Review: A Trio of Pineau des Charentes – Tiffon, Reviseur, and Chateau de Beaulon

Pineau des Charentes is perhaps the most unique “wine” you’ll ever encounter — in part because there’s actually no wine in it. What’s Pineau? Pineau des Charentes hails from the Cognac region of France (and thereabouts), where winemakers take (typically white) wine grapes, crush them into must, then — before it ferments (and turns into wine) — add Cognac to the mix to bring it up to about 20% alcohol. Then it goes into oak barrels. Young Pineau may spend a year or two in barrel; 8 months is the legal minimum. Older ones could be in barrel for 20 years or longer. The longer it spends in barrel, as with Cognac, the darker the finished product. Most Pineau goes into bottle between 17 and 18% abv, similar with Port (to which it is invariably compared).

To complicate things, sometimes red or rose wine grapes are used to make Pineau, though as with white Pineau, it is intended to be consumed chilled.

We’ve reviewed a Pineau just once before, a 20 year old expression, in 2011. Today we have the good fortune to look at a trio of these wines, spanning a number of the above styles. Thoughts follow.

Tiffon Pineau des Charentes – Made with white wine grape must, aged at least one year. Pungent and punchy, this drinks like a young Cognac, pumped up with fresh fruit. Notes of plump table grapes, apricots, and a lingering earthiness that recalls incense, green banana, papaya, and eastern spices. A somewhat unexpected combination of flavors, with sandalwood hanging on to a lengthy finish. B / $20

Reviseur Pineau des Charentes Vieux Pineau – This Pineau is based on white grape must but is aged at least five years before release. Lightly nutty, with ample notes of golden raisins and some sherried character, there’s an austerity here, with some oxidized characters coming to the fore. The finish mixes in brown sugar, some of that spicy incense, and a sandalwood note that gives it a hint of perfume. B+ / $35

Chateau de Beaulon Pineau des Charentes 5 Years Old Rouge – A red wine-based Pineau, aged five years. The red wine grapes give this more character — not to mention a brick red color — that pumps up the body with more of a Port-like character — darker raisin and prune notes, licorice, tobacco, and plenty of baking spice. Very sweet, the finish brings on notes of cola and tea leaf, with lingering hints of cloves. One to savor. A- / $30

Review: Taylor Fladgate 325th Anniversary Tawny Port

The Port house of Taylor Fladgate celebrates 325 years of operation in 2017, so what better time than to put out a unique expression of Port? This is a tawny port with no age information (though on tawnies, an age statement doesn’t mean much anyway), but the winery does offer some information on its production:

To commemorate the milestone, Taylor Fladgate’s blending team has drawn on their extensive cask aged reserves to create a special blend of fine oak-matured Ports selected for their depth and richness of flavor. The limited-edition Taylor Fladgate 325th Anniversary Reserve Tawny, released in a special 1692-style bottle, is a fitting tribute to Taylor Fladgate’s long history and mastery of the art of cask aging and blending.

What’s in the bottle is immediately odd, feeling a lot like a cross between a ruby and a tawny Port. Fruit-forward, it carries the juicy raisin and fresh fig and date notes of a ruby port, with undercurrents of chocolate sauce and coffee bean. As the palate develops it brings forward some of those classically tawny oxidized notes, here showcasing a finish that offers hints of sherry-infused hazelnuts and a smattering of Christmas spices, heavy on the cloves.

B+ / $38 / taylor.pt

Review: NV Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Porto Special River Quintas Edition

Port fanatics may recall that three years ago, Graham’s released a special edition of its Six Grapes flagship bottling, Six Grapes Special Old Vines Edition. Now owner Symington is out with a follow-up, Six Grapes Reserve Porto Special River Quintas Edition, which is sourced from two river estates close to the Douro: Tua and Malvedos. As the company says, “Tradition dictates that the finest properties of the Douro are those that hear the murmur of the river flowing by.”

Only 1000 cases of this release were produced. Let’s see how it stands up to the claim that it is “Vintage Port quality but ready for immediate consumption.”

Unfortunately, I found this expression to be surprisingly, slightly green on the palate, with notes of dark chocolate and prune filtered through vegetal notes of fresh rosemary and sage. The finish lands with a bit of a thud, plenty sweet but gummy around the edges, hinting at orange and grapefruit peel. It’s fair enough for a glass, but it won’t hold a candle to a solid Vintage Port.

