So how do you find a way to meet up and open a few great bottles of port – the kind that you try and find an excuse to open – but also keep your better half happy? That was the problem that Derek and I faced and we found the perfect solution. My wife treats my passion for port as an indulgence. She pats me reassuringly on the back of the hand and murmurs comfortingly as I cradle that precious bottle that I long to open but need an excuse to do so. If I suggested to her that we drive half-way across the country to open and drink one of these bottles and then drive home again, she would point out all the jobs that needed to be done around the house and question whether it was a good use of my time.

Derek and I came up with the perfect solution – the Port ‘n’ Spa weekend.

The Hotel du Vin chain is a small group of hotels in the UK that are based around a vinous theme. They run wine courses, name their rooms after wine producers or regions and pride themselves on a well stocked cellar.

The Hotel du Vin in Birmingham also has a Spa and is conveniently situated about halfway between where Derek and I live – roughly a two hour drive from each of us. As a hotel, it is a beautiful conversion of the Birmingham and Midlands Eye Hospital, a pre-Victorian building with fabulous high ceilings and huge rooms. Perfect for a quiet retreat.

Planning carefully in April, Derek and I found that the first time we were both free at the weekend was in August. At least that gave us plenty of time to organise everything. Our first problem was which wine to bring.

I had been exchanging emails recently with Derek about the tasting note he recently posted on the Noval Nacional 1987. This is a wine that I own but which I had never tried and I had been keen to understand what Derek had thought of it. When Derek found that I had only ever tried a Nacional once, at the end of a Decanter Masterclass and that my notes had deteriorated so much that I did not remember which vintage it was or what I had thought of it, he very kindly offered to bring one with him to Birmingham. Very impressed by Derek’s kindness, I also agreed to bring a NN and so the wines were set – Quinta do Noval Nacional 1958 and 1964. Perfect!

A month or so later, Derek and I bought a case of Grahams 1963 between us.  Unfortunately, one of the bottles was broken as they were being packed for shipment. We were left with the problem of how do you share 11 bottles between 2 people? The solution was obvious, 5 each and the odd one would be drunk in Birmingham. Only Derek insisted on paying for the wine so I felt it was only fair to match his generosity by pulling a Sandeman 1963 out of storage.

6 bottles between the two of us, perhaps helped out a little by the ladies taking a few sips each.

Considering my normal nightly intake of port is only a glass or two, I could see that I might be struggling and suggested we cut back and open fewer bottles. Luckily, in his spare time Derek is an imaginative genius. He had spotted from the forum that both he and I enjoy drinking our ports with extended decanter time and seeing how they evolve and change over a period of days, not hours.

Derek’s ingenious suggestion was that we open all 6 bottles, but also keep some back so that we could continue to taste the wines over the following few days to see if and how they change. To do this, we would need to collect 12 empty quarter bottles of wine between us. Each of the ports would be opened and decanted in preparation for the evening’s entertainment but each would first be used to fill 2 quarter bottles for us to take home and drink over the following few days. That left Derek and I with the equivalent of 3 bottles to drink between the 2 of us – a much more manageable proposition.

Then Derek found a curiosity on a wine list.

Described as “Taylors Special Quinta 1950” and bottled by Corney & Barrow, we were unable to find out what this wine actually was. As far as we could tell, Taylors had not declared a 1950 vintage and Vargellas had no records to indicate that they had released a 1950 SQVP. Broadbent notes tasting a 1948 Taylors Special Quinta but nothing on a 1950. Even Corney & Barrow, who were generous enough to research their old wine lists, were unable to provide any information other than the fact that this wine was listed by them in the late ‘50s and early 60’s.

So we bought all three bottles. One each and one for Birmingham.

Then, to make a round number, I decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to open the last of the bottles I had brought back with me from my visit to South Africa 2 years ago. So far I had been a little disappointed by the South African ports I had tried and was not expecting a great deal from this one. The total number of bottles was now up to 6.

