Califonia Bountiful

Ports for the ages

November/December 2020 California Bountiful magazine

Winemaker continues time-honored tradition

Peter Ficklin, third-generation owner of Ficklin Vineyards in Madera County, specializes in crafting premium ports—sweet, fortified wines—from winegrape varieties native to Portugal. Photo: © 2020 Tomas Ovalle

North of the San Joaquin River in rural Madera County stands America's oldest port winery and vineyard, Ficklin Vineyards.

Following a tradition established by his grandfather in 1946, winemaker Peter Ficklin handcrafts premium ports—sweet, fortified wines—from winegrape varieties native to Portugal. The third-generation winemaker said the climate and growing conditions in Madera are ideal for making "vinho do porto."

"My grandfather traveled the world and then worked with the University of California in the '30s and '40s, discerning what grapes grew well in what areas of California," Ficklin said. "Lo and behold, this part of Madera County is excellent for the varieties of the Douro River region of Portugal for making ports."

In those early days, Ficklin said, no one in California produced premium ports, but rather inexpensive imitations. His father wanted to learn more, and attended UC Davis to study enology.

"He came back and built a winery, and we had our first crush of grapes in 1948," said the younger Ficklin, now owner and president of Ficklin Vineyards. "It was my father's intent to produce a premium port using traditional port grape varieties and time-honored methods of production and aging."

Ficklin Vineyards grows Portuguese winegrape varieties such as Tinta Madeira. Photo: © 2020 Tomas Ovalle

Portuguese tradition

Many U.S. wineries produce fortified dessert wines with the words "port" or "port-style" on the label, but using non-Portuguese varietals. Ficklin Vineyards' use of Portuguese varieties sets its ports apart, Ficklin said, adding, "It is our traditional ports that compete head-to-head with the Portuguese, who have been making traditional ports since the 17th century and are obviously the standard to be measured against."

Ficklin followed in his father's and grandfather's footsteps by studying enology at UC Davis. In 1983, he took over as winemaker at the family business, which now crafts about 50 different, highly acclaimed ports sold across the U.S. The small, estate vineyard grows Portuguese varieties Tinta Madeira and Touriga Nacional, and Ficklin buys other port varietals such as Souzao, Tinta Cao, Tinta Roriz and Alvarelhao from a network of California wineries.

"Port is made by harvesting and crushing each variety's fruit at optimal maturity and allowing a fermentation to begin, just as in table wines," he said. "At the right moment, we add custom-produced grape brandy to stop the fermentation, retaining the grape sugar and raising the alcohol content to a range of 18% to 21%, traditional for ports."

Ficklin helps Bob and Brenna Barks with a curbside pickup. Photo: © 2020 Tomas Ovalle

Legacy in a bottle—and barrel

The three most common styles of port are vintage, tawny and ruby. Vintage ports result from an individual year's harvest and are bottled young, less than three years of age. Tawny ports spend their entire lives in a wooden barrel and then are bottled, ready to drink. Ruby ports are two to three years old and typically represent a blend of different years; they're meant to be consumed young. Ficklin Vineyards produces all three styles.

"The vineyard's flagship, Old Vine Tinta port, is made in a solera system, where you only remove a portion of the wine that was started back in 1948 by my father and add younger wine, so it's a little bit of each vintage from every year and literally a living picture of the wine we've made here," Ficklin said.

"Ports offer quite a diversity of flavors and vary from vintage to vintage and style to style," he added.

The Touriga grape, for example, yields a ruby port offering flavors of boysenberry, pomegranate and a hint of nutmeg, whereas a barrel-aged tawny port of the same variety features dark caramel and toffee with cobbler and pecan flavors. A tawny port contains a lot of sweet fruit flavors, especially berry, cherry and plum, and some chocolate tones. Older, barrel-aged tawny ports can acquire butterscotch and caramel, he said. Some younger ports, Ficklin said, "move into nice, smoky menthol flavors, with some chocolate."

Unique to ports, Ficklin said, is they can be aged longer than many other wines: "A port that is six, seven, 10, 30, 50 years old is absolutely amazing. We use a lot of the same equipment that any other winery would use, but we still have wines barrel-aged 30 years and bottles that date back to the first wines that my father made in 1948. The wine library is where all of these old, dusty bottles are. Normally, you wouldn't find that at any other winery."

Port wines pair well with holiday favorites including richly flavored cheeses, chocolate and caramel desserts, and salted and smoked nuts. Photo: © 2020 Tomas Ovalle

Pairing ports

No matter the length of the aging process, ports are often served as a dessert wine, but can also be paired with savory dishes. During the holiday season, Ficklin said port wine pairs well with richly flavored cheeses, chocolate and caramel desserts, and salted and smoked nuts.

He has paired different ports with different courses during a meal, and uses ports to enhance dishes from poached pears to pork roasts. For the holiday season, the winery promotes a hot buttered tawny, which features the winery's tawny port aged for 10 years. For a traditional dinner of turkey, stuffing and potatoes, Ficklin said, "I would pair that with a rosé port, or a port that has a little sweetness, since sweeter ports go well with a wide array of flavors."

Fickland Vineyards offers 50 to 70 different ports, many of which have won awards. Photo: © 2020 Tomas Ovalle

Ficklin Vineyards wine club member Rebecca King of Visalia said the tinta and Old Vine Tawny ports are her favorites, and she has visited the winery during the pandemic to have the bottles delivered to her car. The staff also hosts webinars and virtual tastings for those interested in learning more about their products.

"Peter and the folks at Ficklin Vineyards are really passionate about the different types of port wines they sell. They are really down to earth and will give you their own recipes that they've tried pairing with the wines," King said. "We tell everybody that they really need to try their port wines. They have something for everybody."

Along with receiving numerous international accolades for the ports he makes, Peter Ficklin was honored in 2012 with the Wine Lifetime Achievement Award from the California State Fair. Last year, Ficklin Vineyards received a request from the U.S. Embassy in London to serve the winery's Old Vine Tinta and Aged 10 Years Tawny ports at future dinners.

Ficklin Vineyards customers "are wine aficionados that enjoy different wines and ports," Ficklin said. "They seek us out. We have visitors from all over the world, people that visit Yosemite and make a stop. They will (make a) pilgrimage here to come and see us. It's young people and boomers and all across the board."

Christine Souza

Many of the wineries on the Madera Wine Trail are situated in the midst of the vineyards from which they harvest their grapes. Photo: © 2020 Tomas Ovalle

Visit the Madera Wine Trail

Visitors to the heart of California can experience Old World techniques and state-of-the-art technology at the wineries along the Madera Wine Trail.

The area, cooled by the San Joaquin River on the southwest and the Sierra Nevada on the east, features warm summer temperatures, varied soils and generations of families growing winegrapes. Madera was designated an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1985 and includes both Madera and Fresno counties.

Many wineries along the Madera Wine Trail remain open for curbside and retail pickup during the pandemic, according to the Madera Vintners Association, which operates the trail. Social distancing and the use of masks are encouraged, and guests should check with each location for hours of operation before visiting. For a map or more information:


Hot buttered tawny

California cheesecake with tawny port caramel drizzle

Festive cheese board with orange slices candied in white port

Rosemary and thyme pan-seared rack of lamb with port reduction glaze

Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube Pinterest Pinterest