B- / $42 / grahams-port.com

Review: Gonzalez Byass Sherries – Leonor Palo Cortado and Gonzalez Byass Nectar

Sherry continues to attempt to muscle onto American wine menus but it’s having more success in cocktails, where it can stand in for spirits to create a lighter, less boozy cocktail. Here’s a look at two very different sherries from major producer Gonzalez Byass, and a cocktail idea on how to use one of them.

Gonzalez Byass Leonor Palo Cortado Palomino 12 Years Old – 100% palomino grapes, which comprise some 95 percent of the Jerez growing area. The color of strong tea. Nutty on the nose, with leather and notes of roasted vegetables. The palate is extremely dry, leathery again, with ample notes of dried savory spices — thyme and some sage — before moving to a very drying, almost bitter finish that echoes notes of old, wet wood, mushroom, and furniture polish. B / $21

Gonzalez Byass Nectar Pedro Ximenez Dulce – 100% Pedro Ximenez grapes. As the name implies, this is a sweet (very sweet) style of sherry. Much darker in color, close to coffee. The palate is fueled with notes of sweet dates, plump raisins, and figs. Some cola notes bubble up on the back end, but the sweetness is quite enduring, almost overwhelming at times. Sip in moderation (and slightly chilled), or mix liberally. B / $15

How about a sherry cocktail?

Palo Negro
5 oz Leonor Palo Cortado sherry
5 oz Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
2 dashes Angostura orange bitters

Serve on the rocks.

What is Fortified Wine and How Is It Made?

“Silver and ermine and red faces full of port wine” – John Betjeman

Fortified wine, that is, wine with a spirit (usually brandy) added to up the alcohol content, is a style that fell out of fashion decades ago. While once enjoyed in the salons of well-off aristocrats throughout Western Europe, these days ports, sherries, and their fellow fortified wines are a much more niche pleasure, a hidden gem for those seeking something more powerful and rich and decadent than they might get otherwise. For a wine aficionado with cellar room to spare, fortified wine’s high alcohol content provides its ability to be aged exceptionally long, with good ports having the potential to be cellared for a century or more. If you want to try something new, follow along and discover the world of four of the most common styles of fortified wine: port, sherry, Madeira, and Marsala.

Port

Port is the most wide-ranging and approachable of these four wine, and for more detail on the intricacies of its production, check out our Portugal wine travel guide. For now though, know that port comes from and is named after the city of Porto in Portugal, where port wine is still stored and shipped out to other countries. The actual growing and fermenting of the grapes is done along the Douro River in the Northeast of the country, which for centuries was then brought downstream to Porto for sale and distribution in rickety boats. What makes port so complex is that it has many different sub-categories of style within the general umbrella of “port.”

The post famous style of port is known as Vintage Port, and it’s the one that a wine drinker can put down for a few decades to invariably improve; because of the spirits added to the wine, a good vintage port usually won’t go bad within one person’s lifetime, and will continue to improve for 30 years or more. Vintage ports are massive, brooding, and sumptuous with the blackest of black fruit flavors, and ageing them will add endless complexity with notes of brown sugar, nutmeg, butterscotch, and other delights. Vintage port benefits greatly from decanting before drinking, to let the true force of the flavors open up and to eliminate sediment.

Ruby ports and Late Bottled Vintage (or “LBV”) ports on the surface look, smell, and taste like vintage ports, but they are simpler, not made for ageing or decanting. If you are curious about port and don’t want to immediately spend a fortune on a bottle of vintage, an LBV port is a good way to try the style. With an LBV you’ll get notes of dark raisins, black plum, and other rich fruits, without the nuance and complexity of a vintage port, but usually also at a quarter of the price or less.

If you pick up a bottle of Tawny Port, you may notice an age statement (such as “10 years”) and think you’re getting a great deal — but tawny port is really a bit of stage magic on the part of port makers. Tawny ports are aged in small wood barrels to make for a more complex, wood-forward character, and then blended with other tawny ports to approximate the typical flavor of a tawny at that age. As such, tawny ports are nutty and loaded with baking spices, chocolate, and some oxidized notes. Like LBVs, they’re designed to be a good value compared to vintage ports, and are a good way to try out a bottle to see if you like what this style of port has to offer.

