Tasting Report: 2011 Vintage Port (and Beyond)

One of the can’t-miss wine experiences of any year is the roadshow during which the new Vintage Ports are poured. Of course, these don’t happen every year. The last major one was the 2009 vintage, released two years ago.

Overall, 2011 is a standout, the first great Vintage Port year since 2003 — which, on the whole, is showing really well today. In fact, Taylor Fladgate’s standard 2011 bottling was one of the best wines I encountered in the entire event. We’ll probably see 2007 continue to develop, but for now it remains a bit closed off.

Thoughts on all wines tasted follow, in reverse chronological/vintage order.

Tasting Report: The 2011 Vintage Port Declaration

2011 Croft Vintage Port / A- / fruit forward, some incense, very fruity
2011 Fonseca Vintage Port / B+ / bigger, more body, some licorice and dark chocolate
2011 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port / B+ / slightly fishy nose, fruit overwhelmed by an earthy body, some bottle variation evident
2011 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port Nacional / A- / better balance here, strong tannin, big backbone, lots of life
2011 Quinta da Romaneira Vintage Port / B+ / some floral notes on the nose, long body, slightly green but fresh berry notes
2011 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port / A / ample tannin, pretty violets, candied ginger, cassis; lots of depth
2011 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port Vargellas Vinha Velha / B- / really pumped up violets/floral notes, but at the expense of body and balance; tasted twice
2009 Croft Vintage Port / B+ / straightforward, if a bit flabby
2009 Fonseca Vintage Port / B+ / juicy, lots of berries, very sweet
2009 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port / B+ / minty, light body, some floral notes
2008 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port / B+ / unusual mint notes, long and lush
2008 Quinta da Romaneira Vintage Port / B / somewhat pruny, blueberry popsicles
2007 Croft Vintage Port / B+ / tea notes, somewhat unbalanced finish
2007 Fonseca Vintage Port / B+ / consistent from year to year; bright jam, currants, fresh fruit
2007 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port / B / not showing a lot of nuance yet
2007 Quinta da Romaneira Vintage Port / B+ / lean, some incense notes licorice on the back end
2007 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port / B+ / curious cola notes, more mint and flowers
2004 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port / A- / classic light menthol, licorice, chocolate on the finish
2004 Quinta da Romaneira Vintage Port / B+ / first vintage; some tannin here, brambles
2004 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port Vargellas Vinha Velha / A- / nice mint notes, quite mild, complex finish offers cola, licorice, cocoa nibs
2003 Croft Vintage Port / A / a favorite of the tasting; intense, hugely floral, powerful and deep; tea and pepper notes deep in the recesses
2003 Fonseca Vintage Port / A- / silky and smoothing out, lush, balanced
2003 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port / B+ / very fruity, lively, some sweatiness on the nose
2003 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port Nacional / B+ / pretty fruit, jasmine, light sandalwood; finish is still with tannin and some astringency
2003 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port / B+ / super light body, already fading? Some blackberry, tea leaf, cola

Review: 2007 Dow’s Port Late Bottled Vintage

dow's 2007 late bottled vintage portThere is considerable confusion over what Late Bottled Vintage Port is. Vintage-dated, it sounds like it should be very expensive, yet it’s cheaper than many blends. Late Bottled Vintage (or LBV) Port  is Port that was originally intended as Vintage Port, but which didn’t make it into a bottle, for whatever reason (typically the barrels are just not good enough for Vintage Port).

LBV Port, in a nutshell, sits around in barrels for many extra months or even years, before it’s eventually bottled and sold. LBV Port can also be made from years that weren’t declared as Vintage years, though that wasn’t the case for 2007. Stylistically, LBV can land just about anywhere on the map.

