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Port Keeps Wine Lovers at Bay : Great Vintages Take Time, but Other Varieties Ripe Now

Times Wine Writer

Port works wonders to chase away a chill, but wine lovers know that you can’t pick just any Port in a storm.

Vintage Port is the rarest of all Ports, made in only the best years, aged in wood for two years (occasionally as long as 2 1/2 years) and then aged in the bottle for eons. Great vintages of Port, such as 1963 or 1977, produce wines of such immense fruit and quality that it takes literally decades before they smooth out and become truly harmonious.

I have stashed in my cellar a number of bottles of ’63 Portuguese Ports that I have monitored over the years. Few of them are truly drinkable today; most need more cellar age. And they were produced a quarter century ago. Not long ago I tasted the legendary 1931 Quinta do Noval, one of the greatest vintage Ports ever produced. It wasn’t at its peak yet!

Fine Wine Takes Time

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This may explain the story of a wine-making couple I know who are both Port lovers. Both are in the early 50s.

“We hadn’t bought any of the ‘77s,” he said, “so we went down to our local shop and asked the merchant which ones we should buy.”

“And he asked us how old we were,” she said. “I am not a kid, I told him.

“And he said, ‘Look, folks, unless you’re buying the ‘77s for your grandchildren, forget them and buy some tawnies.’ ”

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That’s a message that many Port lovers give to newcomers to the game. Vintage Ports can be great, but they take great patience. And for that reason, tawny Ports can be a better buy. First, they’re much cheaper, not to mention the fact that you don’t have to lay them in your cellar until heck freezes over. Tawny Ports provide a grand accompaniment for savories because they are lighter than most vintage Ports and have a patina of age the day you buy the bottle.

Great Deal of Patience

Aged in wood at least six years, tawny Ports are often blended with some mature Port and some younger stock, giving the wine a fruity quality and an older, more wizened character.

One of my favorites over the years has been a Port called Fonseca Bin 27 (about $15) that has quite a bit of fruit, and usually offers a slightly chocolatey taste. Another reasonably priced tawny Port is Smith Woodhouse Rare Tawny ($13).

At the upper levels of this category, Graham’s 10-year-old and 30-year-old tawnies ($19 and $52, respectively) are remarkable and very complex older Ports without any of the harshness associated with vintage Port. The latter is a Port that was aged in barrel for 30 years, about as long as any tawny you’ll find.

Because of the great length of time it takes to get a vintage Port mature, the various producers in Portugal have developed a whole range of styles aimed at making Ports you can drink sooner. (As the Port shippers say, these other wines are intended to give you something you can drink while you are waiting for your vintage Ports to mature.)

One such type of Port with the style of a vintage but without the need to age the wine very long is called Vintage Character Port, and a few of those exist in the market, such as Dow’s, which sells for about $30 a bottle.

Another attempt to make a vintage wine without quite the aging requirements of a true vintage Port is the single- quinta (vineyard) wine of an “off” year. In some vintages (such as 1976 and 1978) when quality isn’t as high as in a true vintage year, some producers make a single-year wine more or less like a vintage Port from single vineyards.

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Graham often releases off-year single-vineyard wines from its Malvedos vineyard, and the 1976 and 1978 Malvedos wines from Graham (about $30 each) are currently available. Both are charming wines, heavier than a tawny, but not quite as deep and complex as a classic vintage. Single- quinta wines usually are at their peak in 10 years.

Late-Bottled Vintage

Another class of Port intended to emulate the quality level of vintage Port but without demanding that the consumer stash the stuff for half a lifetime is designated LBV. This stands for late-bottled vintage and designates a Port that was made from a single vintage, but aged longer than a vintage Port in barrel--usually three to six years.

In effect, this is a lesser-wood-aged tawny, but with some of the vintage qualities. (It is sometimes seen with the most confusing phrase “Port of the Vintage 19XX.” This is not true Vintage Port, but the phrase sort of indicates that it is.)

