September 16, 2008 / 10:06 AM / 10 years ago

When is Port not a Port?

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Vintners can take the vines out of Portugal but can they be used to produce the full-bodied Port wine that the nation is famous for in another country?

Barrels of aged Port wine are seen at a Gaia city cellar in northern Portugal September 11, 2006. REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro

Peter Prager thinks so. His family has been making Port in California’s Napa Valley for 30 years, partly because no one else was.

But Rupert Symington, whose ancestors have been linked with the wine in Portugal’s Douro Region since the 17th century doubts any wine made elsewhere would really be Port.

“What’s important is that people recognize the real thing,” he explained in an interview.

“There are copies, but unlike cars and computer chips, we have such a unique soil and weather system that it’s almost impossible to replicate what we have ... Even if you transplant the same vines to California, it won’t taste the same. If you want the real thing, you have to buy the real thing,” he insisted.

Trade agreements seem to support his argument. U.S. vintners are prohibited from selling anything they make as Port in Europe, Japan or Canada.

Prager, 49, conceded that while he used the same varietals as those grown in Portugal, along with other grapes European producers would never consider such as Petite Syrah and Chardonnay, his wines did not taste the same.

“We make Port here because it can be made very well here,” Prager said from his family’s winery in St Helena, California.

“These are ideal growing conditions and we’re able to use fruit that the Portuguese are not. Our Ports are not as sweet, but like the Portuguese, ours have good aging potential and good mouth feel,” he said.

Prager’s father and two uncles started the winery in ‘79 and decided to specialize in Ports because he always loved the wines and there was not much left to be rediscovered in California.

Together with his brothers, Jeff and John, and sister, Katie, he produces about 4,000 cases a year.

“We’re tiny. We’ll grow into small,” he said.

Port is a fortified wine, made by the addition of spirits - usually brandy - to the juice before fermentation is completed. The alcohol content is between 19 to 21 percent, compared to 11.5 to 15 percent for most red wines.

Like the Pragers, the Symingtons’ estate is a family-run operation - but on a grander scale. They supply roughly one-third of the premium Port sold in the world. They sold more than 400,000 cases in the United States alone last year.

“Port is something that is definitely at the luxury end of the wine market, and our customer is probably not the guy who is having his home repossessed,” Symington said.

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