Port


One of the advantages of tawny port is that it has already been aged for you and is ready to drink when opened; another is that it tends to be less expensive, often much less, than the Vintage Porto that grabs all the headlines and is produced in small quantities. Tawny ports are left to age in barrels until they reach the desired point of maturity and character, so that, unlike Vintage Porto, they do not develop once they have been bottled. Tawny ports that carry age designations, usually 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, are typically made (or should be made) from high quality grapes to maintain a level of integrity. Those age designations are approximations, generally meaning an average; a 10-year-old tawny may be blended from wines from five to 15 years old. Remember that port is a fortified wine whose fermentation is stopped by the addition of pure spirits, resulting in sweetness and relatively high alcohol, about 19 to 20 percent.

Warre’s launched its Otima label a few years ago in an effort to modernize the rather staid image of port in general and tawnies in particular. The design is simple and stylish, and unlike most port bottles, the glass is clear rather than opaque. Warre’s, the oldest British Port house, established in 1670, is owned by the Symington family, which also owns Cockburn’s, Dow’s, Gould Campbell, Graham’s, Quarles Harris, Quinta do Vesuvio and Smith Woodhouse.

Warre’s Otima 10 Ten Year Old Tawny Porto sports a radiant medium copper-amber color with a faintly lighter rim; as the case should be with a 10-year-old tawny, the nose is a subtle yet complex weaving of toasted coconut, toasted almonds, rum-soaked raisins and citrus fruit, and fruitcake with overtones of orange rind and a touch of the exotic in hints of cloves, sandalwood and mango. In the mouth, this tawny is fairly direct, rather fiery initially, and it slides over the palate with sleek ease; what it lacks in depth it makes up for with the suavity and smoothness of its brown-sugar-and-rum-tinged citrus, plum and fig flavors and the authority of its vibrant acidity; sweet on the intake, it turns quite dry by the finish. Made for sipping after dinner sitting out on the porch. 20 percent alcohol. Serve slightly chilled. Very Good+. About $26 for a 500ml bottle.

Imported by Vineyard Brands, American Canyon, Ca. A sample for review.

I have been inundated by press releases suggesting that Port would make an appropriate gift for Father’s Day, despite the fact that a great deal of the country is sweltering under unprecedented high temperatures. (“Hey, honey, the paint’s melting off the walls. Let’s open that bottle of Port!”) I do understand the impulse, though. Fathers are men and men are manly, and manly men sit enthroned in their studies or libraries, comforted by the ease of their leather wingback chairs, surrounded by ancient leather-bound books, dim portraits of famous racing horses and beloved hunting dogs, admiring their collections of antique canes, dueling pistols, hand-colored maps and shaving brushes and sipping on a fine old vintage Port, while a Cuban cigar importantly smolders in an ash-tray nearby. I mean, that’s how I live and I assume that’s how the rest of you fathers and manly men live; Port is just a natural part of being a man, n’est-ce pas?

So I will recommend a Port that you can run out today and buy for Dad and that can be drunk now, rather than waiting five or 10 years for a Vintage Port. This is the Fonseca Bin No. 27 “Finest Reserve” Porto, and it’s the finest, to borrow that word, reserve-type port I have tasted in years. A “reserve” Port is basically a Premium Ruby Port that offers more character and depth than a typical pedestrian Ruby Port, the latter having earned a reputation over the years as a catch-all for the lowest-common denominator of blended and pasteurized products suited for a cheap and easy binge. After all, didn’t Pope pen a couplet something like this:

By the lamp-post a tilting sot holds down the fort,
awash in the sickly reek of ruby port.


Well, actually, I wrote that, but you see what I mean, right? No wonder we don’t encounter the term “ruby port” much on labels nowadays; “reserve” conveys a far better tone, and most Port firms now offer a brand of Reserve Port that exemplifies their house style.

Anyway, the color of the Fonseca Bin No. 27 “Finest Reserve” Porto is dark ruby-purple, opaque at the center, with a tinge of plum/magenta at the rim. The aromas begin with a high grapy note that expands into blackberries, black currants and plums infused with spice cake and plum pudding — there’s a plum motif — licorice and lavender, a touch of bacon fat and stewed rhubarb; a few minutes in the glass bring in a touch of dusty graphite. This Reserve Porto is powerfully sweet initially but quickly goes dry, from mid-palate back, under the influence of sleek dust-laden tannins and rollicking acidity; luscious black and blue fruit flavors fill the mouth and arrow brightly over the tongue, bringing hints of cloves and citron, slate and potpourri. The finish is long, rich and deep. A Reserve Port of uncommon intensity which, once opened, will drink nicely for three or four days. 20 percent alcohol. Excellent and A True Bargain at about $19.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., Purchase, N.Y. A sample for review.

