It was on November 6th 2005, that the first official For The Love Of Port London Offline took place. We met at the splendid old Crusted Pipe in Covent Garden for what turned out to be a fantastic get together. I flew in from Funchal the airport in Madeira and fortunately had a day in which to catch my breath beforehand. While in London, it was great to see my close buddy, Nicos Neocleous. He was kind enough to obtain tickets to a football match between Fulham and Manchester City. I was very excited to see my first “live” football game in the UK and this well-played match was exciting. Walking through the Fulham streets, the energy and enthusiasm was quite palpable when you witness the visiting fans being whisked off the trains onto buses directly to the stadium and also when you walk past the home team’s pub that overflows onto the streets that are swarming with police in protective gear, on horseback.
But the real energy surrounded the outside as well as the entire inside of the stadium. Wow, what electricity and never do you feel that level of non-stop passionate fanaticism exhibited in the US for a sporting event, except maybe at a Yankees vs. Red Sox game during the playoffs, or the rare rivalry game in the NFL’s playoffs.
I’d like to thank Alex Bridgeman, FTLOP Forum member and serious Port lover, for orchestrating the Sunday afternoon tasting for the twelve of us. He not only chose the wonderful venue and menu, but organized a wonderful theme to compare and contrast the 1963 Vintage Ports to both the 1966 and 1970 vintages. Each of us brought a bottle along, from one of four renowned Port producers represented: Fonseca, Graham’s, Sandeman and Taylor’s. This promised to be an extremely educational day of partially blind tasting, some incredible bottles of Vintage Port.
We were all quite pleased that Mario Ferreira was able to fly in from Portugal to join us for this tasting, as he is an integral part of the FTLOP crew and was able to add some wonderful insights and a few “surprise bottles” after the main event. As much as I enjoyed the afternoon of Ports, personally what meant the most to me, was to have the chance to meet a great group of folks from overseas, who are all active participants on the FTLOP Forum. It felt like I had already known them yet realistically, few of them had ever met one another, no less your humble scribe. This made the event very special for me!
Participants at the Crusted Pipe offline were: Alex Bridgeman, Justin Willott, Alex Kilbey, Linden Wilke, Christopher Gee, Mario Ferreira, Derek Turnbull, Nick Alabaster, Ian Wright, Nicos Neocleous, Jo Marshall, and Roy Hersh.
For those that have never been to the Crusted Pipe in Covent Garden, it is not only a well-known wine bar, but they feature many Ports including older vintages by-the-glass. In fact, it is such a Port friendly restaurant that you will find perched in every nook and cranny, 750 ml bottles and many magnums of old Vintage Ports used as décor pieces. I loved this place and look forward to our next offline there in mid-October 2006. As you can tell from the picture above, we had our own private dining nook, which was akin to being in a tunnel. It perfectly fit the dozen of us and the management was wonderful, providing us with savvy servers and a place to arrange flights and store our bottles and accouterments. Note: Due to the low ambient lighting, my perception of the coloration of the Ports may be skewed in my tasting notes.
On to the Vintage Port tasting. Or so we thought. Linden Wilke, who organizes lots of inspired wine events around the London area, brought a “starter” Port which was to begin the festivities. It turned out to be a “ringer” as it wasn’t a Vintage Port at all, but the oldest LBV most of us had ever tasted. Thanks Linden and it was a great pleasure to finally meet you, after reading about many of your superb wine extravaganzas! So what was the mystery Port?
1961 Dow LBV Port (bottled 1965) – Very light ruby with a clear rim. Spicy, cinnamon with a touch of alcohol protruding. Showing a light-medium body, smooth with dry cherry fruit on the palate and ultimately an elegant mature Port with a semi-sweet, long aftertaste. My guess was a ’75 Dow VP which was not even close. 87 points (11/6/05)
Next it was time to let the real games begin and the following twelve bottles of VP were served in three distinct flights, from oldest to youngest.
