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The 2003 Great Seattle Port Tasting

by Roy Hersh, photos Dorene Hersh

After a year and a half in the planning stage and one of the most fun wine weekends of my life, it is now just a fond memory. Twenty aficionados from Portugal, the UK and across America came to share their passion of Port wine and enjoy a historic four-day tasting event that few will ever forget. The lineup of Ports was so compelling that more than one third of the participants crossed "the pond" to visit the Seattle area. Twenty-five dessert wines were served, with an average bottle age of 80 years, and a cumulative bottle age that was just shy of 2,000 years. Of course there were the obligatory whites, reds and bubbly available to round out the rest of the weekend in case anyone was still thirsty.


  From Europe came the charismatic Michael Broadbent, who was the Guest of Honor along with his charming wife Daphne and their son Bartholomew. We were also very fortunate that Richard Mayson, who has long been my favorite contemporary author on Port and Madeira was able to join us.

Additionally, three respected winemakers from Portugal's Douro Valley were in attendance and it was great to have their insightful perspectives along with their well-honed Port palates.

My close friend Nicos Neocleous from London, a Rhone maven and budding wine journalist was one of the earliest invitees for this year's tasting. His detailed tasting notes on the red and white wines of the weekend will appear later in the text. Therefore, I will only provide the tasting notes on the Ports and Madeiras. Before I progress with my "Words about Port" contribution, I would like to personally thank Dirk van der Niepoort (below, right).

Dirk was one of a handful of folks from Portugal that I invited nearly a year ago, to take part in this event. I appreciate that Dirk went to great lengths to fly here for this annual Port tasting, in addition to generously sharing a pair of his family's incredible vintage Ports. But my thanks are really for his friendship, magnanimity and genuine persona that lent so much to this special weekend. I know that many of my guests came away with new impressions about the incredible quality of Niepoort's aged vintage Ports, as few had tasted older examples from this esteemed producer. More importantly, they had the opportunity to meet Dirk. Two other Port winemaker friends of Dirk's accompanied him. Jorge Serodio Borge, who is Niepoort's hardworking and meticulous assistant winemaker, was a welcome addition to our group of wine savvy guests.
 

Jorge's wife Sandra is the "rising star" winemaker of Quinta do Vale Dona Maria. Together this young, talented winemaking couple recently made a wine called Pintas, which is quickly gaining "cult" status in Portugal. The other young winemaker was Jorge Moreira, who had a stint at Real Companhia Velha (a.k.a. Royal Oporto) before he began producing a great Douro red called Poeira, (which means "dust" in Portuguese) from grapes harvested at his newly acquired property. Jorge also took over as winemaker for Port shipper, Quinta de la Rosa last year. It was a pleasure to meet both Jorges and I hope they will join us again in the future!

As this was my 10th anniversary of holding these annual Port celebrations, I wax nostalgic about the earliest tastings when I still lived in Virginia. I could barely afford to provide small comparative horizontals of 1963 vs 1966 Ports with Taylor, Sandeman, Graham and Fonseca in my humble apartment in 1993. A few years later, in February of 1996, (just a few months before moving to Washington State), my last Port gig in the "Old Dominion" was a Fonseca vs. Taylor tasting. This was the first time I had so many of these vintages side-by-side (1955, 1963, 1966, 1970 and 1977 VPs) from these highly respected Shippers.

Here in Washington, the scope and nature of these annual cellar depletions has grown exponentially as each year it gets harder to best the last. One of my favorite Port events from the spring of 2000 was dubbed, a "diagonal tasting" with Dow, Graham, Fonseca, and Taylor. Ports from the 1983, 1977 and 1970 vintages were served in a partially blind format, to delineate "house style" as well as contrast the particular characteristics of these special vintages.

Bartholomew Broadbent made his annual retreat to Seattle to join us in tasting Ports. Bartholomew imports a variety of wines from around the globe, including Broadbent's own label of Port as well as a full lineup of Madeira that he and his father Michael hand-selected while in Portugal.

More recently, (just a month after 9/11) we shared a weekend of outstanding Ports dating back to the 1924 vintage with over six hundred years of combined bottle age. How do you top that? This year I knew that quite a few of the guests were coming from overseas and the East coast of the US, so something unique had to take place, as many of these friends had attended my tastings before. (Roy and Bartholomew Broadbent, right).

