Faded Brilliance: vintage port

Davies Wakefield

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | oct. 2019

My college roommate Roger sent me this picture of a bottle of vintage port from the 2005 vintage that he had saved to celebrate his 70th birthday. It reminded me that this wonderful but powerful wine is slowly becoming extinct as tastes and culture evolve and evoked in me a yearning for times past.

In May of 1762, the cellar master for King George III purchased red port for the first time. Prior to that time, England was a claret-drinking country. Since the Little Ice Age of the Late Middle Ages and the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the 1530s, wine had not been produced in Great Britain. Wine was imported from Germany and France but claret was the drink of royalty. On the morning of his execution in 1649, Charles I had a glass of claret and a piece of bread before having his head separated from his body (The result of a rebel rump parliament and a vindictive Oliver Cromwell who presciently but prematurely decided that they no longer believed in the divine rights of kings). But like many seemingly minor events, that glass of claret resulted in over 100 years of devotion to the joys of French claret. Charles Ludington, in his book “The Politics of Wine in Britain,” recounts the cultural aspects of this trend and the gradual change from claret to port but to appreciate the change, an understanding of port and vintage port is in order.

Port is a manufactured or processed wine as are champagne and sherry. That is to say that the wine is composed of different elements to create a taste that doesn't vary from year to year; each is an elaboration on the natural produce of its region to enhance its latent quality. This is a capital-intensive business requiring holding large stocks of wine for blending purposes. The blending process matches year-to-year tastes to avoid vintage differences. Single vineyard ports and even single vintage ports are still the exception in an industry that lives day to day on long established and consistent blends. The port destined for blending is transported after its first racking off of the lees to the shippers' lodges, which for the most part, are located across the river Douro from Oporto. Once in the lodges, port, like sherry, is graded and classified by tasting and destiny (tawny port, late-bottled vintage or the cheapest variety, ruby port). The wines are required to match the tasting profile for that style, as determined by an expert tasting panel. Today port is the most strictly controlled of all wines. A series of statutory authorities regulate and oversee every stage of production.

Vintage port, by contrast, is the product of one of the two to three vintages in a decade that come close to the shipper's idea of perfection, which have so much flavor and individuality that to make them anonymous, as part of a blend, would be a waste of their potential. Whether or not a shipper “declares” a vintage is entirely his own decision. It is very rare that all do so in the same year because the topography and climate in the Douro area are extremely variable.

Vintage ports are blended in the particular style the shipper has developed over many years, using the best lots of wine from his growers and his own vineyards. They are matured for a minimum of 22 months up to 31 months in casks for the components to “marry,” then bottled as infants. Very young vintage port can be delicious at this stage but within a couple of years the wines close up and become undrinkably tannic, aggressive and concentrated in flavor. Almost all maturation of vintage ports occur in the airless “reductive “conditions of a black glass bottle with a long cork designed to protect the wine for decades, while it slowly feeds on itself. Its tannins and pigments react to form a heavy skin-like crust that sticks to the bottle's sides. The color slowly fades and its flavor evolves from violently sweet and harsh to gently sweet perfumed and mellow. However, mellow vintage port is designed to have “grip” — a vital ingredient in wine even in old age. Starting with 2-3 years in-cask then 10-30 years in the bottle, anyone interested in this wine has got to have time and money, not to mention the special tool that is needed to open the now 30+-year-old bottle. Port tongs are the required tool to open a bottle that most likely has a cork that is fragile, to say the least, and may crumble if pulled with a conventional screw pull corkscrew after that many years. The tongs are heated to red-hot and encircle the bottle's neck just below the cork; once the heat is transferred to the neck, a touch with a wet feather will cleanly snap the top of the bottle. The wine is then filtered through fine muslin to separate any glass chips as well as the heavy sediment.

The aging process technology changes in the bottling process and the return of the monarchy in the form of Charles II after Oliver Cromwell's death changed the politics of a proper drink for the royalty. As port became more prevalent in the upper classes it was said that “Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men.” Furthermore, embargoes of French wine in trade disputes elevated port to the drink of the British elites right through the second world war. Numerous skits by Monty Python and Firesign Theater during the 1970s played to the pomposity of stuffed-shirt royals sipping port and smoking cigars in the “war room.”

Last year 36 percent of the grapes that go into port — Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca and Tinta Roriz — were turned into fresh, immediately accessible Dâo. That percentage has been increasing as port declines in popularity. While vintage port is still available through auction houses and high-end wine distributors, I sense that other factors may signal an end to this very fine wine. I first noticed the fact that our world had changed to a more hectic pace back in the 1980s when, as a young executive, I was asked to carry a pager and when I travelled, I also had what was known then as a “bag phone.” The phone was carried in a bag with a magnetic antenna that mounted to the roof of a car. It allowed for immediate connection if you were close to the newly installed cell towers. Later, when the Blackberry phones came out, e-mail was available as well as phoning while on the road. Then, after the turn of the century, I was travelling to and from Hong Kong advising startup companies in the Gaudong Province in mainland China on improving their manufacturing processes. I noticed that Hong Kong had become a 24-hour city. People were on their cell phones at all hours of the day and night as internet service was added. I was getting phone calls in the middle of the night from my boss back in the states to advise him about manufacturing problems at the US factory. Now that I've been retired for about seven years, I am seeing another evolution that is further complicating life. 5G phone capability is enabling the streaming video movement that has Netflix, Disney, AT&T and Apple spending billions to introduce their services this fall. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, is quoted as saying, “We actually compete with sleep, and we're winning.” Additionally, recognizing the fact that young people don't have the time to watch a three-hour Star Wars move in one sitting anymore and the potential steep increase in ad revenue, the media moguls are dividing up these types of movies into segments that remind me of the 1950s Saturday movie house serials like “Flash Gordon,” “Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere” and Gene Autry and “The Phantom Empire.” We'll all be talking about the acronym Quibi by late this year into 2020. Quibi stands for “quick bite” and it refers to the seven to 10-minute movie segments that are being developed to generate interest for millennials and Gen Z who have pretty much abandoned TV. Newspapers. Who's reading newspapers? There are now short “curated” quibis of news. Only God knows what bullshit is in that “news.” As Heraclitus said thousands of years ago, “All is flux.” So, I wonder about great wines like port, Madeira and Sauternes. I wonder if the Millennials and Generation Z will have the time to enjoy wines that require a degree of contemplation amidst the frenetic-paced lives they lead today. I'm hoping that as these young people mature into their 30s and 40s that they'll start to realize that life isn't a sprint but a marathon.

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