Tag Archives: Port
Port and Madeira, those fortified wines from Portugal, are revered all over the world for their distinct character. The breadth of styles of both Port and Madeira is surprising. Port and Madeira are each produced in a different way which is tied to their different histories. One of the most extraordinary aspects of Port and Madeira wine, aside from their honored tastes, is that they can be drunk indefinitely. A 200-year-old Madeira or Port can be exceptional to drink which puts these wines in a league of their own. Drinking a very old wine always conjures reflection upon the history through which the wine has lived and Port and Madeira wines take one further back in history than any other wine can.
In 1754, the agents for the Association of Port Wine Shippers wrote of Port wine “It should feel like liquid fire in the stomach…it should burn like inflamed gunpowder…should have the tint of ink… it should be like the sugar of Brazil in sweetness and the spices of India in aromatic flavor.” Even a few centuries later, this colorful description of Port still holds true. While Port production and trade was dominated by the British for a couple of centuries, the Portuguese regained control of the Port-producing region. One can still taste a difference in styles between the British estates and the Portuguese estates; the style of British Port is bigger, sweeter, fruit-driven while the Portuguese estates produce more reserved, elegant wines. There are not many strict rules about how to produce Port, which allows for varying styles. This is another way to taste history in the glass. Both British and Portuguese estates are ranked among the top producers.
Madeira wines, produced since the mid-15th century, have been exported around the world since their beginning. On the long journeys by ship to the Far East and Australia, the wine in wooden barrels slowly heated to around 113˚ F (45˚ C) and slowly cooled back down. It was only after a few unsold barrels came back to the winemakers on the island of Madeira that they realized that this slow heating process gave a particularly extraordinary flavor to the wine. The winemakers began to mimic this heating process during the ageing to attain the unique taste. Still today, this heating of the wine is part of the Madeira winemaking tradition. There are a variety of styles of Madeira thanks to different grape varieties, blending from different vintages, and the number of years in casks. Madeiras range from pale and medium-dry to honey sweet.
Vintage wines and alcohols carry with them all of the history through which they have lived. To drink a wine or alcohol that has lived through one’s lifetime or historical events is moving in itself, and then to drink the wine is a great discovery with surprises each time. An older wine is like an older person, it is more subtle, less vivacious, but is more complex and if you take the time to listen to what it has to say you will be greatly rewarded.
Drinking a very old wine or alcohol is a very rare experience as it is estimated that only 1% of all wine has the potential to improve after more than 10 years old. This is because not all wines and alcohols are created equally. Many factors contribute to a wine’s ability to last a long time. In the vineyard the soil and grape variety have certain innate qualities that instill the tannins and acid necessary to sustain a wine for many years. In addition, the climate in a given appellation changes year to year which varies the quality of the grapes, which in turn determines whether the finished wine product will have a long life in the bottle or not. There are many decisions during the vinification process that can add the components necessary to lengthen its life as well. And during the aging process, oak barrels further infuse tannins into the wine. When all of the conditions in a given year are ideal to create an excellent vintage and therefore an outstanding wine, the wine will have a very long life. Wines from the best appellations and best chateaux in the world in an exceptional year can last up to 100 years or more. The longer the life of the wine, which can be predicted very early on in the vinification process, the more gradual the arc that leads to its long peak period and equally gradually descends toward the end of its life. It is always ideal to drink a wine during its peak period and concerning these illustrious wines with such a long life, the peak can last decades. The wines will evolve and change and even when they have lived longer than a few human generations and are past their prime, they can still have structure, surprising aromas, and secrets to tell.
So, which wines to choose?
• Red Bordeaux wines are amongst the wines with the greatest potential to live an interesting, long life. I recently tasted a 1926 Montrose that still had very good structure and aromas of jammy red fruit. If you want to taste a very old red Bordeaux it is best to study up on the vintages to know which ones have staying power.
• Sauternes, those sweet whites from Bordeaux that hide so much power and complexity in the pretty golden packaging. Sauternes can age even longer than red Bordeaux, but beware that though they are from the same wine region, the quality of the vintage is not necessarily the same as for reds in a given year. Sauternes need “noble rot” in the vineyard to get their unique complexity and aromas.
• Vintage Champagne can take on interesting qualities thanks to the carbon dioxide bubbles that can add richness over time.
• Fortified wines such as Port and Madeira have very long lives that can last up to a few centuries. In the SoDivin cave we have a few bottles of Madeira from 1745 that may just be good to drink.
It must be said that no matter how favorable the tasting notes of a wine may be, do keep in mind that the older the bottle, the greater the risk that the wine could no longer be good. But the gamble only adds to the excitement and their charm.