 

The plan called for a comprehensive four-day "weekend" of wine-related activities, which encompassed:

Next year I don't know what we'll do for an encore, as I won't even attempt to raise the bar ... or coordinate logistics on this scale again. Maybe something nice and simple like a weekend tasting of Colheitas from the first half of the 20th century. Now that would be unique.

Commencement Exercise
Thursday, May 1, was the very beginning of our sojourn into wine luxuriance and those that were able to arrive early were rewarded by a beautiful sunny day. A small group of wine guests, who got to know one another at dinner, met the following afternoon at the hotel and made their way to downtown Seattle to get a feel for the local environs. They were blessed with another rare, warm sunny day and spent some time around the Pike Place Market having lunch and getting pestered by the local gendarmes, who are not as wine savvy as this group. Thankfully, the MIB (Men In Blue) were in a good mood due to seeing the sun for a change and were amused by the apparent innocence of my friends, and rightfully so. Handcuffs were not necessary ... or at least, were not used. It is a fact that the locals here keep sunny days a closely guarded secret, warning all visitors that it's going to rain during their entire stay. This is what Seattleites call, "population control."

That night the food and wine frenzy began with a bang. Details? We had a memorable seven-course "kickoff" wine dinner on Thursday night at our home. My wife and I enlisted the deft, culinary expertise of Executive Chef Rodney Muirhead and his lovely companion and extremely talented chocolatier, Elizabeth Montes. Not only were they able to capture the essence of gastronomy, but both were quite interested in the wine and food pairings as well. They traveled up from Portland, Oregon the night before, to get an early start. After a morning at Pike Place Market selecting fresh meat, seafood and produce, they returned here to prepare a delectable meal showcasing the ingredients and cuisine of the Pacific Northwest. Muirhead and Montes can be reached by email for private events at: chefrodrigo@yahoo.com, and I give them a "two thumbs way up" recommendation. A quick summary of Rodney and Elizabeth's multi-course feast:

Some unique South African white and red wines were served, followed by flights of Portuguese wine from the Douro, a few Australians then showed up, and finally ... a batch of older Bordeaux to finish off the dinner. A troika of 1834, 1870 and 1875 vintage Madeiras enhanced the three dessert courses ... or was it the other way around?

1875 Barbeito Reserva Velha Malvasia – is not on a par with the identical wine produced by d'Oliveiras. Whatever the difference in price between them, pay it for the d'Oliveiras version as it is one of the most amazing examples of Malvasia you will experience. The Barbeito was lighter in color with a bright yellowish edge. Showing good acidic attack and an initial whiff of spirit along with caramel and raisiny fruit that is pleasant but not all that complex. If this was the only bottle of Madeira on the table tonight, I would have been happy by its showing, but it was surrounded by distinguished company. Toasted almonds, lime zest and sweet roasted coffee showed up on the finish that was of good length but had a slightly hot streak. 91 points

1870 San Martinho Verdelho(?) - this is what excellent Madeira is all about. Those of us experienced with Madeira saw this as a very special bottle. It did not actually say Verdelho on the bottle but it was clear from the style as it was not dry enough to be a Sercial and lacked the sweeter nuances of a Bual. It was bottled 23 years after the harvest and was recorked 3 times in its life. There was a very light almond color to it and a distinctive yellowish-green tinge to the rim. Quite dry in style with a nutty cognac note. Exhibiting laser-focused, mouthwatering acidity that yanks on the sides of the tongue and will support this wine for many decades to come. Viscous, concentrated flavors of dark walnuts and figs with a complex, mouth coating finish that almost prevents you from wanting to taste anything else afterwards. 95 points

1834 Barbeito Malvazia – although I have had this wine about ten times now, more than any other bottling of vintage Madeira I've tried ... it never disappoints. It no longer excites me as it used to, but it is a very well made Malvazia with just the right balance of sweetness and acidity. It has smoky prune and walnut aromas with praline and honeyed flavors. The finish was slightly drying, but it was so seamless in its palate dance that my friend Chuck anointed this a "Harlot Wine." Caramel and toffee nuances prevailed on the persistent, dry finish. 93 points

