Leaving Portugal is never easy. After a grand time enjoyed over a ten day period during the lead up to the end of the harvest, it was time to depart for another adventure.
Friends in London had organized a Port event, “55 @ 55” to signify the 1955 Vintage Ports had turned 55 years old this year. What a great reason for a tasting -- to revisit as many bottles of Port from that year as could be arranged. Alex Bridgeman deserves major kudos for planning and executing an outstanding evening of Port debauchery, with a great group of Port diehards from the UK, Germany and USA. Honorable mention to Derek Turnbull for his part in proficiently providing proper Port protocol, assisted by Julian Wiseman; and Axel Probst for securing the location.
As the glasses were filled, the guests started to arrive and it was nice to see a few familiar faces from previous tastings and meet some new Port enthusiasts. Alex had invited Christian Seely, who heads up AXA Millésimes group of vineyards; to be the guest of honor. It was a great pleasure to have him join us for this Port event.
The venue was rather impressive for this Yank, historically speaking, as the tasting was held at the Royal Air Force Club. Founded in 1918 in the tony Piccadilly – Old Park Lane area in the center of the West End of London; the club was absolutely perfect for holding a Port event of this magnitude. Replete with history-rich décor and a variety of private dining and club rooms on multiple levels, the club’s walls were adorned by spectacular photos and paintings representing a variety of aircraft and honoring accomplished pilots from WWll. The RAF Club had the look and feel of relaxed elegance.
It was time for the tasting to start and the fifteen of us were all looking forward to enjoying some great Ports together. The fifteen glasses set before each participant were meticulously placed on specially designed placemats which designated the location and sundry other information on each Port. There were even check boxes for marking off each time you consumed a glass of water. No details were spared on our placemats, thanks to the diligence of Julian Wiseman who created the idea of these specialized placemats.
We took our seats, notebooks were opened around the table and the fun began in earnest. Here are my impressions of the Ports.
Adam’s 1955 Vintage Port – I’d never heard of this Port before and learned that it was a buyer’s-own-brand (BOB) of a British wine merchant. Exhibiting a crimson core with slight bricking at the edge and nearly full opacity. From the color I had high expectations as this appeared darker than the majority of the Ports before us. With a scent of anise, gentle warming spirit, prune and brown sugar. The secondary and tertiary flavors of this Port hinted it was beginning its tawny phase. Svelte, medium-bodied and elegant texturally with modest acidity and virtually no perceivable tannins left. The sweet desiccated fruit finish was of medium length, a bit spirity, but very smooth. It is time to drink up! 86 points ~ 10/12/10
Buckingham Palace; Factory House Blend 1955 Vintage Port – Blended and bottled specifically for the Prince of Wales. Medium ruby centric, with a wide band of bricking. Lightly corked nose with a touch of iodine and some fruit beneath it all. The Palace’s guests had been spared. The nose was significantly better than the palate, which delivered a high level of TCA and was absolutely undrinkable. Not rated ~ 10/12/10
Cockburn’s 1955 Vintage Port – I’ve had this VP a handful of times in the past and it usually shows well given its age. This bottle was no exception. Medium depth to the ruby-orange color with a pink meniscus and slight sediment visible in the glass. The nose shows the Cockburn’s typicity with cherry cough syrup, spicy cinnamon and a smoky note that ends on a slightly medicinal one. A generously red fruited Port with waves of spirit rushing to the fore. Medium-full and sumptuous in the mouth, there was a freshness to this wine and IF the fruit can outlast the aguardente, I believe well-stored bottles like this, will drink well for another decade. The finish was a bit four square and had it been a tad longer, my score would have reflected another point or two. 91 points ~ 10/12/10
Dow’s 1955 Vintage Port – The Dow was one of the Ports I was most looking forward to tasting as I have enjoyed Dow in ‘55, but have tasted it only on a couple of occasions Initially there was a very low level of TCA on the nose, but there was no question that this was corked, at least not to me. Some others disagreed when it was initially mentioned, while a few others in the room also perceived it immediately as well. It was concerning that two of the very first four Ports were corked. There was some intriguing underlying strawberry-rhubarb pie like fruit here and it was a shame that we never had the chance to see what a beauty this Port can be. Later on, the majority agreed it was corked, as it continued to spiral downhill. Not rated ~ 10/12/10
