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updated: 6/14/2011 2:50 PM

Learn what's in a good Port

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Port is one the most highly valued liquids on earth, but even the best Port customers may be hard-pressed to name the grapes in their favorite quaff.

A handful of Portuguese winemakers plan to change all that.

Since the 1970s, producers such as Aveleda, CARM and P + S have rethought, replanted and remarketed their vineyards, with a new focus on dry red wine.

In the 16th century, when the Portuguese Armada controlled the waves, winemakers fortified their products with alcohol to withstand long ocean voyages, reaching customers around the globe. In the 1950s, Portugal's Mateus -- a pink frizzante -- became the first modern, global wine craze.

So, there's delicious irony in Portugal's recent wine isolation. This historic and once powerful region can now offer wine lovers something they've never heard of.

Specifically, Touriga Nacional. While "T-Nac" is considered the finest grape in the Port blend, its low-yielding, finicky nature caused vineyards to be uprooted in favor of more profitable varieties.

As their heritage dwindled, winemakers such as the Symingtons (owners of Graham's, Warre's and other Port houses) had a thought: why not treat Touriga Nacional like other fine red grapes?

Enter Bruno Prats, just off his 30-year mission of morphing Bordeaux's Chateau Cos d'Estournel from an also-ran into a highly rated "Super Second."

Prats and the Symingtons applied Bordeaux's techniques -- including temperature-controlled fermentation, prolonged maceration of skins and juice and aging in small French barrels -- to create wines of balance, finesse and silky tannin. (See "Ross's Choice")

With less finesse but lots of enjoyment in the under-$10 category, winemakers at Aveleda employed lesser Port grapes -- Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Franca -- to create "Charamba," a dry red with lush berry, smoke and spice notes.

Portugal has little marketing to push wine into our market and no culinary pull. (The national dish is salt cod? Really?)

But Portuguese cuisine translates easily into Chicagoan: iscas (calves' liver with sautéed onions); cozido á portuguesa (beef and pork stew) and frango no espeto (rotisserie chicken).

And with very good 2007 and 2008 vintages on our retail shelves, Portugal's dry reds represent unique regional flavors at excellent value for quality wine.