Winery appointments close to home
The next two afternoon outings included experiencing a handful of Washington's local wineries with private tastings at each. First on our list was DeLille Cellars, where the three key players, Greg Lill along with partners Jay Soloff and Chris Upchurch (winemaker) met our group. Not only did they pull out all the stops and pour some outstanding wines, but also offered tremendous hospitality in their elegant yet rustic "chateau." This was very much appreciated, as this winery is one of the most highly regarded in WA with over a decade of proven success. DeLille is known for making some of the most unique Bordeaux blends in WA. They are very popular locally and have already gained lots of recognition internationally as well. Many people equate the name DeLille Cellars with red wine, but their 2001 Chaleur Estate Blanc made a lasting impression on me. It is a delicious blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon Blanc from four distinct vineyard sites. Impressive juice! I only wish they would make a Late Harvest version of this. http://www.delillecellars.com

After visiting a Washington "cult" winery, it was time to lead the group to one of the unassuming "garagiste" operations that is gaining acclaim amongst locals. Lance Baer, the young proprietor, who operates Baer Winery from his own property's renovated garage, lives and works way out in the countryside. Baer is a small operation with labels still applied by hand and Lance has one individual who personally etches large format bottles on his premises. His wine was very good and our group was quite impressed with not only the quality of his 2000 release of Ursa, (a Bordeaux blend) but his humble approach and philosophy. Unlike many start-ups that really have no track record to speak of, Lance is not trying to keep up with the Jones's by darting out of the gate with exorbitant prices to "prove" his worth. Instead, and much to his credit, the price of his 2000 Ursa was a very reasonable $26 ($23.50 pre-release). In today's world of first vintage release prices that are typically in the $35-$45 range from WA (and some that are about double that!), the Ursa would have to be considered quite a bargain. You can say you heard it here first. http://www.baerwinery.com/

The following day we made the trip back to Woodinville, to Washington's grand dame, Chateau Ste. Michelle. We tasted through a few Sparkling wines then onto Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon and the popular Eroica Riesling before delving into the reds. We had a few examples of young and mature single-vineyard Merlots and Cabs as well as the fairly new CSM Syrah and a selection from their Artist's Series. Stimson Lane owns this very attractive winery, and they're also known for another WA property, Columbia Crest. Stimson's holdings also include their California wine properties, Villa Mt. Eden and Conn Creek and probably others that I am forgetting. The grounds are stunning, with a locally famous outdoor concert area, trout ponds, picnic area, meeting and retreat facilities etc. CSM also has one of the best winery gift shops in the state, not to mention the peacocks running around displaying full plumage. A must stop for visiting wine lovers! http://www.ste-michelle.com/main.cfm

Last on our itinerary was a family owned and operated winery with about 25 years of winemaking experience under their belt. Over the past few vintages they have achieved "cult" status here in Washington, the USA and abroad. Quilceda Creek has been in the halo of Robert Parker's reviews, garnering stratospheric ratings that prove influential on buyers domestically and overseas. The Golitzin family is led by Alex, the initial winemaker who has turned most of the operation over to his family and the winemaking duties to his son Paul. Most of the Quilceda fruit is purchased on contract from some of the very best vineyard sites in the state. They have had uncanny success with their recent string of 1998-2001 Cabernets. Parker and Rovani have rated their wines between 94 - 98+ points in each of those vintages. Regardless of the hype, after a brief tour of their wine facilities they led our small group into the dining area of their home. What a fun place to taste their wines while overlooking a picturesque vista that is depicted on the label of their wine bottles. We tasted the 1998, 1999 and 2000 Cabernets side-by-side. My favorite was the approachable and concentrated 1999 which is certainly deserving of its accolades. http://www.quilcedacreek.com/

Raisin d'κtre: Port tastings
Almost all of the Port wines were shipped to me in advance to ensure that the bottles had adequate time to resettle in my cellar. There were so many details involved in the logistics of a weekend with 20 guests that I kept going over every single facet to make sure this went as smoothly as possible. The dinner wines themselves (almost all in Magnums for the last two evenings) had to be matched with the cuisine of the two restaurants, and these were also shipped in advance to avoid "travel shock." The Ports were all decanted about one to two hours prior to each tasting. The wines were not left in decanter, but returned to thoroughly rinsed bottles. Of the 22 vintage Ports offered this weekend, there were 11 Shipper's represented. The vintages were carefully selected, and only those vintages widely accepted as "excellent" from the first half of the 1900s were utilized. For these tastings, specific Ports were chosen to exemplify the top wines produced from their particular vintages.

