I smell a mini-series. The history of Port provides enough juicy fodder — wars, treaties, and foreign intrigue — to make for some fascinating viewing. We wouldn’t have to go back as far as the first cultivation of grapes in Portugal in the 3rd or 4th century AD; the 17th century will do, for that’s when the wines began to be traded with the British and Dutch due to wars with France that cut off the supply of coveted claret. Trade, propelled by English families such as Warre and Croft, was still strong in the mid-18th century when someone finally realized that adding a neutral spirit to the wine partway through fermentation would increase its stability on the ocean voyage from Oporto to London. Little has changed since then, with one notable exception: The grapes that were once trod in granite lagares (troughs) by actual harvesters’ feet are now largely pressed by machines equipped with silicon extremities. So much for romance.
Bottles bearing the name Port come from places as far-flung as Australia and Texas (Becker makes a very nice one), but strictly speaking, the term should be reserved for those wines produced in a delimited region centered on Portugal’s Douro River. That’s the easy part. From there, it gets much more complicated, as the wines may be either red or white (we’ll stick with red), ruby or tawny, vintage or reserve, single quinta or colheita, and may be made from among more than 30 officially sanctioned grape varieties — unfamiliar varieties such as touriga nacional, tinta barocca, touriga francesa, and tinta roriz (tempranillo), at that.
To cut through the fog, Omniboire decided to focus on a single type, the LBV (Late-Bottled Vintage) Ports. Unlike a straight vintage Port, which must be “declared” in good years by the Port producers with the approval of the Port Wine Institute and ideally should age in the bottle for decades (and is therefore very dear), LBV Ports derive their character by extended barrel aging. Upon bottling, they are said to be ready to drink and to possess at least a good suggestion of the personality of their vintage siblings.
Well, a little fog does remain; some producers filter these wines and claim no benefit from further time in the bottle, whereas others bottle the wine, sediment and all, and trumpet the virtues of both barrel and bottle aging. (The filtered Ports usually are packaged with a twist-off cork; the others have driven corks.)
Regardless of the style, this “guiltless hedonism in a bottle” as one writer has called Port, will flaunt an alcohol content of around 20 percent or more, so lack of guilt may be followed by pounding of head if some prudence isn’t observed.
By law, LBV Ports must be bottled between four to six years after the declared harvest. It’s the harvest date that will be most prominent on the label, and the seven wines selected for this tasting tagged 1999, 2000, and 2001. We didn’t ask tasting participants to declare their own vintages, but the assembled maturity of tasting talent was impressive nonetheless. Hosting for the second time was Philippe Placé, irrepressible impresario of La Mansion’s Las Canarias. Also returning was tested taster Ian Gutierrez of Dreyfus-Ashby wine importers. Making his debut was recent Center for Foods of the Americas grad (and former songwriter/music-business veteran) Chris Dunn.
In an unusual show of unanimity (remember that all wines are tasted and scored “blind”), we all came within one point of agreeing on the best of bunch. W&J Graham’s LBV 2001, “matured in seasoned oak casks” and bottled in ’07, was deemed to have a nose of “earth and smoke” by Gutierrez, while Placé said “it spoke of dessert all the way; I see myself rolling in a plate of chocolate and fruit with this.” (We used spit cups, honest.) And it was spectacular with the chocolates provided by Las Canarias.
The number-two wine, the Ramos Pinto LBV 2000 (bottled in 2005), showed a “wine complexity” according to Gutierrez, who even envisioned it with “a piece of good red meat.” “Good balance, smooth tannins, rounded edges,” said Dunn. The Croft LBV 1999, bringing in the bronze, was bottled in 2005 as “ready to drink now” and transported Placé to “a library, reading a book; no food jumped out,” while Gutierrez lauded its texture and “jam and preserves.”
The label of Fonseca’s unfiltered LBV 2001, bottled in ’07, suggested that decanting might be required. Dunn detected black cherry and “very pleasant nutmeg” notes, while Gutierrez found “subtle leather on the nose” that didn’t follow through on the palate. Warre’s Bottle Matured LBV 1999 was bottled in 2003 at the low end of mandated cask maturity, and was the clearest expression of bottle versus barrel age. It nonetheless came in at number five, with Gutierrez claiming “I liked it but didn’t score it high … it seems wintery with allspice, nutmeg, and a little tea.”
Though it was awarded 91 points by a national wine magazine, the Dow’s LBV 2001 didn’t impress our tasters. “No bouquet, high on alcohol,” sniffed Placé; “a little more chewy and fleshy,” remarked Gutierrez. The Taylor Fladgate LBV 2001, bottled in 2007, was another ready-to-drink-now wine. “I’d go with cheese on this one,” offered Placé, and in fact his Shropshire Blue did change opinions. “It has a hard edge that cheese helps smooth out a lot,” suggested Gutierrez.
Our plate of chocolate, prosciutto, melon, and lavosh was instructive with the other Ports, too, and nuts, dried fruits, and gorgonzola would also pair well with these quaffs. To tame the potential heat of 20-percent alcohol, chill the bottle a little before pouring, though that same alcohol does help keep the wine fresh for up to three weeks after opening. However, English tradition holds that once opened at table, the bottle must be passed around until empty — make sure you aren’t dining alone. •
Note that wines are priced from around $25-$29 and almost all are available at Saglimbeni Fine Wines and other specialty wine shops
Bright acidity, with prune, vanilla, and even banana on palate
Complex nose with leather, coffee and mint, slight bitterness on palate
Velvet texture, notes of preserves and mineral
Elegant, mature fruit, with black cherry and caramel
Smooth and integrated, with spice and toast but little power
Less intense nose, some heat, spice, chocolate, and dried-fruit notes
Indistinct nose, tannic edge, some wild berry fruit