Port is the Answer?

In which Dara seeks great Minnesota wine in all the wrong places, and finds it anyway

I once spent a few weeks in Portugal during the grape harvest and crush, and that experience, more or less, entirely reorganized the way I think about life.

It was the absurd rock mountains that did it: The mountains that make up the Douro Valley, where port comes from, are granite, quartz, and schist, and they look so very raw and rugged that you imagine they were thrust up from the sea perhaps late last week.

Speaking of the sea, Portugal, the whole of which is about the size of Indiana, feels like an island in the brightest, windiest possible sea. Even inland, the light is blistering; it comes from all directions, and the wind that batters these rock mountains in summer is dry and ocean-parched, and in winter is wet, cold, and ocean-sodden.

Nan Bailly of Alexis Bailly Vineyards, maker of Minnesota's best wine
Bill Kelley
Nan Bailly of Alexis Bailly Vineyards, maker of Minnesota's best wine

Location Info


Alexis Bailly Vineyard

18200 Kirby Ave.
Hastings, MN 55033

Category: Breweries and Wineries

Region: Outstate

The experience of being in the rock mountains of Portugal is like being an ant skittering around beneath the coils of a broiler—it's so hot, so bright, so hot and bright that we just don't have parallels for it in Minnesota.

As someone who has spent the last ten years living in a state that constantly reinforces a local mythology insisting we live in the coldest, but also hottest, most forbidding, formidable weather in the world, it was, to say the least, eye-opening.

I saw old women walking down the side of the blisteringly hot, surface-of-the-sun road, with every inch of their bodies clad in wool, and balancing bundles of sticks the size of beer kegs on their heads, and knew that not one Minnesotan, not Paul Bunyan, not Jesse Ventura, not one of us, could do it.

So, if they live on sun-fried, wind-battered rock mountains in the sea, how do they grow all the port grapes to make their most vaunted export, port wine? (Port is short for Oporto, the foremost Portuguese port-exporting port. And yes, I tried to get "portentous" into that sentence for half an hour, and failed.)

Again, where does port wine come from, if it's so ghastly sunny and brutally rocky? For centuries, men and women have been attacking these rock mountains with chisel, shovel, and donkey, carving narrow terraces all over them until they turned rock wall into vertical farm. These enormous, enormous rock mountains now look like ziggurats, with layers of narrow, L-shaped planting areas. I tell you, the place is just stupendous. I stood on a mountainside (while praying I wouldn't get hit by passing vans of grape-harvesters) and just boggled: People did this? People, hand tools, and donkeys? It must have taken a whole day's backbreaking labor literally crushing rocks in the hot sun just to clear a placemat's worth of plantable area. The reason that seeing this more or less entirely reorganized the way I think about life was: I have never seen such palpable evidence of people doing more with less. You hear a lot about how if life gives you lemons make lemonade, but it's quite another thing to see with your own eyes: If life gives you a big rock in the hot sun, pummel bits of it into vineyard.

It also got me thinking about winemaking in our own inhospitable corner of the world. People often ask me why I don't write about Minnesota wines, but honestly, there hasn't been much to say: It's a fledgling industry in which some very wonderful people battle mightily against all odds and, more formidably, the weather. I try a lot of Minnesota and Wisconsin wines, but the only ones I've ever felt strongly enough about to endorse are the ones from Alexis Bailly Vineyards in Hastings. My trip to Portugal, however, got me wondering: What if the great northland wines are to be made through elaborate winemaking, the way they make port in Portugal, and not through perfect fruit, the way they do things in California and southern France?

Skip this paragraph if you don't want to know anything about wine chemistry, but the essential difference between ordinary wine and a fortified wine like port is this: Growing grapes on rocks in the hot sun ain't easy. Some years fruit was scant but very sweet, other years there was lots of fruit but its juice was dilute; vintages, that is, the harvest from a particular year, were far more variable than in a more temperate area. To deal with this the Portuguese developed an entirely different way of making wine. Quickly, and as simply as possible, the usual way of making wine is this: Yeasts digest the sugar in grape juice, thus making alcohol. When they stop, that's wine. You can do various things to that raw wine, of course, like aging it in barrels, or adding more sugar and having a secondary fermentation, but you essentially have a closed system: Grape Juice X in, Wine X out. This wasn't going to work for the Portuguese, so they developed a system that involved manipulating when the yeasts would stop digesting by adding concentrated grape alcohol and then blending wines from various vintages—so a little of Grape Juice X goes in, along with Grape Juices A, G, XL, wines T, S, V, and brandy Y, and so on, and port X comes out. This is a brilliant way to make a great wine in an impossible climate.

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