Ruby Port is an attempt to retain the fresh fruit quality of the wine without adding a lot of flavor from wood aging, and ruby Ports can be fun with savories too. However, I prefer them only as a contrast, or served with a light dessert.

Quady and J.W. Morris make some of California’s most consistent vintage and non-vintage Ports. Quady’s vintage wines appear to require the same amount of aging as good Portuguese Ports. (A 1977 Quady, tasted some months ago, was still remarkably young and vivacious.)

Pleasing California Ports

Other California producers make Ports that can be very pleasing and work with savories too. Three vintage Ports now on store shelves are 1980 Christian Brothers, 1982 Burgess and 1985 Beringer, all well-made and complex, needing a bit more time in bottle. Harder to find and closer to the Portuguese model is a Port called St. Amant, made from traditional Portuguese varieties.

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Many other California wineries make tawny Ports that sell for a lot less and usually are good consistent values, though a lot of what says “Port” on the label is little more than sweet wine, lacking much character. We tried the Gallo Livingston Tawny ($4) and found it somewhat syrupy and heavy, but clean and drinkable.

Another alternative is Australian Port. Some of the latest imports in Port from Australia are exciting wines and good values.

To test a broad range of Ports from California and Portugal, we selected 10 currently available Ports at random from various wine shops and sampled them to determine their general qualities. They are listed here in the order in which they were tasted, and ranked for quality on a five-point scale. Prices are those we actually paid.

Paul Masson Rare Souzao Cuvee 301S ($7.69): The wine in the familiar heart-shaped bottle is not the same wine it once was. In years past, it was truly tawny in color and paler in overall mouth feel. This tasting showed the wine to be fairly heavy and dense, with a slight pruny, syrupy finish. Nicely made, but not very elegant.

Ficklin (bottled in 1987) ($9.35): Tawny/pale in color with some fruit, but a bit thin, lacking in depth. Well made, but short in the aftertaste.

Warre’s Warrior ($6.50/half bottle): This reliable Port always offers good richness. It is pale with red highlights; good fruit, but fairly subtle. A slight pepperiness in the taste makes for a fairly complex wine.

Llords and Elwood Ancient Proverb ($5.47): Slightly Sherried and pruny, this longtime favorite in California has good flavor and richness for the money. Not classic Port, but nice dessert wine.

Sandeman Fine Ruby Port ($5.49): The only true Ruby Port in our tasting, it showed classic ruby aroma of cherries and currants, with a hint of apples tossed in for interest. This Port is light and fresh and clearly not a good match for sharper savories. Better served with apples and pears, or a pear tart.

Quady Port of the Vintage 1981 ($7.99): An overripe, Zinfandel-ish sort of aroma is big, bold and tannic. Made like a vintage wine, but lacking the overall fruit. Good wine in a bigger, full-bodied style.

Graham Late Bottled 1981 ($7.95/half bottle): One of the stars of the tasting, this most complex wine had marvelous fruit and richness and wasn’t as harsh in the mouth as some. A superior wine.

Dow’s 1972 Reserve ($16.95): This is a single-year tawny that was aged seven years in cask. It had a true tawny color, fairly pale, but was very complex and smooth. Lacking in youthful fruit (it is, after all, 16 years old), the wine was silky and refined.

Fonseca Late Bottled 1983 ($16.49): Another tawny type from a single vintage, this very dark, deep-colored wine has a huge, rich, potent aroma of fruit and a slight leathery quality. In the mouth, it’s potent and peppery, a grand match for very sharp cheeses. It’s more like a young vintage Port than a tawny.

Warre’s Nimrod 20-Year-Old ($15.99): A classic well-aged tawny that is pale bronze in color (little if any red color is left), but with a complex Sherry, spice and nutmeg character. Very appealing wine because of its utter smoothness and finesse.

Those who are interested in true vintage Port with some bottle age and are willing to pay the price to get it may still be able to order some of the better wines from the great 1970 and 1975 vintages at about $75 to $100 a bottle. Ask your merchant to tell you what’s available (some wholesalers still stock older Ports and can order them for you).


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