'I decided to risk extracting the cork. I could detect just two letters...'
In the January issue of Decanter (though published in December) there was a feature on What the great and good will be drinking’ for Christmas. The special wine that I wrote about (on p34) was my last bottle of 1927 vintage Port.
(At this point I should advise readers not interested in the trials and tribulations of handling old Port to either skim this quickly or turn over and enjoyAndrew Jefford’s always beautifully crafted column.)
Back to Christmas, and my chosen special bottle. Ages ago I had been given this 1927 Port for my birthday by an old friend. It was in a dark green, almost impenetrable, two-part moulded bottle with wedge-shaped ‘string-lip’ above the bulbous neck, the purpose of which was to swell the lower half of the cork to protect the wine for a long cellar sojourn.
The bottle had been binned, as customary, unlabelled, but the thin wax capsule on the top of the cork was clearly embossed ‘Port 1927’. On one side were two slip labels, a small green one on which was printed ‘Christie’s Scotland No EDN’ with the client’s reference number ‘J 896’. Christie’s regular Scottish wine (and whisky) sales were held in Edinburgh, but ‘No EDN’ probably referred to one in Glasgow between 1984 and 1987. The other label was
larger and, to my surprise, had, in my own handwriting, ‘1927 Vintage Port bottled by David Sandeman & Son, Glasgow’, wine merchants of high repute, not to be confused with the better-known Port shipping family, Sandeman. As auctioneer,
I must have also had a hand in the cataloguing.
Anyway, when it came to Christmas Day, the problem was to extract the cork in one piece to ascertain the name of the shipper. I had to decide whether to knock off the top of the neck with a heavy carving knife (having no cutlass handy!) and risk disturbing the sediment, or to use my heavy, broad-bladed corkscrew which would inevitably pull out the top half of the cork, leaving the bottom half to drop into the wine with which it had been long acquainted. I decided to risk the latter, despite the likelihood that the cork could be crumbly, making it difficult to read the name of shipper and vintage.
The bottle had been left standing up for a week to settle. At noon I decided to risk extracting the cork and to decant
the wine. Predictably, only the top half came out. It was crumbly and tricky to remove from the corkscrew. Under a good light and with a magnifying glass I could just detect two letters – ‘CO’. This was good news, for no other Port
shippers’ name began with CO. It must be Cockburn.
The problem about decanting with the lower half of cork in the bottle is to stop it floating back up into the neck. In a kitchen drawer I found a kebab-type of skewer and, with my left hand, pushed it into the neck to stop the cork from impeding the flow. Happily, not only did it decant clear and bright, but the sediment was firm and flaky – a sure indication that the crust had been formed over a period of many years, undisturbed.
Once in the decanter I poured some to taste. It was superb: a lovely, bright, though very pale tawny colour with a healthy glow. (It is fascinating to see the colour of Port, vivid purple in the cask, gradually changing to ruby, then a ruddy tawny, and, finally, pale, old and mature). The bouquet was sublime, faultless, though fading gently. After leaving some wine in the tasting glass, the spirit was as ethereal and refined as an old vintage Cognac. On the palate,
it was extraordinarily sweet for its age, with no signs of drying out; mellow, willowy rather than lean, with
good length and a glorious finish.
After the initial taste, I returned to the bottle itself and, having wrapped it in newspaper, broke off the neck. The lower half of the cork fell out and I just made out ‘Vin… 927’ and, beneath that, ‘Bott… 929’. So there it was: Cockburn 1927 vintage Port, shipped in cask to Glasgow and bottled by Sandeman & Sons in 1929.
I retasted it before taking the decanter to the dining room (a ‘ship’s decanter’: practical in rough seas but heavy and a bit clumsy to handle on land). Then a long wait. Twelve to the table; eight family, four guests. No white wine, just red. I had decanted a magnum of Château Talbot 1998, unexceptional until it opened up in the glass and turned out to be
delicious with the turkey and trimmings.
For the Christmas pudding, I rather foolishly rushed back to the cottage for a bottle of 1927 Tokaji Aszú Essencia which had been standing for ages, waiting for an appropriate occasion. Expecting it to be very sweet, it was not. In fact it was a great disappointment. Looking at its wizened cork I saw that it had been exported by Monimpex during the dreary time of the Russian occupation of Hungary.
When the table had been cleared it was time to serve the Port. Thank goodness three guests didn’t drink Port and some (particularly the younger grandchildren) just had a sniff and a sip. All, though, were enchanted, lingering over one of the rarest and most beautiful wines in the world. After such a grand and lengthy Christmas lunch, Daphne and I preferred a siesta to charades.
Written by Michael Broadbent