Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Vintage Port - it pays to know your history

I’ve been lucky enough recently to taste my way through quite a few Vintage Ports, which allowed me to have a metaphorical rootle around in the historical files of some of the grandest names in the Port world.

Sandeman hosted a tasting of twenty of their Vintage Ports from 1944 to 2011, giving a rare (for me at any rate) chance to taste mature Port and to witness its transformation from the intensely coloured and flavoured 2011s, which it would surely be a crime to think of drinking any time in the next ten years; to the delicate, ethereal 1944.

Every Port fan would probably have had their particular favourites in the line-up on offer. But what other style of wine would give you the chance to weigh the relative merits of the still sweet and weighty 1955 with the nutty, tangy and delicately floral and spicy 1966?

All very well for you, I hear you cry, you wine trade soaks are always being plied with line-ups of old, rare wines that the rest of us could never afford, let alone have access to.

Well, if you fancy letting your tastebuds roam over these same Ports….read on.

Of course in each case I was tasting the final version of the Port, which, although it is the product of a single year, will always be made of a particular blend of a selection of the many grape varieties which grow in Portugal’s Douro Valley, whence Port comes.

David Guimaraens, head of winemaking for The Fladgate Partnership, which includes Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft, let members of the wine trade have a little peek into the work of the Port winemaker and to get our noses into glasses of the single varieties that make up the final blend.

Portugal’s long history of wine-making and relative isolation for most of that time has led to it being host to a treasure trove of unique indigenous grape varieties.

Perhaps foremost amongst these varieties is Touriga Nacional, whose annoying habits of low yields and haphazard growth are tolerated because it makes such fantastic, aromatic, fruity and structured Port. Also in the equation are Touriga Francesa (meaning French Touriga – it is indeed a cross of Touriga Nacional and another variety, but may have nothing to do with France), Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao and Tinta Amarela.

Our treat was to taste a “Port” made from each of these single varieties – such a thing could never be unleashed on the public as Port cannot legally be made from a single variety. While each variety had its good points, it became clear that together these varieties could become something that was more than the sum of its parts.

All those varieties beginning with T are the predominant grapes which account for the majority of any Port blend, but they will usually be joined by other, even more esoteric native varieties, which also play their part in adding a nuance of flavour. Other than Tinta Roriz, which, as Tempranillo, is grown all over the Iberian peninsula, all of these varieties are uniquely Portuguese and play a huge part in creating the unique character of Port – including, of course, Vintage Port.

If you have a generous friend with a love of Port and, ideally, an important birthday or anniversary associated with a year since 1944, then let them know that you’d be delighted to accompany them to taste Port from their special year at a wine bar in the City. A limited number of bottles of Sandeman Vintage Port from selected years since 1994 have been shipped over from Portugal for us to enjoy here.

Usually, drinking Vintage Port means you have to first decant it, then find enough similarly inclined friends to make it worth opening the bottle, as you need to treat it like a wine and finish it in one or two days.

But for now, if you visit The Sign of the Don in the City, once the cellars of Sandeman in London, now a wine bar and bistro, you can get a taste of twenty different Sandeman Vintage Ports going back to 1944. Thanks to the wonder of enomatic machines, individual pours of each wine are available. Prices start at £5 for a 25ml sample of the younger Ports, up to £1,243 for a bottle of the 1944. Alternatively you can choose from a variety of flights, featuring 25ml measures of three or more Ports, starting at £16 for the “Youngster”, going up to £52 for the “Ancestral”.

If you do visit, I would love to know how you get on!

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