JANUARY 29TH 2011 – ISSAQUAH, WASHINGTON
At the end of January, a group of FTLOP faithful from Vancouver BC, Malibu, Los Angeles and the Bay Area of California, Scottsdale (Arizona) and Las Vegas joined lots of Seattle-area locals for a fun filled, educational evening of Port. Adeptly organized by Glenn “The Tawny Guy” Elliott, the event went off without a hitch. Glenn’s meticulous attention to detail … right down to the ordering of delectable late-night pizzas, was a performance worthy of 98+ points.
The theme was pure and simple, a single-blind matrix tasting of Vintage Ports from 1980, 1983 and 1985. Decanted well-in-advance by all participants, the bottles were dropped off in the large banquet room where the tasting would unfold over a six and a half hour period of evaluation. The guests headed out for dinner as a few of us remained to arrange the glassware. Prior to pouring the first flight, all of the bottles were inserted into numbered bags and segregated into three designated flights. Measured pourers were used to ensure even pours all around and before we knew it, the group returned from dinner and after some friendly banter, it was time to sit down for introductions.
More than two thirds of the participants are FTLOP Forum posters and most knew one another from either having joined previous tastings, or from their online personas. Glenn explained the ground rules and each person introduced themselves. I liked that he was very clear about the importance of consuming copious quantities of water to remain hydrated and made sure everyone knew what the red cups were there for. To prevent label bias, the single-blind format worked perfectly, yet we let the guests know about the vintages prior to each flight, to remove some of the guesswork and make the tasting less intimidating for a few guests who are newer to Port wine.
Each of the three vintages was introduced prior to the corresponding flight and I’ll summarize some of the material discussed before tasting. There was a total of nineteen Vintage Ports and they were broken up into flights of six, six and seven, respectively. What nobody in the room knew, was that there was at least one “ringer” inserted into each flight to make things a bit more interesting.
We had calculated about an hour of quiet evaluation per flight, basically ten minutes per glass to allow guests to make accurate assessments without being rushed. Each person had the opportunity to discuss their impressions of every Port they tried and this assisted those with less experience to understand what others were smelling and tasting and rating the wines, although not everyone kept score.
Just prior to the “reveal” of the bottles of the first flight we explained there were “outliers” and everyone had to guess which wine did not fit in with the others, in terms of it being from a different vintage. Glenn kept tabs on this and also which Port was the favorite of the flight by guest. Thanks to The Tawny Guy for keeping the stats straight, as it made for lively discussions and it was fun for all to see the accuracy of everyone’s guesses. Additionally, each person had the opportunity to select their favorite Port of the night. All of that information was recorded and is summarized below. Now onto the tasting notes, broken out by flight.
FLIGHT OF 1980 VINTAGE PORTS
Approximately 30 producers declared 1980, which followed the very fine 1977 vintage, although 1978 is also known for very solid quality but from a considerably smaller number of shippers; while the 1979 vintage was spoiled by mid-September rains. In my opinion, 1980 has always been an under-rated vintage if not under-appreciated by the masses, which allowed sharp buyers to acquire Ports offering excellent value for money, more so beginning at the end of the decade and into the 1990’s.
Much of the lack of appreciation for 1980 was due to the fact that 1977 was immediately adorned with love by nearly all of the pundits back in the day and certainly it was the finest vintage since 1970, so there was a lot of pent up excitement for ’77. By the time 1980 arrived … not so much.
It was one of the all-time driest winters on record, with nearly zero rainfall. Spring however, was cool and rainy with some sleet for good measure, which resulted in late flowering. The summer seemed to provide almost picture perfect weather until the third week of September when the rain fell hard for a couple of days in a row. Fortunately, a heat wave followed and picking began at the end of the month under clear skies with very hot days. There was unevenness in terms of the phenolic ripeness levels but many producers managed to create beautifully balanced wine. The warmth during the harvest itself resulted in extremely rapid fermentations.
Another factor which prevented 1980 from receiving early accolades was the poor economy combined with a historically high peak of inflation which yielded unusually high prices. This made for a tough sell when the 1980’s were released in late 1982 and early 1983. Add to that challenge the Casa do Douro, (a quasi-governmental organization) literally having doubled the price shippers had to pay to purchase the aguardente used in fortifying Port (similar to 1975) and the en primeur campaign in the UK died on the vine. Brits turned up their noses to the high cost 1980 VP’s, realizing the innate quality was there, but not liking the prices. 1980 is a vintage reputed for great extraction,concentrated fruit and masculine tannins -- not too unlike 1966; albeit 1980 was a small crop.
