Port


I started this post as a way of commemorating my 30th anniversary in wine-writing, reached, as My Regular Readers know — bless your little pointy heads and may your tribes increase — early in July. Initially, the concept was “Fifty Great Wines,” but I decided that choosing 50 “great” wines from 30 years of tasting would be an impossible and probably just stupid and futile task. In three decades, I tasted thousands and thousands and more thousands of wines — you writers know how it is — so choosing the 50 “greatest” from this immense group would be a Sisyphian exercise.

Then I realized that what would be more significant anyway would be 50 wines that, as the title states, shaped my palate, the wines that shook me to the core, that shifted my perspective about how wine is made and its various effects, that achieved a level of purity and intensity that befit the divine; the wines, in short, that were not only definitive but created me as a writer. Yes, just that. So I spent the past few weeks combing through dozens of old notebooks, through the electronic archives of the newspaper for which I wrote a weekly column for 20 years and of course through the pages of this blog.

Now let’s be frank about some issues. As a wine reviewer, I am dependent on the practice of samples provided by producers, importers, marketers and (to a lesser extent) local distributors; I depend on the occasional trade tasting, lunch with a touring winemaker, on sponsored travel to wine regions in this country and abroad. You will not, therefore, see a list that emphasizes the great wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, though some are included, more Burgundy than Bordeaux, because I have few opportunities to encounter such wines. Perhaps, however, you will discover here wines that you had forgotten or overlooked; certainly there will be surprises. To those of my wine-writing/blogging/tasting friends who might say, “Cripes, FK, I can’t believe you didn’t put [whatever legendary fabuloso wine] on this list!” I can only reply, “I never had the chance to taste that wine and if you want to send me a bottle, I’ll be grateful but not humbled.” This is about my experience as an individual, as, you might say, a palate.

I benefited early on from the generosity of two people in Memphis, the restaurateur-wine collector John Grisanti and a figure important in wholesale, retail and wine education, Shields Hood. Many of the wines they offered me, exposed me to and sent in my direction truly changed my life and made me what I am today.
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1. Simi Pinot Noir 1974, Alexander Valley. Purchased at a local store, tasted at home March 1984 and still, at least in memory, one of the greatest California pinots I ever encountered.

2. Mercurey Clos des Myglands 1971, Faiveley. Tasted at John Grisanti’s private cellar, September 16, 1984. As in “Ah, so that’s what Burgundy is all about.”

3. Moët & Chandon Cuvée Dom Perignon 1976, Champagne. At a wholesaler’s tasting, with Shields Hood, September 17, 1984.

4. Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Johannesburg Riesling 1978, Belle Terre Vineyards, Alexander Valley. Last week of September, 1984.

5. Chateau La Grange 1926, St Julien Third Growth, Bordeaux. At a special wine dinner at the long-departed American Harvest Restaurant in Germantown, east of Memphis, October 1984. As in, “Ah, so this is what an aged Bordeaux wine is all about.” I love the label.

6. Simi Reserve Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Alexander Valley. My then father-in-law bought a case of this wine at $16 a bottle. High-living in those days. At 10 years old, it was perfect, expressive, eloquent. This was at Christmas dinner, 1984.

7. Clos Vougeot Grand Cru 1971, Grivelet. At John Grisanti’s cellar, June 9, 1985, a great afternoon.

8. Sonoma Vineyards Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 1976, Sonoma County. July 27 and 28, 1985. Fine balance, harmony and integration, a sense of confidence and authority expressed with elegance and restraint. This winery was not renamed for its founder Rodney Strong until after he sold it in 1984.

9. Chateau Latour 1982, Pauillac, Bordeaux. Definitive for the vintage and the chateau; tasted at a trade event in Memphis sometime in 1985; tasted again in New York, October 1991.

10. Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon 1980, Napa Valley. Purchased at Sherry-Lehmann in NYC, for $20.50(!); consumed with Easter dinner in Memphis, April 1986.

11. Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1977, Alexander Valley. At a tasting in Memphis of Silver Oak cabernets, sometime in 1986.

12. Chateau Haut-Brion 1937, Graves, Bordeaux. At a tasting with collectors in Memphis in 1987; this 50-year-old wine was, incredibly and from a dismal decade in Bordeaux, even better than the fabulous ’59 and ’66.

13. Paul Jaboulet Aîné La Chapelle 1949, Hermitage, Rhone Valley, France. One of a mixed case of wonderful wines I received for annotating a cellar, drunk at a dinner in the Fall of 1988. At 39 years old, one of the best wines I have ever tasted.

14. Beaune Clos des Ursules 1952, Louis Jadot. At lunch with Gagey pere et fils at the maison in Beaune, March 1990. When I mentioned this to a friend back in the U.S., he said, “Oh, yeah, they pull out that wine for all the Americans.” No matter.

15. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru 1983. Tasted in New York, October 1991.

16. Gaja Barbaresco 1955, Piedmont, Italy. Made by Angelo Gaja’s father, tasted in New York, October 1991.

17. Chateau Beychevelle 1928, St. Julien Fourth Growth, Bordeaux. At a large tasting of multiple vintages of Chateau Branaire-Ducru and Chateau Beychevelle going back to 1893, with collector Marvin Overton and British writer Clive Coates, in Nashville. This ’28 was even better than the examples from the god-like years of ’47, ’45 and ’29; just writing that sentence made me feel like Michael Broadbent.

