Andrew Jefford says that vintage Port should (also) be sampled in its youth...
Time for a treat. A rare treat. One drawback of a decade spent away from London, with its comfortably cool cellars, its perennially damp and draughty climate, its ‘wine houses’, its resilient traditions, its ancient political allegiances, its winter darkness is that …
I’m missing Port. Bizarre: France, where I live, remains by far the largest market for Port, taking almost 31 per cent of what was sold in the first six months of 2018. The next largest market, Portugal itself, only managed 16 per cent, while the UK and USA lag the Netherlands and Belgium by a wide margin. Most of the Port drunk in France, though, is unambitious. A simple glass of fruity fortified wine is not what I’m missing.
What I’m missing is much more exciting than that. It’s the wine drinker’s equivalent of zorbing, wing walking, base jumping or any other extreme-sport metaphor you might choose to conjure up. What I’m missing is the chance to taste young vintage Port.
The idea behind vintage Port is that it should Last A Long Time, and the best the longest. My youngest brother was born in 1963, and he still has shapely vintage Port with his birth date on to pull out for special birthdays.
In order to create wine of this sort, those vinifying vintage Port have to adopt the most unfashionable winemaking strategies in the world and … holy cow, the results are good!
The wine has lashings of alcohol, half of it added as high-strength grape spirit, and the fruit is pummeled to annihilation as quickly as possible during a break-neck vinification period of extreme if carefully controlled violence (perhaps cage-fighting would be the best metaphor of all). The fashion nowadays for every other red wine on the planet, by contrast, decrees slow, gradual, gossamer-fingered extraction — indeed little more than ‘maceration’ if you can manage it, and the less alcohol, the better. Vintage Port remains unapologetic. Power, tannin, extract, explosive fruit, density and ferocity: bring them all on.
Remember that Port is fortified when it is only half-way through its fermentation period, and at that point, it says farewell to its skins, its pips and its stems (if stems have been used). Extraction is then over. Forget the 45 days of fermentation and post-fermentation maceration many Barolo wines undergo: vintage Port may only have a week to grab and stash everything it will need in order to see out fifty years in a bottle. Extreme force is necessary. Human feet were great, but the new era of pistons, plungers and robotic treaders working round the clock in temperature-controlled lagares (treading tanks) in the Douro may be even better. Vintage Port quality has never looked as good as recently.
That’s not what I want to tell you, though. What I want to say is this: ignore anyone telling you not to taste and drink vintage Port in extreme youth. You should. There’s no other wine pleasure quite like this.
By all means store it until “full maturity” if you wish, and appreciate it in a state of subtle, graceful and polite refinement, unwrinkled by time. That’s a pleasure, too.
But you won’t fully understand it unless you have tasted it young, in its ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ stage, when it comes hurtling out of the glass and puts the screamers on you. Yes, it can be challenging – but remember, too, that this young wine is the product of a company or a farm’s very finest vineyards, carefully selected, from great schist soils, from long-proven terroir, and often made with a blend of largely indigenous grape varieties. Even young, there is a complexity, a refinement and an intrinsic subtlety engraved into a wine of this sort, and those qualities are perfectly capable of youthful expression, just as they are of mature expression. If you don’t take a look young, you’re missing out.
I’ve got a Port of this sort in front of me now. It’s saturatedly dark: brim-full, thick-legged, glass-coating and deeply episcopal, with purple swirling the red and the black. The first thing you notice in its scent is sweet blackberries and fresh tea leaves: both refreshing and enticing. Then come citrusy cologne spices, a touch of tar, blackcurrants, rose petal amidst the sweetness. Nothing is overdone about this aroma; nothing is hot, there’s no spirit nip at all; the spirit, indeed, is weighed down by the dripping fruits and the crushed-plant freshness like conifer branches sagging under snow. And still scents appear: moist liquorice, the sweet dust of hot southern roads, the scent of freshly milled black pepper …
Time for a sip. It’s weighty on the tongue — and intense. The flavours are deeply fruited, sweet yet somehow savoury too. The wine has ample tannins, but they’re finely milled; there’s nothing rough here at all, just a sensation like velvet drapes falling across the tongue, and in flavour terms, a cascade of sugar-dusted blackberry and blackcurrant. (This is the real crème de cassis.)
The Port has some discrete acidity, the acidity which black fruits might gently sweat as they sit on the branch, gurgling in the autumn sunshine. Its alcohol is invisible; the wine has all the sturdiness it needs in the central palate to make this a completely seamless experience. In truth, it has moved beyond the explosive stage of youth, and on to the head-turningly voluptuous stage. Maybe something vaguely akin to the flavour of brandy lurks in here rather than an alcoholic heat; you could say that it’s suffusingly brandied behind the creamy black fruits and the amply contoured velvet. Chocolate, too, finally.
When you’ve drained every drop, the drips creep down the sides of the glass like purple lava, leaving the glass smelling once again of sweet rose petals and tea.
Total pleasure, in sum. Will it be better in a decade? For my palate, I doubt it. For my palate, it’s perfect now.
It’s the 2014 vintage of Quinta do Noval, a blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Francisca and Sousão grown on the broad schist terraces of this magnificent farm above Pinhão, and aged in old wood for 18 months before bottling. It deserves 93 points, maybe more, but points aren’t the point; the point is to urge you not to stow away this magnificent vintage, or indeed any other like it, without trying a bottle or two in its youth.