1980 Ferreira Vintage Port – Appeared slightly cloudy with an orange amber optic and clear edge that immediately had guests anticipating a Colheita or some oddity. Not the case. A fine fragrance of cinnamon, baked apple, a toasty note, lemon and honey round out the aromatics. This was decadently rich and smooth to sip on and although I was not sure which wine this was, I figured it was slightly oxidized from the color and nose. Good acidity, a bit of heat and IF served double blind, I’d have been guessing a 20 or 30 year old Niepoort Tawny Port. Lush dates and honey on the palate, viscous and elegant like a VP from 1955 or 1963. Although it lacked typicity for a Ferreira from this vintage and I really like the 1980 version; it was showing far too much development. Good length on the finish and a bit warming. Once revealed, I took the last sips and enjoyed it. Interesting squat bottle with broad shoulders. 85 points 1/29/11
1980 Dow Vintage Port – Dark scarlet color with a lighter strawberry hue on the rim. This is typically my favorite Port of the vintage and I’ve been touting this one for nearly 20 years. Sexy bouquet of cherry, anise, pipe tobacco and distinct black pepper. Thick and concentrated black raspberry fruit with excellent acidity and a bit warming on the finish which was laden with chocolate. The tannins arrived late in the game and showed mostly round and a bit granular. This was a beautiful and still-mostly-youthful Vintage Port at thirty; very long and smooth with another 15-20 years of solid drinking ahead of it. 93+ points 1/29/11
1980 Sandeman Vintage Port – Medium ruby with a pink meniscus. Tightly wound and spicy, not giving up much aromatically beyond red fruits. Whatever it lacked in fragrance, it boldly made up for on the palate. I’ve had this only a couple of times over the years and always liked this Sandeman. Medium-bodied and vinous, bordering on secondary characteristics. A warming red licorice infused flavor with black cherry fruit and surprisingly tannic at this stage. Even though it is beginning to hint at its 30 years of age, clearly this has at least another decade, with possibly fifteen more years of good drinking ahead of it. The overall balance was significant and the length of the finish was very long with just enough heat to deduct a point from the score. A fine Vintage Port nonetheless and one delivering lots of pleasure at the moment, especially those that prefer elegance to the Dow’s more powerful charm. 91+ points 1/29/11
1980 Graham Vintage Port – Dark ruby with a lighter strawberry edge. Lively and spicy bouquet that opened up in the glass to exhibit plum and purple fruits along with black licorice and a minty-menthol nuance. This was a big ooze monster, with delicious redcurrant and cherry flavors; densely concentrated if not downright chewy. Enough acidity to keep the ripe flavors in check and the tannins were more powerful and grippy than any of the other 1980’s in front of us. The finish was delicious and long, but showed a distinctive wave of heat that swept in and left its mark. One of the better bottles of 1980 Graham’s that I’ve encountered in recent times. The potential for this to drink well at age 50 is a certainty in my opinion. A fine showing, equal to the Dow. 93+ points 1/29/11
1977 Gould Campbell Vintage Port – It wasn’t all that obvious this was the “ringer” in the flight as the Ferreira’s color fooled most of us. By contrast, the color of this GC was dark garnet, fully opaque and with no appearance of age on the meniscus. Seasoned scents of mocha, pine, cinnamon, raspberry and a whiff of spirit. A stunning VP barely entering its prime, this youthful Gould Campbell provides purity of grape, a mouth-coating richness and distinctive blackcurrant flavor. The tannins were lively, firm and chalky and the finish was exceptionally long, but hotter than I like. Otherwise, this would have deserved an excellent rating in the 95-96 range. One of the finest 1977 Vintage Ports produced. I’ve trouble understanding why this never received more respect from Port pundits. Drink anytime through 2030. My favorite of flight #1. 94+ points 1/29/11
1980 Gould Campbell Vintage Port – One of a handful of bottles that came from my cellar for this tasting. This one actually was purchased by the case and shipped over from the UK in 2010. Another recent bottle from this case was superb. Dark ruby and with bricking on the edge. This was so badly corked I could not put it in my mouth. It was a darn shame too, as I love this particular 1980. Not rated 1/29/11
FLIGHT OF 1983 VINTAGE PORTS
About three dozen shippers declared 1983, and it was a split declaration coming on the heels of the 1982 vintage which in my opinion, pales by overall comparison. If not mistaken there were actually more declarations in ’82 than 1983.
