Vintage Port: the great and the good
I’d like to add to the tributes to Decanter co-founder Colin Parnell, who died recently (see ‘Primeurs’, August 2010). Apart from being a good friend, he was, memorably, my first editor, commissioning (a word he would not use) the first of what would be an unanticipated number of wine columns. Although I cannot claim to have been in at the very start, I was, aware of the extent of what must have been an extremely risky venture, and the extraordinary courage and far-sightedness of Colin and fellow journalist Tony Lord in launching a consumer wine magazine so soon after the severe, yet now forgotten, wine recession of the mid-1970s. They must have had crystal balls to anticipate the global explosion in the production, consumption and interest in wine.
My first column was in February 1977 (see September 2010 for memories) and was devoted to Port vintages: the outstanding but underappreciated 1970 (the 1975 had not been declared at the time of writing). As my 13-line introduction only left room for notes on two vintages (the other being the classic 1966) I brushed aside the 1967, which I considered an aberration. Martinez and Cockburn’s were the only major shippers to declare, while Sandeman ‘emulated the Vicar of Bray’ by marketing a 1966 and 1967. Cockburn’s MD insisted that his 1967 would be another 1927; it never was and never will be.
In my second column (March 1977), I commented on the earlier four vintages: 1963, 1960, the now mercifully forgotten 1958 and now fabulously beautiful 1955. I noted at the time that the Martinez 1960 was ‘a surprising blackstrap, full and rich, and for me, one of the most characterful ’60s’. How right I was.
After this unintentionally long preamble, I feel it appropriate to devote the remaining space to more Port. Not just any old vintage but what I have always alluded to as the ‘Everest’ of Port, Quinta do Noval 1931. I am hesitant to admit that, over the years, I have drunk it – one simply does not spit out such a wine – many times. Different bottles and bottlings, and rarely more than a single bottle on each occasion; until two months ago when, at lunch, our host celebrated his 80th birthday by opening and serving no fewer than seven bottles!
I, like some of my old wine-trade friends, wondered if there would be any bottle variation. I dutifully tried (half) a glass from three different decanters. All were perfect. A medium-pale brown-tinged tawny, but glowingly alive; a glorious, penetrating bouquet with an initial whiff of liquorice and Madeira-like tang; still sweet, firm, retaining the power of a major vintage, well served by its tannin and acidity, with a fabulous flavour and great length.
The story is this. Luíz Vasconcelos Porto, owner of the famous Quinta do Noval, wished to celebrate the birth of David Rutherford, of Noval’s London agents Rutherford Osborne & Perkins, by giving him a cask of vintage Port. However 1930 was such an atrocious year, Vasconcelos Porto considered 1931 to be more suitable. So in 1933, an octave (a small cask, less than a pipe) of the now legendary 1931 was shipped from Oporto for bottling in the cellar of the agents. The bottles remained undisturbed in the Rutherford family cellars to await an appropriate occasion; and what more apt than David’s 80th birthday. Unforgettable.
One might ask, why would a great vintage like 1931 not be declared and put on the market? Two reasons: the world slump, leaving merchants overstocked with top-of-the-market 1927s, a superb vintage declared by a record 33 Port shippers, and bottled at the very start of the financial collapse. Moreover, only a handful of producers made any ’31. The next would be the pleasant-enough 1934 and a superb 1935. Then came some first-rate post-war vintages, but none quite reaching the 1931 pinnacle.
I generally drink 20 Year Old Tawny, with Graham’s and Berry Bros’ William Pickering my current favourites. Though I have a few bottles of decent vintages, including my own year (1927) they are only rolled out for those dinner parties attended by seriously interested guests. Happily, one is well served by City livery company lunches and formal occasions – the best at this year’s Decanter Man of the Year dinner in May: Fonseca, the finest of all 1963s. Sheer perfection. Two months later, at Vintners’ Hall, Graham’s 1977, although mature still packing a punch, but sweet, fleshy, and delicious.
The pity is that while much Port is sold and drunk, few Port lovers are patient or wealthy enough to experience the transformation conferred by bottle age.
Written by Michael Broadbent