In the second century B.C., Romans settled in the Duoro River region of northern Portugal. They planted grapevines and made wine.
About 1,300 years later, the Kingdom of Portugal was established, and Portugal began to export wines to other nations, in particular England. But the wines they exported were not from Duoro. They were a light red wine known as Red Portugal and made in the Lima River region, farther north and near a shipping port.
Meanwhile, as the wine export business in Portugal grew, the historically tense relationship between England and France escalated, until finally, in 1667, Charles II of England banned the import of all French wines to England.
The wine merchants of Portugal, many of them English, saw the embargo as an opportunity to expand, but they needed to find wines more palatable to English tastes. Eventually, they found fuller, more complex wines in Duoro.
However, Duoro wines could not be transported by land, as the mountains separating Duoro and Oporto, the nearest shipping harbor, were too difficult to traverse. So the Duoro wines were transported by boat down the Duoro River to Oporto and then shipped to England. The trip up the Atlantic was a long and difficult journey, beginning at the mouth of the Duoro River, notoriously dangerous for navigation.
To protect the wine from spoiling during the long journey to England, some merchants began to fortify their wines with grape brandy. Fortifying wine was not a widespread practice in the 17th century, but over a period of about one hundred years, the practice of fortifying wine from Portugal became common. By 1757, Portugal’s prime minister saw a need to protect the quality of port wines from unscrupulous businessmen who were adulterating wines for profit. He established the first appellation of origin, designating an official “port” region and enacting laws to control quality.
That was the beginning of quality port wine, leading to the night 250 years later when Peter Ficklin, a trim, bespectacled winemaker who received his degree in enology from UC Davis in 1978, was sitting up late, waiting for a precise moment. About 11:30 p.m., he pulled on his boots, got into his truck, and drove to his winery in Madera, which in 1985 was designated one of 206 American Viticultural Areas in the United States.
For most people, it might be a little spooky to be alone in such a vast building at midnight, but Peter had grown up working in the winery, and so he felt at home. At midnight, Peter added brandy to his fermenting tank of grapes, halting the fermentation process so that the sugar content of the grapes would no longer turn into alcohol but would remain in the wine, creating the smooth, sweet port that three generations of the Ficklin family have been producing for 70 years.
The brandy is almost as important as the grapes in the port-making process. “We have the legal latitude to choose the brandy we think will marry best with the wine,” Peter told me during a visit to Ficklin Winery recently, “but we have to use brandy made from grapes, and it can’t be more than 190 proof.”
I was at Ficklin with Greg Olzack, a former mayor of Atwater and all-around friendly guy. His family once owned a liquor store in Atwater, and it was on his suggestion that we visited Ficklin. Greg belongs to the Ficklin Vineyards Portfolio Society, which means he purchases two Portfolio release sets every spring and fall and in return is invited to release parties at the winery and entitled to discounts on other ports.
It was still morning when we arrived at Ficklin, but when I was offered a sampling of port only minutes into meeting Peter and Ficklin general manager Denise England, I had to, in the interest of research, do a little sipping. I was able to sample six different ports during my visit. The last one was – you’ll need to open your mind for a minute – a s’mores-flavored port that has only recently been approved for market. Ficklin also makes a chocolate-flavored port and, according to Greg, a very good raspberry-flavored port.
But it is the Tinta Madeira ports that have made Ficklin Winery famous. Ficklin Winery, the oldest port winery in the United States, had its first crush in 1948, and Ficklin’s Old Vine Tinta Port is Ficklin’s flagship wine.
Their winery was started with Portuguese Tinta Madeira, Touriga, Tinta Cao and Souzao rootstock procured through UC Davis. Those vines are still in production today. However, Ficklin buys most of its grapes from other port wine producers in California.
“We get grapes from people who thought making port would be easy,” Peter said as we stood in the Ficklin tasting room, glasses in hand, “and they have really good grapes, but they found out that making port is a lot harder than they thought it would be.”
Later, Peter and Denise gave us a tour of the adobe cellar where Ficklin ages its ports. The structure, including the adobe bricks, was built by his father to house the cellar and library where Ficklin stores its vintage ports. The four of us stood around an up-ended barrel in the library while Peter uncorked a bottle of 10-year vintage port and, after lighting a candle to illuminate the process, decanted the bottle for us. It was lovely to watch, standing in an adobe cellar built, brick by brick, by Peter’s father. In the next room, port was aging in oak barrels dating back to the 19th century.
I asked Peter about the cork vs. twist-off controversy.
“A wine as traditional as port requires a cork,” he said. He showed us the sediment left in the bottle after decanting, and then he poured a generous portion into our glasses.
Greg drank and told a story about sharing a bottle of port with a friend whose father had died. The father had enjoyed port, and so they commemorated his passing with a bottle of Ficklin.
I asked Peter, while sipping the port, “It’s hard work, so what compels you to keep doing it?”
“This,” he said, indicating the four of us. “Just seeing people enjoy the wine, and hearing stories about how our port is a part of people’s family histories.”
I thought then about the longer history of port, the one dating back more than 200 years. I imagined the harbor at Oporto, bustling with 18th century merchants and sailors preparing for a long and dangerous journey to deliver a sweet red wine to England, and the port took on even more complex flavors.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.