The growing season started off with a cool and dry winter, highlighted by the first snowstorm in twenty years which took place in Pinhão, mid-February. The rain soaked spring was good for the rootstock but caused some uneven flowering. The summer delivered mild-warm temps and sporadic rainfall, but in early September there was a significant heat wave. Attitudes in the vineyards changed quickly from having serious doubts, to wild enthusiasm over the course of three hot weeks and an average sized harvest ensued. When I say average sized, that is in context of the whole 20th century, as yields were approximately 25% lower than 1982.
As we’ve often talked about on our Forum, the prevalence of TCA in the 1983 Cockburn is a real shame considering how good bottles can be when they escape the significant cork problem of that particular bottling. There are several really fine bottlings as I’ve always had an affinity for the Gould Campbell which was has always been a beauty along with the fine Graham’s and supple Dow too. For whatever reason, in 1983 the Symington family’s Vintage Ports really excelled and the Quarles Harris and especially the Gould Campbell have flown way under the radar and are both very attractive wines and tremendous bargains.
Upon release, 1983 was considered a very good vintage with extremely powerful tannins and “age worthy” as the catch phrase, but it was released about the time the extraordinary early hype was out about the 1985’s and was a modest success for about a decade when consumers began waking up to its strength. Personally, I felt the 1983’s as a group, under-performed on this particular night and I can’t explain why some of the Ports I typically love, were merely good and not great.
1983 Graham Vintage Port – This is typically about as good as any 1983 gets, the Graham’s and the rare bottle of un-corked Cockburn’s leading the pack. Dark magenta, just shy of full opacity with a pink edge. Perfumed floral aroma with melon, herbs, cocoa and cinnamon. I loved the freshness of the bouquet. Medium-full body, silky smooth with a voluptuous natured texture and very well balanced structure. A bit feminine in style, delivering plum and fig flavors, mild mannered tannins that arrive late and plenty of complexity in the mid-section and on the excellent long lasting finish. Should reach its zenith between age 30-35, but will remain on a high plateau for 12-18 more years. Albeit a week flight this evening, it was my favorite Vintage Port of the 2nd flight. 93+ points 1/29/11
1984 Quinta do Noval Nacional Vintage Port – Known best as an “LBV year” and declared only by a few single quintas, 1984 had no chance, as it came between two very fine vintages. Although I’ve had nearly 30 vintages of Nacional overall, this was a first and I love when that happens. Medium red in the center with a lighter pink-ruby at the edge and signs of bricking. Unique aromas of stewed prune, pine and an herbal essence provide clues about its aging curve. Full-bodied, dense, chewy and smooth. The flavors are a straight combo of strawberry and mint; the acidity is toned down here and this Nacional lacked vivacity and has reached maturity and will head to Tawny soon. Tannins are fully resolved and almost imperceptible. A tasty, elegant and mature VP today, which needs to be consumed now or over the next five years. 86 points 1/29/11
1983 Niepoort Vintage Port – Light strawberry red with a tawny edge. A significant herbal streak overshadows the fruit aromatics, with an added dollop of mocha. Light-bodied, elegant and fully mature with luscious strawberry, honey and caramel. Soft and suave, with granular tannins that are round and resolved. Although showing a gentle feminine streak and surmaturité, this Niepoort was still quite enjoyable with a very long, subtly nuanced finish, reminiscent of a solid mid-tier 1970 Vintage Port. I’ve not had this since 2009 and it left a similar impression in terms of its elegant soft side and color. This 1983 won’t get any better from here, so drink up now, or certainly be the end of the decade. 91 points 1/29/11
1983 Gould Campbell Vintage Port – Dark ruby with a light pink-tawny edge depicting early signs of bricking. Smoky plum scents with an intriguing nutty nuance and Sultana aromas along with a bit of heat. An appealing profile of strawberry and black cherry flavors, soft and sensuous texture, and excellent balance between fruit and structure. Another example of some early maturation from a Vintage Port well known for its deep extraction and youthfulness. This bottle was seemingly mature with subdued tannins. Once revealed I was quite surprised this was the ’83 Gould Campbell. The last few sips were enjoyed knowing the identity and it didn’t seem fitting. Nonetheless, a tasty Vintage Port and although showing a soft underbelly, it was quite good. 90 points 1/29/11