Sherry

Other than port, the only other fortified wine with much of a presence these days is Sherry, though finding good sherries can be a more arduous task than finding good ports. Sherry comes from the region of Jerez on the Southern coast of Spain near Gibraltar, right where the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean converge. One of the defining characteristics of sherry is the production of a thick film of yeast that forms on the surface of the wine in the barrel, called flor, which speeds up the process of converting sugar into ethanol, as well as protects it from excess oxidation. While there are many, many styles of sherry, three tend to dominate; the amount of flor that is allowed to interact in the wine determines which style of sherry you’re getting.

The driest of sherries is Fino, which is made when flor converts almost all of the sugar found in the wine to alcohol. Fino is very dry and nutty, with a flinty, mineral quality that can be off-putting to those who aren’t used to it. Like an Italian Pinot Grigio, however (another dry wine loaded with a mineral taste), fino sherry goes great with food, especially salty food. Try a glass of fino with nuts or dried seafood, and its dryness will blend perfectly with the salt on your tongue.

Next up is Amontillado, which begins its life as fino, but the layer of flor doesn’t last in the barrel and the wine partly oxidizes. As such, amontillado has residual sugars which give it a sweeter taste, and the contact with air gives it a rich brown color not unlike tawny port. Compared to fino, amontillado is similarly nutty, but the flinty quality is replaced with a bit of meaty richness, like smoked meat or sauteed mushrooms. A good pairing for amontillado would be pork or duck, something with a little gaminess that would blend well with the wine’s smoky qualities. Fans of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories will also recognize amontillado as the object of revenge in his classic short story “The Cask of Amontillado.”

The last style of sherry we’ll discuss today is Oloroso, the biggest, boldest, and often sweetest of the sherries. While amontillado is made when the sherry’s flor breaks down on its own, with oloroso the cellarmaster destroys the layer of yeast intentionally, which allows the wine to oxidize heavily. Oloroso is often made with the grapes Moscatel and Pedro Ximénez, which make the wine much sweeter than fino or amontillado, a closer taste to port for those not used to sherry. Oloroso will also be a style of interest for Scotch drinkers, since many Speyside Scotches, like Macallan, are often aged or finished in oloroso sherry barrels.

Marsala and Madeira

Port and sherry are by far the most common kinds of fortified wine, but it’s worth mentioning two other kinds: Marsala and Madeira. Both are widely known to consumers these days for use in cooking, but both are fortified wines that can be consumed alone just like any other. Marsala comes to us from Sicily in Italy, and is typically consumed as an aperitif. Its aromas and tastes include vanilla and apricot. Like sherry, it can range in taste from dry to sweet, though it doesn’t have special designations for each style like sherry does.

Madeira gets its name from the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal. Taste-wise, it has the nutty and spiced components of a tawny port, like caramel and hazelnut, as well as a bit of the citrus of a sherry, like peach and orange peel. There are several styles of Madeira, but the main ones are Finest, which is a drier wine aged 3 years, and Rainwater, which is sweet and fruity and is great in cocktails or on its own. Numerous styles of aged Madeiras, made with different grapes to impact the amount of sweetness in them, are also available. (Click the above link for some examples.)

As you can see, there’s a lot to say about fortified wine, and this article only scratches the surface. Let us know what you think in the comments, and maybe an article exclusively on port or sherry is in our future!

Tasting the Symington 2015 Port Lineup (And Retrospectives) – Graham’s, Dow’s, Quinta do Vesuvio, and Cockburn’s

For the most part, the hot, dry, and low-yielding 2015 will not be a declared vintage from the major vintage Port houses. Even though the year wasn’t perfect, it hasn’t stopped Symington, which owns Graham’s, Dow’s, Quinta do Vesuvio, and (since 2010) Cockburn’s from releasing 2015 vintage-dated Ports in some fashion.

Recently the Symington family visited San Francisco to show off its 2015 bottlings, each paired alongside an older vintage release from the same estate. This was a really fun and informative tasting — rarely does one get the chance to taste wines like these both horizontally and vertically, with the guys that made them leading you every step of the way.

Thoughts on all eight wines tasted follow.

