On Friday, March 23rd, nine Port lovers gathered to test the staples of the Port world – Ruby Reserves.
The idea started in mid-January with a poll on FTLOP’s Forum to find out which of two specific Ruby Reserves people preferred – Graham’s Six Grapes or Noval Black. Graham’s Six Grapes is the standard-bearer for the Ruby Reserve category, but Noval Black was introduced to rave reviews and quickly gained a loyal following.
As is often the case when Port lovers compare Ports, the discussion rapidly spread to include a laundry list of other Ruby Reserves that people felt deserved to be in the running for best Ruby Reserve. 7 pages of discussion resulted in taste-offs being scheduled for late March in WA, CA, CO, NJ, and the UK. For the US tastings, 5 Ruby Reserves were chosen as the baseline if at all possible – Graham’s Six Grapes, Noval Black, Cockburn Special Reserve, Fonseca Bin 27, and Warre’s Warrior. Each tasting could then expand their lineup to better fit the number of tasters… or just to increase variety based on local availablity.
To the starting Fab 5, the Sammamish group chose to add Broadbent Auction Reserve, Kopke Special Reserve, Sandeman Founders Reserve, and Taylor Fladgate First Estate. A Quinta da Romaneira 40 Year Old Tawny Port was decanted for “dessert” after the taste-off.
We splash decanted all of the Ports about an hour before the start of the tasting to give them a little bit of time to develop, and also to help disguise the bottles. Careful records were kept as the Ports were decanted from one bottle into another. My wife Kari then bagged the bottles randomly, so they were about as disguised as they could get without being in decanters.
We tasted blind in flights of 3 Ports each and discussed tasting notes, but not scores, after each flight. After all 3 flights had been tasted, we each ranked all 9 Ports individually, voted for our top 3, and then revealed the bottles, indexed the bottles to the decanting records, and announced the results. 3 points were awarded for a 1st place vote, 2 points for 2nd place, and 1 point for 3rd place. For amusement we also voted for our least favorite Port, but no points were scored (or subtracted!) for those votes.
As chance would have it, flight #1 contained one of the Ports that sparked this event – Noval Black. A relative newcomer to the ruby reserve ranks, Noval Black has garnered high praise and great enthusiasm from Port lovers the world over. But is it deserving?
Port #1 – NV Noval Black – Dark red in color; almost brick-like. Lightly smoky nose with some heat from the alcohol, but mostly rich red raspberries. Also a slightly tart/sour aroma that might be tart cherries. Buttery smooth in the mouth which is dominated by tart raspberries. Very dry for a Port which compounds the tartness. A sensation of black pepper floats across the late palate along with some cherry cough syrup. Personally I wasn’t surprised when this was revealed to be the Noval Black because that dry/tart palate is this Port’s signature for me. Unfortunately, it’s not a style that I enjoy and I consistently rate it in the mid 80s. In this case, 86 points.
Port #2 – NV Warre’s Warrior – Dark red color with some hints of purple at the edge of opaqueness. Softly floral nose with some vanilla and confectioner’s sugar. Somewhat sweeter than #1 but still on the dry side for a Port. Where #1 was dominated by tart red raspberries, #2 is dominated by tart cherries. Good tannins and nice acidity. 87 points.
Port #3 – NV Taylor Fladgate First Estate – Nearly completely opaque in the glass, but not quite. Red and purple hues, but mostly just dark and brooding. Grapey nose that’s not quite all the way to lodge-like, lots of purple brambleberries, some blueberries, and a faint floral aroma. In the mouth, I would swear this was a Vesuvio if I didn’t know better. Very nice. A bit tanky, but I like that. Lush, fluid, and full. Great tannins and acidity help balance wave after wave of blackberries, loganberries, and black currants. Also some plums and rich black cherry. The reveal surprised me – I never would have guessed from my notes that this would be Taylor’s First Estate. Graham’s Six Grapes? Sure. Fonseca’s Bin 27? Maybe. But Taylor? Never in a million years. All-around excellent. 92 points and my Port of the Night.
By coincidence, Flight #2 contained all three of the oddly shaped bottles. Sandeman and Kopke have been using shorter, squat bottles for their ruby reserves for some time now. Cockburn only recently switched to this new bottle with high, square shoulders. Any of these bottles would be easy to identify even when bagged, so the decanting from bottle to bottle was necessary to keep their identities a secret until the reveal and cross-indexing at the end of the tasting.
