Complexity, character and ritual

THE FIRST THING to remember about vintage port is that it’s one of the best, most complex, most sensuous wines in the world. The second thing to remember is that over the years port has become encumbered with a lot of hidebound tradition and pretentious ritual. The third thing to remember is that at least some of that tradition and ritual is, in fact, there for good reason-and can help unlock at least some of its quality, complexity and intensely sensuous character.

Port, for those of you who are unfamiliar with its history, is sweet red wine fortified with brandy, made from grapes of the Upper Douro region of Portugal and shipped from the city of Oporto, which gives the wine its name.

Port was not invented by the Portuguese, but by English wine merchants in the late 17th century. It has been called the Englishman’s wine, both because of this and because the English are major consumers of port. Many of the best port shippers – the firms who make the wine, the “brands” – bear English names like Croft, Dow, Taylor, Smith Woodhouse, Gould Campbell and Graham.

The history of port’s development is entangled with the intricacies of Western European diplomatic history, but to oversimplify, it can be said that Portuguese wines were imported into England in the 17th century for political reasons. The English-drinking populace wasn’t very fond of these wines, having become more accustomed to the finer wines of France on one hand and the potent charms of gin on the other. When trade with France was interrupted – again for political reasons- the need for drinkable wine from Portugal became more pressing. British merchants in Portugal started adding brandy to the wine, both to preserve it somewhat during its sea voyage to their homeland and to make it stronger and thus more competitive with gin.

At some point, someone hit upon the idea of adding brandy before the wine had finished fermenting. This not only raised the wine’s alcoholic content, but it also arrested its own conversion of sugar into alcohol. More sugar was left in the wine, so that it was sweeter and more pleasant to drink, while the added brandy gave it a kick and provided a counterpoint to the sweetness. Wine treated in this manner was a success in England; at last, the English liked Portuguese wine.

By the mid-18th century, this process was no longer just a way to improve mediocre wines; it had become an end in itself. The quality of the base wine and brandy had been greatly improved, production techniques had been polished and fine port as we now know it was beginning to be produced.

Today 10 or 12 different grape varieties go into port – principally touriga, bastar-do and mourisca for flavor and complexity; and sousao, tinta cao and tinta fran-cisca (said to be related to pinot noir) for color and body. Winemaking methods are still relatively primitive – perhaps traditional-and the Douro is one of the few major winegrowing regions of the world where grapes are sometimes still crushed by barefoot workers (a fact that has made more than one contemporary port drinker appreciate the antiseptic qualities of brandy).

After the wine is made and before it is shipped, it comes to rest in the so-called amazens or wine lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, across the Douro River from Oporto, where it is developed into several different styles of wine. Tawny port, the driest and potentially most elegant variety, is a blend of good wines from different vintages that is allowed to age in oak barrels for several years – often as many as 10 or 15 – until it fades from dark purple to an attractive tawny golden-brown hue. Ruby port, also made from a blend of wines, is matured in wood for a much shorter period of time and remains sweet and dark in color. Vintage character port and the confusingly named port of the vintage (which is not the same as vintage port) are usually particularly good tawny ports (made from a single vintage, in the latter case) or something between tawny and ruby. Crusted (or crusting) port – port that leaves a crust of sediment in the bottle as it matures – begins to approximate vintage port, though it is blended from several vintages and is ready to drink at a younger age. White port is its own creature, a wine made in varying degrees of sweetness from a different set of grape varieties than these other ports, and is served mostly as an apéritif.

Finally, there is vintage port – the king of them all; the one indisputably great wine of the Douro. Vintage port is made from the best wines of a single excellent vintage. It is aged in oak for two years and is then kept several years by the shipper in bottles, where it begins to develop its unique blend of flavors.

Whether or not a vintage port will be made in a given year is decided individually by each shipper. Those shippers who think their wines are good enough “declare” a vintage. There tends to be some disagreement in these matters: About 30 shippers declared the superb 1960 vintage, for instance, while only seven declared the 1967. The firm of Graham has declared 35 vintages since 1870, while the Gonzalez Byass company has declared only 14. Roughly speaking, there seems to be about one widely declared vintage every three or four years. Among the great years of this century were 1908, 1927, 1931, 1935 and 1945; recent good ones include 1960,1963, 1966, 1970, 1975 and 1977.