A Primeira Noite (First Night) - Spazzo's Mediterranean Grill

1935 - was a "split declaration" with 1934. The top wines from both vintages are still today, in fine condition. 1935 had much more challenging weather with little rain but lots of cold weather in the spring and temperatures that widely fluctuated in the summertime. Small quantities of juice were made.

1935 Croft – has always been considered a well made Port but is not held in the same regard as their fabulous 1945, which was probably the best Croft of the 20th century. This bottle still had its original capsule but the brown color of the bottle belies that it was not an Oporto (actually Vila Nova de Gaia) bottling. From my understanding, only during 1945 were brown bottles used in Portugal although they were more prevalent in various UK vintage Port bottlings. Just about all VPs from 1945 (bottled in Portugal) used these brown bottles due to the war time shortage of opaque black glass. The '35 Croft shows a light ruby hue with a pinkish edge. Floral and spicy notes prevail with soft, sweet prune and date flavors. I really enjoyed the smooth rounded tannins and the structure of this wine is still in synch. A very elegant wine that is best consumed sooner rather than later. 90 points

1935 Taylor – coincidentally, also in a brown bottle that was handled by Francis Downman (presumably in London). Without question, this bottle showed the best of the 3 wines from this vintage. The Taylor is normally a very good wine from 1935 and of the 19 guests who cast a vote, 12 preferred it to the other two from '35. It had a slightly richer color with a touch more ruby to the meniscus and a lighter rim. Some spirit showing on the nose along with some licorice and a backdrop of vanilla. This softer styled wine improved in the glass and although it was fully mature, it was a very fine example of how an excellent VP will show in about 70 years. There was an edgy quality to this wine, provoked by the spirit, but the bittersweet chocolate and cherry flavors provided lots of drinking gratification and the complexity and length of the finish was outstanding. Thanks Todd. 94 points

1935 Sandeman – I have opened seven bottles of this wine in the past year and a half. All came in the original wooden case that had never been opened. The labels were in great shape, capsules and corks all perfect and almost every bottle had fill levels at base neck or higher. The case had never moved since 1940, yet there is distinct bottle variation nonetheless. From color, to the amount of spirit and even the grip, I have notes that vary slightly (whether tasted blind or not). This bottle's wine was lighter in color than most of the others, but that could be due to the short length of time it was decanted, compared to the others. It had a rustic bricking rim and fine sun-dried sweet fruits and a nutty character, which I enjoyed on the soft, sublime finish. A few points were lost due to a strong initial whiff of spirit, which lessened but remained present. This is a wine with finesse and it still shows it has the guts to carry on for a few more years. Most other bottles have showed more depth of color and flavor and rated consistently 93-95 points. On this evening, it scored just 91 points.

1934 – what fun to have two of the great examples from the "other half" of the split declaration to compare and contrast, especially two from the same producer. My observation for whatever it is worth, is that the latter of the two vintages in almost every split declaration has proven to be the better choice (1947/1948, 1982/1983 and 1991/1992 come to mind in addition to 1934/1935). 1934 was an unusual vintage with only a dozen Shippers producing VP. The weather was even more unpredictable than the following year and there was little to no precipitation until late in the spring, with intense heat in the summer and a late start to the harvest. Ripe and concentrated fruit was typical of this vintage and only a couple of producers really made great wines, most notably Noval, which sadly has faded over the course of the last decade.

1934 Sandeman – This bottle was in perfect condition inside and out and looked as good as my 2000 Sandeman's. This '34 is respected as one of the greatest Sandeman's from the first half of the 20th century, and amongst the top wines of the vintage. This was my first time opening one and I was pretty excited to try it. It showed much differently than I had expected. The color was a rather dark tawny with a yellowish edge to it. There was a distinct maple syrup note and sweet caramel as well. Depicting more evolved tertiary characteristics with some spirit showing through, which for me was only a slight distraction. This graceful 69 year old Sandeman still had its structure intact, and provided a good dose of acidity given its age. The warm and generous finish had lots going on and was most pleasurable. I only wish that George Sandeman had been able to join us to drink this wine! 92 points.