Port #4 – Sandeman Founders Reserve – One of the lighter colored Ports in the lineup; primarily red or garnet in color. A very middle-of-the-road nose that seemed a bit tight. In the mouth it seems to suffer from following #3 because it is thin in comparison, but over time it builds character and body. Very tannic – it almost seems like it needs to be aged. Some dates in the mouth, along with a fun impression of Bazooka Joe bubble gum. A very solid ruby reserve that sits right on the border between very good and excellent for me. 89 points.
Port #5 – Cockburn’s Special Reserve – Another one of the lighter colored Ports in the lineup – very similar to #4 in the glass. But that’s where the similarities end. Light violets on the nose along with some candle wax or paraffin. Faintly soapy nose as well. The violets also lead off in the mouth, which makes me think this has to be a Taylor Port – violets are a signature note of Vargellas. Tannins and acidity are good but not great. There’s also a faint minty note that might be eucalyptus or esteva. Another very surprising reveal for me – I had completely convinced myself that this was going to be Taylor’s First Estate. A great daily drinker. 89 points.
Port #6 – Kopke Special Reserve – Mostly red in the glass with just a faint purple hue to it. Nice nose – grapey and slightly fermented, but not quite tanky. Also a pleasant note of caramel. In the mouth, this is another Port that you could tell me was a Vesuvio and I’d have no reason not to believe you. Not quite as good as #3 though, nor quite as good as its nose would lead you to believe it’s going to be. Lush and full-bodied, and full of rich black fruits. Picks up steam with time in the glass and eventually came very close to #3 quality-wise. Most of the other tasters felt that it eventually surpassed #3 because they felt that #3 started to decline with time. I disagreed that #3 declined. Another excellent example of what a Ruby Reserve can be. 91 points and my 2nd place Port on the night.
Flight #3 contained the other heavy hitter that sparked this tasting – Graham’s Six Grapes. Often touted as an LBV-level Port disguised as a ruby reserve, Graham’s Six Grapes is generally made from the best grapes that Graham’s quintas have to offer after the selection has been made for any Vintage Ports being produced. In theory, that should give it a leg up on other ruby reserves, but does it pan out in practice?
Port #7 – Graham’s Six Grapes – The darkest Port of the tasting, this one is dark purple and fully opaque. It looks like a young LBV or Vintage Port in the glass. The nose exhibits some grape, some cassis, and some black currant. (Huh, you ask? Aren’t those the same thing? For me, “cassis” is a syrup made from black currants, while “black currant” is the berry.) After spending some time in the glass, a light smoke note also appears. Nice balance between sweet and tart in the mouth. Rich, brewed grapes. Not as sweet as #3 but a richer overall flavor due to the tart berry notes here. Ultimately passed by #6 as that Port improved with time in the glass, but still a very respectable 3rd place showing on the night for me. 90 points.
Port #8 – Broadbent Auction Reserve – This Port was included at my request, because when I first started drinking Port this served as my cellar defender. I have consumed more bottles of Auction Reserve than any other ruby reserve by a fair margin. Dark red in the glass, but neither fully opaque nor fully translucent. Dusty red raspberries on the nose. A bit thin in the mouth, possibly due to following #7. A strange note that seems like… paper… in the mouth. Good but not particularly notable. Some plums and maybe some other dark stone fruits. The biggest surprise of the night for me upon reveal, because I rated it last with 85 points.
Port #9 – Fonseca Bin 27 – Red with purple tones in the glass, but slightly lighter in color than #3. Medium opaque, if that makes any sense. Fermenting grapes on the nose, along with a faint floral note and perhaps some butterscotch and high-toned vanilla. Nondescript in the mouth other than a little bit of wintergreen or possibly mint. “Burny” was a popular descriptor, in this case meaning torrefacted notes like coffee or cocoa nibs. Some thought it might be corked, but as usual I couldn’t tell. Very good, but not top-flight in this lineup. 88 points.
Well now you know which Ports I liked, but those of you who’ve tasted with me before know that I often like Ports that others don’t and vice-versa. So which Port actually won in Sammamish?
After a short break to gather our thoughts, everyone voted for their top 3 and, for amusement, last place. And this is how the final tally ended up:
Port #1 – Noval Black – one 2nd, one 3rd, one Last for a total of 3 points.
Port #2 – Warre’s Warrior – three Last, no points.
Port #3 – Taylor Fladgate First Estate – three 1st, five 2nd, one 3rd. The only Port to appear in everyone’s top three. 20 points and tied for 1st place overall.