What makes vintage port so special? Great wines in general are those in which a number of diverse elements are balanced against each other and are well integrated with each other so they yield a complexity of smell and taste – even texture – that transcends mere grapes, wood and alcohol. Vintage port is particularly good at this sort of thing. It starts out with constituent parts, of great force and personality – rich, dark, fruity wine; sharp, smoky brandy; the vanilla-like taste of oak. If you drink vintage port when it is too young, you’ll taste all these things, still with their own identities. But as port ages, these elements become intertwined. At the age of 15 or 20 years, fine vintage port of a great vintage has an almost unbelievable range of subtleties. It encourages you to extend your sensory abilities, to strain for nuances. And besides that, vintage port is delicious.

The major shippers of vintage port most commonly found in the United States include Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Fonseca, Gould Campbell, Graham, Sandeman, Smith Woodhouse, Taylor Fladgate and Warre. Other good ones to watch for (though they’re harder to find) are Butler Nephew, Calem, Delaforce, Ferreira, Feuerheerd, Martinez, Offley Forrester, Quarles Harris, Rebello Valente and Tuke, Holdsworth.

If you’ve never tasted vintage port and you want to try it at its best, you might be best advised to splurge on a bottle of ’60 or ’63 so you can start out by seeing what a fine mature port can be. (Dow, Fonseca, Graham, Taylor or Warre would be particularly good bets, though port from any of the above-named shippers would be more than acceptable.) These older ports aren’t all that easy to come by, though, and they’ll probably cost $40 to $50 a bottle.

The vintage you’ll see most commonly in wine shops today is the 1977 – which, luckily, was a great year, rated by some experts in a class with the legendary 1927 and 1945. These wines will be more reasonably priced-probably around $15 a bottle, give or take a few dollars, depending on the shipper. This may not seem like much of a bargain, but it is. If you wanted to buy a sample of any of the world’s other great wines, from vintages of equal quality, you’d be spending much more money – $30 or $40 a bottle for good bordeaux or champagne, $100 or more for good red burgundy, even $20 or $30 for a big-name California cabernet with any age on it. And probably none of these would give you the intensity of enjoyment you’ll get from a bottle of vintage port.

But be forewarned: A good 1977 vintage port is still too young to really savor; it’s likely to be a big, overly assertive, almost awkward wine, and it won’t have developed the complexity and range of flavors it will one day have. Taste it at your own risk, with this in mind. It won’t be undrinkable by any means – and to wine lovers used to huge young California red wines, it might not even seem that brash – but it will taste much better if you forget you have it for about five more years and let it weave its magic.

I recently tasted eight top ’77s. I liked them all in varying degrees, but a few were real standouts. Here are some brief notes on all eight, arranged in the order I preferred them – with the first four being truly spectacular:

1. Dow. Classic port nose; lots of niceflavors, attractive syrupy richness, stillvery closed up, but with a lot of obviouspower; “a copybook wine,” according toMichael Broadbent in his “The Great Vintage Wine Book”-a real classic, in otherwords; exactly what it should be in the bestof all possible worlds.

2. Smith Woodhouse. Bouquet still developing, but some nice fruit alreadystraining to get through; big, solid, verytannic wine, with intense fruit and a strongbackbite of alcohol; should turn out beautifully.

3. Fonseca. Typical of this excellentshipper: very nice port smells already coming out; perfectly balanced; good range offlavors; not overly sweet in the finish.

4. Graham. A woody sweetness in thenose; wonderfully smooth, almost choco-lately quality; good fruit flavors.

5. Sandeman. Again, port smells already showing clearly, with hints of ablack walnut character; medium rich in body (Sandeman is known for ports in a lighter, more elegant style than many shippers), good grapey tastes, slightly “hot” alcoholic finish.

6. Taylor Fladgate. Good port bouquetdeveloping; extremely nice flavors, particularly in the finish, but not very intense;seems a bit low in acid.

7. Warre. Not much fruit in nose, slowto develop; pleasant and smooth – perhaps too much for so young a wine.

8. Gould Campbell. Very fresh younggrapey smells; not particularly full-bodied; nice light fruit; comparativelybland for young port.