2015 Graham’s The Stone Terraces Vintage Port – This very limited release wine is farmed from a tiny seven acre plot of actual stone terraces within Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos vineyard. This is the second time it has been produced. A bright and fruity wine, it is a stellar vintage Port even at this young age, with exotic and clear tropical notes of pineapple and some coconut making surprise appearances. While fresh and silky on the tongue today, it should last for years. 35 cases available in the U.S. A / $200

1970 Graham’s Vintage Port – The 1970 release is showing healthy oxidation at this point, but it’s still fresh and lovely to sip on, offering surprisingly lively strawberry, raspberry, and lots of floral notes. Worth seeking out. A / $155

2015 Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira Vintage Port – Another small release of a single vineyard owned by Dow. This one is nuttier and woodier in profile, with ample youth. Big notes of almonds, dense raisins, and candied flowers give way to chocolate notes as the finish builds. A long, slow burner that is solid today but will need some time. A- / $60

1980 Dow’s Vintage Port – Also quite oxidized, and probably past its prime, with green notes hitting the scattered palate. Dark chocolate and spicy, bittersweet amaro notes linger on the finish. B+ / $129

2015 Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port – The smallest vineyard and brand in the Symington family, Quinta do Vesuvio is unique because a vintage port is made every year, regardless of weather conditions, to serve as a benchmark for what that year’s best wines were like. This wine, the only 100% foot-trodden wine in the Symington portfolio, is almost candylike in its sweetness, bursting with ripe blueberries and offering notes of orange peel and chocolate on top of that. Structured with ample tannins, it’s a solid wine, though not the standout here today. B+ / $65

1995 Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port – Meaty and minty, this is a bit “wild” tasting, a somewhat mixed bag of sweet and savory notes. B / $80

2015 Cockburn’s Vintage Port – Very dense fruit, with some orange notes, thick chocolate and caramel sauce character, and some vanilla sprinkled on top. A hefty “cellar” wine, it’s loaded with fruit that will emerge in decades to come. A- / $80

2011 Cockburn’s Vintage Port – Just barely softening, revealing some coconut notes, plus banana, mint, and lots of chocolate, all atop a gorgeous fruit core that is integrating all of these flavors well. One to keep watching — and a bargain if you can find a bottle. A / $65

symington.com

Review: Warre’s Otima Tawny Port 10 Years Old (2017)

warre-otima-10-year-port

I’ve reviewed Warre’s 10 year old Tawny Port twice before, in 2009 and 2012. Now it’s 2017 and time to give this venerable bottling a fresh look.

I’ve commented on the relative simplicity of this bottling in the past, and little has changed here, except perhaps for my palate (and level of experience with these wines). Today, Otima 10 feels awfully thin compared to other tawnies on the market, lightly sweet and bursting with strawberries to the point where it really feels more like a ruby than a tawny port. There’s plenty of simple sugar sweetness, juiced strawberries, and a light backbone of raisins and spice, but the overall impression is one of jelly left to ferment. A good jelly, mind you.

B / $26 (500ml) / warre.com

Recipes: Making Cocktails With Port Wine

Port wine is having a bit of a renaissance with bartenders and mixologists, as Facundo Rum has brought to our attention, sharing the Facundo Bishop recipe with us. It is indeed warming and lovely to relax with and we highly recommend it. The cloves spice up the orange, which hugs the warming rum and sweet port.

Here’s the recipe for the Facundo Bishop, plus four additional cocktails that include Port wine as an ingredient.

(Note: While making these, we used Graham’s Fine Ruby Port. You can use a white port in any of these, but we recommend reserving it for summertime.)

Facundo Bishop
2 parts Facundo Eximo Rum
1 part Ruby Port
1 teaspoon white sugar
3-4 whole cloves
orange wedges

Place port, orange wedges, and cloves in a small pot. Warm and allow to simmer for 2-3 minutes, but do not allow the liquid to boil. Pour contents into a snifter or stemless wine glass. Add Eximo and stir. Add sugar and serve warm.

Red Dog MartiniRed Dog Martini
(Courtesy of Bar None Drinks)
3 oz. vodka
1/2 oz. ruby port
2 tsp. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. grenadine

Pour all ingredients into a shaker with cracked ice. Shake, then strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lime twist.

Port, bourbon, and maple syrup come together in the Second Circle. This one comes to us from Laura Sant who tells us astrologer/bartender Patricia Clark Hippolyte developed the drink especially for Scorpios as part of her “Mixstrology” series. Of the cocktails here, this is our favorite.

Second Circle
2 oz. bourbonSecond Circle
1 oz. ruby port
1 tsp. maple syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
3 Luxardo or maraschino cherries for garnish

Combine bourbon, port, syrup, and bitters in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled champagne coupe; garnish with cherries, preferably pierced by a plastic sword.