1934 Fonseca – was in good condition from a UK bottling. I still have one of these left in the cellar and although a friend brought this bottle, I look forward to trying it again. It was slightly lighter in color than the Sandeman, and showed a drop of pink-light ruby in the center. Don't let the color fool you though. There was an interesting mint and herbal realm to this wine. Burly and authoritative, this is quite typical of this vintage. The Fonseca showed deep, rich and complex flavors of cassis and hazelnuts with a slightly hot finish that was a bit shorter than I would have liked. 91 points.

1924 – Vintage notes from one of my other recent articles ... "This was an excellent vintage when young, and sold well in an "up" market in Europe. Small quantities were produced, as there were 3 significant heat waves with extreme temperatures, early in the ripening season. Fortunately, although yields were reduced, the 18 producers who declared did not seem to have any negative effects from this."

1924 Ferreira - shipped directly from the Ferreira cellars in the typical dark green glass, this bottle had been recorked in 1986. I have had other 1924s (Dow two weeks after this tasting and also a fine bottle of Taylor in 2001) but had never even seen a Ferreira on the market from this vintage. This possessed a slightly more oxidized color heading to a light coffee tinge. Excellent swirling sweet aromas of dates and toasted candied almonds. Unctuous, seamless and one of the best over-75 year old Ferreira's I have tasted (and I have had a handful from the 19th century dating back to 1830). It possessed a slightly bitter nuance on the finish. I think this may have turned off other guests, who did not like this as much as I did. What do you expect from a 79-year-old wine? 92 points

1912 – now we are heading into rarified territory. This vintage has always been considered one of the great, classic vintages of the 20th century. Unfortunately, very little vintage Port is still around from this year. Quinta de Vargellas' record book made at the time of the vintage, "Rain toward the end of September and first few days of October caused some rot but the weather during the rest of the vintage was fine. Sugar level was fairly high, fermentation in most cases slow, colour looked very good. All wines from good sites should be good and 1912 will probably be shipped as a vintage Port. Quantity varied but more than expected: 75 pipes from this quinta alone."

1912 Taylor - my last 1912 (not including Madeira) was a Niepoort Colheita that Paul Napolitano opened in Syosset, NY at our very first get together some years ago. Coincidentally, this bottle also came from Paul's well-rounded Port collection and exceeded my expectations, even knowing its former provenance. For a wine that was made a few months after the Titanic sunk, this Taylor showed an amazingly rich ruby color. I knew when I was decanting this bottle that it was going to be a stunning wine at a mere 91 years old. Mr. Broadbent had not had this wine in over 15 years. It still exhibits some remaining grip and I was quite surprised by the way this wine held its ground firmly. Reticent at first, this wine unwound and provided surprising palate authority along with a formidable structure. It was easily one of my top four favorite VPs of the entire weekend and DEFINITELY my POTN (Port of the Night). I will never forget the long sumptuous and decadent finish of this excellent Port and impeccably stored bottle. Thanks Paul and Trish. 96 points

1908 Sandeman - this wine provided a double tragedy, the least of which was that it was "corked." I almost, repeat ... ALMOST was glad that it was after the initial accident occurred. Pulling the corks on these amazing bottles and decanting them was thrilling in itself. I can now laugh at this one debacle though I certainly was not laughing at the time. A good friend who was attending the weekend, had sent me a special wine bottle opener (called CORKPOPS) that injects gas (freon, I believe) into the bottle which displaces the cork, even on older bottles. I save my old vintage Port corks and this device has worked wonders with many old bottles. Well, I had the scare of my life as I was opening this vintage Port and the bottle itself did the popping. Actually, the top half literally exploded in my face and there was glass everywhere not to mention the Port. Thankfully, I had my reading glasses on as they wound up coated with wine soaked shards of glass stuck to the lenses. I did not worry about this until much later when the most important thought had passed. This bottle of 1908 Taylor, yes a 95 year old bottle that could never be replaced, was just about gone. I did manage to save eight ounces after decanting the rest of it carefully through cheesecloth. Unfortunately, when tasted an hour later, everyone agreed it was corked. N/R

