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A Weekend Tasting:
600 Years of Vintage Porto

© copyright 2001 by Roy Hersh

Recently, a group of eight Vintage Porto (VP) aficionados from around the US got together for a weekend tasting of incredible VPs here in Washington state. Most of the group had known each other from online wine message boards and some of us from opposite coasts, had met over the years. It turned out to be a great weekend of food and wine and a wonderful opPORTunity for winos from the East coast to meet those from the West coast.

Each year I host a formidable tasting and vary the theme, with Vintage Porto always as the focus. This year, our tasting took place in mid-April and I broke out Dow, Graham, Fonseca and Taylor to compare from the 1983, 1977 and 1970 vintages. Not a bad little tasting as these are generally the names and vintages that people particular to Porto, consume pretty regularly. But, even prior to the recent sea change in the US, I felt it was time to open some older bottles of Porto that had been dormant in my cellar and share them with those I knew would appreciate them.

The catalyst for this event took place about two years ago. An on-line wine friend Jim, also an Italian wine enthusiast, mentioned he had a bottle of 1927 Taylor and that none of his friends would really appreciate it. I told him that I had only tried that particular wine one time and it stood out in my memory as one of the finest VPs I had ever tasted. He mentioned that he'd be willing to open this bottle if I were ever in his neck of the woods.

This summer, I reached out to others that I knew shared a passion for Porto and would be willing to ante up a top notch older bottle to include in a fantastic tasting. To add some historical perspective, I had asked a friend to make a surprise "guest appearance", as he is the head of one of the oldest Porto Shippers in Oporto. Unfortunately, he had to cancel his plane reservations just after the Sept. 11 tragedy and stayed in Portugal.

The weekend prior to Halloween, with wine shipped well in advance, we met for a two day Porto-thon. To add to the local flavor besides just the wine dinners, the East coast guests got a mini tour of Seattle which of course always includes the requisite Pike's Place Market visit, as well as an afternoon spent tasting wine (now there is a shock!) with the owners of local wineries and a delicious seafood lunch at a place called Etta's Seafood which is across from the market.

The evening tastings were held on two consecutive nights as we were going to be drinking over a dozen VPs with an average age of nearly fifty years per bottle, in addition to all of the outstanding dinner wines. The first night we went to Daniel's Broiler in Bellevue, WA which is part of the restaurant group I work for and therefore we were able to have a nice private dining room and staff, with corkage fees waived. The only criticism of the venue was that they lacked enough quality stemware to accomodate the needs of a wine-geek dinner. Knowing that, we brought our own glassware for the Vintage Porto.

Without much further ado, it is time to delve right into the tasting notes of the wines we had on this first night. I am going to add a little historical perspective in regards to the growing seasons from the vintages represented here as well. The harvest and weather reports are generalized for the vintage unless specific quintas are mentioned. The wines are listed in order of consumption over two evenings.

Friday, Oct. 26, 2001

1963 Douro Wine Shippers and Growers Association LDA is a shipper that private-labeled Porto for their European clients. Unknown to most, all the VP from Porto Shipper, A. Pintos dos Santos was produced by the DWS&GA, with strong ties to the Barros' Porto empire. Sweet red berry fruit, thin, raspy tannins, with a gentle nutty nuance and too much heat on the finish. What a great way to start out the night! Not worthy of scoring, but put this wine put us over the 600 year mark in terms of total bottle age of the VPs consumed during the weekend. Fortunately the wines improved dramatically from here. Not Rated

1970 Taylor - Well it wasn't the youngest wine we tried but it was the second youngest. This was not originally part of the tasting but one of the NY gents talked me into adding it in place of a 1963. Happy to oblige! I have ranted on about this particular wine 3 - 4 times in the past year, so I'll spend more time elaborating on the others instead. Very dark ruby-purple, huge chunky monkey and muscular, with deft balance, complex flavors of jammy plum, chocolate and tar. So young, yet so far. Always a winner! 95 pts.

1966 Sandeman - (Grant's of St. James Ltd., London bottling) I am glad that most people opt to purchase the 1963s as I have preferred the '66s since most '63s started to fade, in the early/mid-90s. An unusually wet winter filled all local aquifers, and in late June it became very hot and some grapes were burned at early on. It was a long, hot and dry summer, (hitting 113 degrees on two occasions in August), that produced concentrated small berries. The rain came just at the beginning of the harvest and yields were pretty minuscule, (down 30 percent from the previous couple of vintages in the '60s). Those who picked in time, wound up with exceptional quality grapes with depth and powerful grip. Most of the '66s I have had can last for many more decades, unlike the 1963s in my opinion. Even two days later, this wine was still showing beautifully. The '66 Sandeman is one of my 3 favorite vintages from this producer. The medium garnet color has held up quite well with some bricking on the rim, but otherwise this wine is still showing youth and it has the backbone for a long life ahead. Complex layers of cocoa and spice with excellent balance and the velvety mouthfeel that gains extra credit. Since this tasting, I have opened another bottle of this wine (enjoyed during Game 5 of the World Series) with similar notes. I only have a handful left from the original case I bought. From here on, only very special occasions! 93 pts.

