When I think of port, I find the questions just piling up. Firstly, what about the British origin – Osborne, Cockburn Graham, Taylor…? How come most port houses seem to have English names? Is this Napoleon guy to be blamed, once again? Secondly, is vintage port always superior and more desirable then tawny port, or do tawny ports have a shot at it? Thirdly, what about other fortified wines from other wine regions, what makes the Douro valley wines so special? And finally, for just how long should a vintage port be cast away in the cellar before consumed?
No, it wasn’t Napoleon this time. And it wasn’t the Spanish Inquisition either, although it could have been a most plausible candidate in this case. No, it was the war of the Spanish Succession and the Methuen treaty, signed in 1703. As England was at war with France, and with the English sparkling wine experiment not exactly running according to plan, it became increasingly thorny to acquire wine.
Enter Methuen and the treaty. With this, Portuguese Wine would be taxed quite favorably compared to French wine, war or not. This made Portuguese wine cheaper and as we all know, cheaper is tastier.
But the English had yet to discover the port wine, not just Portuguese wine. Some years prior to the war, a Liverpool wine merchant had sent two new representatives to Oporto to learn the wine trade. At one time they visited the Douro valley and were treated with a “very agreeable, sweetish and extremely smooth wine,” which had been fortified with a distilled spirit. The two Englishmen were so pleased with the product that they purchased the entire lot and shipped it home. The rest is history.
So in other words, as the war made French wine unpredictable, the Methuen treaty helped to establish commercial relations between England and Portugal and thus the fundamentals of the port industry was laid. As expected, the treaty subsequently became known colloquially as the “Port Wine Treaty.”
My own experience of port is rather limited. I know that they are usually dark in colour, they have a propensity to be sweet, and my guess is that they should have lots of this unmistakable scent aged normal wines tend to have that we label “hints of port wine.” Therefore, I was very glad when BKWine was invited to a lunch tasting of Taylor’s port wines at restaurant Bobonne in Stockholm, because although I do not know much about port I have always had an interest in port wine. The tasting was led by Jorge Ramos, sales and marketing manager at Taylor’s, and organized by VinUnic, Taylor’s Swedish importer.
One of the oldest port houses
Jorge Ramos starts with giving us some background. Taylor’s port is one of the oldest port houses in Portugal, and it is the only British port company that is still owned by the founding family. So today, the company is run by the 8th generation family members.
Taylor’s own three properties in the Douro valley. Among these is Quinta de Vargellas, often regarded as one of the top 25 estates in the world. Most, if not all, of Taylor’s lots are in the upper part of the Douro valley, called Douro superior. In Quinta de Vargellas, many of the vines are around one hundred years old, and those vines are a vital blend of Taylor’s vintage port. The Quinta de Vargellas has been owned since the late 19th hundred. In 1744, Taylor’s was also the first British company to by a property in the Douro valley, thus shifting from shippers to farmers. The reason was to ensure consistency year after year in the wines that were brought to market.
All of the grapes are picked by hand, mostly because everything is terraced. This makes mechanized harvesting difficult, not to say impossible. However, the labour-intensive picking is rather expensive. “Four hundred people come in for the harvest,” says Jorge Ramos, “ and it is very costly, because for three weeks we have four hundred people that we feed, sleep, entertain and provide a lot of port for.”
Late Bottled Vintage and Vintage declaration
Taylor’s focus mainly on vintage port, tawny port, and late bottled vintage, a category that according to Jorge Ramos Taylor’s created in 1970, using the 1965 vintage. Taylor’s had seen that there was a demand for vintage style wine that was ready to drink. A normal vintage port is bottled after two years, the late bottled vintage is bottled after four to six years. Note that if you buy older vintages, they could be bottled in the UK but the law changed in 1976 stating that all port must be bottled in Vila Nova de Gaia.
Vintage declaration is a house to house decision, on average three times a decade, at least the last 300 years. Taylor’s, however, declared vintage four times the last decade: 2000, 2003, 2007, and 2009. Vintage port is bottled in half bottles, standard 75 cl, magnums, 3-litres, and… God help us, 6 liters!
…and what’s new?
What has changed though, is the grape spirits. Up until 1992, port houses were obliged to buy the grape spirits from the government, the port wine institute. As the law changed in 1992 port houses were able to buy the grape spirits all over the world. Jorge Ramos points out that this meant that Taylor’s could look for cleaner, more refined spirits. “But we do not want it to interfere with the wine. 60 per cent of the grape spirits still come from Portugal. The best wine gets the best spirit. Not masking the bad qualities of the wine.”
Much of the wine is also foot trodden. But for the entry level wines, computer steered steel slats do the treading. These slats are horizontally positioned on their way down and vertically positioned going up, thus creating a circular movement resembling the trading of a human foot. Everything from late bottled vintage is, however, foot trodden.
What about the tawnys?