1983 Smith Woodhouse Vintage Port – Dark cranberry red and fully opaque, yet it had a pink-tawny edge. What is going on with the 1983’s here? Scents of smoky bacon drippings and figs make for an odd pair and some heat was detected upon first whiff and it lingered the entire hour this was before me. The palate exhibits a primary, purple plum profile with crisp acidity and a medium-bodied frame. The texture was impressive, soft and vinous. The shortcomings were the lack of complexity and modest length of the finish. Smith Woodhouse ’83 was good, but simple. I’ve had recent examples at the source that provided considerably more pleasure than this one. 87 points 1/29/11
1983 Dow Vintage Port – Always a pleasure, the 1983 Dow is a perennial solid citizen. Unfortunately it was clearly corked and in a weird twist of fate, another 1983 Dow was brought for this event and traded out for the only other corked wine at the tasting. Stranger than fiction. Not rated 1/29/11
FLIGHT OF 1985 VINTAGE PORTS
Cold and wet with more rain than any year since 1979. The spring was similar with a mild upswing in temp but lots of showers, which in this case, helped the May flowers. Then came the onset of extreme heat in June, which prevailed in July and through August. Akin to 2003’s “burn” time with a precipitation void during the entire three months. The difference in the Douro was all of the early year precipitation allowing the deep schist pockets to collect the water and maintain a semblance of balance and survival of vines during the blast furnace months of 1985.
Modest rains fell in early Sept. which certainly reinvigorated vines and plumped up the grapes, preventing the harvest of raisins. The harvest began in mid-September with warm, dry weather, not too hot though and produced excellent quantities of grapes and quality too.
Prices were up over 30% from the highs of 1983, some say this was partially due to the onset of the American market starting to take off with Port love. This is considered the first unanimous generally declared vintage since 1975 and is known for richly concentrated fruit and very firm tannins. My personal favorite was Bruce Guimaraens’ masterpiece Fonseca, followed closely by the excellent Graham’s and Dow’s, but there are many very solid VPs from this vintage which one highly respected critic felt had many faulty Ports. I’ve rarely had bad bottles from this vintage, but that may have more to do with sheer luck.
As was the case in 1983, the beautifully balanced ’85 Gould Campbell is a sleeper, along with the Ferreira and Smith Woodhouse. I almost forgot the remarkably youthful, if not brash Burmester and vibrant Warre from this fine vintage both of which are delicious nowadays. Overall, 1985’s are evolving nicely with lots of upside in some of the aforementioned VP’s that have now surpassed the quarter century mark. The best half dozen Ports from this vintage should drink well for at least another two decades.
1987 Kopke Vintage Port –Medium cranberry color and cloudy with bricking on the rim. Accented by earthy undertones of forest floor and pipe tobacco in the foreground, along with an herbaceous, esteva and ripe cherry note, this offered a wild aromatic profile. Light to medium-bodied and voluptuous, this is one of my favorite Ports of the night so far. Flavors of strawberry jam, a soft and silky texture, with lively acidity and near-perfect balance in a sleek, mature style. The ’87 Kopke is ready to drink now, won’t improve from here, but it doesn’t need to. It is a finely tuned VP at peak with another decade of extraordinary drinking pleasure ahead. 1987 is an “almost” great year; with a few serious standouts and this quirky, delicious Port is one to seek out for near term consumption. I’ve never had it before, but hope to try it again. After the reveal: “Wow, what a nice surprise!” 94 points 1/29/11
1985 Dow Vintage Port – Possibly the darkest and most extracted color of the night, opaque and inky. This is always a tremendous Vintage Port and way up in the 1985 pecking order. A fragrant floral bouquet with boysenberry and kirsch dominating the air space. Great concentration of fruit, a freshness that stands out with primary plum and ripe, off-dry blackcurrant flavors. Packed with intensity, in a youthful, fruit forward, muscular frame. The medium-body of this Dow belies the density that gives it a more massive feeling. At the same time it can seem light and glides effortlessly across the palate. The persistence of the layered finish is a significant strength. Drink now with a long decant time, or cellar for up to another quarter century. 93+ points 1/29/11