While it spends far longer exposed to wood than Vintage Port, Dow’s 2007 LBV is a lighter style of the wine — considerably less burly than most Vintage Ports. The nose offers raisins as expected, but there are also some fun tea notes here, along with some wood barrel influence. The body heads tentatively into dried cherry territory, but the texture is on the thin side, with not much more heft to it than your typical glass of Zinfandel. The preserved fruit flavors just need a bit more backbone to prop them up.

B / $22 / dows-port.com

Tasting Report: Aromatic and Dessert Wines from Quady WInery

With the holidays nigh upon us, celebrations will be in full force. Don’t forget the sticky stuff for dessert. Quady, which has been making its wines in Madera, California since 1975, offers a huge slate of dessert, fortified, and aromatic wines. We tasted a panel of six of its most popular offerings. Thoughts follow. (All prices are for 750ml bottles, except Deviation.)

Quady Vya Vermouth Aperitif Sweet – Made from Orange Muscat, Colombard, and Valdepenas grapes, and spiced with cinnamon, gentian, galangal, and nutmeg. Tawny, moderately brown color. Deeply herbal, like mulled wine for Christmas. Pleasant, with notes of brewed tea to counter the Christmas spices. 16% abv. B+ / $20 Continue reading

Review: Graham’s Tawny Port 10 Years Old

This 10 year old tawny port is pretty, offering more than just madeirized raisin character, but also touches of orange, grapefruit, and a bit of black tea character. Bing cherries come along on the very long finish. It’s still young and offers a bit of woody astringency on the finish too, but overall this is an effective and easy-drinking young tawny.

A- / $34 / grahams-port.com

Review: Cockburn’s Special Reserve Port

Cockburn’s is a Port house — like many this year, it seems — attempting to make a resurgence in the mind of the common drinker, and even I have to admit the “Pronounce Responsibly” ad campaign is a clever one. (The ck is silent. It’s pronounced like “Coburn’s.”)

Cockburn’s Special Reserve is the bottling you’re most likely to find, a blend of a little bit o’ everything much like Graham’s Six Grapes and Sandeman Founders Reserve, aged four to five years and offered to you for less than 20 bucks.

Cockburn’s Special Reserve is an intensely fruity Port, more strawberry and fresh plum than the typical raisin notes of the classic Port style. The nose reminds me of a stout Zinfandel, and the body hints at that jammy, racy grape, too.

Ultimately I find Cockburn’s Special Reserve a bit sweet for my taste, with a concentrated finish that turns a touch sour as it lingers.

B / $18 / cockburns.com

cockburn's special reserve port

Review: Warre’s Otima 10 Ten Year Old Tawny Port

Tawny Port is the fastest growing Port category in the U.S., because it’s an easy shortcut: Leave Port in wood barrels for a decade or so and it oxidizes in ways that ruby and vintage Port simply can’t. The result is a madeirized wine that adds woody and sour oxidized character to the traditional raisin notes in the wine.

Warre’s Otima 10 is a ten-year tawny, meaning it still has plenty of freshness in the wine itself to stand up to that lengthy oaking session. As tawnys go, it’s quite fruity, full of plums and raisins, but backed with plenty of that “old tasting” oxidation. Not much complexity to report, but perhaps this is a wine that doesn’t require it. For late-night sipping after a big meal, Otima 10 does the trick nicely and doesn’t make you answer a whole lot of questions.

A- / $28 / warre.com

warre's 10 year tawny otima

Tasting Fladgate Ports with CEO Adrian Bridge

With 320 years of history and 11 generations under its belt, the Fladgate Partnership is a family business like few you’re likely to deal with. As CEO of the company that makes Croft, Fonseca, and Taylor Fladgate Ports, Adrian Bridge oversees one of the most renowned wine brands in the world.

Bridge recently hosted myself and a few other wine writers to lunch at San Francisco’s Waterbar, where we spoke at length about the intricacies of Port production and the global Port market, while tasting through a handful of the several dozen bottlings Fladgate manages. (Expert tip: Vintage Port is at its best when consumed young… or after 20-plus years in the bottle. “Teenage” Vintage Port is often difficult.)