Flight #1 included:
1963 Sandeman Vintage Port – Decanted six hours prior to our tasting. The cork was saturated and spongy which did not portend well for what was to come. From an aromatic standpoint, I really enjoyed the earthy, beef bouillon and slightly caramelized notes that are consistent with my more recent experience with this past beauty Queen. This is the VP that I cut my teeth on in the early 1980s and had it dozens of times during that decade. I polished off my last bottle opened for my father’s 70th birthday, a decade ago, but have had it a few times since. It was a fantastic Port at one time and well worthy of Suckling’s 96 points at the time he authored his tome on Port. It has been past its prime since the mid-‘90s. Enjoyable whiffs of golden raisins, dates, mocha and lots of alcohol on the nose. It is still a tasty Tawny today, delivering a good dose of acidity, raisin and prune flavors and a creamy texture. The downside is that it is hanging on to fully mature fruit that is starting to dry up, with too much spirit showing through. Drink up soon, if you own ‘em! 87 points (11/6/05)
1963 Graham Vintage Port (bottled in the UK) – Another remarkable bottle of this ’63, which I am a huge fan of. It was decanted only two hours in advance and therefore those that rated this early on did it no justice. It really was at its best three + hours after it was poured and the initial dominant alcohol on the nose, totally disappeared. What was left was gorgeous maple, mocha, coffee and berry aromas. Showing young with focus and symmetry. On the palate the Graham presents a finely focused balance, with cherry and plum fruit, coffee and a nuttiness which I really liked. The finish was fantastic and this shows the great promise of this Graham’s which is not yet at peak. Quite a few didn’t like this as much but some of their judgments were based on their initial impressions. This Port made drastic changes 3-5 hours after it was poured. 95 points (11/6/05)
1963 Taylor Vintage Port (bottled in Belfast) – Decanted just over five and a half hours prior to service. Medium ruby color with extensive bricking on the edge, showing slightly more maturity than previous recent bottles I’ve experienced. The ’63 offered fine fragrances of mint, plum and licorice, with a bit too much spirit for my liking. Although this mouth filling Taylor’s was dense and smooth, with delicious underlying plum and chocolate flavors, the alcohol dominated and distracted the overall experience which is not what I normally enjoy about this typically fabulous wine. 91 points (11/6/05)
1963 Fonseca Vintage Port – Dark ruby-red centered with a smattering of bricking around the rim. This was a tale of two Ports. When first poured, it was very tight, even though it had been decanted six hours in advance of the big show. The palate too provided mild pleasure but I held onto this wine as I knew the best was yet to come. And it did. Lifted violet fragrance that improved to show raspberry and cassis. A big intricately woven wine with lots of delicious fruit, offering up vibrant chewy plum, almond, toffee and raisins on the dense, rich texture. Enough tannins still alive to support cellaring for another decade or even longer. One of the classiest VPs we had all day and its aftertaste was so complex that it exceeded my lofty expectations. A great bottle! 97 points (11/6/05)
Flight #2 included:
1966 Sandeman Vintage Port – In decanter for nearly five hours, showing a medium ruby color with a brick-red rim. Lovely nose of spearmint, pine, strawberry and almond paste. Initially there was a good dose of VA but this blew off about an hour after it was poured. The ’66 was funky at first but lots of previous experience with this bottling told me to withhold judgment. This is far more balanced and vibrant than its older sibling. Patience was rewarded, as it really opened up and showed the silky, liquid cherry berry elegance I have come to enjoy from this vintage of Sandeman. It’s never a powerhouse, but is always pleasurable and exhibits a smooth and persistent finish with just a touch of heat. Bottles with similar provenance will continue on a plateau for at least the remainder of the decade. 91 points (11/6/05)
1966 Graham Vintage Port – This suffered due to having only three hours of decanting prior to our tasting it. Usually I give this one six full hours. Therefore, it showed significant heat early on and I told the others to be patient. An hour prior to our departure, this was showing the beauty I have come to expect from this fine VP. Still on the upswing with a solid structural foundation, this sweet and spicy Graham’s is always a winner in my book! Very youthful for a 40 year old VP and well stored bottles will drink exceptionally well for at least another decade and likely two. 94+ points (11/6/05)
1966 Taylor Vintage Port (bottled in the UK) – Decanted for 4.5 hours and showing a medium ruby color fading to tawny on the edge. Early on this showed some heat but most of it blew off. Honestly, I’ve never been a huge fan of this wine although it is good, structurally sound and well-made. I prefer either of the adjacent vintages of Taylor. A mélange of Kirsch, licorice, herbs and spirit come to the fore. The ’66 has far more heft than the less than stellar ’63 bottling in the lineup here. I did like the viscous, tasty dried prune, fig and raisin dominant profile which shows a good deal of ripeness, yet is somewhat monolithic. Good length though a touch of spirit follows on the aftertaste. 92 points (11/6/05)
1966 Fonseca Vintage Port (bottled in the UK) – After the Noval Nacional from this vintage, Fonseca has always been my favorite. I have had about a case and a half of this particular wine from two distinct sources and with mostly consistent notes between them. I do prefer the ’63 and ’70 when they are in top form, but the ’66 is an excellent VP that has yet to reach its apex. This was not my bottle though it showed very well, depicting a huge extracted Port with an extremely dark magenta hue from what I could see. This normally is a wine that I like to decant for six to eight hours and this certainly was shy of that. The complexity of the aromatics was superb, with red berry fruit, anise and herbal notes swirling in my head. Concentrated, sweet flavors of ripe raspberry, espresso and distinct licorice were bolstered by finely knit tannins that were quite lively yet round. Like the ’66 Graham’s this has years of life ahead of it, but the overall balance and palate presence is superior in this VP. Its excellent long and lingering finish is memorable. 95+ points (11/6/05)
Flight #3 - Blind Tasting:
The first two flights were designed to provide back-to-back vintages from the same producers. It enabled us to look for common threads in the aromatic and flavor profiles of the VPs from the identical producers, poured in the same order. In this third flight, we were out to test our senses to see if while tasting blind, we could distinguish similar characteristics which showed up with the younger 1970 Vintage Ports. It was a great learning experience, even though I am not that adept at discerning Port producers from their house style while blind tasting. I am still learning!
