Older, mature wines always have an intrigue to them that younger wines simply cannot match. I’m referring to wines that have at least a few decades in the bottle. While they inevitably evoke curiousity (what will the wine taste like after decades in the bottle?), it is always tinged with trepidation – will the wine even have survived?
It is with this sense of curiousity (and without the trepidation) that I approached a tasting of Vintage Port from the 1950’s to the present day. The Decanter masterclass, held in London in November 2010, was led by cousins Paul and Johnny Symington – owners of the estates. The sense of trepidation was missing because the wines had perfect provenance – they came directly from the cellars of the Symington family estates. The Symington family is perhaps the first family of Port. With a history in the Port trade going back fourteen generations over nearly five centuries, they are the largest vineyard owners in the Duoro and makers of three storied brands – Graham’s, Dow’s and Warre’s. That history finds an echo to this day. As the cousins pointed out at the start of the session, fine vintage Port is still made today in a way that the Romans would recognize – with the grapes being trodden by feet.
Anticipation and an air of grandeur filled the large room in London’s Landmark hotel where the tasting took place. The attendees knew that they were going to taste some of the finest wines in the world, including the ultra-rare Graham’s 1955 . The tasting started with the 2007 vintage. For wines that are made to drink well at the age of 100+ years, the first three wines (Dow’s, Warre’s and Graham’s 2007) were mere infants. The colour of all three a youthful and deep ruby. The nose displayed the stylistic differences – the Warre’s nose restrained but rich, the Dow’s more opulent. On the palate the Warre’s and Graham’s richer and sweeter than the Dow’s, which was drier and more structured but equally delicious. All three wines had mouth-filling and tremendous fruit concentration, good acidity (no soupiness despite the ripeness), spiciness and a long finish – with obvious complexity.
Next came the Dow’s 2000 – the colour no different from the 2007, the nose more harmonious, some bottle age secondary aroma’s creeping in, wonderful complexity but still abundant youth. At 10 years old, this wine was still a toddler. Delicious, long and complex – but still big and structured, and with clearly a tremendous potential for aging. The speakers made the point that of all the vintage Port’s Dow’s are the most austere. Austerity of course is a relative term for a wine so rich and lush.
Both Paul and Johnny pushed the point that Vintage Port’s should also be drunk younger. The urging basically was to drink Vintage Port at different points of its life to get the most from it. Commercially, I can see the point – the more the wine drunk young, the more the depletion of stocks and the higher the sales. What about the taste? In my opinion the younger Vintage Ports are delicious and satisfying wines. If you can afford to buy enough Vintage Port to drink some young – by all means do enjoy the luxury. However, it is with age that they reveal their true glory. So if you can only afford a few bottles (especially in India where supply is not abundant but prices are!), stash them away for your old age.
What about the appropriate time to drink Port? Both Paul and Johnny suggested dropping the end-of-the-meal formality in favour of having Port earlier, with dessert for example. Johnny provided the very interesting example of his grandfather who drank Port everyday at 11.00am with a biscuit and declared that “anytime not drinking Port is a waste of time”. If I had to good luck like Johnny’s grandfather to preside over the finest Port cellars in the world, I would agree – and join in the 11.00am ritual myself!
Next came Warre’s 1997 – colour still young with the slightest garnet at the rim. Definite bottle age, but still lots of youth. A scented wine – with an almost feminine elegance and beauty. In the mouth – full and luscious, excellent acidity, mellowness and youthful structure meshed together in a silky, long and complex finish. On to the Graham’s 1994, one of the great classic years. The colour still youthful, the nose restrained – almost closed – but younger than the Warre’s 1997. Loads of youthful fruit with slight caramel notes but almost no other sign of age.
Finishing up the 90’s we moved on to the only wine of the 80’s, Dow 1980. The colour – another youthful surprise. The margin of my tasting book is scrawled with this notation: “do these wines ever get old!!”. The nose though was wonderfully evolved – leather, tobacco overlayed on plenty of fruit. Overall, just a wonderfully complex scent. On the palate – great spiciness, vibrant acidity, and luscious dry fruit. Still structured, complex and long, this wine felt like it could develop further and last forever. The speakers pointed out that the Dow 1980 was a particularly good value for money. Why? – I did not make a note of the reason. If you’re reading to this point of the article, surely you’re motivated enough to go find out yourself!
The Graham’s 1970 is the point at which I stopped spitting. How (and why) would a person spit out a wine older than them? If I were Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker I could afford the luxury of spitting out 40 year old wines. But I’m not, so I did my duty and started to drink the stuff. As it turned out, I made the right decision. The Graham’s 1970 was introduced as ‘absolutely classic and one of the most important wines of the evening’. Even though this wine was a decade older than the Dow 1980, its nose seemed younger. The Graham’s 1970 is considered one of the four or five greatest Port’s of the last 50 years. On the palate, this was absolutely clear. The flavours lingered forever – peppery spiciness, finesse and youth tinged with complexity. Once again, an example of a wine that still had enough fruit and tannic structure to keep developing and to last a very long time in the bottle.
On to the 1960’s, we tasted three wines: Dow’s 1966, Graham’s 1963 and Warre’s 1960. Due to the closeness of the vintages, it was interesting to compare the Dow’s 1966 with the Graham’s 1963. The Dow’s 1966, was considered a Cinderella vintage (rustic and earthy) when vintage was declared. The wine has now evolved wonderfully in the bottle and has a fully developed nose of liquorice, caramel, mushrooms, earth and meat. In the mouth – delicacy, length and moving complexity. I preferred this wine to the much touted Graham’s 1963, which apparently sells for a substantially higher price at Christie’s auctions. In the period after 1945, the Graham’s 1963 is considered royalty. The nose, though developed was more restrained (and even somehat closed) when compared with the Dow’s 1966. But all the complexity was still there. On the palate – sweeter than the Dow 1966, this wine still had youthful fruitiness in addition to its evolved complexity. The delight continued with the Warre’s 1960 with its seductive, luscious, fulfilling and very satisfying bouquet.
Then came the final wine of the evening – Graham’s 1955. Paul and Johnny Symington served five of their nineteen remaining bottles of the ultra-rare wine, and I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to taste it. If ever a demonstration was needed of the potential of fully mature Vintage Port – this 55-year old wine provided it. How do you describe such a wine? It was sensual, intense and a tremendously pleasurable, uplifting way to end a fine evening.