For comparison’s sake, 1 added a California port to the table when I tried these wines- 1977 Quady Amador County zinfandel port. Though it was very different in style from its Portuguese cousins, it was very attractive wine, with a concentrated fruit smell reminiscent of peaches, good body and good grape flavors, and plenty of tannin. (Upon tasting Quady’s first port, the 1975 vintage, representatives of Fonseca were so impressed with it that they ordered experimental plantings of zinfandel in their own vineyards.)

A good ruby-style port is made in California by Ficklin; other producers who are making good port (or port-like wine) include J.W. Morris Port Works (with Quady, the best), Woodbury and Callaway. Supposedly, other good ports are made in South Africa and Australia, but my own experience of such wines is meager. These wines have their place, but they are not, in any case, vintage port. (Since 1965, all Portuguese port has been labeled “porto,” to distinguish it from non-Portuguese fortified wines.)

About that ritual and tradition mentioned earlier … At the table, port must always be passed to the left; the first toast is always to the queen; port is a man’s wine, best enjoyed when the women have retired after dinner; port is a drink for the autumn and winter, not the spring and summer; and port must be decanted according to complicated principles.

The first two traditions mentioned are harmless practices native to the British Isles. If you want to forge a link, however tenuous, with port’s ancestors, there’s no harm in observing them. The third tradition, of course, is nonsense: Port belongs to anybody who wants to appreciate it. (The New York Times’ wine specialist, Terry Robards, once wrote that he attended a dinner party in London at which the men retired to the library for port, cognac and cigars after the meal while the women were shepherded upstairs to the living room for coffee; the latter group spent the entire evening stomping loudly on the floor “to remind the men below of the inequity of the situation.”)

The spring/summer prohibition has some merit to it, though it needn’t be strictly adhered to. The point is that vintage port, like anything else thick and sweet and rather alcoholic, goes down better in cool or cold weather than it does in the middle of a heat wave. Vintage port is a rainy-day-and-fireplace kind of wine – not the sort of thing you sip during long, warm summer afternoons. An English connoisseur once told me he was surprised people drank port at all in California, what with the amiable climate and all.

The rituals of decanting port are another matter. Any vintage (or crusted) port more than a few years old must be decanted-poured from its bottle into another clean vessel. This is done because port “throws” sediment – lots of it, thick, sandy, muddy stuff. It’s not poisonous (some old-generation Britons reportedly even spread it on toast as a kind of jam), but it’s extremely unpleasant to get a mouthful of it just as you’re savoring the delights of a fine old wine.

To decant a bottle of port, which has presumably been lying on its side in a storage place, first stand it upright for 24 (or even 48) hours to allow the sediment to settle to the bottom. Just how far in advance one should open the wine is a matter of some controversy. The old English tradition was to decant it at teatime if you were going to serve it after dinner. In my experience, about two hours before serving is about right – except perhaps in the case of older ports (pre-1945 or so), which I’d decant shortly before serving (though there are other port lovers who would consider so short a breathing time to be barbaric).

Draw the cork out of the bottle carefully, especially if it’s an older wine. Port corks are quite long, and older ones may be crumbly, so you’ll need a corkscrew with a long, broad blade – or a two-bladed one that doesn’t puncture the cork at all. When it’s open, pour the wine slowly into a decanter (even another wine bottle, rinsed out in hot water, will do – though your hand has to be steadier). You should have a good light source – a candle or a bright light bulb – behind the neck of the bottle. When you see the first specks of sediment appear, stop pouring. (You can strain the remainder through cheesecloth or a coffee filter – though when 1 do that, I feel the port has lost some character, and I will probably only use it for cooking.)

Then comes the good part: pouring the port into your glass, and then into your mouth.

Port is a dessert wine, but that doesn’t mean it’s a wine to go with dessert. Port is dessert and can be enjoyed by itself- though it is extremely compatible with good, moderately strong cheese, especially blue (port and Stilton is the tradition in England), and it seems to have a natural affinity for walnuts. In any case, vintage port is a wine to be drunk after dinner, with friends.

Good, tawny port can be a great pleasure-it’s clean, woody, suave, muchmore delicate than vintage port. Rubyport or crusted port can be quite nice. Butbuying these wines to try to get a hint ofvintage port is like driving a Volkswagento get a sense of how a Ferrari handles.There is a Portuguese proverb that goessomething like “All wines would be port ifthey could.” They can’t – and neither canall ports be vintage ports. So much the better for vintage port – and so much the bet-ter for you.


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