New York Sour
(Courtesy of Eater.com)
2 oz. bourbon
3/4 oz. lemon juice
3/4 oz. simple syrup
2 dashes peach bitters
4 bar spoons port (ruby or tawny)

Add bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, and bitters to cocktail shaker with ice and shake. Strain into rocks glass with ice. Float port atop.

Ruby Port Cocktail Inspired by Picholine in NYC
(Courtesy of KitchenFiddler)
3 ounces port (ruby or tawny)
½ a lime
splash of ginger ale
additional lime wedge, for garnish

For each drink, fill a rocks glass with the cracked ice. Add the port, then squeeze the juice from the half a lime into the glass. Add a generous splash of ginger ale and stir, using the handle of a long spoon to mix it up. Garnish with a fresh lime wedge and serve. 

Tasting Report: Madeira Wine 2016

Madeira is one of the most enigmatic wine styles in the world. A fortified wine made from grapes grown on a single island and aged in a hot environment, Madeira has a flavor unlike any other wine you’ll encounter. A small variety of grapes are used, including dry sercial, medium dry verdelho, medium rich boal (or bual), and rich malvasia. Dry blends commonly known as “Rainwater” are also frequently produced.

Recently three U.S. importers visited San Francisco along with their Madeiran producers, to show off their current lineup and taste through their wares. Thoughts follow.

Tasting Report: Madeira Wines

NV Rare Wine Co Vinhos Barbeito Historic Series Baltimore Rainwater Madeira / A- / a standout of this style, lots of citrus notes, dry and fresh
NV Rare Wine Co Vinhos Barbeito Historic Series Charleston Sercial Madeira / B+ / chewy with ample dried fruit
NV Rare Wine Co Vinhos Barbeito Historic Series Savannah Verdelho Madeira / B+ / bolder, slightly tart
NV Rare Wine Co Vinhos Barbeito Historic Series Boston Bual Madeira / A- / orange peel and maple notes dominate
NV Rare Wine Co Vinhos Barbeito Historic Series New York Malmsey Madeira / A- / light coffee notes, lots of maple too
NV Rare Wine Co Vinhos Barbeito Historic Series Malvasia Madeira 20 Years Old / B+ / much like a tawny Port, dark cherry, heavier wood, and a quite tart finish
NV Justino’s Broadbent Rainwater Madeira / B / more herbal than most Rainwaters, lemon peel notes
NV Justino’s Broadbent Full Rich Madeira / A- / lively with fig and dried plum notes
NV Justino’s Broadbent Reserve Madeira 5 Years Old / B+ / tougher, some leather and coffee notes
NV Justino’s Broadbent Sercial Madeira 10 Years Old / B+ / slightly unbalanced, too heavy on citrus
NV Justino’s Broadbent Verdelho Madeira 10 Years Old / B / nutty, with a too-sour edge
NV Justino’s Broadbent Boal Madeira 10 Years Old / A- / pretty, chocolate and raisin notes linger
NV Justino’s Broadbent Malmsey Madeira 10 Years Old / A- / heavier nutty notes, some raisin character
1997 Justino’s Broadbent Colheita Verdelho Madeira / B+ / a powerhouse, crisp and tart, lots of citrus peel
1996 Justino’s Broadbent Colheita Madeira / A- / unknown grape variety – nice balance, caramel, cocoa, maple notes dominate; light wood finish
NV Henriques & Henriques Rainwater Madeira / B+ / 3 years old; fresh with some herbs and stronger melon notes
1998 Henriques & Henriques Medium Rich Single Harvest Madeira / B+ / ample coffee, raisin character
2001 Henriques & Henriques Sercial Single Harvest Madeira / B / very tart, some edginess, sour apple character
NV Henriques & Henriques Verdelho Madeira 15 Years Old / A- / fresher fruit notes, strawberry character, dried figs on the finish
2000 Henriques & Henriques Boal Madeira / A- / nutty with some leather and baking spice, a touch of mushroom
NV Henriques & Henriques Malvasia Madeira 20 Years Old / A / heavy fig and tea leaf, coffee bean and light caramel; exceptional balance

Review: Graham’s Tawny Port 10 Years Old (2016)

grahams-10-year-tawny-large

Graham’s 10 year old tawny has been repackaged and relabeled in a squatter, fatter bottle since we last saw it in 2012, but little seems to have changed with this engaging, entry-level tawny. (Though prices are coming down a bit.) Prominent notes include the expected raisin notes, backed up by spicy gingerbread, cloves, and tea leaf notes. The finish is leathery and cherry-driven… all of which makes for a lot of consistency in this venerable brand, despite the altogether new look.

