A h, the sweet mysteries of Port. I have loved Port almost since I began drinking wine, with the possible exception of my Ripple phase. Every time I drink it, the wine stirs up strong feelings, so I never tire of it.
You can drink Port any time of year, but it is never better than during the cold, dark months of winter. The rich, fruit-filled, warming flavors of Port brighten any night and make the perfect ending to any meal. It draws old friends closer together and makes new friends out of strangers.
We were blessed last week with an invitation to share three special bottles of Port owned by a friend of a friend. I had met Doug through my friend Tim, and he had these three bottles that were burning a hole in his cellar. So Tim got the group of 9 together for some serious sampling.
We started with an incredible dinner at Cadwallader’s. Tim brought a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay that were great. I brought a Kosta Browne Pinot Noir and a Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre blend from Cypher called The Peasant. Both were great with our meals.
I didn’t do a complete inventory of dinners, but I had seared scallops with fingerling sweet potatoes as an appetizer. Great pairing with the Sauvignon Blanc, though it also matched the Chardonnay pretty well.
My entree was a bison steak with some mushrooms and a red wine reduction. The meat was amazingly tender, fat free and very tasty. I loved it with the Pinot, but I thought the GSM was a better pairing.
Then it was on to Doug and Mercer’s house for the main event. There are several kinds of Port, such as Ruby Port, Tawny Port, Colheita and Late Bottled Vintage. They all have good selling points, and I like the various styles, but the absolute best is vintage Port. It is the most complex, with a deep, rich mix of aromas and flavors.
Port, or Porto comes from the Douro region of Portugal. Growers may use any of 89 different grapes in their Port, but only five red grapes are considered the best: Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Touriga Francesa and Touriga Nacional. After the wines are harvested they are gently crushed and fermented. The fermentation is stopped early by pouring the wine into vats of clear brandy. This leaves a fortified wine with 10% residual sugar and 20% alcohol.
After a short time in barrels, vintage port is aged in bottles. Because of the high alcohol content, it will age for decades. One tradition is to buy a bottle of vintage Port when a child is born and present it when the child turns 21. The Portugese have been making Port for more than 300 years, so there are a lot of traditions, but new regulations are allowing the winemakers to try some new things.
Each Port shipper decides which years to declare a vintage. These are years when conditions are just right to produce a spectacular wine. The shipper must present samples to the Port Wine Institute for approval to declare a vintage. Some of the finer Port houses may declare vintages nearly every year, but a widespread vintage happens only about three times a decade.
Doug had three wonderful vintage Ports for us to sample: Quinta do Cresto 1995, Graham’s 1994 and Sandeman 1994. The bottles were in beautiful condition, labels intact and clean.
When we removed the hard shell around the cork, we detected no leakage, and all the corks were in good condition. We could tell we were headed for a great night.
We each had three tasting glasses, so we could compare the Ports if we chose to do that. I did that, and I was glad, because the wines kept changing as they opened in the glass. I have to admit I rushed through the first taste of each, because the wine was so good, I couldn’t wait.
The wines all were dark blood red and viscous, with powerful aromas. Flavors of dark fruit and chocolate were abundant. We sipped slowly and carefully because the high alcohol content of Port can get to you pretty quickly.
As we sipped and talked we discovered each of us noticed different things about the wines, which usually happens at tastings. And while we had favorites, we agreed each wine was tremendous on its own.
My favorite was the Sandeman, though the group favored the Quinta do Cresto. Graham’s was third in the voting, but we all drank our share of the Graham’s and said it was a great wine.
All of the wines tasted fresh and young, full of sweet, juicy fruit. They didn’t taste like they were nearly 20 years old. We munched on walnuts, peanuts, cheese and chocolate as we sipped. I especially like the way the walnuts and the chocolate paired with the Ports.
I thought the Quinta do Cresto was a bit sweeter and lighter than the other two, but it was a close call. The Sandeman had more depth, complexity and character, I thought. I’ve got a 2011 Sandeman that I’m itching to try soon, to see how different a young Port might be.
Ports can be pricey, and the older they are the more they will cost. And the older they are the better they will taste. I recently saw a 2003 vintage Port for about $100. So the thing to do is buy as much as you can when they are released and stash them away in the cellar. They do just keep getting better and better.
Our small group was very grateful to Doug and Mercer for sharing their treasures with us. It is unusual enough to have one good bottle of vintage Port after dinner, but to have three is living large. Thanks for a great evening.
Year: 1994, 1995