Readers may have been thinking, “So, F.K. went to the Douro Valley, and so far he has written about red table wines and white wines and eating cod innards, but what about Port, which is of course what the Douro is all about?”

Today we get to that, but first some history.

How Port Got Fortified

Trade between England and Portugal, which had been carried out profitably and peacefully since the 1400s, received a boost in 1689, when war between France and England cut off access to French wine. The hearty red wines of the Douro Valley represented an alternative; these were often shipped with a dollop of brandy added to the barrels to ensure their survival during storage and the sea voyage. In the early 18th Century, merchants discovered a monastery in the Douro where monks added brandy to the wine during fermentation, resulting in a wine that was powerful (“fortified”) and sweet, because the alcohol killed the yeast cells and left residual sugar in the wine. Thus was Port born and a whole area of manufacture and trade, long dominated by the English, established.

Nothing Is That Simple

It would take more space than we have to describe the intricacies of the history of Port and its making, and so let’s encapsulate.

>By the early 18th Century, Port was so popular in England that its manufacture had become corrupted though over-production and adulteration, leading to:

>The demarkation of the Douro and its best growing areas by the Marquis of Pombal in 1756.

>Ports were made upriver and than taken to Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from the city of Porto (Oporto) for storage in the manufacturers’ warehouses or lodges. The barrels were brought to the lodges on flat-bottomed barges. This practice was eventually codified into law, and shipping of Port from individual quintas upstream was forbidden, until Portugal’s entrance into the EU in 1986. Thereafter, quintas were allowed to by-pass Vila Nova de Gaia, and some quintas nowadays have no presence in that traditional site. In addition, in the 1950s and ’60s, the Douro was dammed in several places, making the boats obsolete.

>The styles and nomenclature of Port have changed considerably over the years. The most famous product of the Douro, Vintage Porto, represents at most two percent of port production, the rest being Ruby Port (now usually called “Reserve”), Late Bottled Vintage Port (LBV), Tawny Port of various ages, so-called “crusted” Port, white Port and different proprietary branded Ports. Vintage Porto from a “declared” year, however, remains one of the world’s great wines and, compared to Burgundy and Bordeaux and the cult wines of California and Australia, a relative bargain. Remember that Vintage Port, aged in barrels two years, is intended to mature in the bottle, most not being considered ready to drink until 20 or 30 years after harvest. In youth, they are powerful, potent and monumentally tannic. Which leads to:

A Tasting of Ports from 2007.

Thursday, Sept. 3, our team of six regrouped at the Niepoort winery at Quinta do Napoles to taste 15 Ports from 2007. The trick was that we were tasting three examples of each Port, one bottle that had been opened two days previously, decanted and poured back into the bottle; one that had been opened one day previously, decanted and poured back into the bottle; and one that had been opened the morning of the tasting but not decanted. The idea was to give us some hint as to the wine’s potential for development and to counter-balance the immense difficulty involved in tasting very young, tannic Ports. So we didn’t taste 15 Ports; we tasted 45 Ports, AND we tasted them blind AND we did this between about 7:30 and 9 p.m. And that’s why we’re called Professionals!

My notes will try to trace the evolution of the Ports we tasted; remember that as we were doing this, we didn’t know which bottles of a particular house or brand were the ones that had been opened two days ago or the ones opened 12 hours ago, but believe me, when you take in a sip of wine and the tannins would strip the wallpaper from your mouth (if your mouth were, say, a living room), then you know you have the most recently opened example. As the tasting proceeded, and I realized that my notes on the Ports tended to run: 1. Opened two days ago; 2. Opened one day ago; 3. opened this morning, I sensed that there was a pattern, and indeed the pouring of the examples did not vary from that scheme.

These Vintage Ports from 2007, a year described as “classic” and “exceptional,” are just coming into retail markets in the United States. Prices will range from about $75 and $85 to $115 and $125.

