Behold, a pale port

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While sipping my way through a barrel tasting last week, I came across something of a novelty: a California chardonnay port. White port isn't that unusual, of course; the Portuguese have been making fortified wines from white grapes and from red fermented off-skin for a long time. Still, when most of us think of port, we think of a ruby-colored, almost syrupy elixir, a few sips of which makes a lovely after-dinner drink and, with its sweetness, a good substitute for dessert.

The maker of the chardonnay port is VJB Vineyards, in Kenwood. The winery belongs to that class of ultra-chic, ultra-small-production enterprises that sell most of their wine through their tasting rooms and, in some cases, through subscription lists or Web sites (www.vjbcellars.com). VJB's chardonnay port, Baci de Famiglia, is produced in rather minute quantities; just 200 cases of the 2005 vintage are available. Given this scarcity, the price — $28 for an elegantly slim 375-milliliter bottle — is surprisingly nonstratospheric.

The port is a pale honey-straw color, like a richer pinot grigio. It is lighter and less syrupy than its red cousins (you are supposed to serve it well-chilled) and perhaps slightly less sweet; most red California ports are distinguishable by their pronounced fruitiness and sweetness. I have never tasted Portuguese white port, but I have tasted ice wines from both Austria and Canada — wines made from very-late-harvest white grapes that are allowed to freeze on the vine before being crushed — and I would say they are the nearest relations of VJB's chardonnay port, both in color and in restrained sweetness. Certainly, many of the great white dessert wines, even those from France, such as Sauternes, tend to be noticeably sweeter and weightier on the tongue. For a chardonnay wine produced in California, the port is noticeably nonoaky, and the bouquet does carry a hint of apples — a natural and attractive characteristic of chardonnay, though one too often muted or lost altogether in the making of the heavier white wines we cannot seem to wean ourselves from.

The port, I was told, would make a beautiful match with a blue cheese from the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. (www.pointreyescheese.com), samples of which were just steps away. A novelty pairing? No, a natural one.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

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