A- / $25 / grahams-port.com

Review: Blandy’s Madeira Collection, 10 Years Old

blandys-10-years-old-bual-700x700

Not too long ago, we rounded up the world of Madeira as Blandy’s sees it. I won’t go into the full Madeira backstory; click the link if you want the deep dive into what Madeira is and where it comes from.

In that review we looked at five year old Madeiras. Now we kick it up another half-decade and look at the same wines at 10 years old, double the age.

I won’t regurgitate the story of Madeira again (click the above link for that tale) and will instead delve into these fortified wines, one by one, going stylistically from driest to sweetest, each made from a different grape: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey.

Thoughts follow.

NV Blandy’s Madeira Sercial Dry 10 Years Old – A dark gold in color. Nutty and lightly fruity on the nose. Dry, but with enough life to keep things lively and sippable. Light tropical notes emerge on the finish, plus some lychee. This is quite pleasant on its own — or I might try it with tonic on the rocks as an aperitif. A-

NV Blandy’s Madeira Verdelho Medium Dry 10 Years Old – Classic amber-hued sherry color. More roasted nuts, with some citrus influence. Quite almond- and hazelnut-heavy on the palate, with slight coffee overtones, but still showing enough sweetness in the form of orange and lemon to add some balance. B+

NV Blandy’s Madeira Bual Medium Rich 10 Years Old – A dark tea-stained brown in color. This Madeira offers a distinct sherry-like sharpness, with notes of bitter orange peel, raspberry, with those classic nutty notes coming on strong on the finish — here showing themselves more in the form of candied walnuts. Rounded and lush, but fully approachable. A-

NV Blandy’s Madeira Malmsey Rich 10 Years Old – Dark, almost coffee brown. Very nutty, on the palate it has the classic character that I think of when I think of “Madeira,” loaded with dried fruit and Christmas spice. The finish is moderately sour, with a heavy raisin character that lingers on the palate for quite some time. B+

each $24 / blandys.com

Exploring Port Wine: Touring Porto and the Douro Valley

073

Port is unlike any other wine you’ve tasted, and as such it’s only fitting that the place the make it — Porto and the adjacent Douro Valley — is unlike any wine region you’ve visited, either.

For those unfamiliar with Port wine, a brief primer is in order. All Port is made here in northern Portugal, and though over 100 varieties of grapes are certified for use in Port production, only five of these are common: tinta barroca, tinta cão, tempranillo, touriga francesa, and touriga nacional. Few Port makers keep tabs on what grapes go into any given bottle of Port. Most Douro vineyards harvest and vinify field blends.

099Enter the Douro

The grapes for Port are exclusively grown in the Douro — an unending series of breathtaking, beautifully-stepped mountainside vineyards that wind along the path of the Douro River. The factory farm era has yet to reach the Douro, and it probably never will. Nearly 40,000 farmers work this land, some with parcels as small as an acre or less. Anyone making Port must work with a patchwork of dozens or hundreds of growers in order to obtain fruit, after which the grapes move from the vineyards to various wineries in the region, which are here called quintas. This is where the wine is actually made.

Our friends at Taylor Fladgate graciously spent a day driving us around the Douro, where we visited the company’s three properties at the namesake Taylor Fladgate, Croft, and Fonseca. Each quinta has its own DNA and sense of style, from the crowd-pleasing scene at Croft to the brutally hot and quaint Fonseca. You can taste the stylistic differences in the wines, too, but more on that in a bit.

113Port Styles 101

The process of making Port is wildly different than that of table wine. While the juice for dry table wine can ferment for a month, Port grapes ferment for only two or three days, after which time the fermentation, still low in alcohol and high in sugar, is arrested by the introduction of fresh grape brandy (about 77% alcohol) or another very high-alcohol spirit, roughly 4 parts wine to 1 part spirit. The alcohol kills the yeast and preserves the sugar remaining in the wine, bringing the abv down to about 20%. This is all done with surprisingly old-school production, and in the Port world, tradition reigns supreme to this day: Most quintas actually still foot-tread their grapes instead of relying on machinery to crush grapes into juice (those are empty lagares above; here’s a video of the crushing in practice). Treading is done in silence and takes hours and hours to complete.

