Vintage Port Unbuttoned
Despite its stuffy image, this surprisingly versatile Portuguese classic is winning over a whole new generation of connoisseurs.
For everything that comes into fashion, something else passes from favor, and alcoholic beverages prove no exception. Regency England's high-living arbiter of style—the future King George IV—disdained the aristocracy's beloved claret as "thin, washy stuff" and instead quaffed vast quantities of Maraschino, a disgustingly sweet, colorless liqueur (which, when I tried some in the spirit of historical inquiry, almost made me sick). At the turn of the 20th century, Germany's finest white wines commanded prices higher than first-growth Bordeaux, a peak to which they have never returned.
Now, with once-obscure regional wines available globally, too much choice makes the wheel of fashionable fortune spin even faster. In comes Viogniers, out goes Chardonnay, here comes Priorat, there goes Rioja. Unimpeachable quality, however, never remains permanently neglected, and in due course any wine of enduring significance is sure to stage a comeback. And vintage port appears poised for just such a long-overdue reappraisal.
Today's rage for novelty is epitomized by the new generation of late-harvest "stickies" and ice wines being produced almost everywhere. On one hand, it's good to see younger connoisseurs appreciating such first-rate offerings as they discover that high-residual sugar balanced by acidity and minerality can result in powerful, complex sweet wines—the antithesis of cloying grandmotherly cordials.
On the other hand, those new dessert options have been crowding out traditional Sauternes and vintage ports, once deemed as much a grand dinner's comme il faut climax as pitcher Mariano Rivera is now the foolproof closer of a Yankees victory. Vintage port at its best still has the power to win over connoisseurs unswayed by the latest hipper-than-thou craze for the hottest varietal. In sheer longevity, consistency, and quality, it's tough to beat vintage port, a reliable performer that's never been outclassed throughout its well-documented history.
During England's many wars with France and Spain (lasting as they did for half a millennium), Bordeaux, Burgundies, Riojas, and Riberas were often unobtainable to the British, who forged a commercial alliance with Portugal, ensuring access to its long-lasting fortified wines. These were mainly malmsey and port—the latter grown in the fragmented schist of the country's Douro region. Port is created when distilled spirits are introduced early on, halting its fermentation while lengthening its life. Today expatriate English exporters still dominate Portugal's vintage port industry, most notably the all-powerful Symington family, owners of such standard-bearers as Warre, Dow, and Graham in addition to several lesser labels.
Tradition isn't the sexiest marketing device, though, and one person's reverent view of pedigree is another's disdainful definition of pomposity. Some would-be sophisticates deem vintage port the oenological equivalent of the three-piece blue pinstriped suit—a stodgy emblem of an outmoded establishment, typified by the Anglophile ritual of passing the decanter clockwise around the table with Stilton and walnuts.
But true port partisans understand the problem. "I think that manufacturers are making a big mistake by continuing to market vintage port as something you buy and lay down for twenty years for your children," points out Larry Stone, the sommelier at Rubicon, a restaurant in San Francisco jointly owned by Francis Ford Coppola, Robin Williams, and Robert De Niro. "There is really no incentive to do that because there has been hardly any appreciation in vintage port prices over the last two decades, though that may change as more people discover it and demand depletes supply."
Stone is among the growing number of enthusiasts who will at times gladly forgo the stately 30- and 40-year-old vintage ports long considered the wine's ultimate yardstick of excellence. "When it comes to pairing ports with chocolate desserts, apart from a few outstanding vintages that remain compelling, like the '27 and '45, I'd just as soon go for a much younger port, say, a '94 or a '97, which are bolder, more vigorous, and food friendly, still full of tannin and spice," he says. "For me the '63s are on the edge, and some other famous twentieth-century vintages at this point seem little more than alcohol and cough syrup."
Nonetheless, few would pass up a '45, the fabled victory-year vintage that has turned out to be as enduring in Douro as it is in Bordeaux. Not many older vintages are its equal. Martin Weiner, who runs frequent tastings through his Los Angeles School of Wines (800-986-9463; www.vintagewineenterprises.com), concurs with Stone about the prodigious '27s, which provided the high point of a rare-vintage port dinner he held not long ago. "I was amazed at how youthful they still seemed," he marvels.