Ferreira 1955 Vintage Port – Light-medium ruby with considerable bricking-pink on the rim. Ferreira rarely surprises in showing well in a more delicate, if not subtle style in older vintages. Confected aromatics with cinnamon red hots and baked apple along with a mélange of herbs segueing to a gently warming spirituous character; which I liked quite a bit. Very complex profile. Medium weight, plum and fig flavors with a hint of prune later on. Smooth and sexy in the mouth, the palate presence was delightful and smacked of elegance. The long aftertaste was supported by gentle chalky tannins and ample acidity. This was a very fine showing, one of the top 1955 Ports on the night; and this bottle would have drunk well for another 15 years as the fruit and structure were both in harmony. While most other guests did not enjoy it nearly as much, a few did seem to have it in their top grouping. 93 points ~ 10/12/10
Fonseca 1955 Vintage Port – Dark blood red with significant signs of bricking on the inner edge leading to a clear meniscus. Dried cranberry and brown sugar dominated the nose which changed little over the course of the tasting. Lots going for it on the palate and the structure is sturdy in this Port. Concentrated and rich, initially sweet. This ’55 possessed a superlative mouthfilling quality that was sensuous and expansive as the night wore on. My rating went up by two points from the early sampling to a later re-evaluation when the Fonseca had fleshed out considerably while the aromatics remained the same. The finish was rather dry with a nutty nuance and just a bit of heat; however, the overall length was excellent. Although it was a decent showing of 1955 Fonseca, it was by no means representative of what I’ve experienced in “best bottles” of this Port. 91 points ~ 10/12/10
González Byass 1955 Vintage Port – Medium dark ruby with plenty of amber/bricking on the rim. Soft and elegant style that some really liked and others found as an awful drink. Regardless, I liked it and found worthy balance, a palate showcasing red fruits, mostly-sweet cherry berry flavor with lively acidity, fully resolved tannins and a smooth and lingering aftertaste. 91 points ~ 10/12/10
Graham’s 1955 Vintage Port – Simply put, this was the class act of the entire evening. I’ve had better bottles of this excellent Port, several times in fact, but this was by far and away the best Vintage Port of the lineup on this particular evening. Medium-dark garnet glints at the core and a clear meniscus. It was lively and youthful in comparison to all Ports that preceded it. Fresh and ripe with copious amounts of dark raspberry and licorice flavors with plenty of mid-palate layers, nicely structured and a stellar finish. The aftertaste brought on more evolved notes, especially later in the evening with toffee and caramel lingering long after the swallow. This bottle had the bones to drink well through 2025 and possibly 2030. 94+ points ~ 10/12/10
Mackenzie 1955 Vintage Port – Conspiracy theories ran rampant as many believed this Vintage Port to be a fake/forgery solely based on its dark complexion. The capsule and cork said otherwise and looked not only to be exactly as one would expect, but the cork even showed the bottling date which some older Vintage Port corks do. I have enjoyed the rare experiences when older bottles show extraordinary extracted coloration. I can think of a near-purplish 1900 Taylor Vintage Port, earlier in the decade and several similar, remarkably deep 1931 regular bottlings of Quinta do Noval and the rare bottle of 1945 Taylor’s and Croft too. So this crazy dark essence did not seem that far out of the realms of reality and I believe it was the real deal, as a 1955 Mackenzie is not a Vintage Port that would attract most savvy Port collectors. That said, the extremely dark color was showing the depth of a top 1977 or so, with an almost magenta tinge likened to the Smith Woodhouse from that year. There were some nice and spicy aromas, showing anise and black pepper along with some redcurrant fruit and some heat that was a distraction. The palate was good, but not special; medium-full weight, a bit hot, nicely layered in the mid-section, but exhibiting a modest clipped finish. 86 points ~ 10/12/10
Martinez 1955 Vintage Port – Candy apple red-tawny combo with a golden edge, showing more evolution than most. Scents of strawberry, a gentle whiff of dates and citrus with a bit too much aguardente poking through. The palate was just slightly better than average. Soft and spicy with clove, cinnamon and chocolate combining for a nice flavor profile of tart red fruit. Medium-bodied with very lively acidity and fully resolved tannins, this should be consumed over the next 3-5 years before the spirit surpasses the fruit. The finish was middling in terms of longevity. 85 points ~ 10/12/10
