How far would you drive to taste some vintage port? That’s most often a rhetorical question but I actually confronted it head on last week as a rare vertical tasting including some legendary wines came on the agenda in Montreal. Since I tucked away some 2003 Fonseca from one son’s birth year, I thought this would at the very least offer a something of a preview of how it will taste when we drink it together in 2024 and beyond. So I hopped in the car.
Organized by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto and led by Dirk van der Niepoort, the tasting offered an opportunity to track the aging arc of port, one of the most age-worthy wines. Vintage ports represent one of the classic wines made from a field blend of grapes, all from one vintage. The wines only age about two or three years in barrel before bottling and spending the rest of their formidable lives in the cellars of collectors. (By contrast, the more popular tawny ports blend vintages and thanks to doing most of their aging in wood, are ready to drink upon release.)
One impression that this tasting left me is that while young port is dark, fruity and tannic, more mature port grows more supple–but not always. We started off with the Dow’s 1994, which tasted and looked very young and seems to have excellent stuffing for the long haul. Then we leaped over the 21-year-old mark with a Taylor 1985 and a Cockburn 1983, both of which had flipped just to the other side of the young-mature divide. The Taylor still had big tannins; the Cockburn was more supple. (Incidentally, all three of these wines can be found for under $100 or so, making them relative bargains for any birth-year celebrations you may enounter; find these wines).
Out of the next group, the most interesting comparison was two excellent 1970s, Graham’s and Niepoort. The Grahams was surprisingly exuberant and mouth-filling for this stage in the evolution; a showy, 40-year old cougar ready to devour something younger. The Niepoort was a slightly more youthful color, and had more focus but really expanded on the finish, a lovely, delicious wine today that no doubt still has many decades left in it.
On a historical note, I was intrigued to learn that bottling mostly returned to Portugal only in 1970. Prior to that it had been in…wait for it… England! The wines were exported in cask and bottled and cellared there. Some of the older wines in this tasting had come from private cellars and some didn’t have proper labels (see the Croft 1966 above).
The real highlight of the tasting for me was the last three ports, all superb, A+ wines. The 1948 Taylor had an alluring herbal aroma with a luscious mouthfeel and a layered, long finish–almost worth the drive itself. Dirk Niepoort said that a wine of this age can actually go through the supple stage of bottle aging and reemerge with newfound vigor. The alcohol was detectable in the ’48, but well-integrated, unlike the 1955 Taylor which, for me, had a distinctly hot finish.
The 1945 Fonseca is a top wine from one of the top vintages of the 20th century, a hot year with low yield. In the glass, the gorgeous wine has bittersweet chocolate on the aroma as well as surprising fruit; a dollop of chocolate permeated the array of flavors while the tannic structure was richer and rounder than the Taylor ’48. This bottle was excellent and the wine is drinking well today but will probably continue that way for some time.
Finally, we tried the 1927 Niepoort sourced directly from Niepoort’s cellars. In the glass, it was even more youthful looking than the ’45 Fonseca. Sure enough, on the palate the wine exhibited a luxurious texture, tannins that had faded and folded into pure silk. The layered quality of the previous two wines was less, but the texture and poise were superb.
So, as Michelin would put it, the tasting was very much “worth a drive.” And I’m tempted to get more 2003 to tuck away for birth-year celebrations well into the future.