Port Authority

On what makes a vintage fortified wine, and why its makers need Americans to buy it.

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Last month, Portugal’s port wine producers unanimously declared 2007 to
be a vintage port. A declaration of vintage port doesn’t happen every
year — the last was in 2005, when the 2003 vintage was declared. It
pretty much only happens a couple of times a decade, and so a
declaration is a very big deal, at least among the shrinking number of
people who invest in expensive port. Last Monday, a handful of these
people were invited to the Four Seasons restaurant in midtown Manhattan for
a preview tasting of these 2007 vintage ports from 11 highly-regarded
producers.

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There may have been a mistake, because I was invited along, too. It’s not that I don’t love port, vintage or otherwise, and not that I haven’t tasted my fair share. But my crowd, much as we’d love to, isn’t rushing out to fork over $200 for a bottle of anything these days, unless maybe that bottle contains a genie who will grant three wishes.

Regardless, I was surely not going to pass up this event. I was so overexcited, in fact, that I ended up getting my dates wrong and took a bus up from Philadelphia on the Friday beforehand. When I presented myself at the Four Seasons, the maitre d’ gave me a withering look. Someone behind him shouted that the port tasting was on “Lunedí!” So I returned on Monday.

“A very special occasion on the wine calendar,” according to the official black book of tasting notes each person received when we arrived. It was a Who’s Who of port wine brands, including Graham, Taylor, Croft, Fonseca, Quinta do Noval. Producers set up shop around the perimeter of a private dining room. Each company was offering a pour of their 2007 vintage, as well as at least one older vintage port — classics such as the Graham ’70, the Taylor ’77, and the Fonseca ’85 — presumably a best guess at what the 2007 will mature to be as it ages. Islands of spit buckets stood in the center of the room. Waiters circulated with trays of hors d’oeuvres.

Our host was Anthony Dias Blue, the bon vivant who used to be Bon Appetit’s wine and spirits editor and now runs high-end tastings like these. Resplendent in a double-breasted blazer, Blue pointed out that — unlike his home in southern California, where people come to tastings “in shorts and flip-flops” — the crowd at the Four Seasons looked very dapper and formal. I think that meant most of us (including me) had bothered to throw on a jacket and some of us (not me) had worn a tie. Roughly three-quarters of the attendees were older than me by at least two decades (I should probably mention that I am pushing 40).

After an hour or so of tasting, Blue introduced Rupert Symington, whose family has made port since the 19th century and owns Graham, Dow, Quinta Do Vesuvio, and Warre’s ports, and he approached a podium in the corner of the room. Symington is the sort of youthful, aristocratic-seeming British chap that Americans are instinctively drawn to. One of the first things you realize about port is that, while everything is made in Portugal and is a Portuguese product, the industry has always been dominated by the British.

The best ports call for custom notebooks in which to note them.

Symington spoke for all the producers. “Declaring a vintage port is a difficult decision,” he said. “Only about three times a decade do we decide to stake our reputation on a single year.” Perhaps, as Symington himself suggested, it seemed a bit discordant to be introducing a traditional luxury product like vintage port at the Four Seasons on a springtime Monday afternoon, in the midst of a global economic collapse? “Well,” he said, “we’ve made the wine already. To hell with the crisis!”

“The Ivy League of vintage port” is what Symington called the 11 port houses on hand. “These all represent the safe bet,” he said. “These wines will last the test of time, which is really the point.” Which meant Symington’s intended audience was the type of person who planned to buy up cases of this stuff, and then cellar it for a few decades.

Several of Symington’s cousins joined him at the podium, and then the session was opened for a Q&A. There was a polite question from a Food +Wine writer about the 2007 growing conditions and what made them extraordinary (it had been an unseasonably cool July and August, followed by intense heat in early September). Then, after no one else ventured a question, a very tall man with a British accent shouted, “When will you be announcing the 2007 prices?”

“I don’t know,” Symington said. “Let’s just say there’s a debate. At the moment, the jury is still out.”

Indeed, there must be quite a debate. How do you price a vintage port in the current climate — especially as port sales continue to plummet, with exports hitting a five-year low in 2008?

