davies wakefield | wine uncorked | january 2017
When I was in my twenties and freshly married, my wife and I used to drive to the Sotheby's quarterly wine auctions in Chicago. We were as poor as church mice back then but we managed to save up the $25 dollar lunch and sampling fee to attend the otherwise free auction. The auction had two sessions a wine tasting was held before the morning session and lunch was served promptly at noon at the University Club on East Monroe. It was a buffet lunch and we gorged ourselves on great food, but the tasting was worth far more than the lunch. The Sotheby's tasting was managed by the venerable Michael Broadbent who was at the end of his career with the auction house and he saw his mission as to educate the wine drinking public. We were privileged to taste Madeira's that were made when George Washington was still alive, Bordeaux's and Burgundies from the early twentieth century, and very old German Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.
The wines that fascinated me though, were the very old vintage ports. Some of these bottles did not have labels (labels would have deteriorated during the aging process making the wine unidentifiable) but rather were stenciled with the date in very large letters. They were sweet, boozy, voluptuous wines that were addictive but required extensive aging like 30-60 years or more. As the name indicates vintage port is only bottled during extremely good vintages, so it is fairly rare as well. It was said that a well to do Englishman graduating from Eton would buy a case or two of vintage port and lay it down for his retirement. The problem for me as a person of humble upbringing was that vintage port is prohibitively expensive when it is properly aged and I didn't have the wherewithal (a deep cold cellar) to age the newly vinted port. So I have suffered through the years without ever tasting vintage port again. However, with the current release of vintage port, there is a solution. Late bottled vintage port is the answer to the conundrum but before I talk about it, there is a fascinating story about the origins of port that will grab your attention.
It has been said that, “If Portugal is the mother of port, then Britain is certainly its father.” The relationship with Portugal and Great Britain started in 1386 when the Treaty of Windsor was signed between the two countries which fostered mutual support. The impetus behind the treaty was the frequent conflicts that occurred between France and England which periodically cut off shipments of French Bordeaux and Burgundy. During these periods, Portugal was an alternate source of good cheap wine. But it wasn't until the British Parliament shut off imports of French wine in 1679 in order to cut off tariff revenue to the hated Charles II that Port really came into its own. Like Champagne and Spanish Sherry Port is a “manufactured” or “processed” wine, British wine merchants not satisfied with the common wines of Lisbon looked for better opportunities in the valley of Douro which was about three mule days from the seacoast city of Oporto. The terrain was extremely rugged and the weather was extremely hot in the summer and bitterly cold in winter. The merchants bought land in the upper reaches of the valley finding the higher elevation grew better grapes. The hills were so steep that they had to terrace the hills in order to grow the grapes. The primary grapes of port are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca, and Tinta Roriz. The farms or quintas as they are called are still harvested by hand and trodden bare foot at night in open granite lagares. The bare foot process scrapes the waxy coating on the grape seeds which releases the tannins which make vintage port almost impossible to drink when released and will form a crust on the inside of the bottles as it ages. The bare foot crushing process is so important to port's taste and style that some quintas have developed 'robotic lagares” with artificial toes, to offset labor shortages. During the fermentation in the lagares, about half the grape sugar is converted into alcohol. At this point the half made wine is run off into barrels that are one quarter full of brandy. Fermentation stops immediately.
This is where port is relegated to four different styles; its destiny determined by its quality and potential for improvement. Simple fruity and rather light wines without great concentration will become ruby port. This is the cheapest category and one that frequently winds up on skid row. Young wines with more aggressive character and greater concentration are set aside to develop into tawny port so-called because of faded color after many years in barrels. Tawnies include some of the greatest of all ports kept for up to 40 years in cask. The best tawnies have an indication of age on the bottle. Twenty years is minimum with the more expensive types at 30 and 40 years. The taste and style of these ports is not monolithic but varies from quinta to quinta according to the tasting panel that develops the wine. The taste varies from luscious to dry. Vintage Port by contrast is the product of the three or four vintages in a decade that come close to the quintas idea of perfection. The wine is matured for a minimum of 22 months and a maximum of 31 months for their component parts to “marry”( remember that these are blends of up to 6 different grape varieties), then bottled as infants. Within a couple of years the wines close up and become undrinkably tannic. Vintage Port matures in the airless reductive atmosphere of a glass bottle with an exceedingly long cork built to stand the decades of aging necessary to get it to the perfumed and mellow drink with a bit of “bite” at the finish. These ports are fantastically expensive when fully mature. A bottle of 2011 vintage port that will require 40 years of aging was $88 dollars at a local wine store. A bottle of fully aged 1963 vintage port at Hart Davis hart Wine Auctions was recently offered at $600-950.
The last category of port is Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV) and is similar to vintage port in that it is made from one particular vintage year, but it is kept twice as long in barrel from 3.5-6 years. LBV port is a way of enjoying a particularly good vintage of port without having to wait 40-50 years. The good news is that you can experience an LBV port for less than $25 dollars. The 2011 LBV ports are just now coming into the market after sitting in oak barrels since 2011. The 2011 vintage compares well with two other famous vintages: 1927 and 1963. The 2011 vintage will go down in history as one of the best, so it is fitting to describe how that year unfolded. The winter was very rainy and wet which was followed by the onset of odium and mildew that spring which reduced the number of grape clusters. In June, hail further reduced the crop. There was not a drop of rain until a brief storm in late August. The rain refreshed the vines as they entered veraison (color change). The grapes ripened through a clear September. The arid heat of the Douro and northern exposure had ripened a vintage for the ages that surprised even seasoned wine pundits. In the old days, port was drunk after dinner behind closed doors by men. The ritual demanded that the port decanter be passed by grasping the decanter with your left hand and passing it to the left, presumably, so it is said, so that the men could keep their right hands on their swords. Today knowing that the pen is more powerful than the sword, I would venture that the ritual would allow the drinkers to keep their right hands on their Twitter feeds.
The first port is the W. & J. Grahams 2011 Late Bottled Vintage Port, $19 at Woodman's Appleton. The texture of this wine is worth twice the price. Its silken richness carries meaty spice. While it is sweet at first, it is also bright and juicy. The savory balance between meaty and sweet comes to a nicely integrated finish. For those of you not familiar with port, it is best served cool (not chilled) in smaller glasses like a Sherry glass (it does pack a punch at 19.5 percent alcohol). Try it with some hard cheeses like Stilton, Parmesan or Cheddar. Dark chocolate desserts will go well with this port.
The second port is the Taylor Fladgate 2011 Late Bottled Vintage Port also $19 at Woodman's Green Bay. This wine has some of the 2010 vintage added to the blend. While this wine hasn't been rated yet, it was my favorite of the two. It is deep ruby red in color with a distinct floral nose with notes of ripe baked damson plums and dried Bing cherries. There is a touch of leather and licorice along with well integrated tannins and great balance. Try this with some Roquefort cheese.
Try these wines now and cheat Father Time or if you are in your twenties or thirties buy a bottle of the 2011 Vintage Port stick it in the coolest part of your cellar and wait for 40 years. The vintage is that good.