At 9pm that evening we sat down in the covered Courtyard at the heart of the hotel. Everyone was relaxed and well “spa’ed” having been massaged and toned for the duration of the afternoon. All our toxins had been flushed out and were ready to be replaced.

The 6 bottles were produced and the 12 quarter bottles filled. Everything was set.

The 6 wines were poured at the same time. Glasses were stood on the tasting mats that Derek had made (with miniature labels in the circles to indicate which wine should go where) and self adhesive miniature labels were stuck onto the quarter bottles we had brought. Then the first wine was tasted – we were off!

After each of the wines had been tasted and notes written, we settled back to drink and enjoy the rest of the wines left in the bottles. We were watched by our partners, who mostly swapped stories about what it was like to live with someone suffering from port-obsessive compulsive disorder. Both were amazed to find that there were others in the world who also behaved like we did. Both were horrified to hear that there were 400+ people registered on FTLOP.

Overall, the wines were fabulous. None disappointed and the Sandeman ’63 was magnificent.

It was then that Derek passed me a small parcel. A challenge for me, if I chose to accept it. Two miniature bottles of port from two different bottles he had opened recently. I had to identify the age and style of the port and would also get bonus points for the producer.

Pointing out that he had unfairly handicapped me by allowing me to have already drunk 2-3 glasses of port (its always good to get your excuses in early), I gave it a go. The first wine was a deep, dark red. On the nose it was full of fruit and had a very, very familiar smell and taste which I couldn’t quite place. Working my way through the challenge I had a go at identifying each of the questions he had asked me to answer…age – young, very young, perhaps a 2000 wine…style – rich and full, lots of fruit but plenty of structure, very reminiscent of the 2003 wines Mario had brought to the London Offline in November 2005, therefore I guessed VP…shipper – difficult, that nose was so familiar, I guessed Sandeman. There were my answers to Derek’s questions – a 2000 Sandeman VP. Then the smell memory kicked in and I suddenly remembered what the smell reminded me of. After working through the 3 steps I radically changed my mind and went for my final answer of……Quinta do Noval 1997 Unfiltered LBV.

Actually, I was pretty close. It turned out to be Noval’s Porto da Silva 1995 Unfiltered LBV, which according to the blurb on the back label, uses many of the grapes that go into the Noval wines. [Note from Derek: I was stunned that Alex got so close with this. Porto da Silva is, according to the label, produced in small quantities which are exclusively shipped to the UK. Although clever wording is used on the label it is quite obviously a blend of Noval’s own grapes with a healthy proportion of grapes acquired from elsewhere. I do not think Alex has had Porto da Silva before this tasting and I have to applaud his taste buds in uncovering the Noval connection and the style. Incidentally, I have had 10 bottles of this wine and I find there is a distinctive smell in the early hours after decanting that I have only detected once before, on a Noval Nacional 1987! – Is it just coincidence that there is no NN from 1995 or does this £8 per bottle gem contain a good helping of grapes from those ungrafted vines?]

The second wine was a pale rose. A lovely developed wine and a delicate and inviting nose. The wine was clearly old and compared in colour and smell to the older wines that we had on the table in front of us. Using a bit of psychology, I guessed it was a 1965 (Derek’s birth year) but Derek told me that I was wrong with the year but right in that it was an “off-year” from the ‘60s. Eventually, I guessed that it was a 1967 Noval VP – it was actually a 1967 Cockburn. And don’t let anyone tell you that this wine is a tired out shell. It was lovely, very tawny in characteristics but absolutely delicious.

The port-night started at 9pm and finished around 4am. At some point in the evening, the ladies decided there was only so much entertainment that they could take in the form of watching grown men dribble and spill port down their fronts and retired gracefully. We must have carried on for 4 or 5 hours after they left, rabbitting on about the wines and generally putting the world to right. Wine of the night for me was the Sandeman 1963, which was just so much better than when I last drank it at the London offline in November 2005. Surprise of the night for me was the astonishment at how good the much maligned Cockburn 1967 was. Memory of the night – the pleasurable company of Derek, Jo and my ever patient wife as I took my first sober sips of Quinta do Noval’s fabled Naçional wine.