1963 Taylor - 1963 in the Douro was known for its phenomenal growing season with exemplary conditions after a cold winter and wet spring. Veraison at Vargellas was on July 15th the latest in 17 years. The '63 harvest followed a long and warm summer. There was a slight amount of precipitation in mid-late September (1.5") which actually helped invigorate the grapes. Picking of the Taylor VP grapes from Vargellas took place from Oct. 4-10. Dick Yeatman (of Taylor, Fladgate & YEATMAN fame) commented that the harvest reminded him of 1924. The Sandeman '63 was the VP I cut my teeth on, early and often. It was an incredible wine butdid start to hit its peak in the early 90s, as have quite a few others from that vintage. I have rarely found an off bottle of '63 Taylor, but this was not up to par, as the overt and youthful quality I have come to expect from a '63 Taylor was missing. Two in the group found this to be rather typical, but I have had some awe-inspiring bottlings and was disappointed. Only one other wine, which was clearly flawed, showed less favorably. So you know if '63 Taylor is at the bottom of the heap, the others must have been quite special. Some atypical spearmint, menthol and clove, with an orangish hue and some caramel flavors on an off-putting spirity finish. 86 pts. (usually I find this shows MUCH younger and have always rated it in the mid-90 pt.. range)..

1967 Quinta do Noval "Nacional" -The weather was good but many picked too soon as they were apprehensive of rain, which had damaged the 3 prior vintages during harvest. Most '67s are past their peak and most shippers probably should have declared 1966 instead. A couple declared both. I know one Porto expert who believes the Nacional has started to fade. Not the wine in this bottle! Brad Kane had broken out the huge '66 Nacional just about 2 years ago so I decided to opt for the '67 and leave the '66 asleep. I have only had one other bottle of the '67 (and it knocked my socks off) and this was the last in my cellar, but I wanted to make a point. That point is that this wine from a less than stellar vintage, had the potential to be the best of show for the entire weekend. Almost everybody had it ranked first, a couple placed it second and only Bucko had it ranked 3rd, but what does he know? ;) Seriously speaking, this wine was so huge that my ONLY complaint is that I opened this bottle prematurely as it needs another 20 years to reach maturity. Upon decanting it, the few of us around at the time agreed with a "holy ----". After dinner and amongst some prestigious VPs, this wine showed the depth of color and youthfulness equivalent to a Graham 1985…no joke! It was a dark purple with incredible richness, lively yet soft tannins, and amazing balance. It possessed grapey flavors that were massive and a finish that rivaled the best of any Nacional's I have tasted. I could not find a single flaw. Most enjoyable. Many would rate this 100 pts., to which I would not argue, but ... I reserve one point for "future potential" when it reaches its phenomenal zenith. 99 pts.

1955 Cockburn - A long and warm growing season gave way to extremely high temperatures in early September, but rains were badly needed in the Upper Douro and finally came at the end of the first week of Sept. Fortunately, excellent conditions prevailed throughout the entire harvest. Large bunches and large grapes were abundant and those that were patient to begin picking, were rewarded with richly flavored grapes. Many 1955s today are still very well balanced and concentrated VPs. Most bottling took place in London and these bottlings are easier to come by today than those from Portugal. I can't remember if I have ever had a '55 Cockburn before and this was quite a treat. This bottle was clearly stored perfectly. Medium ruby color, laced with sweet, ripe and concentrated plum and cherry flavors. A seductive mouthfeel like that of a great older Burgundy. A very long finish that delivered a hint of walnuts, but also showed a hot streak at the end. Otherwise this was one beautiful Port, which most ranked at the top of the three 1955s we tried. 92 pts.

1955 Graham - On any given night, this would have been a most welcome Porto. In comparison to the other two 1955s here though, it was the weakest link although there were members of our group that prefered this one. That just shows how good the other wines showed on this night. Usually the '55 Graham's has been one of my favorites of the vintage. Reddish-orange color, showing slightly mature fruit with raisin and almond nuances which were sweet and pleasing. Soft and slightly lacking backbone, yet well balanced fruit and acidity. The finish showed a touch of orange peel and nutty character with typical Graham spirit which lasted on the palate. 89 pts.