A tawny port is port wine made from red grapes aged in barrels. Gradually, they mellow to a golden-brown colour. So in other words, tawny is port wine not bottled or bottle aged but barrel aged. The official categories are 10, 20, 30 and over 40 years.
But a Tawny port aged 40 years is however not port wine from 40 year old barrels – it is a blend. This is important to bear in mind. The specific port wine house Tawny is, like champagne, a blend that is to reflect the house style. At Taylor’s three master blenders ensure that the blend is correct and consistent.
In terms of the blend, 90 per cent of what is in the bottle is what is on the label. The blenders will blend more or less to get that house style. In a bottle of twenty year tawny, for example, you could have a blend of thirty different wines.
Jorge Ramos reveals that “with all tawny aging in small barrels, when it is time for bottling, we’ll grab a few barrels from 1926 for that toffee, caramel flavor, we’ll grab some barrels from 1940 for that figs, and apricots, and then we’ll freshen it all up with a lager percent of 80s and 90s for that orange peel and acidity so in one bottle you could have a blend of thirty different years.”
We ask him if the label, 10, 20, 30 years… is it more of a brand than a blend? Well, no. 90 per cent is what the label says. The cellars go back till 1848, so eventually this barrel will run empty and that desired toffee and caramel will be brought to you from the 1849 barrel…
1/7th of the total production must be set aside for tawny port, “so the port industry does not run out of wine.” But Taylor’s reserve more. “We think that is where the market is going. Tawnys are more visceral, drink year around, you can chill them in the summer, probably pair better with desserts.”
And what about the wines?
Right, some tasting notes of course. This is what was poured:
2008 Late Bottled Vintage: Heavy aromas of dark chocolate, a wee bit of mothball, silky texture. Good acidity, the sweetness of the wine is hardly traceable. Still very young, for the cellar. I find myself thinking, this is how glögg should taste.
1995 Quinta de Vargellas: Fully integrated, tremendous punch in both scent and mouth feel. Very good.
2005 Quinta de Vargellas: And now for something completely different! Warmer, sweeter, rich, overwhelming tannin structure, banana, more bite.
1985 Taylor’s Vintage Port: Lovely integrated, lush, generous, dried fruit, coffee. Loved this one.
2000 Taylor’s Vintage Port: I think this won my heart today, this had something the others did not have. Very, very nice.
2011 Taylor’s Vintage Port: Fantastic, but a bit difficult to evaluate at the moment. Very powerful.
Taylor’s 10 years old Tawny: A bit harsh, I think.
Taylor’s 20 years old Tawny: Much better. Lovely texture, great wine!
Taylor’s 30 years old Tawny: Better than the 20 year old, more of everything.
Taylor’s 40 years old Tawny: This is Taylor’s saying “I rest my case.” I have nothing to add. Perfection in a bottle, bluntly, tacky, and clichéishly put.
1964 Single Harvest Tawny Port: Immensely impressive. Perfection.
So, have I gotten any wiser? One of my questions was about the drinking age. Young, old, somewhere in between? I sit with the 2000 and 2011, with the 1985 in fresh memory. The 2000, I think. I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe 10 years is good enough. But the 1985, its texture, so silky and integrated!
And the tawnys. Not to be forgotten! They proved as good as the vintage ports, so I will definitely buy more of them. You certainly do not have to exclude them in any way.
Many, many thanks to Jorge Ramos and Taylor’s for sharing the wines and the story behind Taylor’s, and many many thanks to Catharina and the rest of the crew at VinUnic for this wonderful experience. Thank you!
On a more personal note, some twenty years ago I was in Porto for about a week. Our focus was not wine, rather the sun and the ocean, but being in Porto it is difficult not to explore the port supply (or demand, for that matter). So, on one of the days we boarded a guided bus tour, “Porto and the Port Wine,” led by this thirtysomething lunatic Englishman. Apart from the usual tourist musts of Porto, which we enjoyed very much, we visited Graham’s, and a purchase of a 1977 Graham’s Vintage Port. I still have it. Interested?
Strangely enough however, a few rather odd facts about Porto have remained in my mind since then. Firstly, and this is of course according to our guide, the lunatic Englishman, you do not simply ask for a coffee in Porto. No. “You could of course ask for a “un caffey por favore,” but that is so touristic. Ask for a “Cimbalino,” and the locals will shine up. You see, Cimbalino is the manufacturer’s name of the ancient coffee machines that were first used in Porto. So in Porto, Cimbalino equals coffee!”
Secondly, he guided us through the basis of Porto traffic driving. “There are only three traffic rules in Porto. One: there are only two official speed limits. Full speed, or full stop. Two: possession is nine tenths of the law. And finally, three: There is no overtaking on either side in Porto. Unless there is space, of course. And twelve inches, is space.”
A week later I run into one of the other participants at another event. We discuss the Taylor tasting briefly, and he confesses that “I have always considered myself as not a tawny guy, but that tasting changed all that!”