September 4, 2017
PORT (and Madeira), etc.
Port, as we know it today, has been around for less than two hundred years.
It's largely a British creation. The British had a preference for the wines
of France, but since they were often at odds with the French, the British government
apparently had an allergy towards doing business with the French.
British traders traveled to Portugal in search of alternatives to "claret"
(Bordeaux). It's difficult to imagine how they ended up in such a remote and
difficult region as the Douro Valley.
From what I've read, the first wines of the region were typical dry reds. They
were probably a bit coarse and sharp. The wines did not find an appreciative
audience in Britain. In an effort to "upgrade," shippers
"fortified" the wines with brandy, making them (the wines) stronger.
Apparently some were fortified before they had finished fermenting and these sweet and
fruity wines started to gain in favor with the wine-drinking public.
Winemaking in Portugal has improved dramatically over the past decade.
While the idea of treading the grapes by foot is romantic (to a small degree...they used
to play music and serenade those who were thigh-high in grapes), some may argue it's preferable to
have mechanical crusher/stemmers and temperature-controlled fermentation tanks to the
ancient and, shall we say, perhaps less sanitary, means of yesterday.
Visiting various estates in the Douro, however, we found numerous producers who
adhere to the foot-treaded lagares for their best wines, be these table
wines or Port. We found some wineries equipped with mechanical
"treading" machines, while others have several people
"dancing" on the grapes for several hours at a time to extract the
maximum character and quality.
remember what the young Ports of the 1970 or 1977 vintages tasted like and can compare
them to what the 1992s, 1994s or 1995s taste like today, you'll undoubtedly notice a
significant improvement in vinification. It is probably not the case that the sun is
shining more brightly over the Douro Valley vines these days than a decade or two ago.
I'm not certain that most wine writers, especially The Wine Spectator, have
made the same observation. Their enthusiasm for 1994 Taylor and 1994 Fonseca
(as well as these two houses' 1992s) may be due to enhancements in winemaking more than to
exceptional vintage conditions. Not to take anything away from these wines, as
they're all "excellent."
The amazing dynamic is the influence these people have on the price of these
wines. While they were initially released in the $40-$60 neighborhood, the
"beatification" of the 1994s caused prices to spiral to $200/bottle within a
week or two.
The Port houses used to release their young, recently "declared" wines
at sensible prices. It was customary for many British buyers to
"invest" in Port. People would take a position and have the wines
cellared for them. At a time when the wines were mature (or getting along
towards maturity), these would then be put on the market.
I suspect the various Port producers decided that they ought to profit from the
fruit of their labors and recent vintages have often be offered at amazingly
high prices. It is, therefore, possible to find good, well-cellared wines
with bottle age for the same price as the newly-released wines.
We have little interest in the 2007 vintage, for example. These were
brought to market at high prices. The 2003s, as well, are
over-priced in general. If you need to set some bottles aside for an
anniversary or birthday, then go ahead and splurge. If you're merely
looking for something good to drink, stop by to see our current offerings.
We tend to have a nice array of immediately-drinkable bottles along with some
youngish, cellar-worthy wines.
The head of one famous Port firm stopped by with the U.S. importer.
We tasted their 2003s and I told the fellow we had virtually no interest in
wines which will be close to ready in 20 years. He professed that their
"campaign" had gone well and the "2003s have been
well-received. They've sold well."
I pointed out "If they've sold so well, why has the importer enlisted you
to come help them sing & dance to get the inventory out of the
|RUBY & TAWNY
||These are the "basic" bottlings offered by most houses.
Ruby Port is typically matured for about 2 years and is made from lighter wines.
Tawny Port might be an aged wine, but also some producers blend young red and white
||Known as "wood Ports" because of their maturation in wooden
casks or barrels. Some of these are kept for a very long time, as many firms bottle
10, 20, 30 and 40-year-old Tawny Ports.
|VINTAGE CHARACTER and LATE-BOTTLED VINTAGE
||While few people think to cellar a bottle of wine for drinking 20 or 30
years from now, this range allows people to purchase a wine in the direction of the finest
Ports, but at a more reasonable price. Essentially, those labeled "Vintage
Character" are finer quality "Ruby Port," usually being kept in cask for
about 5 years. Some firms call their wine "Vintage Character" while others have
the idea of bottling these as a proprietary wine, such as Graham's "Six Grapes."
"Late Bottled Vintage" or "LBV" are from a single year's
harvest. Some of these are bottled "unfiltered" like Vintage Port.
As a result, they develop a bit of sediment or "crust." Other
"LBV" wines are filtered and don't develop or change appreciably in the bottle.
Don't make the mistake of thinking an "LBV" is a "Vintage
Port." These usually have noted someplace on the label the year of the harvest
and the year of the bottling.
Some of the Top Vintages
1980 ** - ***
|The Port firms usually will "declare" a vintage 3 or 4 times a
decade. This declaration is not made immediately after the harvest. They tend
to wait and evaluate the product of the following vintage and declare the superior of the
two. It is rare to see vintages declared "back-to-back." It is also rare
for the Port firms to unanimously declare a vintage.
Vintage Ports will always have the words "Vintage Port" or "Vintage
Porto" on the label with the vintage and the year of bottling, typically 2 years
after the vintage. The minimum aging period is 22 months, while 31 is the maximum
for Vintage Porto. Due to its relatively short maturation in wood, most of the
evolution and development takes place in bottle. As the wine matures, the tannin and
coloring material form a sediment or "crust." More recent vintages seem to
show better at a very young state...many 1994s are delicious today. This was not the
case when 1970s or 1977s were first on the market. It used to take many years for
the fiery spirit of Vintage Porto to mellow and for the wine to become approachable.