1955 Sandeman - It was difficult for me to choose between this and the '55 Cockburn's. I have had this wine many times and it has been a perennial favorite of mine from this outstanding vintage (although sadly I have never tasted the highly regarded Niepoort from this vintage). Of all the wines above, this was the second darkest in terms of color, behind only the Nacional. A harmonious, smooth operator! Great depth, fleshiness and complexity with a wealth of peripherals, the aromatics here are stunning! Sweeter than most Sandeman VPs; this one has the stuffing to go 2 more decades ... or more. 94 pts.


Second Tasting, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2001 (Game 1 of the World Series) The second evening, I designed a five-course menu and paired wines from various appellations all from the 1991 vintage except the Churchill's White Porto which accompanied the cream of asparagus soup. The East coast contingent had requested Dungeness Crab be included in the meal, so two of the courses centered around exquisite morsels of this local delicacy. Although I love to cook, I wanted to enjoy spending time at the table in the company of my friends (not in the kitchen) and hired a chef for the evening which certainly turned out to be a good idea. Here now, the Vintage Portos that were consumed slowly with much discussion.

1995 Quinta de Vargellas "Vinha Velha" - I have only read about this wine but have never even seen it sold in the USA. Vargellas is the quinta, and their grapes have been the backbone for Taylor vintage Porto since 1908. Vinha Velha translates to "old vines" in Portuguese and many of the vines that produced the grapes for this particular bottling were over 70 years old at the time. This is a very rare bottle (224 cases produced ... selling today for between $500 and $800 per bottle) and the donor was very generous in sharing this with us. As this was by far the youngest wine of the weekend, we tried it first on this evening to enjoy its sheer youthful exuberance. Opaque purple, with anise and tobacco aromas. The Vargellas had intense jammy black currant and chocolate flavors that were in-your-face. The fruit overwhelmed the tannins at this stage, which was a nice surprise. This is bigger than a young Turley Zin, but already a well-balanced wine that will last for ages. Thank you Mark! 95 pts.

1945 Sandeman - Over the years, I have tasted a broad selection of 1945s and have almost never been disappointed with the outcome. If we think that 2000 Bordeaux is going to be a memorable vintage, Port fanatics look at the "Victory Vintage" of 1945 with great esteem. Actually, this was a difficult and very small vintage, as there was a severe drought during the summertime and extremely high temperatures throughout the harvest. From Sept. 1944-Aug. 1945, total rainfall measured a measley 11.7 inches! In fact, it was a very early harvest with a very good berry set, which began on September 14th at Vargellas, but at the end of the first week of Sept. at most other quintas. The quality of '45s in their youth according to all I have ever read was outstanding. Precautions had to be taken in the lagares, due to the extremely hot temperatures.. The incredible joy of producing a vintage Porto during peace time was extraordinary in Portugal in September 1945. The only mystery remains why Cockburn never declared this vintage. If anyone knows this answer I would be most appreciative if you would share this. One unique feature of this vintage which is little known, is that the '45s were mostly bottled in Oporto (rare to say the least, back then) frequently in brown Sherry bottles (my Ferreira bottles are a good example) since glass was hard to come by at the time. Some of the best '45s will live on for another 2-4 more decades. The Sandeman 1945 is my favorite vintage produced from this house although I have yet to try the 1934 which is supposed to be ... possibly the greatest wine produced by this prestigious Shipper. The light red-pink color was the only hint as to the age of this wine. This Sandeman is one elegant Vintage Porto! A great nose of rose petals, spicy cinnamon and licorice, with sweet grenadine and plump red berry fruit that was quite appealing. Good balance and a velvety finish presenting candied nuts that kept on coming. 94 pts.

1945 Quinta do Noval - Some critics have dissed this wine, but I don't get it. Others, like Suckling loved it. Light red fading to tawny color now. Violets, damson and clove notes. A delicate, soft mouthfeel that is the grace of this wine. Possessing remarkable complexity with earthy, berry and tar underpinnings. Excellent mid-palate nuances of a fine mature VP. Some harsh hot spirit on the lengthy finish was distracting and detracted from the overall charm of this wine. 91 pts.