1905 C. da Silva - I have had a bunch of "off vintage" wines from this producer ... all pre-1927, and am usually pretty happy with the outcome. These days, C. da Silva is better known as Presidential Port, which from my experience, no longer produces vintage Port of a high quality. This particular wine was coffee colored with a greenish-yellow edge more indicative of Madeira than a Port. The toffee and hazelnuts were beautifully layered and this wine still showed fine balance. Its smooth, ultra-rich mouthfeel was very appealing and most of the guests seemed to really enjoy this very unique Port. This was Mr. Broadbent's first experience with a bottle from this vintage and he also seemed to like this wine. Da Silva was seamless with underlying hints of chocolate covered raisins and an enticing, lingering finish that was for lack of a better word ... "exotic" on the palate. 92 points ... probably stingy here.

1854 Hunt's - this wine was tired and just not showing as well as many had expected. The only other wine I have had from this vintage was Ferreira, which was not only still hanging on, but was a very enjoyable bottle!

For dessert:
1970 Taylor (Magnum) - from a great vintage, this Taylor should have as long a life as many of the other great Ports from this weekend. Offering a dark ruby color with a lighter rim, this wine shows why vintage Port in large format is such a worthy investment. The Ports age more slowly in magnum and I always find this. Optimally, I would not open this for at least another decade, but this weekend is worthy of Port magnums, but I wanted something a bit more fruit forward after all the aged versions. This is my "go to" Port that is like a lifelong friend, I know it will always be there for me. Tonight it showed its youth and cried for more cellar time. None of its magnum brethren will be pulled this decade as it really showed very primary notes. Still, structurally it is impeccable with not only good grip and jammy fruit, but also poise and harmony. 95 points

Segunda Noite (2nd night)

Last night is a tough act to follow, but we visited a few of the wineries mentioned above and whet our appetites for some more fine vintage Port. What better way to start out than with a great vintage and by far, the 3 top wines from this exalted harvest? We wound up with 3 flights and where group votes are included; they are solely representative of the wines from that particular flight (3, 3, and 4 wines each). Without much further ado ...

1948 – reportedly, the grapes were super-ripe and quite sweet at harvest time. An overly hot growing season concentrated the fruit in small grapes. The post-war quotas probably had something to do with the very few declarations in this excellent vintage. Possibly coming on the heels of the 1947 vintage, with plenty of 1945 still on the market at the time the '48s were released made for a difficult market situation. Bruce Guimaraens is quoted as saying, "1948 was, like 1945, a true classic. These wines are enormous and will last and last". The wisdom of Mr. Guimaraens will last long after the 1948s are all consumed; both he and the vintage are legends in their own right.

1948 Graham – a London bottling that my brother Mitch supplied for the tasting, was well stored with a mid-neck fill level. Soft ruby color with slight bricking on the rim. Aromas swirled in the glass with sweet hazelnut and brown sugar, teasing me to take a sip. This Graham was in possession of a surprising dose of acidity and had a richness to match the sweet plum fruit. A class act and it always has been one of the very finest wines of the vintage. Great depth and if the finish had been a little more stylish, it would have scored even higher. A very fine vintage Port indeed. 95 points. The group of 20 voted: 9 first place votes, 3 second and 5 for third place.

1948 Taylor – has always ranked in my "top dozen all-time favorite" vintage Ports, and as for a Taylor, it is second only to 1945 ("the great debate" of which is the better of the two prevails!). Tea like color with a yellow rim, not what I am used to seeing from Taylor's 1948 which normally has a more youthful ruby appearance. Besides the color, this wine was monstrous in every other way. The reticent aromas took awhile to show up in glass but blossomed beautifully. Thick and chewy, with dynamic flavors of dense blackberry and sweet treacle this wine possessed power and a very firm grip. From an Oporto bottling, labeled with 21% alcohol (unusual) that showed that typical Taylor masculine style with expressive tannins and fine length. Had the color showed properly, I would have added a few extra points. 93 points. Group vote: 6 first place votes, 9 second and 5 for third place.