Stone organized a similar dinner, pairing later vintages with a beef in mole sauce and a venison grand veneur with the traditional red currant jelly, followed by a chocolate ganache dessert. "It was interesting and fun," he reports, but also admits, "You'd only want to do it once."
For my part, I find a middle-aged vintage port—like the '85 Graham's I so often harp about—terrific when served with a starter, from the New York speciality food purveyor D'Artagnan's, of smoked duck breast and black figs, or, moving to the more expected dessert position, a tarte tatin or chocolate pain perdu. And a salty, high-flavored cheese like Bleu d'Auvergne and the suave '66 Graham's vintage port perform a fascinating fandango that's hard to beat.
And don't, by any means, overlook seemingly ordinary liquor stores where now-mature ports may have been gathering dust for decades without interim markups. In a Manhattan shop not long ago, I chanced upon a cache of '85 Grahams at half the going price and bought the whole lot.
What sets port apart from other wines—Champagne being the most notable parallel—is that not every harvest is deemed a vintage year. This rarefied status is declared only when bottlers are satisfied that their exacting standards have been met. And although there is no enforceable unanimity among the various port houses, consensus usually rules among the major labels.
If a vintage is not declared, the year's wine becomes either a generic nonvintage port or a single-quinta port. In the latter case, the unblended wine of one vineyard (quinta means "farm" in Portuguese), which would normally be used as a component of a vintage blend, is bottled separately. The equivalent of single-malt Scotch whiskeys, ports of this type have become equally fashionable. Although traditionalists consider blending to be an essential aspect of those spirits' character, there is no question that the highly individual personalities of first-rate, single-quinta ports can express a distinctive flavor some find lacking in the big-name brands.
Economic realities of supply and demand also play an important role in whether a vintage port is declared. If a merely good year follows a copious, widely acclaimed harvest and cellar stock remains high, it's unlikely a vintage will result—the average number of declarations is about two or three every decade, the latest being the acclaimed 2000 and the well-received 2003. Dire conditions can lead to sad omissions. For example, the Great Depression and the glut of great '27s already on the market caused the now-legendary '31 nonvintage to become, as Richard Mayson (author of Port and the Douro) puts it, "the best year never to have been declared."
Novices are warned to approach decanting vintage port with forethought. If you blithely open a choice bottle at the end of a meal as though it were any other dessert wine, you are undoubtedly in for an unpleasant surprise. To begin with, many 20- or 30-year-old corks crumble with impunity. Even if the spongy plug slides out unscathed, aged vintage port casts off a shocking amount of sediment—not just the sandy residue familiar to lovers of old claret, but gross-out mulchlike chunks.
To filter vintage port properly, you will need a pair of decanters for repeated back-and-forth pouring, a metal mesh strainer to remove the heftiest debris, along with some fine cheesecloth to catch the minutiae. Be sure to get started well before your guests arrive for dinner, as decanting vintage port can present nerve-racking maneuvers you'll prefer to keep to yourself. Just remember the sainted Julia Childs's deathless advice about the inevitable culinary mishaps: "Your guests will never know what you had in mind."
PORT PORTFOLIO: SAMPLINGS OF NOTABLE OLD AND NOT-SO-OLD VINTAGES
Choosing the right vintage port primarily comes down to finding a style that pleases you. Here, some personal favorites.
