If it’s possible to have a “green thumb,” as some grape growers fortunately do, can one also possess a “golden toe” — a knack for stumbling onto serendipitous discoveries? I’ve begun to think so. In fact, I’m keeping notes for what could be titled “The Little Book of Serendipitous Slip-Ups,” “Glorious Gaffes” or “Fabulous Faux Pas.”
In my travels in the international wine world, I’ve sometimes stumbled onto some remarkable discoveries. One of my more memorable golden-toe adventures came to mind the other day as I contemplated a glass of good tawny port, my favorite fortified wine.
During a visit to Lisbon in 1989 I hopped into a cab one day and confidently told the driver to take me to a particular wine institute. Just as confidently he took me to a barely noticeable place, quite unlike the historic stone edifice I’d expected. Where were the imposing columns, the mosaic glass windows, the Moorish flourish? Nowhere to be seen.
Welcoming me instead were simply two well-polished wide wood doors. I entered a low-lit lounge of what looked like a private club for academics, chess players or a similarly introspective species. Awaiting me were several sumptuous overstuffed chairs sheathed in soft brown leather and a bar that curved through most of one half of the room. Against the wall of the bar stood a mind-boggling array of old port wines, identified in the wine list as a premier selection bottled up to several decades earlier, and all attractively priced.
As I read the wine list I could almost feel my retinas dilating. To a tawny port devotee residing in Tokyo, it was the impossible dream, and I gleefully transformed it into a discreetly indulgent reality. The golden toe had struck again.
Later I had the pleasure of actually visiting the Port Wine Institute in Oporto, at the mouth of the Douro River in northern Portugal, and may soon go again.
For now, let’s briefly consider the world’s three major fortified wines: port and Madeira, both products of Portugal, and Spain’s justifiably famous sherry, perhaps the world’s most versatile wine.
Port wine, produced on steeply terraced vineyards along the Upper Douro, was developed in the 18th century specifically for the British market. Before that, undistinguished Douro red wines had been shipped to England from Portugal, where costs were more attractive than in France, and port wine evolved from the practice of adding brandy to the red wines to fortify them for the long voyage north.
In the past, all port grapes were crushed by foot and even after the 1950s this method was used for crushing selected lots, but mechanization has taken over. Fermentation converts the sugar in the juice into alcohol and at some point brandy is mixed in to arrest fermentation, leaving wine with 9 or 10 percent unfermented grape sugar and 20 percent or so alcohol.
This basic method is used for tawny, ruby and white port alike, and tawny and ruby are aged for several years in casks before being bottled. The deep amber tawny takes several years to develop and finer ones take even longer, hence their higher price. Ruby port is darker and fruitier than tawny, a lighter type which is usually softer and more delicate and, in my opinion, more complex.
Port and food? For tawny port the classic mate is Stilton cheese (a cigar completes this legendary aristocratic matchup), and tawny and Stilton do indeed marry well. But try other blue-family cheeses as well, and — this is nice — tawny and sharp cheddar or another sharp Cheddar-type cheese.
You might be able to try these combinations at what could be considered a major wine event — Foodex Japan 2000, now taking place at Makuhari Messe. Officially one must be a tradesperson to gain admittance to this massive annual trade show, but I sometimes wonder about all the young “restaurateurs” and “wine experts” I see running around with shopping bags trying to cadge free bottles of wine.
A few years ago at a big wine event in Ikebukuro I saw someone tuck a bottle of very old vintage tawny port into a briefcase and furtively sidle off with it. Fascinated by this blatant bit of larceny, I managed to swap business cards with the light-fingered tawny-taker, whose title was “professor” (at one of Tokyo’s top universities). Academic license? Port lovers, I guess, may go to extremes to get it.
At big wine shows you find all kinds. If you’re a wine-trade professional, as some of my readers are, try to catch Foodex today or tomorrow. If not, see if somehow you can buy a ticket. It’s fascinating and you can expand your firsthand wine knowledge. Just don’t forget to take your golden toe with you.
Coming up: Madeira and sherry.