1970 Graham Vintage Port – Always in my top 4 of the ’70 vintage, this had the deepest darkest extraction of all four Ports in this flight. Decanted for 8 hours and well done. Some tobacco, spice, figs and treacle aromas provide the goods. The strong suit of this bottle was the exceptional balance, although it is not quite as great as ex-cellars bottles I’ve had. Vibrant, rich, youthful and almost syrupy in profile. Nonetheless, delicious and with a long life ahead, though it drinks beautifully today, it will reach maturity in ten to fifteen more years. What separates this from greater bottles of Graham’s 1970 is the length of the finish and overall complexity. 95+ points (11/6/05)
1970 Sandeman Vintage Port – Also decanted 8 hours, this showed a rhubarb coloration that was by far the lightest of the flight and of the night. Tasty once you can get past the protruding alcohol. Otherwise this is a light and delicate wine and I have not had a ’70 Sandeman in many years. It evokes the impression I get from quite a few 1975 VPs. Sweet, yet simple strawberry flavor, light body weight, good acidity and fully mature. It would be a gentle, well balanced VP if not for the overbearing spirit showing. 86 points (11/6/05)
1970 Fonseca Vintage Port – Just one in the string of pearls that stretch from vintage 1945 – 1977. One of my favorite VPs from the 2nd half of the 20th century, albeit this particular bottle did not represent anywhere near the greatness this VP can achieve! Red berry aromas with a fresh fragrance of violets start this Port off nicely. Ripe and sweet cherry and raspberry shine here but with few supporting characters. It’s a fruit forward Fonseca and smooth on the palate, but a bit simple and with too much heat on the finish. Still a very good Port, just not a great bottle. 94 points (11/6/05)
1970 Taylor Vintage Port – Although some tasters disagreed, Nicos and I called this one corked from the get go. A real shame as I love this Port! Not Rated (11/6/05)
Mario felt that the gentlemen at the table had not had nearly enough Vintage Ports, so he had surreptitiously smuggled in three more bottles with him. Although they had not been decanted ahead of time, this would prove to be the first tasting of 2003 Vintage Ports for the UK gang, since they normally don’t see the releases until six months after most Americans have squirreled them away in their cellars. I did not take notes on these 3 VPs as I had recently tried them all again in Portugal a couple of weeks earlier. Besides, it gave me the time I needed to go back and revisit each of the earlier pours to see how they had changed and make any modifications to my own notes. I was glad I did, because there were a few that had morphed pretty substantially, as noted above in the TNs.
The three Vintage Ports that Mario opened were:
2003 Sandeman – which most seemed to like very much and found totally approachable, especially compared to the two that followed
2003 Quinta do Portal+ - many preferred this wine to both of the others, not only for its delicious flavors and easy-to-drink style, but it seemed to them … to have more guts and grip to the structure.
2003 Quinta do Portal – this is the “classic” VP by this producer. Comments ranged from, “What huge tannins this one has” to … “so this is what a great young Port tastes like.” It was apparent that the group enjoyed this wine very much, although it was a beast of burden at this early stage, with the best upside potential.
Six hours after arrival it was time to bid our friends a fond adieu, as a few of them had a long way to travel. What a great afternoon at the venerable Crusted Pipe. It was such a pleasure to meet so many people from across the pond, who all shared the same passion for Port. Once again, my sincere thanks to Alex who masterfully orchestrated the entire tasting. With this tasting behind us, we keep in touch in some cases daily, through the wonders of the FTLOP Forum. This coming October, we’ll meet again hopefully at the same venue, for a special vertical tasting of Vintage Port. Stay tuned!