And as Elizabeth and I drove home the following evening, I was comforted by the thought that I still had six quarter bottles of some of the most fabulous wines that I have had the pleasure of opening.

Tasting Notes from Alex & Derek’s Port ‘N’ Spa Evening

Taylors Special Quinta 1950, bottled by Corney & Barrow – decanted 24 hours

Alex:- The pale rose colour of a tawny, distinct orange rim. Warm nose of dough and croissants. Dusty in the mouth, hot and alcoholic. Sweet strawberries come through the mid-palate, with some liquorice and leather. The aftertaste was dominated initially by the alcoholic heat but faded quickly into a warm strawberry flavour that lasted a reasonable time. Overall, this wine was an interesting experiment, well worth trying and pretty decent. Probably fading slowly. 90/100.

Derek:- Darker than I expected for an “unknown” wine of 56 years old. Not as dark as some of the other’s in the line-up but seemed to gain colour as the night went on. Smooth and thick mouth-feel. Very sweet raspberry cream and bitter chocolate. Slightly syrupy, like an old tawny. I have to say I was astonished by how well this wine stood up in this company. Although not as good as the Sandeman or Graham’s, both 13 years it’s junior, I found it’s appearance and freshness remarkable for a wine that seems to have no recorded history. I have 1 bottle left and I may put a note on it to be opened in 2050! – 4th Place

Quinta do Noval Nacional 1958 – decanted 24 hours

Alex:- Deep centre, pale orange rim. Very similar to the NN ’64. Dusty nose with tones of lemon juice and almond paste mixed in. Leather in the mouth with lots of liquorice and aniseed and a lovely complexity developing if you just hold the wine on your tongue for a while. The aftertaste takes a while to arrive but eventually delivers a surge of burnt sugar and a long length of spicy chocolates. A very mature wine with bags of tertiary flavours. Holding well. 93/100

Derek:- Dark brown/red colour. I thought it was slightly cloudy on pouring but it was chilled and cleared as it warmed up so probably just caused by the low temperature. Sticky toffee pudding nose. First taste was very light and weak on entry but then filled the mouth with brown sugar and aniseed. Initial light feel disappeared after a while in the glass and became reasonably thick and warming. Finish very long and sweet. 3rd Place

Quinta do Noval Nacional 1964 – decanted 12 hours

Alex:- Deep centre, pale edge, tawny look. Lots of spirit on the nose with wonderful cinnamon and oranges. Surprisingly thick and viscous in the mouth. Lots of spices, herbs and leather. Vibrant and lively leathery red fruits in the mid-palate with just a hint of bitterness that added interest and didn’t spoil the wine at all. Long aftertaste of oranges and Grand Marnier. A very pleasant if delicate wine. Probably fading slowly. 92/100

Derek:- Slightly dusty/gassy nose which blew off quite quickly. Clear and bright brownish red colour with a smooth and thick mouth-feel. Treacle taste fading to a long mouth-watering finish of cherry which ended with a tingle of heat on the end of the tongue. Although enjoyable, I was disappointed in this wine given it’s provenance (purchased from Noval in VNG in 2005) and it’s hefty price tag. Well kept Nacional should be better than this! 5th Place

Grahams 1963, Oporto bottled – decanted 12 hours

Alex:- Deep red centre, slight browning at rim. Put on considerable weight in the glass over the evening until it was darker than the Sandeman ’63. Nose of roses and floral tones with a hint of summer dustiness. Sweet into the mouth bringing raspberries and soft red fruits with a nice backbone of acid and spirit. Wonderful strawberry syrup complexity that doesn’t stop developing. Length a little short, less aftertaste than I experienced with the Grahams ’63 we drank at the November 2005 offline. Despite this the wine was excellent and not something that needs to be drunk up in a hurry. 93/100 (would have been 95 with a more developed aftertaste).