1948 Fonseca – another UK bottling from pristine LT storage conditions, checked carefully prior to its purchase in London by a friend in CA. It was only my 3rd time consuming this wine in the past five years and I know that Suckling had bestowed 100 points on this VP. This was a far better showing than the bottle that a friend opened in 2001. Tawny meniscus with a light yellowish edge, with surprisingly light color overall (not what I am used to). In contrast to the massive masculine style of the Taylor, this showed the smooth elegance and feminine style of a great well-aged vintage Port. Soft, silky and mouth coating with gobs of cherry and sweet cranberry fruit but its edge on the Taylor above ... was the incredibly complex and ever lasting finish. Thank you Dan. 96 points, although very few shared this lofty opinion of the Fonseca. Group vote: 5 for first place, 8 seconds and 7 voted it for third place.

1945 – The "Peace" vintage at the very end of WWII. A great but dry growing season (record low rainfall) that culminated in an extremely hot harvest time. Twenty-two Shippers declared and Cockburn is a well-noted exception. I believe there was 100% bottling in Portugal during this post-war vintage that was known for small production and exceptional quality. Many of these Ports stand tall today! Generalizing a bit, 1945 was a universally excellent vintage throughout almost all of Europe.

1945 Croft – here is another wine that ranks pretty high up on my list of "top dozen all-time favorite" vintage Ports (#5). I was very glad to taste this wine again. I last saw it while in London last year and before that it was back to 1998 at a Florida tasting. Two months before the tasting, a friend who was going to bring the 1945 Taylor let me know it would not accompany him. This was unfortunate, as it would have been my first opportunity to compare the 3 greatest Ports of this phenomenal vintage, although Sandeman's 1945 is very close to this level too. The Croft on this night showed youthful ruby, especially for 58 years in bottle. Celestial aromas of sweet plum preserves and licorice with a drop of spirit all danced in the glass and had my nose captivated for quite a few minutes before taking my first sip. A near perfect Port and I never understand why this is not touted as one of the greatest wines produced from the last century. It has enormous power and complexity, excellent acidity, balance and a finish that is truly remarkable. 98 points probably doesn't do it justice. Simply stunning! Group vote: 11 first place votes, 5 second and 3 voted it for third place, with one abstention. My sincere thanks go to Michael Miller from Tennessee for contributing both Crofts.

1945 Niepoort – I had held this bottle for many a year waiting for an occasion to open it with Dirk van der Niepoort, and this was the right time and place. Very musty initially to the point where it was questionable if this was corked. We were in no rush on this evening. Dirk said from the get go that this was definitely NOT corked and to be patient. He knows his wines well. Once this funk blew off, it was a very different wine. Nice dark color, this is considered one of the two or three greatest Niepoort vintage Ports of the past century. Part of what was going on was sheer youth and this bottle would have benefited significantly from a few hours in decanter. There was a pure, fresh raspberry note that I often find in Niepoort's VPs. Smooth, almost silky on the palate with round, resolved tannins and an intense rush of complex nuances on the wonderful finish. 94 points. Group vote: 6 first place votes, 7 second and 6 voted it for third place with one abstention.

1942 – not much rain during the winter, which was not only dry but also very cold. The spring stayed cold but the rains came pouring down through early May and accordingly the flowering came later than normal. There was very little rain through most of the summer until early August and the harvest turned out relatively small. Due to WWII, there was a meager total of 11,000 cases of vintage Port shipped worldwide by only 10 producers!

1942 Niepoort – I had asked Dirk if he would please bring a bottle of this wine to share as I've never had the opportunity to taste it before nor had I ever seen it sold anywhere. Yet I had read about it many times and really wanted the guests to taste what it was all about, knowing we'd probably never have this opportunity again. For some reason, I do not have a note on the color of the wine, which is a shame. The distinct aroma of coffee and roasted chestnuts was most pleasurable. A wealth of flavors accompanied this full-bodied wine with allspice and underpinnings of very sweet, almost over ripe figs and prunes. The complex melange of flavors on the "show stopper" of a finish added extra points. I feel most fortunate to have experienced this wine, even if only this once. 93 points. Group vote: 2 first place votes, 7 second and 10 placed it third, with one abstention.

