I had never been to Atlanta and I was very much looking forward to meeting the large contingent of online friends from the Robert Parker/Mark Squires’ wine bulletin board who would be attending a weekend of wine and Port events. They had been prompting me to visit for quite awhile and finally I was able to make the logistics work out. Dr. Charles, Trip and Cathy Johnson were taking charge in organizing the two main events, including the Port tasting which was going to be held at the Johnson’s beautiful home in the Buckhead area.
Fortunately, coming from NYC the trip was going to be much easier, as I was already on the same coast. However, little did I know how difficult it was going to be to arrive on time for dinner at one of Atlanta’s posh dining establishments. Unfortunately, I was stuck at JFK Airport for nearly ten hours due to thick fog, which literally shut down all air traffic at all 3 NY area airports. It was an aggravating afternoon as I knew I’d be missing a great event that evening. I arrived about three hours into the wine dinner and thanks to the generosity of the group, they saved me sips of all the great wines that had been presented and I was still able to feast on a delicious steak dinner, accompanied by some amazing wines.
Now this was no ordinary group of wine lovers. A splinter group of fun seeking winos decided to hit one of the late night burger joints in the area, because they had a real hankering for more beef since the behemoth steaks had not been filling enough. I could tell I was amongst the right group of folks as there is nothing like beef for dessert after a big steak dinner. It was a bizarre scene, crowded with late teens and young twenty-somethings, but it turned out to be one of the most hilarious times I have had in ages. There were pictures taken to document the insanity but what takes place in Atlanta, stays in Atlanta, right Nick? ‘Nuff said!
As the Johnson family opened their home to me, spoiling me with extremely gracious Southern hospitality, I was almost embarrassed to come in so late that first night. But they totally understood that I was just an innocent who had been dragged along kicking and screaming … by the group taking part in the late night activities. Fortunately, I was allowed to sleep in, as the Port extravaganza was planned for the late afternoon and I had a lot of “work” ahead of me.
Given that it was my first time in Atlanta and how long it took me to finally get down there after much prodding, the locals wanted to make this one of the best Port tastings held in the USA during 2006. Therefore, all participants were urged to bring very special bottles and I can honestly say that although the tasting took place less than three weeks into the New Year; it would be very difficult to organize a Port tasting with the overall quality of this one. It was time to get busy and with Ah So, cork screw, cheese cloth, funnel and a plethora of ornate decanters at the ready, I proceeded to decant the 13 bottles of Port.
I started the decanting regimen, (all of the Ports from youngest to oldest) at 11:30 a.m. and intentionally finished with the last bottle, an 1853 Colheita, a few hours later. So the 1970 Fonseca which was the youngest wine of the day, had 3.5 hours of air time before the first sip and was nearly 5 hours in glass by the time we got to the next flight.
After we had thoroughly tasted and discussed all 13 wines, we went out for an extensive wine dinner and hours later reconvened to taste each and every Port again, to see how they had morphed with further exposure to oxygen. It was at this time that the Johnson’s brought out two wheels of Colston Bassett Stilton, which was a fabulous quality Stilton and some folks were eager to try the pairing. During the earlier tasting of the Ports, I was firm in my request that only bread, crackers and water were to be offered, so that no distortions of the flavor or tannin structure of the Port would be imparted by cheese or other food items.
Having a 3+ hour gap between tastings of the Port, I believe that this specific dynamic was enlightening and a highlight for some. It is educational to say the least, to experience the difference in how Port shows with extended contact with air and having two separate opportunities to try the wines, really shed light on this. Some Ports had definitely improved ... others did not and a few had even deteriorated. The before and after tasting is something that everyone should try and by comparing notes, there is much to learn.
I’d like to thank Trip Johnson, who clearly explained the merits of bottle aging when it comes to Colheita Ports. I was glad to see some opinions changed, especially a few who had otherwise believed written rhetoric espousing that Colheitas never improve with bottle age. A few invitees who showed up early were privy to witness the sediment that had formed in the bottles of Colheita contrary to popular belief. There are of course, exceptions to every rule and many Colheitas will not change or improve with time in the bottle, as some are fined and filtered.
