We've talked a ton about wine & food pairings on the blog, and I've noted that creating dessert pairings can be quite the challenge. The safest option is normally to shoot for a congruent pairing: matching similar qualities in the food item & the prospective wine in order to achieve a pairing that sings in unison. With desserts, that typically means picking a wine of equal sweetness levels to be successful. BUT some of the coolest pairings come from a complementary approach (i.e pairing two distinctly different flavor profiles like key lime & coconut to make a key lime-coconut cream pie). A dry, cherry forward Chianti paired with the sweet spices of pumpkin pie is an example a colleague turned me on to recently----just in time for all the fall flavor takeovers! That pairing sings their differing notes in a harmony as opposed to the same note in unison.
One of the greatest dessert wines in the world, Port, is an incredibly versatile partner when it comes to pairings. You could go savory with a blue cheese tart drizzled with honey & garnished with chopped nuts or you could swirl with butter pecan ice cream (my pop's fave ice cream flavor getting a shout out, ha) for a really solid pairing. I'm opting to satisfy my sweet tooth in this month's team up with Terra D'Oro to highlight their Zinfandel Port and a donut recipe I was inspired to create thanks to the owner of B.A.Donuts. In order to understand why my palate craved this flavor combo, we will need to understand the uniquely positioned fortified wine that is port. So, check your stations and get ready to set sail!
Port's spiritual home is in the heart of the Douro Valley. It was birthed out of necessity rather than spontaneous inspiration for a new wine style. The region is known for these incredibly well structured, dry red wines that the English took a liking to when their war with France in the 1600s cut them off from their supply of French juice. The issue in getting the product from point A to point B is that there is an ocean separating Portugal & England. Dry wines that were being delivered via ship would often turn bad or the sweet wines would undergo a refermentation (hello unintentional bubbles), and ultimately not survive the voyage. In order to counteract this, high-proof brandy was added to the wine as a stabilizer before it was loaded on the ship & destined for England. The high abv of the brandy essentially kills all the yeast inside the wine, leaving behind all the sugars and resulting in the boozy, sweeter style that we've come to love over the centuries.
FUN FACT: If you needed a sensual ditty as you sip on port, queue Alexa to play "aguardiente y limon" by Kali Uchis. Aguardiente or aguardente (in Portugese) is the154-proof brandy that is used in Port production!
Most dessert wines produced are white, and while there are some white Ports, most are produced from red wine varietals. In Portugal your usual suspects are as follows: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cao. The resulting colors can range from ruby red ports (typically juicer, cooked dark fruit character) to tawny ports (think spice, dried fruits & caramelized sugar). While color is key to understanding what characteristics to expect from this Port, there are important differences in the styles to keep in mind as a result of aging & aging vessels. The two major styles are Bottle Aged Ports vs Wood-Aged Ports:
Bottle Aged Ports - these are ports that receive the majority of their aging in the bottle meaning it's exposed to less oxygen over time & can be aged for decades. This is the preferred style for Vintage Ports (juice all from a single year considered to be a great one for that specific producer).
Wood Aged Ports - these are ports that spend most of their aging period in wooden barrels, which means the juice is exposed to massive amounts of oxygen prior to being bottled. This style of Port is the "drink me now" kind. Labeling terms to look out for are Ruby Port, Tawny Port, Aged Tawny Port (often labeled by the avg. age of its components) & Late-bottled vintage (LBV - single good year, but not necessarily the best year of a producer).
What's unique about Terra D'Oro Winery's take on Port, other than the pivot to Zinfandel obviously, is that their method of production is taking a combo approach to create the best iteration of Zinfandel as a fortified wine. Considering how big & fruity Zinfandel can be, it is no surprise that the fortified treatment is one that the grape vibes well with. I got the opportunity to pick the brain of winemaker Emily Haines, in regard to her process with producing the literal unicorn that is this domestic port.
