As we wind our way into the “dog days” of summer, we can all give thanks that we don’t live any farther South than we do, as there really are places with even worse heat and humidity than North Carolina. To many of us, that may prove to be little comfort as the mercury rises, and the days guarantee to, as the old timers used to say, “take the starch out of you.”
As we walk around somewhere between medium rare and well done, we may, perhaps consider the tailoring of our consumption of tasty libations to the season in which we find ourselves. Summer is a time to enjoy cool, fruity, good tasting drinks. If I may paraphrase an idea put forth by Ernest Hemmingway, Americans tend to drink more to relieve stress, and therefore drink more harsh drinks that taste more of alcohol than anything else. Group “YUK!” Everybody with me? On the other hand, our friends and neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean drink to enjoy life, hence their drinks are fruit based, sweet and taste wonderful. Would it hurt for a bit of that to rub off on us? I think not. Papa H would agree, I believe.
So while all the naysayers and sticks in the mud look down their collective noses, and accuse drinkers of sweet, fruity wines of not really being wine drinkers because they’re not quaffing a $150 Cali Cab, we can don our Hawaiian shirts and sandals, find some shade, crank up some good summer tunes and drink to enjoy life. And whether your glass sports a nice NC Traminette, or Sangria, or the fermentation of your favorite tropical fruit, or the equally fruit forward offering of a Pinot Grigio or Viognier (you get the picture) you can raise a hearty “SALUD!” to friends and loved ones, and simply forget about the humidity for a spell.
Soon enough the “dog days” will begin to fade with the lessening light of day, the harvests will be gathered in, and the air will develop a tell-tale “bite.” The Hawaiian shirts and sandals will give way to boot socks and hoodie sweaters. But never fear, summer will return one day. In the mean time we have the opportunity to adjust our enjoyment of life to something a bit more seasonal. The beer folks have been doing this as long as there has been beer. Light Pilsners refresh on hot summer days, and Porters and Wee Heavy Ales help knock back the chill when the season turns cool. So why not the same with wine?
Big bloody red wines can really embellish good soups and stews, and hunks of steaming roasted beast and stout-hearted cheeses with dark bread. Afterwards a dram or two or ten of a robust, old Port, or a Port-styled wine that cannot be called “Port” because the Portugese went and protected the name, or another fortified wine of your choice, sipped while warming around a cheery fire, can do an awful lot to make cold, old bones feel just a tad younger, as the glass goes down. Trust me on this — I’m a trained professional. But the question is sure to be begged, “What if my bones aren’t so old and cold — what about me?” Well, you can just sit by the fire and sip your fortified beverage of choice until you grin yourself into a set of golf ball cheeks. That’s allowed too.
Speaking of which — here’s a good yarn to impress your friends while sipping your Port around the fire. And, it’s mostly true. Do you know where and how Port came to be? Well the story goes that up until recent times, the English could not grow grapes, and having a fondness for good wine, they were dependent on France to supply their need. The problem with that scenario was that the French and the English were always going to war with each other. As soon as the first shot was fired, the French cut off the wine supply, and shortly thereafter the English began experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
Hoping to show those pesky Frenchmen a thing or two, the English decided that the best way to remedy the situation was to find another supplier of all things vino. A scouring of the continent soon revealed a healthy wine industry in Portugal — those good folks who own Brazil, and almost speak Spanish, but not quite. A deal was struck, and the wine, in wooden casks, were loaded on a wooden ship in warm seas bound for a long voyage to the north seas.
The wine arrived on the shores of merry old England, but the problem with that scenario was that due to the arduous journey, quite often the wine was spoiled. The English then decided that the best way to remedy the situation was to add brandy to the wine, seeing that alcohol is a preservative. Indeed the next shipments of wine did not spoil, but the wine tasted something like a good Cabernet with several shots of liquor in it. It seemed that it only paired well with knock your teeth out barroom brawls, something very proper English society could never abide.
Clever as always, some English nanny, surely named Mary Poppins, figured out that “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Well — most likely not the fictional character who sang that cute little ditty in the Disney film of the same name, but you get my drift, someone came up with the idea of adding a spot of the old sugar to the wine to teach the alcohol a few manners.
The English quickly discovered that the only sugar to be found was in the Caribbean. The problem with that scenario was that if one had a wooden ship laden with coin of the realm bound for the Caribbean, there was a better than average chance said wooden ship was not coming home flying the same flag, and all that shiny coin of the realm was going to be squandered on dirty big pints o’ rum and ladies of the evening, in back alleys of some conquered Spanish island outpost, that today bears an expensive resort, and a basks in a healthy tourist trade.
Given the aforementioned risks, someone got the bright idea that the grapes themselves contained sugar, and that by adding the brandy to the fermenting grape must while the sugar remained high, they could arrest said fermentation (essentially just getting the yeast drunk and passed out) and create a sweet, flavorful, high alcohol wine that could age for a long time in a wooden barrel without spoiling. And that Boys and Girls, is how Port came to be (roughly). Oh yes, lest I forget, English Port drinkers have lived happily ever after.
Now pull up a little closer to the fire, have another sip of Port and it’s your turn to tell a tale — Salud.
Dana Acker is the winemaker and distiller at Shadow Springs Vineyard and Windsor Run Cellars in Hamptonville.