Some thoughts on those wines follow.

NV Croft Pink Port – Rose Port is a brand new category, developed personally by Bridge in 2005 and now recognized as a legitimate Port style by the group that oversees the wine. Made by allong White Port to sit on the skins for just 12 hours, what’s left is a moderately pink wine with lots of fresh, lush, strawberry flavors and bracing sweetness. Way too easy to sip; Bridge says this is also an excellent cocktail mixer and even works wonders in a slushy machine. A- / $20

NV Fonseca Bin 27 Reserve Port – An old guard reserve port, it’s a bit edgy compared to some of the other similar competitors on the market, offering dark chocolate, currant, and a slug of wood character. B / $20

NV Taylor Fladgate Aged Tawny Port 20 Years Old – Lots of richness here, with that telltale oxidized character common to tawny. Stewed prunes and a big, Madeirized finish. Bridge spoke at length about the difficulties of making Tawny Ports – the company loses 1000 bottles a day due to evaporation – but how it’s often the best choice in restaurants who are afraid to crack open Vintage Port for fear it will go bad. Tawny is the fastest growing category in the U.S., incidentally. B+ / $50

2009 Croft Vintage Port – Finally we turned to my favorite category, Vintage Port, and Bridge let us compare the house’s three brands side by side. Craft’s house style is “focused fruit,” and this is easily the most young-tasting, tart, and simple port in the stable. Easily drinkable, but clearly the sweetest of the bunch. A- / $80

2009 Fonseca Vintage Port – Considered a “fleshier, more voluptuous” style, this Port offers more plum character atop a big, chewy body. Great balance, this is drinking well today and was my favorite wine of the tasting. A / $90

2009 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port – “Elegance and poise” are the words for Taylor, and the earth and mineral notes in this Port created some challenges for drinking this wine port. If any wine is going to age, it’s this one, which is already showing a bit closed and tight. This opened up with some time in the glass, but I’d try it again in 5 years or so. B+ / $100

2009 Taylor Fladgate Vargellas Vinha Velha Vintage Port – Fladgate’s very limited release of single-vineyard Taylor, this is a significant departure, offering zippy tartness, some flowery notes, and lots of chocolate. The balance is already there, making this a worthy tipple… if you can afford it. A- / $250

Intriguingly, the 2009 Vintage scores compare very similarly with those from the last time I tried these wines (last summer) – but with another year of maturity they’re showing more of their strengths, particularly the Vargellas.

  • taylor fladgate's adrian bridge (1)
  • taylor fladgate's adrian bridge (2)

Review: Sandeman Ruby Porto and Founders Reserve Port

You don’t have to spend a fortune to get good quality Port. These two Ruby Ports from Sandeman show that you can get solid dessert wines for under 20 bucks. Not familiar with Ruby Port? Ruby is (of course) the cheapest and least complex Port, a blend of wines that sit in neutral (not wood) tanks for, well, as long as it takes.

NV Sandeman Ruby Porto – Light in body and heavy on the fruit jam character. With a lush fruit flavor profile and at 19.5% alcohol, today it could almost be mistaken for one of your more ostentatious Zinfandels. The heavy raisin, cocoa, and light tobacco character on the finish are of course a giveaway that you’re drinking Ruby. Perfectly serviceable as a dessert tipple. B / $14

NV Sandeman Founders Reserve Porto -This raises the game with a touch more complexity, with more woody notes, leather, tar, and dark cherries to give a bit of balance to the jammy fruit character. A blend of ports aged for five years before release, Founders Reserve doesn’t represent a significant price hike, but it’s distinctly more worthwhile. 20% alcohol. B+ / $18


Review: 2008 Chateau de Cosse Sauternes

This Sauternes comes from a holding of Chateau Rieussec, which is part of the Domaines Barons de Rothschild empire. This tiny property makes less than 5,000 cases of dessert wine each year, with prices kept low because it is aged only 16 to 18 months in used oak barrels. Grape varietals are 80 to 90% Semillon, 10 to 20% Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc.