1985 Graham Vintage Port – Great to drink blind in a fabulous flight of ‘85s. Medium dark garnet color with a strawberry pink meniscus. A spicy bouquet of cinnamon, mint, brambly blueberry and fresh flowers with a touch of heat. Medium weight but it leaves a lighter impression on the palate, seamless in its deft balance with delicious ripe, plum and boysenberry flavors. Sweet, rich and the textural pleasure here is one for the highlight reels along with the lingering finish. It is a classic Vintage Port in its prime which should drink at this level for another fifteen years, and unquestionably has the stuffing to perform well into the third and fourth decade of this century. This bottle of Graham was a great example of why it’s considered one of the best of all ‘85’s. 94 points 1/29/11
1985 Fonseca Vintage Port – Opaque scarlet color with a dark ruby rim. Violets and black fruits come to the fore along with a flurry of pine, eucalyptus and menthol aromas. Most in the room “believed” this was the Fonseca as it was in a different stratosphere. It is a big boned, primary, massively fruited powerhouse of a Port with ripe blackcurrant and blackberry flavors requiring multiple swallows. The ultra long finish is as delicious as it is hedonistic. The focused acidity is evenly matched by tannins that deliver direct impact across the palate. This bodes well for the enormous concentration of fruit here. One of Bruce Guimaraens’ masterpieces, “an epic VP” that is still on the upswing and will be drinking well at the mid-point of the 21st century. This was my Port of the flight as well as my Port of the night. 96+ points 1/29/11
1985 Gould Campbell Vintage Port – This flight of 1985’s is stacked with an all-star team; I hope to repeat it twenty years from now when it would be like drinking the best of 1966 VP’s today. Medium dark ruby with a light red rim. Fresh and floral bouquet with grenadine and anise notes. Another in a long line of under-valued Gould Campbell Vintage Ports. Rich, sumptuous and warming, with flavors of raspberry, black licorice and toffee. Medium-full weight in a lighter outer shell. This is still extremely young and vibrant at this stage. The tannins are up for the challenge, gripping and powdery and this ’85 has one crazy long finish. 94+ points 1/29/11
1985 Smith Woodhouse Vintage Port – The 18th VP of the tasting and this has been amazing fun and an educational endurance test that I enjoy. Tawny appearance with red glints and a clear meniscus. Coffee and toffee are prevalent, with some cherry aromas. Did someone pull a fast one? It matters not what this looks like as it is drinking beautifully. The awe inspiring velvet-like texture of this wine had me questioning whether I was drinking a delicious young Colheita. But the flavor profile is far fresher and red fruits dominate with some licorice and caramel on the aftertaste. It is one of the more harmonious wines we’ve tasted this evening, with exquisite balance and focus and a neatly layered, lengthy finish. Drink now or through the end of the decade. After seeing that this was the Smith Woodhouse, I wondered if it had been over-decanted, as it is usually a massive, bright/primary VP. That said, it was still darn tasty and rather evolved tonight. 93 points 1/29/11
1987 Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port – Regardless of tonight’s bottle, in my opinion, this Vargellas should be considered one of the finest Vintage Ports of the entire decade. I’ve sung its praises for years and consumed a couple of cases over the past score. Dark magenta, opaque and no signs of age. Violets and dried rose petals on the nose with a powerful essence of chocolate. Primary but approachable, multi-faceted and intense, this is one of my favorite Vargellas bottlings. The only two Ports to show this extraordinary youth: 1985 Fonseca (of course) and 1977 Gould Campbell. It was easy to guess this one as the Vargellas. It will drink beautifully for three more decades. One can never have too much of this Port in their cellar! 94+ points 1/29/11
Glenn provided these voting results:
Flight 1: 6 votes for 80SA, 3 votes each for 80FE, 80GR, 77GC
Flight 2: 6 votes for 83NI, 4 votes for each for 83GR and 83GC, 1 vote for 84QNN
Flight 3: 4 votes each for 85FO and 87VA, 3 votes for 85GR, 2 votes for 85GC, 1 vote each for 87KO and 85SW
Port of the Night:
4 votes for 85FO, 3 votes each for 85GR and 87VA, 1 vote each for 80FE, 80SA, 83NI, 85GC, and 85SW.
So Flight 1 was won by the 1980 Sandeman
Flight 2 was won by the 1983 Niepoort
Flight 3 was a tie between the 1985 Fonseca and 1987 Vargellas
POTN was narrowly won by the 1985 Fonseca by 1 vote over the 1987 Vargellas and 1985 Graham.