Where's In a Name

Recently, while contacting several Washington wineries about an upcoming piece on Yakima Valley port, I got a thought-provoking response from Christophe Hedges at Hedges Family Estates.

When I contacted Hedges Family Estates regarding their Red Mountain fortified wine, I asked about their port. Christophe responded very clearly; Hedges Family doesn't make a Port. Those are only made in the Duoro Valley, in Portugal. Chrisophe sent me a link to Protect Place and let me know that Hedges is part of the coalition to acknowledge and protect place names. While this is not a new concept to me when it comes to traditional French wines, it's not something that you commonly hear about with regard to Port, port-style, or fortified wines. Based on my working knowledge of the wine industry, if an Oregon-based winery makes a sparkling wine, you make a sparkling wine. You definitely don't make a Champagne. Even the Treaty of Versailles says so.

The French went further with the AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée), which had its origins in the 15th century regulations of Roquefort cheese. The wine element didn't come into play until 1935. The AOC dictates that in order for a wine to be given the name of a particular appellation, every grape used in that wine must come from within that appellation. In the states, an AVA (American Viticulture Area) designation works similarly, indicating that at least 85% of the grapes come from within that AVA. Because of the AOC and traditions governing wine, they certainly can't make Bourdeaux wine outside of Bourdeaux. There are several Washington wineries making Bourdeaux or Rhone style blends from grapes grown within their AVAs. I had always assumed that wine producers, even those in the 'New World' more or less played by these rules and honored this long-standing tradition in wine making. And in large part, they do. So why is port different?

Simple internet searches for "Washington Port Wine", "Willamette Valley Port" or "Yakima Valley Port" produces dozens of hits for wineries and Washington- or Oregon-made wines. In contrast, a search for "Washington Champagne" yields as one of the top hits Champagne Bureau, an organization to protect place names. In part, I think it's because fewer people in the states are drinking fortified wines and talking about them, so the information has less chance to get passed around. In addition, the movement to protect place for Port is not a long-standing tradition: the bodies that regulate Port were formed much later. It wasn't until 1995 that a governing body came into being that represented all farmers and trade professionals, and a similar cooperative mid-century movement included only 10% of regional producers.

Definitively, what is a port? From here, "Port Wine is a fortified wine, as defined in EU legislation. It is produced in the Demarcated Region of the Douro under very specific conditions resulting from natural and human factors. The winemaking procedures, based on traditional methods, include stopping the fermentation of the must by adding grape brandy (benefício), making up lots of wine and ageing the wine."

At the end of the day, consumers will use the terminology they know and are familiar with. Facial tissues are universally called Kleenex and soft drinks are very commonly referred to as Coke or Pepsi as opposed to cola. Sparkling wine may remain Champagne in the mind of many, just as a fortified dessert wine will continue to be called port by those who've never been to the Duoro Valley. As wine and fortified wine drinkers become more familiar with protecting place as the movement gains traction, that may change.

My role though has definitely changed, and as someone who now writes about wine, I should be using correct terminology. And as someone who reads about wine, if someone asks, you can tell them what a Port really is.

For more information on Port, visit Instituto do Vinhos do Duoro e Porto (in English) or The Port Wine.


Josh Gana said...

We had a fascinating conversation with Keith Pilgrim at Terra Blanca about this very issue this summer. I just did a quick scan of the house and of the 4 bottles of port style wine we have laying around, two are flat out marketed as port and the other two are either port style or have a unique name. Keith's is the Forte, by the way...not port :)