Even the price of top-end vintage ports has stagnated. Sure, a renowned vintage (like the Taylor ’77 or the Graham ’70) will fetch $200 to $300. But how does that compare to, say, a highly-rated Bordeaux from a decent year, which can go for $1,000 to $2,000 or higher. Top-shelf cognacs sell for $5,000 or more. Next to those, vintage port begins to look almost anachronistic, another era’s “luxury” item — sort of like a big Cadillac, or a pool table in your rec room, or a fountain pen.

Wine critic James Suckling was even moved to ask, in the January/February issue of Wine Spectator, “Who drinks vintage port anymore?”

Port’s reputation rests on the vintages, and there is mystical quality to the years widely considered to be the best: 1947, 1955, 1963, 1966, 1970, 1977, 1985, 1994. This emphasis on vintages, of course, offers poseurs a cheap path to connoisseurship. Andy Borowitz explored this phenomenon in a 2000 essay in Food + Wine on vintage port. “No other beverage in the world has the power to make me look like such a complete and utter know-it-all,” Borowitz writes, adding that he learned everything he knows about port in six minutes, simply by memorizing three dates and four producers. “Unquestionably, when people hear me toss off ‘Fonseca ‘70’ or ‘Taylor ’63,’ they assume I’ve come to port only after honing my mastery of wine, cigars, antiques, and Greek mythology.”

Vintage port still only makes up about two percent of the world’s port supply. All port wine grapes are grown in one of the world’s oldest appellations, Portugal’s Douro Valley, and port is stored and aged in Vila Nova de Gaia, a suburb of Porto. Explore the other 98 percent of port and you’ll find all sorts of interesting wines: tawny ports, aged from 10 to 40 years in oak barrels; colheitas, which are barrel-aged ports taken from a single vintage; late-bottle vintages that have been left in the barrel for four to six extra years. Most of these are ready to drink once you buy them, and you can drink them over several weeks, unlike with vintage ports, which need to be consumed within a day or two of opening.

In a February article in Decanter magazine on declining port sales, Francisco de Sousa Ferreira, director of Portuguese wine giant Sogrape, admitted: “We need to reinvent ourselves.”

In theory, this likely means an attempt to convince Americans that port is not just for after-dinner anymore. Unfortunately, in practice so far, it has meant the development of a number of lower-quality, lower-priced ports that seem to have been designed in a quixotic attempt to recruit newer, younger, or, ahem, “nontraditional” drinkers (read: American women who drink Cosmos and white zinfandel). I’ve certainly seen dozens of newspaper and magazine articles explaining “You really don’t need to be an elderly Brit to enjoy port” and that port should be hipper.

Croft recently released Croft Pink (at $17, it’s “the first pink port ever!”) and encourages drinkers to enjoy it chilled or on ice. Warre’s also recently rolled out its “affordable” Otima 10-year Tawny (around $26) with a marketing pitch encouraging consumers to chill it and serve it as an aperitif. “Can’t finish a bottle in one night? Otima is perfect for the everyday or occasional drinker, as it preserves its quality for up to three months after opening when stored in the refrigerator.” One wonders whether reinvention may have to involve some more sophisticated type of middle ground.

I actually visited Rupert Symington at the Graham port lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia in June 2007  (“the day after the Queen’s birthday,” I was told). After we toured the family’s cellars, checking out dusty, rare bottles from the early 20th century, Rupert half-heartedly touted the company’s Six Grapes label, which is now marketed to the cocktail crowd for about $15. Rupert spoke about how “the States is one of the few places you could do grassroots marketing.” Port knowledge in the U.S., however, remains painfully low. Even a lot of high-end restaurants with expensive vintage ports on their dessert menus don’t understand that they’re meant to be consumed within an evening or two of opening the bottle. “I’d walk into a restaurant,” Symington said, “and they’d have 10 bottles of vintage port, all open, none of it decanted, sitting under the lights.”

   Symington’s ports.

It was all a bit depressing to listen to a true connoisseur like Rupert describe running around like a huckster from restaurant to bar in American cities “with a big bag of booze,” demonstrating pairings of cheese and chocolate with port — all part of that grassroots marketing effort. “Actually,” he said, with a sigh, “I do feel port is best enjoyed by itself.”