Derek:- Bright red colour which looked light at the beginning but darkened significantly as the night went on. Slightly spirity nose with red fruits beneath. Extremely smooth and thick in the mouth. Tannins still hanging around but not enough to overpower the fruit. Taste of plums and dark chocolate. Long sweet mouth-watering finish. For me, this was the star of the night and a great relief given that I sold Alex 5 bottles from the same case earlier this year! – 1st Place

Sandeman 1963, Berry Brothers & Rudd bottling – decanted 24 hours

Alex:- Deep rusty red, deepest of the 5 proper Ports being tasted on the night, but clearly showing its age. A warm, sweet nose that carried the smell of of raspberry juice. Sweet in the mouth, thin on entry but with plenty of flavour. Still tannic and developing meaty, redcurrant flavours with a fabulous complexity. Long length, with layers of flavour. Best wine of the night in my opinion, and by quite a way. This was a much better showing that the ’63 Sandeman drunk at the November 2005 offline. Bottles like this one still have a long life ahead of them. 96/100.

Derek:- Very dark red, the darkest of the night and far darker and brighter than the other 2 bottles of S63 that I have tasted. Nice fruity nose with very little spirit. Smooth raspberry flavours followed by dry teeth and cheeks as the tannins emerge. Finish is long but left mouth slightly dry and bitter. This bottling of Sandeman 1963 seems to be outliving it’s siblings. 2nd Place

Cockburn 1967 – decanted 48 hours

Alex:- This was the challenge wine that Derek threw my way. Pale colour, faded and tawny but with a distinctly pink centre. Nose slightly spirity showing tertiary fruit, leather and meat juices. Smooth, very smooth, into the mouth. Sweet, but not overly so. Liquorice and fruit cough drops. Not much complexity but a lovely acidic structure. The aftertaste glides into existence and stays in a subtle was for a surprising length of time. I was very impressed with this wine and, although its probably fading, I would not be in too much of a hurry to drink up any bottles I had of this wine – I think it gets an unfair press. 92/100

Note from Derek: This wine tasted awful on the night I decanted it, some 48 hours before Alex took this note. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek TN on FTLOP some time ago advising that the drinking window of this wine was around 5 minutes after opening as it seemed to fall apart very quickly following a promising start. After tasting it with Alex at 48 hours I will be changing my approach for my remaining 4 bottles.

Boplaas 2002, South Africa – decanted 24 hours

Alex:- Deep, intense red. The colour a young VP should be. Still showing purple hints at the edge of the glass. Nose of bilberries and orange juice, shouting of bags of fruit. Smooth into the mouth, not sweet but massively fruity. Blueberries and soft tannins, lots of acidity. As you hold the wine in your mouth it just continues to develop more layers of fruit. Aftertaste of fruit continues, carried on a wave of alcohol that fades quickly leaving a long, chocolatey length. Now that I’ve tasted this wine, I wish I had bought more. This is a wine that will develop superbly over the next 10-20 years and will rival its peers from Portugal. Probably the best South African VP I’ve tried to date. 92/100

Derek:- Nice dark ruby red with huge fruity nose of strawberry jam. Huge burst of black fruits on entry. Surprisingly evolved for such a young unfiltered fortified wine (notice I didn’t use the word “port”) with little detectible tannin. Big fruits fade quickly to a rather short finish. A very biased 6th Place

Article © copyright October 2006 by Derek Turnbull & Alex Bridgeman

Roy's Note: Derek Turnbull and Alex Bridgeman met at a Port tasting last November that was attended by a group of FTLOP members in London. They have become good friends and graciously decided to write an excellent article for inclusion in this month’s newsletter. I appreciate their efforts and welcome others who would like to make contributions to be featured here.