Review: Sandeman 2011 Vintage Port and 40 Year Old Tawny Port

Sandeman 40 YO TawnyWe’ve covered the Port-makers at Sandeman fairly regularly through the years. Today we get the honor to look at two of its most treasured bottlings: the latest vintage port release (2011), and the 40 year old tawny expression. Thoughts follow.

2011 Sandeman Vintage Port – Classic currant and some coffee notes on the nose. The body is fresh and less brooding than many of its contemporaries, with ripe blackberry and currant notes that lead to a tight finish. I’d give this at least a decade to mature and mellow before sampling again. Rating today: B / $75

Sandeman Tawny Port 40 Years Old – Tea brown in color. Surprisingly familiar, it drinks like a younger tawny, with steady notes of cola, raisins, black tea, and that familiar “old wine” character. Finishes with raspberry notes on the back of the palate. Lots of depth here. Try it with a rich dessert. 20% abv. B+ / $110

Exploring the World of Madeira with Blandy’s

sercial 002Like you, I don’t often think much about Madeira. If I want a dessert wine, I drink Port almost exclusively. When I see Madeira on a menu I invariably ignore it. But maybe I shouldn’t be. And maybe you shouldn’t be either.

Madeira is one of the most venerable wine styles from history which is still being produced. Its origins like in the 1400-1500s, when explorers began visiting the Atlantic island of Madeira as a port of call during trade runs. The fortified wines made here traveled well and lasted basically forever, even once they were opened. (Blandy’s says an open bottle of Madeira will last indefinitely.) Madeira was the It Wine of the 1700s in America, and was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The wines came in all sorts of styles, driven by the grape used to make them. There are dry(ish) Madeiras, and their are sweet Madeiras. Despite being made on one tiny island, these wines comprise a wide range of styles.

Madeira isn’t Sherry, and it isn’t Port, although it has a lot in common with both of them. The best way I can explain it is that Madeira is somewhere between the two of them — not as sweet as Port, but not as funky and off-putting as Sherry (usually) is.

Madeira is unique in the wine world in that the wine, while aging, is kept hot. Very hot — up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit — for a long, long time. This has to do with the traditional way in which Madeira was made, vinified and put into barrels, then shipped on long sea voyages to the tropics and back. They got lots of heat on these trips, and that gave Madeira its signature nose and taste.

Most Madeira you’ll find on sale now is nonvintage, like the 4 bottles from Blandy’s tasted below. This is the easy-to-find, very affordable stuff. But vintage Madeira also exists, and if you’re looking for a really old bottle of something as a gift, Madeira is invariably your best bet (both on price and the odds that it will still be drinkable). The stuff really does last forever and it gets better and better. In fact, the best Madeira I’ve ever had was a Bual-varietal expression made in 1922.

Blandy’s recently sent a sampling of its simplest Madeiras, all five years old, each made from a different grape: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey. These are all basic, simple Madeiras, but they do showcase how variable this wine can be, from its dryest version to its sweetest. I gravitated to the sweetest (aka “richest”) versions personally, but see the charms in all of the varieties.

Thoughts follow.

NV Blandy’s Madeira Sercial Dry 5 Years Old – A pale, light amber/orange color. Fresh, Madeirized-sherry nose, with notes of orange, apricot, and wood oil. The body is mostly dry, offering an initial slug of woody fruit (or fruited wood), with a moderate finish that trails off, leaving behind a somewhat rubbery, oily conclusion tinged with blood oranges. Not at all unpleasant and dry enough to drink with dinner (oysters, maybe?). B

NV Blandy’s Madeira Verdelho Medium Dry 5 Years Old – Considerably darker, a ruddy honey/bronze color. Milder nose. More orange and toffee, and hints of chocolate. On the tongue, clear raisin notes offer a slight sweetness that may have some thinking this is a young tawny Port, but there’s less oxidation in this, along with a sharper finish and that classicly rubberized character in play. B+

NV Blandy’s Bual Verdelho Medium Rich 5 Years Old – Darker still, the color of brewed tea, tinged with a touch of red. Inviting, Port-like nose rich with raisins and spice. This follows through on the tongue, revealing Christmasy cinnamon, vanilla, and slight gingerbread notes, with just a hint of classic Madeirized character at the very end. Easily mistaken for a mild tawny Port, in a good way. B+

NV Blandy’s Madeira Malmsey Rich 5 Years Old – A shade darker again, almost (but not quite) a cola brown. Quite a different animal. Ample wood and cocoa powder notes on the nose, with hints of cola. The body offers all sorts of good stuff — walnuts and hazelnuts, more cola, chocolate, and a big, raisin-infused finish. A lot like a port, but backwards. Here the sweetness comes along in the end, not up front. Very drinkable and complex, and a natural fit with dessert or the cheese plate. A-

each $24 /

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 /

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 /

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 /

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'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.

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