1948 Fonseca - Reportedly, the grapes were super-ripe and quite sweet at harvest time. An overly hot growing season concentrated the fruit in small berries. The postwar quotas probably had something to do with the very few declarations in this excellent vintage. Possibly coming on the heels of the 1947, with plenty of '45 still on the market at the time the '48s were released, made for a difficult market situation. Bruce Guimaraens is quoted as saying, "1948 was, like 1945, a true classic. These wines are enormous and will last and last". I have enjoyed this wine immensely in the past and it stand out as one of the finest Vintage Portos I have ever tasted. Unfortunately, this bottle had a seepage issue and the ullage was poor. We held out hope that we might be surprised but that was not the case. N/R

1924 Taylor - This is the only bottle I have ever tried from 1924. Little is written about '24s, but I know the Dow is revered for its structure and intensity, nearly 80 years later. This was an excellent vintage when young and sold well in an "up" market in Europe. Small quantities were produced as there were 3 significant heat waves with extreme temperatures, early in the ripening season. Fortunately, although yields were reduced, the wines produced did not seem to have any negative effects from this. Harvest took place the first week of October that year. At Vargellas it began on Oct. 3rd and total production was 60 pipes. If it were not for the prolific 1927 vintage, 1924 would have had a much greater reputation. Picking between the 1924 and 1927 Taylor here (which I have only had once before) is the epitome of splitting hairs. Both wines were clearly well stored and in very good condition. Ullage on both was excellent for 70-somethings. Having the opPORTunity to try these two, side-by-side is memorable to say the least! The group was split with a 5-4 vote in deference to the 1924. This wine had been stored in the cellar of the gent who brought it, since its purchase in CA during the 1970s. The 1924 Taylor had a graceful garnet hue and held its color very well, with an orangish tinge on the rim. It was incredibly lively given its age and held up well in the glass. The bottle was opened a few hours prior to the tasting but was not decanted. I felt that the 1924 had more grip and complexity than did the '27. It showed some dusty plum flavors and roasted chestnuts with a sweetness on the finish that reminded me of homemade toffee. My only negativity came from the medium length of the finish that also presented too much spirit. An outstanding delight! 94 pts.

1927 Taylor - I have long waxed poetic about this wine (which until now I only tasted one time!) and this vintage's history which I have studied long and hard. Two years ago, Jim mentioned he had a bottle of this wine and as mentioned, this was the impetus for organizing this entire VP weekend bash. My first experience with the Taylor 1927 was one of the most memorable of my entire VP tasting experience, with possibly a few rare exceptions. In memory it stood out, certainly in the top 5 VPs I have ever had. It showed at least 2-3 decades younger than it was at the time (a great blind tasting in 1998) and upon tasting, I believed it was a 1955. The best word to describe the 1927 vintage is "monumental" and it could be "the greatest vintage of the past century" although I am sure many would argue this point. Bruce Guimaraens did say that, "1927 is one of the greatest vintages EVER declared! " Unique for its incredible quality and quantity (few other vintages can compare!) so much VP was made in 1927, that it literally flooded the market. By July of that year, the grapes were already quite far along but they evolved more slowly in August. At Vargellas, the weather turned cooler and there was some rain in mid Sept. Harvest began on Oct. 3 at Dow and others began soon thereafter. To those that know me, they have heard me speak about or have read my postings in which I have reconteured the sad stories about much of the 1927 VPs being bombed in London warehouses by the Nazis, so I won't bore you with all of those tales of woe, here. One thing I have not mentioned previously, is that during this particular vintage year (like 1974) saw a Revolution against the "regime" and Lisbon and Oporto both suffered. BTW, I am dying to get my hands on a '27 Niepoort and would go far afield to taste that wine. If anyone wants to break out that bottle, I will make it very worthwhile to do so. In fact, that could be the impetus for the next tasting of this ilk. Feel free to email me at Portolover@aol.com if you care to.

Back to this 1927 Taylor, which unfortunately, did not live up to the romantic memory of my first experience with it. This particular bottle with ullage in the low-neck, and the cork in good condition was clearly stored in a pristine cellar. In comparing it to the '24 on this night, the 1927 was a bit more monolithic and did not have the power or acidity to stand up to the 1924. It had an appealing light ruby hue with a rim showing maturity. The aromatics were cherry and mohagany (in a positive sense) that kept my nose in the glass longer than the '24. Its downside was the lack of complexity on the palate and acid level. Besides the ethereal aromatics, what I loved most about this wine was the awe-inspiring finish. Not only was the mouthfeel like drinking liquid silk but the aristocratic finish of hazelnut syrup and crème brulee stayed on the palate for an eternity. 92 pts.

It was a wonderful weekend, with great friends, food and wine. I doubt any of us will forget it and hopefully we will have the opPORTunity to reinvent it, in years to come. For any person that may have a similar exuberance for VP and would like to share an anecdote, tasting notes or ask questions about anything Porto related, please feel free to email me at anytime. Also, if you are passionate about VP, have a great bottle to share and would be willing to travel for the next "VP event" let me know, and we can arrange another off-line.

Obrigado!

Roy Hersh
aka ... Portolover@aol.com and Oportorah@aol.com.

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