the name game

Friday, April 16, 2010

American wines labeled Port have been made at least since Repeal, and probably before, but the term is now illegal. It is part of a “Standards of Identity” agreement between the U.S. and the European Union. Along with Port, 16 other semi-generic wine names are covered under this new agreement: Burgundy, Claret, Chablis, Champagne, Chianti, Hock, Malaga, Marsala, Madeira, Moselle, Retsina, Rhine Wine, Sauterne, Haut Sauterne, Sherry, and Tokay. It’s a law that makes sense, and corrects decades of abuse (how many older Americans still think Chablis is any cheap, sweet white wine?, or believe that all Burgundies should be “hearty”?)!

But – there’s always a ‘but’ isn’t there? – but it is a bit ironic that in some instances these words may actually be the best choices. Claret is one. Claret is an old-fashioned wine term whose roots go back to the British wine trade of the 1600s. Clarets of the day were decent quality red wines from Bordeaux, shipped in casks to British wine merchants, who bottled them under their own labels. There are no Bordeaux wines actually labeled claret (to my knowledge), but quite a few Bordeaux blends made in the U.S. that used to be, and that have no better alternative.

Port is another term that I agree should be protected, but what about domestic fortified wines that are made in an authentic Port (from Portugal) style, using true Portuguese varietals? How can they distinguish themselves from the fortified syrahs, zins, etc. that are clearly not Port?

As it happens, Abacela – an Oregon winery specializing in Iberian varietal wines – makes both a Claret and a Port, and both are quite good. The 2007 Abacela Port, which I sipped on throughout a long evening of guitar playing last night, is the poster child for a truly outstanding American Port. It’s labeled Port, which may be due to 1) label approval before the new law took effect or 2) being grandfathered in, as some Claret producers are. In any event, it’s a wine that any Port lover should experience, for I have not had a finer American version.

The estate-grown blend includes 53% Tempranillo, 19% Bastardo, 13% Tinta Amarela, 9% Tinta Cão, and 6% Touriga Naçional. These five traditional Douro grapes were grown at Abacela’s Fault Line vineyards. I don’t know what neutral spirits were used, but they are of a higher quality than most, with none of the burn that affects a lot of domestic fortifieds. This is a creamy, sexy, chocolate and raspberry wine, which does not stop there, but keeps invigorating the palate with cascading flavors of figs, berries, raisins, plums, cocoa, mocha, dark chocolate and earth. It’s seductive as hell, and I had to fight my desire to drink the entire (half) bottle – mostly because I want to see if it opens up still further with a day or two of breathing time.

Abacela made 400 cases of these half bottles, that sell for $25, and just 57 cases of full-size bottles, that sell for $50.


PaulG said...

Earl and Hilda Jones sent this e-mail while on the road. I am posting it on their behalf.

Earl writes: "I agree with everything you said inclunding the preamble. We made our first experimental port in 1999, our second batch in 2000 and obtained a COLA in 2001 for our commercial debut. That date grandfathered-in our label.

"I couldn't come up with a fancifal name that seemed appropriate for my port. I would like to see a non-proprietary new world term of equivalence for port, especially those made from grapes native to the Douro in the traditional method. And I have tried. Jim Gordon tried. Together we tried but were stopped by the TTB bureaucracy. I still believe it could be done with your help.

"We use spirits made from estate wines that we have custom distilled for us by Clear Creek; I guess we could say estate spirits? Abacela Port is bottled in both 375 & 750 sizes and is sold at the winery, through out Oregon, in Washington by Noble (our new distribuitor) and in several other states."

Christine Collier said...

I am very eager to try this new bottling of Abacela Port. I was a huge fan of their 2006 vintage.

Todd Hansen said...

I agree that this name game issue is a tricky one. I think many Americans concede that the names "Chablis," "Champagne" and "Burgundy" deserve protection - perhaps because they often were so awfully abused here on products that didn't resemble their namesakes.
For me it gets trickier with things like Marsala, Port, and in the non-wine world Feta cheese (really, Feta isn't even a place!). As implied in the reply from Earl and Hilda Jones, lack of a viable new world term of equivalence can place a greater cost on the consumer than the benefit of knowing that something was produced in its traditional place of origin.
I'm just grateful the Europeans haven't barred us from using the varietal designation "Chardonnay" on our wine labels - after all, Chardonnay is a village in Burgundy, and wines from that village are legally labeled Macon-Chardonnay ...

Plymale said...

Thanks for the Abecela hip, Paul. Along the naming line, I saw a bottle of Yakima Valley "vintage port" (St. John's?) at Safeway the other day -- not sure that would pass EU muster...

PaulG said...

Todd makes a very good point about chardonnay. And over on my Facebook page, Harvey Steiman notes that the Aussies have come up with a pretty good solution to the "what do we call it" conundrum. BTW, I just finished off the Abacela last night and it was, if anything, better than ever. What a glorious wine.

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