1966 Graham's Like the prizewinning cabbage rose at an English village fête: huge, voluptuous, perfumed, and soft. This flowery specimen shone for me when I poured it after a maximally mature 1979 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, but it shouldn't follow a more assertive youngster. $262
1970 Sandeman Typically consigned to the second tier of vintage ports, Sandeman produced a far from second-rate 1970 that now provides affordable access to a landmark year. It's like a minor Dutch master painting of the mid-17th century—no Rembrandt, but cozy and satisfying. $110
1970 Quinta do Noval Nacional Partisans insist that Quinta do Noval Nacional reigns supreme among postwar vintage ports. It is hard to disagree when you plunge into the limitless depths of this almost scarily complex paragon. $1,000
1977 Dow's The benign smoothness that older vintage ports can subside into hasn't yet set in with this stunner, and it shows an assertive edge uncommon in a wine pushing 30 years of age. $148
1985 Graham's Fairly easy to find at retail across the country, this superb, well-balanced 20-year-old seems at its peak right now, so drink it in the near future. I love serving it with salty prosciutto di Parma and ripe melon. $103
1985 Warre's General Sherman's famous dictum to the contrary, I would say that Warre is heaven, not least in this decanter-ready exemplar that exhibits both the maturity old-timers favor and the vivacity younger vintage port proponents seek. Set it off with a buttery-crusted fig tart in late summer, or a caramelized hazelnut gâteau in winter, then invite me over. $99
1985 Quinta do Noval The omission of "de Nacional" from the label can represent a considerable saving, and though there is a difference in quality between this and its pricier big sister, Quinta de Noval is by no means a cut-rate brand. Grapes grown from the concern's premier Nacional vineyard go only into the high-end version, but this is an excellent entry-level vintage port for novices. $75
1995 Warre's Quinta da Cavadinha I discovered this boisterously mouth-filling single-vineyard gem last spring at Chez Panisse. Fruity, spicy, and forward, it makes a dramatic climax to a meal that showcases big, more assertive wines like Viogniers and Priorats. A knockout that clinches the case for younger off-vintage bottlings. $38
PORTS OF CALL: WHERE TO SHOP FOR VINTAGE PORT
Several outstanding wine merchants champion vintage port, but make sure not to overlook generalist shops where now-mature examples may have been gathering dust for decades without interim markups.
Golden West International, San Francisco This family-owned business hoards a breathtaking array of rarities, none more enviable—or costly—than the 1927 Fonseca ($1,795), still immensely powerful despite being made the year Lucky Lindy flew the Atlantic. 800-722-7020; www.golden-west-wine.com
Hart Davis Hart Wine Company, Chicago Classic old vintage port at competitive prices is an HDH forte, so check the company out before buying high-priced items elsewhere. Here, the stately 1977 Taylor Fladgate ($115) costs about $65 less than it does at several prestigious East Coast stores. www.hdhwine.com
K&L Wine Merchants, Redwood City, CA Though generally K&L doesn't go back much earlier than the epic '63s, it offers a few surprises, like the seldom-seen 1920 Rebello Valente ($239), plus limited quantities of hard-to-find single-vineyard bottlings, such as the 1992 Quinta do Infantado ($69). 800-247-5987; www.klwines.com
Orleans Wine & Spirits, Orleans, MA The celebrated 1896 Dow—a star of Douro's first great postphylloxera vintage—floored critics at the winery's 1998 bicentennial bash. Here it's a cool $2,000, but there's depth and good value in recent banner years, too. 800-240-1811; www.orleanswineandspirits.com
The Rare Wine Company, Sonoma, CA This boutique's well-edited stock is backed up by informative customer service. The memorable 1955 Taylor Fladgate ($425) is cheaper here than it is at most retailers. 800-999-4342; www.rarewineco.com
Sherry-Lehmann, New York Newer, hipper outlets make it easy to forget this unchanging grande dame of U.S. wine merchants, but Sherry-Lehmann's long view is reflected in its unwavering commitment to vintage port. Expect rare stunners like the impossibly recherché 1927 Cockburn ($1,695). 212-838-7500; www.sherry-lehmann.com
Zachys, Scarsdale, NY When you spot Zachys's full-page New York Times ads trumpeting its discount events, log on to the Web site and stock up on a notable selection of vintage port. You'll take advantage of terrific savings on treasures from landmark years, including 1927 Taylor Fladgate (recently $950, down from $1,250), 1935 Cockburn ($750, reduced from $875), and 1948 Fonseca ($975, was $1,200). 800-723-0241; www.zachys.com