A Jungle Port In Any Storm

Recently, I found myself packing for a month-long trip, something that over the last few years I have become rather good at. Since becoming a “Traveling Winemaker” in 2007, I spent the last three years moving between the northern and southern hemispheres, chasing the grape harvest. Pursuing winemaking in both hemispheres has its advantages, as there is usually a month or so lull before it is time to pack up, fly across the equator, exchange winter for summer and start getting ready to crush grapes all over again. It was during this most recent lull, after the 2009 harvest in Oregon, that I found myself getting ready to go -- not to New Zealand or Australia -- but to Belize, in Central America. I had been to Belize a number of times, but this trip was different because of what I was packing. There, in my suitcase, among the hiking boots, mosquito netting and first aid kit were four quarts of grape concentrate.

I was going to Belize to help out old friends who had a large piece of property deep in the jungle. The place had gotten away from them over the past year and they needed an extra hand to clear some land. My time off between vintages provided me the opportunity to leave the cold of Oregon for a month as well as provide my Belizean friend with a little free labor. In between swinging a machete and clearing brush, I thought that while I was there it might be fun to make a little “port,” or fortified, wine. I mean, wouldn’t it be nice to have a little something to sip on in the evening after a hard days work? Sure, beer has its place, but after dinner, there are fewer libations that sit so well as port.

Now, I should make a clarification at this point. “Port,” technically, is fortified wine from Portugal, and only from Portugal. It would be incorrect of me to use the term “port” unless referring to fortified wine from Portugal. Let me further say, there is no substitute for this wonderful elixir from the Iberian Peninsula. To write anything less would earn me a verbal lashing from my Portuguese friends. However, though there is no substitute for terroir, the basic procedure of making fortified wine (port) is more or less the same regardless of whether it is made in the Douro Valley, Oregon, or the jungles of Belize.

Fortified wine is made like this: Once the grapes (they can be red or white, but red is far more common) are destemmed, crushed and put into a tank, yeast is added. As the fermentation takes place, the sugars in the juice begin to drop as the alcohol begins to rise. At a certain point determined by the winemaker, the partially fermented juice and wine is drained off the skins and an over-proof brandy (often around 150 proof, or 75 percent alcohol) is added to fortify. Once fortified with the high-proof alcohol the total percentage of alcohol of the fermenting juice/wine is raised to around 20 percent. At that percentage level, the yeast begin to quickly die off, leaving residual, or unfermented, sugar. The result is a sweet, rather alcoholic beverage that in the best years in Portugal is called “Vintage Port” and is truly one of the most sublime liquids to fill a glass. What you get when you attempt this process in the jungles of Belize could be called “jungle port,” a term that I hope any true port fans will find palatable.

I had brought with me enough grape concentrate (made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes) to make roughly four gallons of jungle port. My first challenge was finding something to make it in. I rummaged around under the thatched roof kitchen of my friend’s place and found a green plastic 5-gallon bucket. The current contents were spices (cinnamon, clove, rosemary, etc). The aroma of the spices permeated the bucket. Winemaking is the art of intelligent compromise and considering where I was and what I had to work with, I took the bucket, removed the contents and gave it a wash. I collected rainwater to rehydrate the concentrate to an appropriate brix (sugar) level, added a little bit of tartaric acid I had brought with me to raise the acidity and then, pitched in my yeast. Satisfied that my first attempt at jungle port was well on its way, I did what any seasoned winemaker would do and had a beer.

Over the next few days I monitored the ferment, watching the brix slowly drop … 24 brix, 22.5 brix, 18 brix and so forth.  It was only a matter of time before I would fortify. Were I in Oregon, I would have used over-proof brandy, like they do in Portugal, but brandy is a little hard to find in Belize. Rum on the other had is bountiful. I had found some over-proof rum shortly upon arriving and stocked up on what I thought would be enough for the job. When the time came to add the rum, I measured some out, added, stirred and tasted. It was a little rough around the edges, but I could work with it. More importantly, I could drink it. I then let the jungle brew sit for a few days as the yeast cells died off and settled to the bottom of the bucket. Once it began to look clear, I racked it off the dead yeast cells and bottled it in mason jars.  I was done. The whole process took 10 days.

Now I suppose some winemakers would never admit to doing something such as this, much less write about it, but winemaking to me, in its many forms, is always an adventure and if you can’t also have fun with it, what’s the point? Someone once declared to me that it would be impossible to make fortified wine in a jungle climate.  The bugs alone would be prohibitive, they said. When I replied I might give it a shot anyway, they laughed. And I’m actually glad they did. I have often thought that we should all be thankful for the people who have told us with arrogant clarity what we cannot do, because sometimes it is that which inspires us to try.

And how was the jungle port you might be wondering? Actually, pretty good.  I think even my port-making Portuguese friends would have been impressed. They especially would have been impressed with the undertones of cinnamon, clove and rosemary.

Eric Weisinger is a traveling winemaker and winery consultant.  A native of Oregon, Eric currently divides his year between winemaking and consulting in the Marlborough region of New Zealand and the Rogue Valley region of Southern Oregon.



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