These notes are in the order of tasting.
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Churchill’s Vintage Port 2007. Massive tannins, searing tannins, followed by a clearing of the air, so to speak, broadly intense and concentrated and smoky; then, aromas of grapes, orange rind, spice cake and plum pudding; clean earth and minerals, deep, intense and concentrated, spicy black fruit, dense and chewy; walloping tannins; great presence and weight. Excellent potential.
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Croft Vintage Port 2007. Very tannic but rich and succulent; coffee, mocha, cocoa bean, fruit cake, toasted walnuts and orange rind; cool, clean minerals; dark chocolate, smoke and tobacco leaf; plummy and jammy, mint and minerals; leather, briers and brambles, packed with tannins. Exceptional potential.
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Dow’s Vintage Port 2007. Punishing tannins; then … big, jammy, minerally, slatey; bright, clean, black fruit infused with smoke and dark chocolate, dense yet almost buoyant tannins, tough and rooty, branches and briers. Very Good+ to Excellent potential.
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Fonesca Vintage Port 2007. Powerful tannic structure, huge presence and substance; then rich, warm and spicy, fruit cake and cookie dough, currants and plums, toasted almonds; intense and concentrated, platonic plums; black pepper, bitter chocolate-covered raspberries; crushed gravel and slate; immense. Excellent to Exceptional potential.
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Graham’s Vintage Port 2007. Fathomless tannins; then — fairly closed-in but hints of toast with orange marmalade or plum jam; grapey, alcoholic; clean, pure, intense, concentrated; tannins continue to build in scope and power. Needs 25 to 30 years. Maybe Excellent potential.
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Niepoort Vintage Port 2007. Deep, clean, pure and intense, smoky and toasty, tightly focused on sleek and stalwart tannins but opens to bitter chocolate, tobacco leaf, lavender and potpourri, plum jam and black currants; very dense and chewy; a finish of briers and brambles and forest floor, and a burgeoning mineral element. 25 to 40 years. Excellent, possibly Exceptional potential.
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Niepoort Pisca Vintage Porto 2007. From a single vineyard. Difficult to assess because of the massive tannins, though in the example that had been opened two days previously, decanted and re-bottled, the tannins felt smoother and more integrated. Clearly a Port that exudes self-containment, confidence and power, purity and intensity and concentration. 25 to 40 years. Excellent potential.
(more…)

The port houses represent bastions of tradition in an ever-changing world of wine production, yet innovation is occurring here and there. Fonseca, founded in 1822, just issued its Terra Bella Reserve Porto, a completely organic port in the sense that not only was the base wine made from certified organic grapes but the neutral spirit that stops fermentation and makes the port a sweet fortified wine is also organic. The product is certified by the USDA National Organic Program as well as the European Ecocert.

“Reserve Porto” is the term now employed for what used to be the “Ruby” category, that is, young ports sufficiently aged, in this case in oak vats (not small barrels), so that they’re ready to be consumed when they are released.

The Fonseca Terra Bella is a knock-out, a heady, intense seductive port — colored dark purple tending unto black — that fills the mouth and soothes the soul. Grapey aromas of ripe black currents, blackberries and plums are permeated by dried herbs, fennel and anise, cocoa powder, dust and minerals. The wine is dense and thick, luscious and chewy, deeply rooted in spicy wood, in juicy black fruit flavors tinged with lavender and licorice and a hint of orange rind, all of this given a serious edge by a chastening element of mineral-laced earthiness that turns the port’s initial sweetness into a finish that’s almost formidably dry, while the feral grip of charging acidity enlivens the entire package. What a performance! Excellent. About $20 to $23.

Imported by Kobrand Corporation, Purchase, N.Y.

We sipped the Fonseca Terra Bella Reserve Porto with a new — new to us — chocolate bar from Vosges Haut-Chocolat, the “Black Pearl Bar,” a combination of 55 percent cacao dark chocolate with wasabi, ginger and black sesame seeds, an amazing concoction that replaces out previous favorite Vosges offering, the “Red Fire Bar,” which brings together 55 percent cacao dark chocolate with ancho and chipotle chilies and Ceylonese cinnamon (and hasn’t Ceylon been Sri Lanka since 1972?). I wrote about tasting a range of Vosges chocolate bars with a variety of red wines last April; you can read that report here.

The Black Pearl Bar isn’t startling, as some of the other Vosges “Exotic Bars” are; the wreathing of the wasabi and ginger and black sesame seeds is subtle, robed in the suppleness of the rich, dry, slightly bitter chocolate. The black sesame seeds provide a slight nutty crunch, while the wasabi and ginger emphasize the bar’s touch of green, woody Asian spiciness. Yum, and superb with the Fonseca Terra Bella Reserve Porto, which seemed to bring out the chocolate bar’s dimensions while enriching itself with the chocolate. A great experience. Vosges “Exotic Bars” sell for about $7 for three ounces.

My linkedin profile.

Sunday was blustery and chilly in Memphis, a dwindling down day when yellow leaves or none or few do hang upon the boughs when yellow leaves or none or few do hang … that shake against the cold, you know, bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang. That kind of day, and thanks, Shakespeare! A good day for Port.

I had three bottles of Reserve Porto and six of Tawny Porto, including an example of a single-vintage “Colheita” Tawny. Typically Tawnies are blends of many years of aged ports; a 10-Year Tawny means that the ports in the bottle average 10 years of aging. The usual designations are 10, 20, 30 and 40 years. Because they have already aged for years, even decades, in barrels, Tawny Portos do not develop in the bottle as vintage ports do. Once opened, they will retain their freshness and flavor for four to six weeks. The back labels of Tawny Ports will indicate the year in which they were bottled.