Today this wine is showing its youth, with lots of honey sweetness, crisp apple, and a lasting, orange blossom, sugary finish. Lots to like, but it’s short on balance, a compilation reel of fruity dessert highlights instead of a nuanced blend. What’s lacking of course is the austerity that great Sauternes has — floral notes, old wood, and golden richness are largely absent here.

B / $25 (375ml bottle) / lafite.com

Updated Port Punch Recipes from Sandeman

Sandeman sent us these delectible-sounding concoctions, all updates of old-school punch recipes involving Port. Yum!

wedding punch cocktailWedding Punch by Jonathan Pogash, The Cocktail Guru

Mixology Version – served warm (serves 8-10)

12 ½ parts Sandeman Founder’s Reserve Porto
8 parts spiced pineapple syrup*
4 parts fresh lemon juice
8 parts brandy or cognac
8 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
16 parts boiling water

Directions: Combine all ingredients (except for boiling water) in a separate container.  When ready to serve, add 2 parts of mixture to 4 parts boiling water.  Serve with freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon stick, and a lemon peel.

*To make spiced pineapple syrup: In a large saucepan, combine cubes from a whole cut pineapple, along with ½ cup sugar in the raw, ½ cup water, 1 tsp. whole cloves, 1 tsp.  whole allspice, 2 vanilla beans (sliced in the middle), 2 cinnamon sticks, and allow to heat over medium, stirring often, for about 20 minutes.  Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes. Once pineapple chunks become soft, crush gently inside of saucepan and stir. When finished, remove from heat, strain out solids, chill and serve.

The at-home version substitutes pineapple juice and maple syrup for the spiced pineapple syrup, and skips the bitters, but like Pogash’s original recipe, it’s truly delicious.

Served warm or cold (serves 8-10)

12 ½ parts Sandeman Founder’s Reserve Porto
8 parts pineapple juice
2 parts maple syrup
4 parts brandy or cognac
4 parts fresh lemon juice

Directions to serve warm: Add the above ingredients to a container and stir or shake to blend. Pour 2 parts of mixture into a hot toddy mug and top off with boiling water. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg and a lemon peel.

Directions to serve cold: Add the above ingredients to a large punch bowl with lots of ice and stir to chill and dilute. Add several lemon wheels to the bowl. Ladle out into punch glasses and top with freshly grated nutmeg and cinnamon stick.


Ruby Sling by Adam Schuman, Fatty Crew

Mixology Version (serves 1)

1 ½ parts Sandman Ruby Port
1 part Batavia Arrack
1 ½ parts pineapple juice
¼ part yuzu juice
2 dashes angostura bitters
2 dashes allspice dram
2 dashes Pernod liqueur
1 ½ parts chilled ginger ale

Directions: Add all ingredients except ginger ale over ice in a highball glass, leaving room for about 1 ½ parts of ginger ale. Top off with ginger ale. Garnish with a skewered chunk of pineapple and a brandied cherry.

The at-home version is made in a punch-bowl style and substitutes lime juice for yuzu juice, and replaces the flavors of the Pernod and Batavia Arrack with spices that may already be in your cupboard for a drink that is just as tasty as the original.

Punch Bowl Version (serves 10-15)

25 parts Sandman Ruby Port
17 parts Jamaican white rum
25 parts pineapple juice
4 parts fresh lime juice
25 parts ginger ale
20 pieces allspice
10 pieces star anise
5 cinnamon sticks

Directions: Simmer 6 parts of port with 20 pieces of allspice, 10 pieces of star anise and 5 sticks of cinnamon. Allow the spiced port to cool and then add it to the rest of the punch. Before serving, add ice and ginger ale to the punch. Lastly, grate or sprinkle some nutmeg over the punch for additional spice.