often French Columbard). Wherever the origin, these neutral spirits are essential to the process of making port, as they are added to the fermenting grape must to slow yeast activity. As more spirits are added, the fermentation process eventually stops, thereby preserving residual sugars, and boosting the alcohol content. In the case of the Bastardo Port, the result comes to rest at 18.5% alcohol. The high alcohol content resulting from the fortification process allows for long-term aging. Most ports in Portugal are non-vintage. As wine evaporates, wine from the next vintage is poured in as a top-off, re-ferments, and then continues the stasis. I am told this is how John makes his ports also.
In the glass, our Bastardo port broods a dark maroon red, and you can sense the thickness of the wine by how heavily it lays, like a deceptively calm sea before a storm. As you’d expect from spirits with a high percentage of alcohol, the nose is decidedly hot. After a brief decant, however, aromas of anise, black cherry, earth, and myrrh emerge from the glass. On the palate, black cherry, black pepper, and plum notes intermingle with myrrh and rosemary. There are no tannins present in this wine, and the finish lasts for 40 seconds, filled with notes of cherry, myrrh, and the omnipresent dust I taste on most red wines coming from Willcox. Pair this port with cigars, steak, or a decadent chocolate or red velvet cake.
Bastardo port in the Desert
What of our Bastardo when compared to its Portuguese cousin? I must sadly inform you that it did not compare well to our Portuguese example, which was unanimously declared by all present to be superior. Palates change over time from the years of our youth, and I must admit I’m not as fond of ports as I was when I was young. The other fact of the matter is that Arizona winemakers are only now beginning to learn skills which have been a staple in the Douro for almost 600 years now; skills which, had Prohibition not tragically struck Arizona as hard as it did, we would likely have in spades. But we’ll get there. The hot, dry climate here in Arizona with those chilling desert nights is great for these varietals, and in time, our local winemakers will be able to release port-style wines that stand up against the giants of Portugal. As it is, in the 10 years since I’ve been drinking Arizona wine, I’ve been absolutely amazed at the exponential quality increase of our vintages, which are now turning heads on a world stage. Port-style wines like the Bastardo will only get better over time. In the meantime, though, grab a bottle of The Chariot from Cellar 433 for your Winter Holiday feast instead.
(The Podcast with all of us drinking ports and smoking cigars will be uploaded in the next few days. Stay tuned!)