Wine Rating: 99
The English writer Evelyn Waugh said it best regarding this month’s wine selection: “Port is not for the very young, the vain and the active. It is the comfort of age and the companion of the scholar and the philosopher.”
As my knowledge of wine has grown over the years, I have slowly become fonder of port and have often looked forward to drinking it, with a nice meal and good friends, sitting around the table talking about one thing or another. Cigars would be lit, dessert trays would be brought out and displayed, and then the port would be served. The fortified grapes would be balanced by the combination of the chocolate desserts and tobacco leaves, making the flavors deep and flawless.
Port, like all wines, has varying degrees of quality, varietal and terroir. A true port is only made in Portugal, specifically in the northern provinces of the country, known as the Douro Valley. Port is characteristically a sweet, red wine and is most often served as a dessert wine. Other varietals are dry and semi-dry, and I’ve even seen a few white ports.
Outside of Portugal, other countries which produce quality fortified wines are Australia, South Africa, Canada, India, Argentina, and the United States. With the safeguard of the “European Union Protected Designation of Origin” guidelines, only those which come from Portugal may be labeled as port or Porto. The only problem arises in the United States, where wines labeled “port” may come from anywhere in the world. The US also overlooks this with many other designated regions, Champagne for example.
During the production of port, the wine is stimulated by the addition of a neutral grape spirit, known as aguardente. The addition of this spirit halts the fermentation process, leaving remaining sugar in the wine, which boosts the alcohol content. Aguardente is sometimes referred to as brandy, but it bears little similarity to commercial brandies. The wine is aged, often in barrels which are stored in caves.
The name port comes from the 17th century, originating in the seaport city of Porto, which is at the entrance of the Douro River, where the product was brought to market and exported to other countries. The Douro valley was defined and established as a protected region in 1756, making it the oldest protected wine region in the world.
There are hundreds of grape varietals that can go into making a port wine, but, primarily, only five are used. They are Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional. Of these five, the Touriga Francesa grape is the most widely grown. More often than not, the varietals are blended, as not many port producers use a single varietal for bottling.
Port also comes in many styles, but can be classified into two main categories: wine sealed in glass bottles, which reduces aging, and wine aged in oak barrels. To make it simpler: normal ports (standard rubies, tawnies and white ports) and special categories, which include everything else. Specific styles, such as Tawny, Colheita, Garrafeira, Ruby, Reserve, Rose, White, Late Bottled, Crusted, Vintage and Single Quinta Vintage, all have a small detail of difference and your choice will depend on the characteristics that you are looking for. For this review, I have chosen the most famous type, the Vintage Port, from one of the most famous producers, Fonesca. Why would I bother drinking anything else?
What does a vintage mean for a port? It means something slightly different than it does for a normal wine. Vintage Port means “the year in which a wine is made.” Production of bottles labeled with the year is restricted to only their very best years, and this distinction only occurs a couple of times a decade. That’s saying something.
When a port winery or house feels that its wine is of quality and good enough to be declared a vintage, they must send samples to the IVDP (which is equivalent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture) for approval. It’s the IVDP which decides if the wine should be declared “a vintage” or not. When there are strong years—meaning superb grapes—almost all the port houses will declare their wines for that year.
Over the last 50 years, due to ever increasing wine-making technologies as well as enhanced ways to track and predict the weather, the number of years in which a vintage can be declared have increased dramatically. In the past, there have been years when only a couple of ports have been declared. It’s been over thirty years since there were no ports declared at all.
The port I will be reviewing this month is the Fonseca 1977 Vintage Porto, which, upon its release in 1979, was hailed as a classic. In the last 35-plus years, some critics have said that 1977 has not held up as expected, while others say it is one of the best years of the century. This is the point at which the fine art of being a wine critic becomes a roller-coaster ride of judgments. A couple of years ago, Wine Spectator reviewed it in a vertical non-blind tasting and gave it a score of 100.