Reserve ports often carry proprietary or brand names. Theoretically, reserves are superior ruby ports, that is, young ports that have aged for three or four years and are bottled when they’re robust and fruity. The term “reserve” has effectively replaced “ruby,” which gained a bad rep as a mindless port for mindless consumption. Nowadays, however, port concerns put a great deal of emphasis on their branded reserve ports as representative of their house style. Reserve ports are reasonably priced and serve as a good introduction to what port is all about.

Anyway, I sat down with Benito and LL and a selection of cheeses and we got to it. We tasted the wines semi-blind, in the sense that I put the bottles in paper bags and then switched them around a few times and wrote numbers on the bags to keep the arrangement. So I knew what the wines were but not the order in which we tasted them within flights.

Remember that these are fortified wines, so the alcohol level is usually 20 percent.

These labels are imported by Premium Port Wines Inc., San Francisco.
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Dow’s Trademark Finest Reserve Porto opens with a burst of grape-infused black currant and black cherry fruit permeated by powdered orange rind, fruit cake and Red Hots; it is, obviously, an exuberantly spicy port that builds depth and darkness in the glass, adding layers of plum pudding, lavender and minerals. Though sweet on entry, this port finishes on a smooth, dry and (again) spicy note. Immensely satisfying. Very Good+. About $20.
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The Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Porto, while rich and warm and expansive. smoky and luscious, actually displays a bit more spareness and elegance than the Dow’s Trademark. This is beautifully balanced among ripe, sweet black fruit flavors, a velvety texture and ringing acid for liveliness and flair. Notes of black pepper and cinnamon and a hint of a roasted quality infiltrate the fruit from mid-palate back through the sleek finish. Lovely poise and personality. Excellent. About $23.
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I’ll confess to being a fan of the Smith Woodhouse style of sobriety, elegance and austerity, at least as manifested in the firm’s vintage and late bottled vintage ports. We expect, however, a reserve model to offer more youthful character, and indeed the Smith Woodhouse Lodge Reserve Porto, aged four years in oak, delivers aromas of cassis, bitter chocolate, orange rind, cinnamon and cloves. A few minutes in the glass unfold layers of dark fruit and spice packed into a texture so dense and chewy that it’s almost viscous, all this panoply culminating in a bracing finish. Without a doubt, this is my favorite of the trio of reserve ports tasted here. Excellent. About $20, and Great Value.
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Now the Tawny Ports.

The Dow’s 10 Year Old Tawny Porto sports a radiant medium amber color. It’s smooth and harmonious, offering orange rind and bitter chocolate, toasted almonds with a hint of toffee, nuances of spice and floral qualities. Flavors of poached apricot and roasted coconut are set into a dense and chewy texture, while the wine grows more vibrant and spicy by the moment. A lovely 10-year-old. Excellent. About $32.50.
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For whatever reason, the Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny Porto does not present quite the balance or harmony of the Dow’s. Oh you wouldn’t be sorry to sip it; there’s smoke and tobacco, burgeoning spice, sweet apricot and quince flavors, a seductive autumnal character, but some quality of heft and integration is not developed, so it gets Very Good+ from me. About $34.50.
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Imagine a dried orange stuffed with smoky almonds and studded with cloves and allspice, then dipped in the most austere of bitter chocolates. That’s how the Smith Woodhouse 10 Year Old Tawny Porto begins. This is as balanced and harmonious as the Dow’s 10 Year Old but more powerful, more vibrant and resonant. The rich medium amber color practically glows, and the wine feels as if it glows as it slides through the mouth and down the throat. This will definitely keep the winter glums away — or cure them if they have already descended. Excellent. About $31.
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The color of the Smith Woodhouse 1994 Colheita Porto shades from medium amber at the rim to dark amber in the center. Wood smoke and tobacco, toffee and bitter chocolate and, in fact, a walnut fudge-like quality prevail. Yet this is, at 14 years old, a remarkably fresh and clean tawny port, vibrant and robust, composed of layers of subtleties in spice and dried fruit, with a cast of leather, autumn leaves and Asian spices. Yes, I like this one; it will warm the cockles of your heart, whatever the hell they are. Excellent. About $46.
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The problem, to use a crude term, with this pair of Tawny ports — Dow’s 20 Year Old and Graham’s 20 Year Old — is that they didn’t sketch enough differentiation on our palates. Certainly they were enjoyable and delivered the acceptable, even required, characteristics for 20 Year Old Tawny Ports — almonds and toffee, spice and chocolate, a combination of potpourri and pomander, a smoldering smoky quality, a sense of viscousness married to lightness and delicacy. As you see, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with them, and I would happily sip on a glass of one or the other. But the matter came down to this, after we had spent more time with these examples than the others: “Very nice, but they seem pretty much the same.” In other words, we were looking for more discernible house style and didn’t find it. Very Good+ for each. Dow’s 20 Year Old is $56; Graham’s is $57.
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