Niepoort 1955 Vintage Port – Although I’ve enjoyed 1952, 1957 and 1959 Niepoort’s before, this is the 1st Vintage Port I’ve tried by this producer from 1950-1960. Light glints of ruby in the center but mostly tawny-orange color throughout. An “interesting” bouquet of maple, prune and tangerine led to a strange showing on the palate. Spicy confected flavors of honey, maple syrup and mandarin orange gave me the impression that this bottle had been cooked somewhere along the way, (though it generously was sent from the Niepoort cellar for this tasting) nonetheless, it delivered a sumptuous and decadently rich and ultra-smooth texture. Unfortunately, the middle was completely hollow and the finish short and simple. I am typically a huge fan of old Niepoort Vintage Ports and the 1927, 1942, 1945 and 1970 are amongst the best in their respective vintages, but this bottle wasn’t up to snuff. 83 points ~ 10/12/10
Quinta do Noval 1955 Vintage Port – This Noval offered a pale strawberry-pink color, much lighter than most. A bit spirity on the nose with tar, licorice, and citrus fruits and orange preserves made for an enjoyable sniff. Medium-bodied, smooth, nicely packed middle with just enough acidity to keep it interesting and hold the fruit in balance. This put on considerable weight over the hours it sat in the glass and I liked it best later in the evening. The finish also gained some length and added to the overall pleasure. A respectable showing, but I’ve had better bottles of this Noval several times within the past two decades. 88 points ~ 10/12/10
Offley 1955 Vintage Port – Just when I thought our luck would improve, along came the “awfully” and it brought down my hopes for another good 1955. Very light if not faded in color, medium orange-amber. If I can find something nice to say about this Port it’s that it was graceful and the texture was sublime, really decadent. The honey, spice and herbs; light-medium weight and simplicity at the core of this Port was a bit disappointing. The finish was hot, slightly bitter and rather short, so the end game was not that positive. If this bottle is representative, it should have been consumed over a decade ago. 79 points ~ 10/12/10
Sandeman 1955 Vintage Port – It appeared that I was one of the very few that liked this Port at all, even though it wasn’t a great showing of the Sandeman (I’ve enjoyed it many times over the last three decades, though mostly in the 1990s) it was still decent. Salmon pink with medium bricking showing its age. Alive but not up to speed and more evolved than I’ve found other examples. The nose offered some complexity and the palate was solid, but started to fade rapidly, later in the evening. There was some spirit protruding and it translated to the mid-palate and finish. The acidity was spot on and I even detected some surviving tannins, but the finish was of medium length and lacked the sinuous profundity it can typically deliver. Provenance of this particular bottle was questionable, as ’55 Sandeman is usually much better than this. 85 points ~ 10/12/10
Taylor 1955 Vintage Port – Finally! After so many mediocre bottles, it was nice to enjoy this Taylor. Dark scarlet red with considerable bricking on the meniscus. Eliciting an exotic bouquet of mocha, cedar, floral scents and damson plums offering great complexity. Dense and chewy essence and a good bottle showing typicity of ’55 Taylor, even though I’ve never been a big fan of this bottling. On this night, it was a standout which offered great balance, intensity and tannins which were ripe and lively. Bottles of this ilk can drink well for another 15 years with ease. Excellent poise and finish. 93+ points ~ 10/12/10
Warre’s 1955 Vintage Port – I don’t remember ever having the ‘55 Warre’s before. Hopefully this bottle is not representative of what it can deliver. Orange-amber optic with a tawny rim. Fragrant maple, hazelnut, toffee and eucalyptus provide an ethereal aromatic profile, but that ends the highlight reel of this particular Port. Medium weight and silky texture that show’s Warre’s smooth delicacy, with uncomplicated red berry flavors that tend towards sweet. Lacking any real vigor and with a stunted aftertaste that is dry and a bit bitter, this Warre is underwhelming overall, yet still drinkable if not compared to the 1955 Taylor VP that we tasted just before it. 82 points ~ 10/12/10
It was a great privilege to be able to take part in such a fine tasting and having the opportunity to drink fifteen distinct examples of Vintage Port from 1955 was a first for me, with several bottlings that I’d never experienced before. Christian Seely’s presence provided an additional touch of class and many educational comments on the Ports. Even though we had a number of bottles that did not live up to expectations, this was still a wonderful experience. I’ll add that I typically find the 1955’s in better condition for their age; but at over a half century apiece, bottle variation invariably will come into play. The venue was perfect and the dinner of steak and kidney pie, matched with the magnum of 1955 Chateau Pichon Baron that Mr. Seely generously brought along for the occasion, made for a most memorable meal, to say the least. The claret was that good and so was the food.
Again, I’d like to thank Alex Bridgeman for his hard work in coordinating this entire event and having all facets of the evening’s preparations take place seamlessly, with clockwork-like precision.