This change is due, likely, to better vinification and better distillation of the
brandy used to fortify Porto.
Many firms now bottle Ports which came close to being "Vintage Porto" by
giving the wine a proprietary name of some sort. Graham's, for example, used to
label its "near Vintage" wine as "Quinta dos Malvedos," though today
it's labeled simply as "Malvedos" as not all the wine comes from that particular
"farm" or "quinta." Taylor calls its wine "Quinta de
Vargellas." Some vintages of these are outstanding and very hard to distinguish
from the "heavy hitter" vintage Ports. Other years it's easier to see why
they were not worthy of a vintage declaration.
|COLHEITAS or "Vintaged Tawny" Port
||Some houses have extensive stocks of old tawny Ports. This is
confusing to the neophyte, who sees a year on the label and assumes, incorrectly, this is
a "vintage Port." These are aged in wood and/or glass for many years.
They must be at least seven years of age. We have a bunch of
||This beverage has been tarred and feathered by the efforts of some
California vintners who, for years, sold wine as "White Port." Those same
winemakers also bottled "white port" flavored with lemon. The target
market was those who bought the products for their "kick," not their
Though probably not as "fine" as a good Fino Sherry, White Port is a lovely
aperitif. Virtually nobody buys them (and we carry three!) unless they've been to
Portugal and had this served to them there. These are not meant for
"aging" and are best kept refrigerated once opened.
Though once popular in the United States, especially in the South, Madeira is a rather
unknown product to most wine drinkers.
It comes from some volcanic islands under Portuguese rule, even though they're closer to
Africa than to Portugal. These islands are steep and the vines grown on terraces.
Madeira used to be subject to ocean transport which would, miraculously, turn this
rough-and-tumble fortified wine into something smooth and drinkable. Today, however,
Madeira is subjected to tropical heat by being "aged" or "matured" in estufas,
rooms heated to about 120F (or more!) for four or five months.
Madeira is typically aged in some sort of "solera" system as is employed in
Spain's Jerez region for Sherry. The notation on the label of a "Solera"
and a year does not mean the wine in your bottle is of that birth year. Instead, it
is a notation of when that solera (or stack of barrels) was initiated. It is
unlikely there's more than a drop or two of something particularly ancient in a
"Solera 1870" (for example).
However, there ARE vintage-dated Madeiras. The declaration of a vintage-dated
Madeira typically takes place some two decades after the harvest! The wines are kept
in cask for 20 years before it sees another two years in demijohn prior to bottling.
Some will tell you the wine is still not ready, requiring a decade or two in bottle
to develop! I have tasted old Madeiras and sometimes they are great and sometimes
they are more a curiosity.
||This Madeira is said to be made of a grape called Malvasia (and probably
of Greek origin). Malmseys tend to be the richest and sweetest. We
usually have some 5-year-old Malmsey, which is nice, but the 10 & 15-year-old wines
||Almost as fragrant as Malmsey, but lighter in body and usually a bit more
refined. This variety probably came from France's Bordeaux region. Sometimes
||Probably coming from Portugal, this used to be widely planted. It
fell out of favor, for some reason, and there is a concerted effort to revive Verdelho.
The wine labeled Verdelho is soft, dry and slightly bitter on its finish.
||The grape is said to be related to Germany's Riesling. In Portugal
it had been used to make a wine which was finally known as "Esgana
Co." Sounds exotic, but the translation might keep it from achieving
widespread popularity as it means something like :
bitter-enough-to-choke-a-dog. This is due to the wine's high level of acidity.
It's said the volcanic soils of Madeira tame this acidity and make a more palatable
wine. Sercial tends to be the driest Madeira of all.
|TINTA NEGRA MOLE
||This variety has been on Madeira for, perhaps, 200 years. It is said
to be a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Grenache. It has accounted for more than half the
production of Madeira wine. This has caused a slight problem as the European Union
feels that wines labeled with varietal designations ought to be made of the grape variety
stated on the label. And since few are "Tinta Negra Mole," this has
created a bit of a stir.
|TERRANTEZ & BASTARDO
||Both are late-ripening varieties. Bastardo is nearly extinct, while
Terrantez was, for some reason, replanted, making its reappearance with a 1954 vintage.
One can periodically find these names on bottles of Madeira. I
purchased a "Ten Year Old Terrantez" and while it was nice, didn't find it a
wine which I'd spend $40 on a second time. A 1977 Terrantez of D'Oliveira was
amazingly fine, with brandied notes and hints of toffee.
||This designation came about in a curious fashion. Some barrels had
been left on the beach, awaiting a ship's arrival for transport to the U.S. It had
rained considerably and this is said to have changed the character of the wine inside
these barrels. Whether this "legend" carries any validity, one can,
certainly, find "Rainwater" Madeira. It is usually light and dry.
It's often used in cooking.
There's a world famous Muscat coming from Portugal, a wine which is apparently the
creation of the firm of JosÚ-Maria da Fonseca of AzeitŃo. It comes from an area
across the river from Lisbon and goes by the name of Set˙bal.
The Muscat wine made here differs from others in several respects. The wine is
fortified with alcohol, which stops the fermentation and kills the yeast. The skins,
however, remain in contact with the wine. It is said this extended maceration period
accounts for some of the intensity of perfume of Set˙bal.
A number of versions of Set˙bal are produced, the basic bottling being aged just two
years in cask. These get really interesting when you get to their 20 Year Old
bottling. A small amount of vintaged Set˙bal is also produced.
SOME PORTUGUESE DESSERT WINE
PHOTOS TAKEN IN
TOUR OF PORTUGAL