From here, the winemaking process diverges quickly depending on what type of Port you’re making. Once a relatively simple drink, Port innovators (led by Taylor Fladgate) have expanded the varieties and styles of Port on the market considerably. Ruby Port is the most basic: Fresh wine is put into enormous vats (often made of chestnut) that hold thousands of gallons of juice. It slumbers here for about two years until bottling, bright red and alive with sugar.

Tawny Port is the other primary variety. Tawnies are stored in smaller casks called pipes, each about 550 to 620 liters in size. Tawnies take on some wood influence but, critically, oxidize much more quickly in the smaller barrels. These are then blended and bottled as 10, 20, 30, or 40 year old wines — though this, paradoxically, does not refer to the actual age of the wine but of the general “style” of what’s inside. Drink a 30 year old Tawny and you are assured of getting “30 year old quality” — not necessarily any wine that is really 30 years old.

059

White Port is a relatively recent addition to the lineup; it’s made with white grapes (namely malvasia) instead of red and can work wonderfully as a cocktail mixer. The most recent addition to the industry is Rose Port, which is a fresh, “pink” style that has a lot in common with rose table wine.

Vintage Port is simply Ruby Port that comes from a single vintage. It’s only made in the best years, 2 or 3 times per decade. Vintage Ports command the highest prices of all Port wines, and they can be aged in bottle for many, many decades. Late Bottled Vintage Port is a bit confusing, because it has a vintage date on it, but it is not Vintage Port. LBV Ports come from quintas other than those used for Vintage Port, and are aged in cask much longer than the typical Ruby (5 to 6 years is common), which often gives it a deeper and more raisiny, almost Zinfandel-like character. It’s not as ageworthy as Vintage Port (LBV can usually be consumed right away), but can be considerably less expensive than Vintage Port.

Single Quinta Vintage Port also adds to the confusion because it is Vintage Port released from single wineries, as the name suggests, usually in years that a Vintage Port is not declared. They age in bottle just like Vintage Ports but can be purchased for much less. Lastly there are Colheita Ports, which are vintage-dated Tawny Ports. While regular Tawnies are blends of a wide range of vintages, Colheitas come from a single one.

065From the Douro to Porto

All of this aging takes place not in the Douro Valley quintas but rather in the city of Porto — or rather, in the Villa Nova de Gaia, which is the part of Porto that is on the east side of the Douro River. Nothing involving Port wine happens on the western Porto side (which features the old city center and most of the town’s industry). In Gaia, it is seemingly nothing but Port houses, which are called lodges in the local parlance. Why “lodge?” Simply because it sounds better than “warehouse,” of which there are dozens in Gaia, each of which is often emblazoned with a huge sign bearing the name of the owner in monstrous letters, making for a truly unique skyline. Wine is aged here instead of in the Douro exclusively because of the heat. In Porto it can easily be 20 degrees cooler than in the Douro — though modern air conditioning is starting to change this for a few producers.

Visitors to Porto can walk along the waterfront and visit any number of these Port producers, most of which have tasting rooms and visitors’ centers, just like you’d see in any highly touristed wine region. Some, like Taylor Fladgate, are incredibly modern, including such up-to-the-minute touches as a “selfie station” next to a giant barrel of Ruby Port. Some, like Niepoort, are exactly the opposite. Niepoort isn’t open to the public and doesn’t even have a sign on the door — in fact, the building doesn’t even have a proper floor. At Niepoort’s lodge, the ground is simply made of packed earth that can be hosed down to cool things off on hot days. Spiders are encouraged to roost in the windows; their webs help block out the sunlight. (Many thanks to Niepoort for giving us access and a private tour of the facility.)

045Most visitors to this area never leave Porto, and that’s fine. You can taste dozens of Port wines here and get the full scoop on understanding how Port is made if you never leave Gaia, but visiting the Douro itself is a day trip that’s really worth it — not just for the wine but for the unforgettable scenery, too. (Taylor Fladgate operates luxury hotels in both Porto (The Yeatman) and the Douro (The Vintage House), so you can easily spend a day in both locations if you’re game.)

Before we move on to some Port wine reviews, here’s one pro tip for drinking Port. Everywhere in Portugal, Port — no matter what the variety — is served at least slightly chilled. (White Port and Rose Port are typically served well-chilled.) Having Ruby and Tawny Ports about 10 degrees colder really makes a difference. In America, we tend to see these wines poured at room temperature, which puts a heavy focus on the brandy rather than the fruit, making Port taste “hot” with alcohol. By chilling things down, you’ll often find that the wine showcases a whole new dimension of character.