As with any wine, I knew this one would be best served with friends. This particular bottle had been in my cellar for quite a while, so I felt it would be appropriate (and really fun) to share it with some of my “Las Vegas friends.” Once a year, there is an all-boys’ trip to Las Vegas, which is spearheaded by my good friend, Tommy Bennett. During this men-only trip, we spend an indulgent 2 ½ days eating at some of the finest restaurants Las Vegas has to offer. We gamble, we smoke some amazing cigars and we drink extremely well! So I decided I would share this wine with this particular group of gents on the occasion of our all having been invited to the home of my friend, Mr. Sterling, for an afternoon of watching the Master’s Golf Tournament. At this event, we once again enjoyed some fantastic cigars, ate some mouth-wateringly delicious food prepared by Chef Jason Virden, and drank some remarkable wines in addition to the 1977 Fonseca I supplied.
The Fonseca winery was founded in 1822, and one of the wonderful things about their winemaking skills is that their wines mature slightly more quickly than other Vintage Ports. Robert Parker once said of the Fonseca, “It has a unique character and it’s always the most flamboyant, exuberant, and exotic of Vintage Port. The character is completely different from that of its peers.” Fonseca produces 8,000-14,000 cases of Vintage Port a year. It also produces a Tawny, a white Port and non-vintage Ports.
As the 1977 Fonseca was nearly 40 years old, it needed a solid hour of decanting. With a bottle this old, sediment plays a part in the overall look and taste. At this age, you don’t want to wait too long after decanting, as once the oxygen gets into the wine, the aroma and taste can actually start to evaporate. A younger port, however, can decant for two hours or more. So, with great care, I slowly poured the port through a cheese cloth, as this helps pick up even the smallest particles and allows the color of the wine to really come through. Instantly, the deep, musty aroma opened up, and at once, I had a sense of what the wine was going to be like. I left the wine alone for a time to do its magic, and went off and chatted with friends and enjoyed some other incredible wines along with some damn good food.
And by damn good food, I mean incredible! Chef Jason did not hold back. After spending the early part of the day preparing, he treated us to jalapeno halves that were stuffed with shrimp and bacon, followed by sautéed mushrooms and grilled salmon with a robust sriracha sauce gently laid on top. The piece de resistance was the marinated New York strip, cooked perfectly after its bath of minced garlic, Dijon mustard, Montreal seasoning, soy sauce, Worchester sauce and a dash of liquid smoke.
A few of the other bottles we shared included a unique 1996 Australian sparkling Shiraz and, following that, some Italian wines from Piedmont. I, of course, brought the legendary port, as well as a flawless 2006 Nickel & Nickel cabernet. As the day progressed, this group of stellar gentlemen, ten of us in all, bet on each stroke of the Master’s tournament. We ate and drank and laughed and had some great conversations. Again, hats off to Mr. Sterling, as we all enjoyed the company, the food, the drink and, of course, the view from his beautiful waterfront condo.
In the end, we polished off 2 cases of wines from all over the world, with a price tag of around $3000. However, I’d have to say, as did several others who were there, that the highlight of the day was most definitely the 1977 Fonseca. The color was a stunning cognac and the nose had slight plum, licorice, and raisin. For nearly 40 years, it had sat corked in a bottle and at least half the guests agreed that it was the best port they’d ever had.
For anyone even remotely interested in trying port, the 1977 Fonseca is still available at auction and high-end wine retailers and I would encourage anyone to try it and to experience one of the best ports this side of the 1964 vintages.
Vintage Porto, 1977
Produced by: Fonseca
Winery: Fonseca Porto
Label: Vintage Porto
Region: Douro Valley
Appearance (Color): Cognac (decant with a cheese cloth or coffee filter)
Aroma (Complexity): powerful notes of raisin and maple
Body (Texture and Weight): medium and silky
Taste (Balance of Flavor): plum, licorice, moss and smoke
Finish (What lingers): raisin and apricot
Food Paring: chocolate, cigars, decadent desserts, refined coffees
Serving Temperature: 64°