Port #4 – Sandeman Founder’s Reserve – four 3rd for a total of 4 points, squeaking into 3rd place overall.
Port #5 – Cockburn’s Special Reserve – one 2nd and one 3rd for a total of 3 points.
Port #6 – Kopke Special Reserve – six 1st, one 2nd. A total of 20 points and tied for 1st place overall.
Port #7 – Graham’s Six Grapes – one 2nd, one 3rd, one Last for a total of 3 points.
Port #8 – Broadbent Auction Reserve – one 3rd, four Lasts. That 3rd place vote prevented it from receiving the dubious “worst of the night” award.
Port #9 – Fonseca Bin 27 – No votes. Nada. Zilch. The proper definition of “middle of the road,” though in this company that was only good enough for 8th place.
Surprising everyone present, the Taylor Fladgate First Estate and Kopke Special Reserve ran away with the voting. A margin of 20 to 4 isn’t even close – these two Ports thoroughly dominated the competition in a blind tasting in which even the bottles used for serving were mixed up so that no clues could possibly identify the Ports being tasted.
The 3rd place finish of Sandeman Founders Reserve also surprised everyone, and while its margin of victory over the 3-way tie for 4th was narrow it was still hard-earned. It needs some time to develop, but once it gets going it is a delicious and well-balanced Port.
And what about the debate that sparked this tasting? Well, sadly, we didn’t resolve anything. The Graham’s Six Grapes and Noval Black received exactly the same votes – one 2nd, one 3rd, and one “Last” each and ended up in a 3-way tie for 4th with the Cockburn’s Special Reserve. (One could argue that the CSR’s one 2nd and one 3rd with no Last place votes should technically give it sole possession of 4th place.) It really is a toss-up between these two Ports and likely comes down to which style you prefer. Graham’s Six Grapes is sweet, full-bodied, and oriented toward black fruits. Noval Black is tart, dry, and oriented toward red fruits. It’s really not surprising that someone who picked one of the two as their 2nd or 3rd favorite Port might pick the other as their least favorite.
And last place? That goes to Warre’s Warrior, with three Lasts and no other votes. The Broadbent Auction Reserve received more Lasts but it also received one 3rd place vote, giving it a point that the Warre’s Warrior lacked. Fonseca’s Bin 27 received no votes of any kind at all, giving it the dubious title of “least noticeable.”
Other events around the world:
In addition to the tasting we held in Sammamish, other Ruby Reserve Taste-Offs were held around the world in a coordinated effort for lots of diverse Port fans to evaluate these Ports blind. There were two tastings in California, one in Colorado, one in New Jersey, and one in London. Their results are included here for comparison sake:
High Bridge, New Jersey
Hosted by John M., the tasting in High Bridge used the standard 100-point scale to score the Ports and then averaged their ratings on that scale in order to determine the winner. The Mystery Port, a known-to-exist ringer going into the tasting, was an equal measures blend of the other 7 Ports.
- Sandeman Founders Reserve – 91.2
- Cockburn’s Special Reserve – 89.4
- Mystery Port – 90.9
- Taylor’s First Estate – 91.3
- Fonseca Bin 27 – 87.9
- Noval Black – 90.8
- Warre’s Warrior – 90.2
- Graham’s Six Grapes – 86.7
The winner in High Bridge was the same as one of the winners in Sammamish – Taylor Fladgate First Estate – but in High Bridge there was a distinct preference for Noval Black over Graham’s Six Grapes. So much so, in fact, that the Graham’s Six Grapes placed last in their tasting while the Noval Black placed 4th. Warre’s Warrior, which finished last in Sammamish, moved up to 5th in High Bridge.
Not to be out-done by their friends in the US, the British contingent held a Ruby Reserve Taste-Off as an amuse bouche before a proper tasting of Vintage Ports. Scoring in London was done simply by ranking the 8 Ports from 1 to 8 and adding the totals. Lowest score wins.
- Cockburn’s Special Reserve – 29 points
- Fonseca Terra Prima – 18 points
- Graham’s Finest Reserve – 36 points
- Graham’s Six Grapes – 15 points
- Noval Black – 13 points.
- Port Society Finest Reserve – 15 points
- Ramos Pinto Collector’s Reserve – 34 points
- Quinta de la Rosa Reserve Ruby – 20 points
The winner in London was the Noval Black by 2 points over the Graham’s Six Grapes and the Port Society Finest Reserve. Noval Black failed to receive any 1st place votes, but on the other hand it received no votes worse than 4th – a very consistent showing. Graham’s Six Grapes did manage two 1st place votes that the Noval Black didn’t get, but it also had a 6th place vote that inflated its total. That ended up being the difference!