Thanks again to all of you for making this one of the greatest Port tastings in recent memory. You have set the bar very high for any other group to surpass the quality of Vintage and Colheita Ports that we were all fortunate enough to taste in one evening. You have my sincere appreciation for a superb tasting and a wonderful weekend -- and that goes double for Trip, Dr. Charles and Cathy Johnson. Additionally, I applaud all of the participants for the great wines they put forth, but far more so, the thought provoking and challenging questions that were posed. The interest shown and the enthusiasm by all, was outstanding. I truly look forward to my next visit to your hospitable city. Special thanks to Bill Graves who brought 169 Riedel glasses for the 13 of us to utilize during the tasting, which added to the overall drinking enjoyment. An amazing feat!
ATLANTA TASTING NOTES SECTION
1853 Whitwham’s Millennium Port, King Pedro V Royal Reserve Port – This Port was actually a Niepoort Colheita that was bottled in 2001. Chocolate/coffee colored with a tawny rim, while exuding scents of lemon peel, Madeira-like VA and sweet maple aromas. Medium bodied with laser focused acidity and a chewy caramel nuance which was rich and provided elegance to this stunningly fresh wine. Whitwham’s 153 year old beauty exhibited extraordinarily youthful flavors and threw a significant deposit (sediment) and clearly was better for having done so. It improved throughout the evening and finished with great length, complex butterscotch and a silky smooth palate presence that great old bottles of Colheita can achieve. I have little doubt that this could last for many more decades. 96+ points (1-14-06)
1870 Royal Oporto Colheita – Lighter mahogany color with yellow rim. Mint, bit-o-honey and treacle with a slight musty note initially, which blew off with time and showed great complexity. Very much like a full-bodied Bual Madeira with a nutty nuance, caramel and lots of acidity. This wine was from one of the last pre-Phylloxera vintages and its weakness was it’s short length and rather lackluster, hot finish. During decanting this had a great deal of sediment. 87 points (1-14-06)
1896 Royal Oporto Colheita – bottled by the Leading Foreign Imports Corp., found in cask in 2001 by Cristiano van Zeller. Tight on the nose initially, offering a dark amber color with yellowish-green rim. It eventually showed excellent aromas of caramel and toffee with lots of fruit still apparent. It was considerably better than the 1870 with layers of flavors and pinpoint balance. A seamless and harmonious wine with a nutty praline and butterscotch profile. Smooth elegance and this one surprisingly tastes far older than the previous two Ports. What a great treat! 93 points (1-14-06)
1927 Cockburn’s Vintage Port – This was my addition to the party and I had shipped the bottle down weeks in advance of the event. Light pinkish-ruby in color this showed a unique spicy complexity along with red fruit and toffee. This Cockburn’s possessed a medium body with fruit that was not only lively but somewhat youthful, a long and persistent aftertaste with great finesse and textural pleasure which added elegance. A profound and extraordinarily balanced elder bottle of VP. 95 points (1-14-06)
1945 Taylor Vintage Port – very light ruby color with a pinkish/tawny rim. This was a slightly disappointing and less than stellar bottling of this legendary Port which I had expected to take top honors (one of the greatest VPs from the 20th century), albeit it was still fun to drink. Mahogany, tomato, raisins and prune with an off nose early on, and the palate showed oddly too. This morphed with time and was a most welcome and wonderful addition to the tasting and the flaw did not get worse. Big, juicy red fruit evolved along with crème brulee and a silky mouth feel, belying its age and there were still hints at the underlying greatness. The ’45 provided fabulous length to the finish. 94 points (1-14-06)
1955 Graham’s Vintage Port – This was a more evolved bottle of this generally superb wine, as the color was light to medium ruby with a rim fading to pinkish tawny. Tasty in its sweet toffee and caramelized state, this is atypical of this usually vibrant VP. Delivering medium body and the highlight for me was the awesome mouthfeel. The finish was spirituous which detracted from the overall impression. 92 points (1-14-06)