Many thanks to Taylor Fladgate for taking the time to give Team Drinkhacker a tour of the Douro and the Taylor Fladgate lodge in Porto. Taylor’s tasting center in Gaia is absolutely not to be missed if you visit.

Port Wine Reviews, 2016

And now, a catalog of the many Port wines we encountered during our time in the Porto and the Douro.

Niepoort Ruby Port – Fresh, mint notes, strong cherry and raspberry, vanilla and licorice. A big crowd-pleaser. A-

Niepoort Tawny Port – A sweeter style of tawny than usual. Dark tea, brown sugar, cloves, and ginger notes. A bit tarry on the finish. B+

Niepoort 10 Years Old Tawny Port – Intriguing strawberry notes, vanilla frosting; quite sweet for a tawny. B

2012 Niepoort Late Bottled Vintage Port – Chocolatey and dense, almost whiskey-like at times, showing dark cherries, tea leaf, fresh herbs, and some elderflower notes. A-

2005 Niepoort Tawny Colheita – Strawberry and mint start things off on a wine that showcases lots of depth. The finish evokes figs and dates. Very rich and lovely. A

2005 Niepoort Vintage Port – Very dense, with intense chocolate, dark raisin and prune character, and some honey on the finish. Still needs years of time to mature. A-

Caves Vasconcellos 10 Years Old White Port – Unusual to see a white port with an age attached; this one offers a sherry nose, orange peels, flowers, and golden raisins. A-

Caves Vasconcellos 10 Years Old Tawny Port – A little thin and rather plain. Leathery with subtle coffee notes and touches of figs. B

Caves Vasconcellos 20 Years Old Tawny Port – Quite smoky, with strong wood influence. I’m reminded a lot of Amontillado sherry. B-

Taylor Fladgate Chip Dry White Port – Extra dry style, spends three years in wood. Fragrant and lightly nutty. Not sold in the U.S., it was the first White Port ever marketed. B+

2011 Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage – Very dark and brooding, with blackcurrants, leather, and tobacco notes. The finish offers chocolate galore. A-

Taylor Fladgate 10 Years Old Tawny Port – Red berries and some chocolate notes, lightly oxidized with gentle balsamic character. Pretty but mild. B

Taylor Fladgate 20 Years Old Tawny Port – Heavily oxidized on the nose, with notes of orange peel, nuts, and a touch of coffee. B+

0941966 Taylor Fladgate Very Old Single Harvest Port – This is essentially a Colheita style port, a Tawny that is 50 years old. A knockout, with mint, intense nuttiness, coffee, and quiet raisin and baking spice character. Despite the age, it has a sunny finish. Opulent yet easily drinkable. Best Port I tried on the entire trip. A+

Croft Pink – The original rose Port, made from 100% red grapes that spend 6 hours on the skins; it never sees wood. Notes of strawberries and some tea leaf lead to a simple and fruity wine. We reviewed this years ago; it was more recently reformulated to reduce the total sugar level.) B+

Croft 10 Years Old Tawny Port – A nose of mocha and baking spice lead to a significantly more fruit-focused body, with notes of fruit tea and a jammy finish. B+

Fonseca Siroco White Port – Quite dry and herbal, with some astringency and floral notes. B-

Fonseca Terra Prima – Sold as Terra Bella in the U.S. Fonseca’s organic Ruby Port is fresh with fruit, mint, and offers a long, sweet finish. Quite luscious. B+

Fonseca 20 Years Old Tawny Port – Butterscotch heavy, with lots of acidity. Some herbs meld well with marzipan notes and a burnt sugar finish. A-

2012 Fonseca Guimaraens Vintage Port – Fonseca releases vintage-dated Port in non-vintage declared years under the Guimaraens sub-label. A big, dark chocolate nose leads to an explosive body, heavy with fruit and tannins. Long finish. A-

Ramos Pinto White Port Reserva – Fresh, lightly sweet, with some lemon notes. A little vegetal on the finish. B

Ramos Pinto 10 Years Old Tawny Port – Classic tawny, with lots of nuts, leather, and some Madeirized fruit. Coffee and tea on the finish. B+

2005 Ramos Pinto Vintage Port – Dense with dark chocolate and heavy cassis. Long finish with considerable life left in it. B+

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