Los Angeles, California
The Los Angeles tasting hosted by Marc J. wasn’t able to obtain a Graham’s Six Grapes, but they were able to replace it with rare bottles (in the US) of Andresen Special Reserve and Rozes Reserve. Each taster rated the Ports on a 10-point scale and then the ratings were averaged to reach the final score.
- Noval Black – 7.0
- Rozes Reserve – 8.6
- Cockburn Special Reserve – 8.9
- Andresen Special Reserve – 7.1
- Fonseca Bin 27 – 4.9
- Quinta de la Rosa Finest Reserve – 6.8
As you can see, the Cockburn Special Reserve took top honors over the Rozes Reserve, then there was a bit of a gap before the Andresen Special Reserve, Noval Black, and Quinta de la Rosa Special Reserve, and then finally the Fonseca Bin 27. Marc told me that a common note for the Fonseca Bin 27 was “grapey” which was not at all like the bottle we had in Sammamish. Furthermore, “grapey” was used by some to describe both of the winners in Sammamish, so we clearly have different tastes in Port!
Carl and Phyllis D. were two of the tasters in Sammamish – they drove up from Sacramento just for the tasting. Now THAT is dedication! Or enthusiasm. Or just crazy. (I know, I know, I drove to Andy’s in L.A. for a tasting. That’s why I know crazy when I see it!) They hosted the Sacramento tasting at the restaurant of a Chef they’ve followed for some time. Stop by Maranello Restaurant in Fair Oaks, CA if you’re ever in the area and say ‘hi’ from FTLOP.
In Sacramento they awarded three points for 1st, two for 2nd, three for 3rd, and minus one for 6th. Those negative points did ultimately affect the outcome, dropping Warre’s Warrior from 2nd to 3rd.
- 18 pts – Taylor First Estate (4x 1st, 2x 2nd, 2x 3rd)
- 12 pts – Graham’s Six Grapes (3x 1st, 3x 3rd)
- 11 pts – Warre’s Warrior (3x 1st, 2x 2nd, 1x 3rd, 3x 6th)
- 7 pts – Noval Black (4x 2nd, 1x 3rd, 2x 6th)
- 5. 5 pts – Fonseca Bin 27 (2x 2nd, 1x 3rd)
- Not rated – Cockburn’s Special Reserve (corked, oxidized)
After the tasting, Carl says they opened another bottle of the Cockburn’s Special Reserve and that everyone enjoyed it. They also sent glasses of all the Ports back to the Chef, who is working on his Sommelier’s license, and he also picked the Taylor Fladgate First Estate as his favorite. For those of you who, like me, are detail oriented and noticed that there aren’t the same number of votes for 1st – 3rd, that’s because the corked Cockburn’s actually received a number of votes before it was eliminated as being a flawed bottle. Carl thinks that it probably would have done well in the tasting had the first bottle not been corked.
Eric Menchen’s tasting in Longmont was smaller and more intimate, and featured only four Ports for the six tasters to evaluate – the two main contenders, Graham’s Six Grapes and Noval Black, plus Cockburn’s Special Reserve and Fonseca Bin 27. Everyone voted for their favorite, and a few people voted for their second favorite.
- Broadbent Auction Reserve
- Graham’s Six Grapes
- Noval Black
- Fonseca Bin 27
The Broadbent Auction Reserve was the clear winner with three 1st place votes while each of the others received one. Graham’s Six Grapes won the tiebreaker for 2nd by virtue of its 2nd place votes. The Fonseca Bin 27 was clearly the least favorite at this tasting.
Everyone said that these tastings were a lot of fun, and doing them blind contributed to the fun. For an actual comparison tasting like this, blind really seems to be the best method. It removes some feeling of responsibility from the tasters and allows them to judge based only on what’s in the glass.
Did we choose a winner? For the question we set out to answer – Graham’s Six Grapes vs Noval Black – the answer is not surprising. When compared across all of the tastings, Graham’s Six Grapes and Noval Black each won the head-to-head matchup twice and tied once. That’s about as close to a dead heat as you can get, and an appropriate result for these two heavyweights.
The real surprise of this exercise was Taylor Fladgate First Estate. It won (or tied for the win) at every tasting in which it appeared, and wasn’t even on most of the initial lists that were discussed. Congratulations to Taylor Fladgate for such a fine Ruby Reserve!
Article & photos BY Glenn Elliott © April 2012