Souzao (pronounced suh-zay-oh) is one of the grapes used in Portugal to make that country’s sweet Port wines. While flavorful, its primary contribution is color; it’s a dark red grape that can give Port a brilliant, alluring hue.
There isn’t much planted in California, however. Once used in crafting some of the state’s most popular dessert wines, only 68 acres of Souzao vines are left in the Golden State.
In Sonoma County, a mere 2 acres remain, including two rows on the Valley of the Moon Winery estate in Sonoma Valley.
“When Kenwood [Vineyards] bought the property in 1996, they replanted everything except the old-vine Zinfandel,” says Valley of the Moon winemaker Greg Winter. “The new plantings included some Souzao, with the idea being to have a dessert wine to sell in the tasting room.”
Winter takes a traditional approach in the cellar, using Alembic-distilled brandy — supplied by sister winery Korbel — to stop the fermentation at just the right moment.
“Finding that ‘sweet spot’ during fermentation is the key,” Winter explains. In past vintages, the residual sugar level has been as high as 7.5%, “but I shoot for around 6%.”
Lacking access to other traditional Port varieties, Winter adds some Syrah to the blend — as much as 30% some years, but generally closer to 15%, “to include some ‘New World’ fruit flavor. Syrah is a little softer than Souzao, so it also provides nice balance.”
The “official” name of the wine — Late Bottled Vintage Port — comes from the aging regimen: 30 months in neutral oak barrels prior to bottling and release.
“I really like the ’07,” Winter adds. “I like the mouthfeel, the balance and the flavor. It turned out really nice.”
Like its Portuguese cousins, Valley of the Moon’s Late Bottled Vintage Port would pair well with Stilton cheese and roasted nuts. Winter does not disagree, although he prefers to sip it solo after a meal.
“I’m not a big fan of Cabernet Sauvignon paired with chocolate,” he notes. “Why not just have a glass of Port for dessert?”
The 2007 vintage, reviewed here, makes a good case for that stance. It’s a wine that seamlessly melds Old World tradition and a New World philosophy with delicious results.