1955 Taylor Vintage Port – Although I have had quite a variety of VPs from this vintage, it has been quite awhile since I have tried a bottle that showed this well. Spicy with pine, spearmint and menthol notes. Full-bodied, smooth and unctuous on the palate, with a well delineated mid-palate exuberance and intensity. The prevalent mint quality is so dominating here, it is almost odd. It is a very unique Taylor ’55 and enjoyable due to its overall symmetry. 93 points (1-14-06)
1963 Taylor Vintage Port – Medium ruby color with a tawny rim. It showed Eucalyptus, violets, a mint streak, and minerals on the complex nose. It delivers gorgeous plum flavors, full-bodied mouth feel and is mostly smooth texturally, with some alcohol poking through, especially on the finish. A long aftertaste marred slightly by the spirit, with mild tannins still present and overall this Taylor is a very harmonious bottling. Always a delight to try bottles of this exemplary VP 94 points (1-14-06)
1970 Graham’s Vintage Port - When the Graham’s ’70 is a point, it can lead to an astounding and glorious experience. This was such a bottle. It offered up a dark ruby color and was quite voluptuous with rich, dense, boisterous blackberry fruit. Simply outstanding and although there was a hint of alcohol on the finish the overwhelming greatness of this wine dominated this minor flaw. A long life ahead of it and it rivals Taylor and Fonseca when the bottles are this expressive. 95 points (1-14-06)
We then had a brief diversion and had a mini vertical tasting within a tasting. It provided an insight into some mostly mature Fonseca VPs that were showing well, with the exception of the 1966 which was not up to par.
1963 Fonseca Vintage Port – The color was light ruby with a slightly pink edge, which had me scratching my head as this normally shows significantly more extraction. A bit hot initially with a tight nose early on that showed some dark cherry as it remained in glass. Incredible length and expressive finish but at 6-7 hours after decanting, it showed its best. Maybe a touch below what most other bottles tend to show from this producer’s exalted ’63 VP. By the time we returned from dinner this wine had faded significantly and then I realized why I had questioned the lightness of the color initially. Still, at its peak earlier on, this was a stunning beauty. Top bottles have two or three decades of life ahead. 96 points (1-14-06)
1965 Fonseca-Guimaraens Vintage Port – I have always enjoyed the 2nd label bottling of Fonseca ’65 and found this wine very dark ruby and much younger looking based on the 1963 with just a touch of bricking on the meniscus. It improved dramatically as the tasting wore on. Full-body weight but a bit simple overall, with some distracting alcohol present. It became more balanced with air time and is one of the top 1965 Ports on the market. If this is your birth year, I’d grab one for your 50th celebration, although I would not expect more than another decade or fifteen years at the outside, for this level of quality. 91 points (1-14-06)
1966 Fonseca Vintage Port – This was not up to snuff with some VA and way too much alcohol protruding. Otherwise the nose was muted and with fruit in decline. Later on, the heat took over and was clearly an off bottle, as I have had this VP a dozen times in the past 3-4 years and have had much better bottles of ‘66 Fonseca. Normally it is at the apex of this fine vintage, just below the greatness which is the exalted Nacional. Discussion ensued and some believed it to be a very good bottle and others also realized it was disjointed and imperfect. 83 points (1-14-06)
1970 Fonseca Vintage Port – This beauty offers up violets and black fruit with soft and generous textural pleasure. This bottles was superb today and smooth as silk hours after we first tried it, yet a bit tight early on with some alcohol showing, which fully integrated while this was in the glass. The ’70 possessed focused acidity and delivered tannins that still meant business. Overall this was one of the great bottles of the entire tasting and showed youthful vibrancy and the ability to improve from here. As much as I typically wax poetic over the 1963 and 1966 Fonseca bottlings, I believe that in time the 1970 will prove to be the greatest of this incredible troika. It was my VPOTN. 97+ points (1-14-06)