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Portugal, not the man nor the band, but the country, flanking the western border of Spain, a nation with too much history to only be mentioned in passing—once thus far on my countdown to five hundred wines–is a place that I really need to pay more attention to. Aside from Port wines, which I drink with frequency, I generally pass over the red (and white) wines alike, for the neighboring Spanish wines when I am looking to drink hearty earthy offerings. However, on a whim, I decided it would be best to shake it up and grab a seven-fifty from Central Portugal as a warm-up to a Port.

In my mind there was nothing special about the “Saes” wine from Quinta de Pellada (#167). For about eleven dollars I had a bottle of unassuming red with simple packaging, nothing declarative, and I was certainly unaware of the contents. I opened the bottle quickly, once home, pouring a little into my stemware to encourage a transformation to take place—a kind gesture to any wine. While preparing dinner I would give the nose a sniff, intermittently, detecting a mixture of red berries, worn leather and polish. Not bad and certainly not funky like I had imagined. It seemed slightly more “old world” based on nasal impressions because the fruit was present but not overly expressive. When it came time to taste it, I was relieved; the wine was medium-bodied, with an oily texture as I swooshed the liquid in my mouth to parse out the particulars. I detected a bit of dusty fruit, a little earth and some slight wood and the wine left a surprisingly long finish with smoother tannins. The blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Jaen and Alfrocheiro was new to me yet agreeable. It was like meeting someone that you know you would be forging a relationship with down the line. I got my money’s worth and then some with the Saes, and it was onto the Port.

The Smith Woodhouse “Lodge Reserve” Port (#166) was another effort representing good value–roughly twenty dollars for a bottle of fortified wine. I poured a miniscule amount of the wine to get the gist. The viscosity was mild and the nose was moderately powerful of fruit, raisins, nuts and caramel. The usual fragrances but on the palate it was a changeup, lighter and less goopy in style. The wine was medium body with persistent fruit that stayed with me long after putting the glass down. The delicious factor was way up, not too sweet or viscous, this Smith Woodhouse Lodge Reserve Port was unique.

I was pleased with my excursion via the bottle to Portugal; the value was there in two extremely different wines, one savory and one sensibly sweet. I am positive my Portugal awareness will increase exponentially since this was just the jumping off point.

If you have ever opened a bottle of wine, quickly bringing your nose to the rim for a sniff and picked up an acrid odor, in place of a bouquet of cocoa powder, blackberry and cherry, then you may have experienced a corked bottle. The problem was most likely a fungus/mold that had attached itself to the cork and robbed the wine of its robust aromatics. This is a common occurrence for those in the wine industry (opening upwards of 10+ bottles a week), less so (and more jarring, when noticed), for the average wine drinker. The cork’s main downfall is its ability to carry these fungi—undetected. However, for all the faults that a cork may have (and there are a few), it is certainly a charming, lightweight device that proves to be quite versatile.

Among the best things, is the satisfying pop it makes (the cork swells in the neck of the bottle by absorbing moisture, hence the pop) when it is pried from a fresh bottle of juice. Once removed though, they are often discarded—unless you are an artistic pack rat and can find a unique way to display them—but take a minute to investigate the tiny stopper. The small unit can be found in different shapes and lengths, tattooed with all sorts of insignia from relevant branding to random designs.

The cork is derived from the bark of a finicky variety of oak tree (Quercus suber L.) that are particular to their hospitable environs. Its special requirements include: soil devoid of chalk, a medium altitude (330-1,000ft) and never getting too cold. Their ideal growing conditions limit them to few places around the world. They are primarily found in Portugal, Spain and North Africa.

The cork industry originated in Catalonia, Spain but would eventually be usurped in production by Portugal because of the Spanish Civil War. Now Portugal is responsible for producing over half the world’s supply of corks while other countries fill out the remaining dregs.

The cork-making process is not too different from other woods being shaped, treated and ultimately turned into products but its texture and lightness are unique.

Thick, porous strips of the tree’s bark are removed annually from the tree without harming it. They are set aside to season for a select period of time, then boiled, to kill off mold and infectious taints.  The wood is then left to rest again. After this process, the strips are cut into tinier planks to begin making the corks. The corks go through a series of cleaning and airing out treatments to limit the all but imperceptible to all the unnecessary evils that can grow on corks.

This process is long and involved, yet it yields a mighty stopper, responsible for locking in some of the priciest liquids in the world. What is more interesting than its primary job, is its secondary/recycled uses, being converted into a wide array of products: wine shipping containers, shoes, boards, toys and furniture. I am not against screw tops and alternative bottle closures, but the cork is king.

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