Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Noble Writ: A Port for Every Storm, Part 2

Posted By on Tue, Oct 13, 2009 at 11:30 AM

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Continuing our exploration of port from last week (read "A Port for Every Storm, Part 1"), we'll cover the other forms of port you're likely to see on the shelves. We'll also spend some time discussing what, if any, food will match well with the port in your glass.

First, to finish up with the red (as opposed to tawny) ports. Let's start at the top of the qualitative ladder with vintage port. For many, vintage port represents the pinnacle of port. In volume terms, vintage port makes up a whopping 1% -- yes, 1% -- of the total production of port.

Vintage port is, not surprisingly, the product of a single year's harvest. The surprise is that port producers are shockingly restrained in designating a year as a "vintage" year. While their brethren in almost every other region in the world have a vintage every year, historically port producers designate vintage years only about three times a decade. The decision whether to declare a vintage is left up to each property, though once the major producers reveal their intentions, most others follow suit as the financial implications are significant, with bottles from top producers in the most recent vintage going for $60-$80 a pop.

Vintage ports are aged only a few years in wood before being bottled. This short exposure to oak ensures that a large load of tannins carries over into the bottle, which provides the backbone for a very long life in the cellar. How long? While it's somewhat vintage-variable, I tend not to broach my vintage ports until at least twenty years after the vintage date. This makes vintage port a fine wine to set aside for special birthdays or anniversaries as it's one of the few wines to reliably make old bones -- and, while not cheap, it's a whole lot cheaper than other candidates such as top-flight Bordeaux.

However, drinking young vintage port is a pretty painful experience. Though shielded by an immense wave of intense fruit, the tannins are formidable, quickly rendering the teeth and tongue fuzzy, while the unintegrated spirit hammers the palate. If you are interested in laying down vintage port but want to see if it's something that you'll enjoy, I recommend heading either to auction or an online specialist retailer and picking up well-stored bottles of older vintages. Offerings from very good producers in fine years can often be had for the same as or even less than current releases.

A related category is known as single-quinta (Portugeuse for farm) port. Most port producers own or purchase grapes from a large number of quintas. In years that aren't declared vintage, some producers will bottle the wine from a quinta by itself and indicate the vintage on the label. These are often excellent wines as port producers again exercise admirable restraint in not overusing this option, selecting only top-notch quintas to bottle separately.

1995 Dow Quinta do Bonfim ($12/375 ml., purchased about eight years ago): Still a dark, opaque purple. Much more wine-like on the nose than the other ports sampled -- there is no hint of the spirit. Cassis, wet earth and dried cherry notes make up the initial nose. Full and round on the palate, but noticeably sleeker than the other wines. Still brings a good intensity of fruit. The wine opens up nicely with time in the decanter adding some floral notes and brightness to the fruit. Not overly long but finishes cleanly. Also look for Taylor Fladgate's Quinta de Vargelles, which can also be a great value.

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