18. Freemark Abbey 1978, Napa Valley. At a vertical tasting in Chicago, January 1993.

19. Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1974, Napa Valley. I bought six half-bottles of this splendid perfectly aged cabernet from a FedEx pilot who was divesting his cellar and served them at a dinner party in 1996.

20. Chalone Chardonnay 1981, Monterey. A revelation at almost 15 years old; I bought this and some other California chardonnays from the late ’70s and early ’80s out of a cellar that had been kept at 40 to 45 degrees; tasted with LL and a friend at Cafe Society in Memphis, May 1996.

21. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 1998, Clare Valley, Australia. Tasted at the property, October 1998, very young, filled with power and otherworldly grace.

22. Bass Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir 1997, Gippsland, Australia. Tasted in Melbourne, October 1998; they’re not shy with oak at Bass Phillip, but this was a thrilling monument to pinot noir purity and intensity.

23. Clos Apalta 1996, Rapel Valley, Chile, 95 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon. The initial release, tasted at the hacienda of Don Pepe Rabat, who owned the oldest merlot vineyard in Chile, with Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle and Michel Rolland, April 1998.

24. Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses Premier Cru 1998, Domaine G. Roumier. From the barrel at the property, December 7, 1999, my birthday. The earth seemed to open under my feet.

25. Chateau Petrus 1998, Pomerol, Bordeaux. Barrel sample at the property, December 1999. One of the most profound wines I have ever experienced.

26. Robert Mondavi To Kalon 1 Block Fume Blanc 2000, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

27. Robert Mondavi Marjorie’s Sunrise Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, Oakville District, Napa Valley. June 2002, a sample for review.

28. Sineann Reed and Reynolds Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Tasted at the International Pinot Noir Conference, McMinnville, August 2002.

29. Nicolas Joly Clos de la Bergerie 1999, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. New York, at La Caravelle, January 2003, with the line-up of Joly’s wines.

30. Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1966, South Australia. At a comprehensive tasting of this iconic wine, 1996 back to 1955, at Spago in L.A., April 2003.

31. Chateau d’Epiré 1964, Savennières Moelleux, Loire Valley, France. At a dinner associated with the Loire Valley Wine Fair, February 2004.

32. Domaine de la Pepière Clos des Briords 1986, Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Loire Valley, France. At the estate with proprietor Marc Ollivier, one of the great tasting experiences of my life, February 2004.

33. Domaine Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2001. Tasted in New York, June 2004.

34. Tres Sabores Zinfandel 2003, Rutherford, Napa Valley. Tasted in New York, March 2006.

35. Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996, Champagne, France. Tasted in New York, September 2006; fabulous but not nearly ready to drink.

36. Chassagne-Montrachet Les Caillerets Premier Cru 2004, Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

37. Corton Grand Cru 2002, Domaine Comte Senard. New York, September 2006, trade tasting.

38. Chateau Montelena The Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Napa Valley. New York, September 2007.

39. Porter-Bass Chardonnay 2004, Russian River Valley. New York, September 2007.

40. Pommard Les Epenots Premier Cru 2004, Dominique Laurent. New York, September 2007.

41. Phifer Pavit Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley. Sample for review, tasted at home October 2008. The best first-release cabernet I ever encountered.

42. Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, Napa valley. Sample for review, tasted at home December 2008.

43. Heyl zu Herrnsheim Niersteiner Pettenheim Riesling Spätlese halbtrocken 1991, Rheingau, Germany. At the estate, July, 2009.

44. Quinta da Roameira Vintage Porto 2007. In Douro Valley, August 2009, at a comprehensive tasting of the 2007 ports at Niepoort.

45. Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Tasted in Piedmont, January, 2010, with winemaker Giorgio Lavagna and a ragtag gaggle of American bloggers.

46 & 47. Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Malbec 2007, Mendoza, & Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Chardonnay 2006, Mendoza. Tasted at the property — the chardonnay with lunch — October 2010.

48. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998. Purchased locally and consumed on New Year’s Eve 2010, with Imperial Osetra caviar from Petrossian.

49. Pfeffingen Ungsteiner Herrenerg Riesling Beerenauslese 2004, Pfalz, Germany. A sample for review, tasted December 2011.

50. Müllen Kinheimen Rosenberg Riesling Kabinett 2002, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany. Tasted with Lyle Fass in New York, December 2013.

Well, I already see a couple of wines that I should have included in this roster — Chateau d’Yquem 1975, Sauternes, for example — but 50 is a good wholesome round number with an air of closure about it, so let’s leave it alone. And for the future? The process of learning, having our minds changed, our ideas and consciousness expanded never ends. Perhaps there will be candidates for this list from 2014, among them the Clos Saron Stone Soup Vineyard Syrah 2011, Sierra Foothills, made by Gideon Beinstock, and, oddly enough, the Inwood Estates Vineyards Chardonnay 2012, Dallas County, Texas, made by Dan Gatlin. We’ll see how I feel in another 30 years.

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.
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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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grahamssixgrapes.jpg
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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