The harvest season is always the most crucial phase in the winemaking process, since it's literally "make it or break it" time & there's little to no room for error. Zinfandel has an affinity for ripening early & achieving maximum sugar levels with ease. That being said, the plots of Zinfandel destined for port production at Terra D'Oro are always harvested last.
"I identify between one to two Zinfandel blocks each year to be harvested for the Port program. It's almost always the LAST fruit to come in the door. When the Zinfandel for Port comes in, it is inoculated with whatever yeast we have leftover. Once the wine hits about 13 Brix (approximately 13% sugar), we add unaged brandy until the wine reaches an abv of at least 18.5%. The high alcohol arrests the fermentation and ensures no spoilage can occur." - Emily Haines, Winemaker of Terra D'Oro
Pretty standard, right? Well, here's where things take a twist, and that dual approach comes into play. If you ever find yourself drinking this port, and I hope you do, you'll find that it has the best of both worlds on the palate. Juicy, dark stewed fruits litter the core of the palate in a way that is reminiscent of a ruby port, but then the finish is of caramelized sugar & dried citrus like that of a tawny port. This is the direct result of multiple vintages being blended together via a "solera-esque" system that Emily notes has been the technique since the first bottling of NV port back in 2000. You might be asking what the hell does "solera" mean, and without bogging you down with too much technical jargon, I'll give you the cliff notes. The Solera System is a method of maturation that is key to Sherry production in which a young wine is progressively blended with older, more complex wines via stacked barrels.
"We first started making Port in 1996. Our first bottling of the NV port was in 2000 and was a blend of 3 previous vintages via what I call a "modified Solera". We only bottled half of the wine. When we came back in '01 to bottle, we layered in the 1999 Port and again bottled only half of it. This process helps us to increase the average age of the port year over year, while also maintaining consistency. This process is what lends to the wine having both Ruby Port & Tawny Port characteristics. As of today, the port that we are selling is on average 11 years old. It’ll get a little older and older since that first vintage of 1996 is still in the blend." - Emily Haines, Winemaker of Terra D'Oro
I was feeling inspired by the layered flavor profile of Terra D'Oro's port to create a super simple DIY donut recipe. While you could use any plain donut as your base, I partnered up with my favorite local martian & owner of B.A. Donuts CLT, Jasmine Macon, to use her plain brioche-style donuts as my base. I made a simple chocolate ganache flavored with a pinch of sea salt & orange zest. Port, just like other wines, can be applied for cooking sauces & reductions, which is exactly what I opted for. Cherries, brown sugar, and the port came together for a bright reduction to echo the fruit characteristics of the wine. I'm all about varying textures in my dessert so I sprinkled on crushed pistachios for the finishing touch.
Plain Donut - your local grocery store will likely have some plain traditional or cake donuts you can purchase....unless you're feeling really frisky and want to attempt making your own!
Ganache - gently heat about 1/2 cup of dark chocolate & 1/4 cup of heavy whipping cream, stirring continuously until chocolate is incorporated completely into the cream. The quick version of this is to use a microwave safe bowl and pop it in the microwave for just 30-45 seconds or until you start to see the chocolate beginning to break apart, then you can just remove it and stir from there. Stir in a pinch of sea salt & teaspoon of orange zest to taste.
Cherry Port Reduction - cut about a cup of fresh cherries in half & remove the pits. Combine 1/4 cup brown sugar & 1/4 cup of the Terra D'Oro NV Port in a small saucepan at medium heat, stirring constantly until sugar has dissolved & extracted moisture from the fruit for a loose sauce. Turn the heat down to low and allow the sauce to reduce & thicken; stir as needed.
Crushed Pistachios (optional)
That's Port in a nutshell & some additional insights into the unique take by Terra D'Oro Winery thanks to Emily Haines. Don't forget that you can use my discount code BRION15 on their website for 15% off any of your bottle purchases! If you are looking to support local retailers, shoot me a message & I'll be happy to connect you with a retailer carrying their wines.
Happy National Port Day!