Fortunately, a grand lunch was served in a lush dining room that overlooked the Douro River and the city of Porto. I was invited to join a party thrown in honor of the sales staff of the Portuguese duty-free airport shops, who’d been selling a lot of port to tourists. There was no $15 Six Grapes on the menu. Rupert broke out a Warre’s 1937 Colheita. Yes, it was extraordinary. And to think that the wine I was sipping went into a barrel the same year as the Hindenburg burst into flames, the year Guernica was bombed in the Spanish Civil War , the year the world’s last Bali tiger was shot by a hunter in Indonesia. It was like a time machine, and I will never forget it.

The Warre’s 1937 Colheita was served unchilled at room temperature, by the way.

In the private dining room at the Four Seasons, after the presentation and the Q&A, everyone went back to tasting in earnest. I sampled all 11 of the 2007s on offer. Perhaps here I should mention that 2007 was indeed an excellent and shocking year, producing port wines with a unique freshness and acidity as compared to other recent vintages, but with tannins that provide great structure but are still silky smooth. Several — such as the complex, floral-eucalyptus Graham, the fresh-and-clean Quinto do Noval, the jammy-and-anise Smith Wodehouse, and the rare Taylor Vargellas Vinha Velha (only 200 cases will be available) — were easy drinking right now, so young, which is generally unheard of.

As I tasted, I kept flashing back to something Rupert had told me on my visit during the unseasonably cool summer of 2007 that helped create this vintage: “We’re trying to convince people to serve vintage ports younger.” Even the Wine Spectator critic, Suckling, writes, “I think you can start enjoying them after about six to eight years.” Maybe this vintage could be the first to test this idea?

As the event wound down, I bumped into the tall man with the British accent who’d shouted the question on price at Rupert Symington. He introduced himself as Julian Wiseman, an investment banker and port enthusiast around my age who lived in New York and hosted a Web site called The Port Forum. “So what did you think?” I asked him.

“Why are we even drinking these today?” Wiseman said. “They’re not going to be ready for 20 or 30 years?”

When I disagreed and suggested I could see drinking them a little earlier than two decades from now, Wiseman — even though he was a likeable guy, a good bloke — immediately sensed I was not a kindred spirit. “If you open even the best of these in six years,” he protested, “it will never taste the way, say, a Fonseca ‘66 does.”

I asked him what his ideal port of memory was, the one he judged everything else by. “A Fonseca ’66, of course.”

“When did you first drink that Fonseca ’66?” I asked.

“When I was 19 years old.”

I knew he was not putting me on, and he was not at all a poseur like Borowitz had described. I did not ask with whom he’d imbibed that Fonseca 1966, and now I wonder. Was it with an admired mentor who’d set him on the path to riches, or with the most beautiful woman he’d ever known, or with his crew team after winning a big regatta? Regardless, I did not doubt for a moment that this vintage port — one bottled before he was born, then sipped as a young man, and now remembered half a lifetime later — was absolutely the greatest port he’d ever had and probably would ever have. And also that this meant something very profound to him. At 19, you probably think you’ll be tossing back Fonseca ’66 your whole life. Only later do you come to realize this is probably not the case.

A few days after the tasting, I logged onto The Port Forum to see how the discussion over the 2007 vintage proceeded. Vigorously, I found. Among the biggest questions were, of course, should we buy these? AHB, from Berkshire, England wrote: “Do I want any of this vintage?…Yes, as I will be in my mid-sixties when these are mature and given my genealogy would expect to still be around in the 2030s.”

Several forum members expressed excitement that the 2007s might actually be enjoyed young, without waiting for decades, but several port enthusiasts took a dim view of this, as Wiseman had. Uncle Tom, from “Near Cambridge,” England suggested that “consumers are not all sold on the idea of drinking VP young, and that anyone reviewing a new vintage should be more focused on the likely performance of the wines when matured, than on their ability to afford immediate gratification.”

This response made me stop and think about patience, about denying immediate gratification, about aging gracefully. About wagering money and years in the hope of, perhaps once again, tasting something sublime.

Maybe this is the key to understanding vintage ports, maybe the lesson they have to teach. If so, there’s no wonder why they’re such a hard sell to us here in America. • 5 May 2009

 

Jason Wilson is the founding editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin).

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