The Grand Finale Flight of Port


  Dom Perignon in Magnum for Michael's birthday toast, and Michael and Roy discuss the Ports

1927 – Stranger than fiction. On May 2 of this vintage, Michael Broadbent was born and immediately, the world of wine changed for many decades to come. In addition, Dirk's father Rolf was also born during this year. Then right about harvest time, an odd happening, better known as "The Long Count" took place in Chicago. Jack Dempsey knocked reigning heavyweight champ Gene Tunney down in the seventh round of their Sept. 22, 1927, bout in Chicago, Illinois. Dempsey took his time heading to a neutral corner, and the referee waited until he got there -- a full five seconds -- before he started his count from one. Tunney had plenty of time to get up, and did, finally, about 14 seconds after he hit the canvas. Tunney recovered and won the bout, retaining his title. Oh and then there was the great Ruth led baseball team in New York that had a good vintage too ... but back to the Port story.

1927 Niepoort – This was the third consecutive Niepoort Port wine and a pattern was emerging ... excellence! The van der Niepoort family of Ports does not garner enough critical acclaim, (nor do they seek it out). In my opinion, they have made great Ports in many of the key vintages of the 20th century and SHOULD be regarded in the upper echelon of Port Shippers. We have tasted their old vintages here, but the 1992, 1994 and 1997 vintages are equally awe inspiring. James Suckling likened Niepoort's vintage Port to Krug Champagne, which is aptly analogous and spot on. As much as I do thoroughly enjoy Niepoort VP, their Colheitas are exceptional and have few rivals (Kopke is the only name that comes to mind at this level). The 1863, 1912 and 1935 Niepoort's still stand as some of the very best Colheitas I have ever tasted. Exquisite craftsmanship by Dirk's grandfather, this bottle of '27 came from the Niepoort's cellar and was recorked 25 years ago in Gaia. It was dark reddish-chestnut in color with some bricking on the rim. There was a noticeable dead silence as the group approached this ponderous wine. Descriptors are not capable of describing the hedonistic nature of this Port. This was POTN for many of the guests and I am sure that some felt, the wine of the weekend. Blind, I would have guessed a Port from the 1955 vintage. Rich, big and sweet with tertiary flavors of caramel, raisins and prunes. This is one outstanding Port that still has the stuffing to hang on for another decade and may even see its 100th birthday. The structure impresses, but the finish overwhelms. 98 points (tied for 2nd place of all Ports this weekend with the 1945 Croft).

1927 Cockburn – this wine seems to last forever as it reputedly has been on a plateau since the late 1960s and from this tasting, I don't detect signs of it falling apart anytime soon. This is one of the legendary old Cockburn's that may only have been bested by their own 1983. This was from a British bottling that was well stored and had a fill level into the base neck. Cockburn's produced about 20,000 cases of this vintage. The light color of an ancient tawny surrounds some light reddish-mostly pink center, actually beautiful to look at in the glass. It is a very generous and elegant wine and has held up remarkably well considering it is closing in on 80 years old. The fruit is sound and it showed coffee aromas with sweet prune and bittersweet chocolate flavors that tantalized the palate. Smooth as silk and a long lasting finish provided lots of reasons to be happy there are a couple of bottles in the cellar. Following in the shadow of the Niepoort was no easy feat. 93 points and possibly higher if tasted all by itself. 1927 Taylor – A disappointing showing from a wine that has delivered great performances in past renditions. No reason to bash this wine, as it clearly was just this particular bottle at fault. A darn shame! N/R

1931 Quinta do Noval – I wish we had bagged this one wine as I bet I would have heard some folks guess it as a wine from the 1963 vintage. Another in a line of amazing Port wines that are such a rarity and this came from my friend Bill's cellar where it has been maturing for the past 30 years. With the lack of a label but certainty of the vintage, there were questions whether or not this was possibly a 1931 Noval Nacional. Fortunately, Michael Broadbent was able to tell and his opinion is good enough for me. Unfortunately, this was just a plain 1931 Noval and not from the Nacional vineyard. Back on the positive side, I saved this wine to show last and knew that if its structure was true to form, it could possibly best all other Ports of the weekend. I last had this wine with Michael Broadbent (and two others who were here on this evening) five years ago and fortunately, this bottle was quite similar in provenance. In March of 1998, this was the 2nd best VP I had ever tasted. This bottle showed an unbelievable concentration of color with dark mahogany-ruby and a tawny rim, fantastic at 72 years old. Massive, rich fruit, which flaunted its array of flavors, including chocolate covered raisins, licorice and smoky prunes. This Noval offers a formidable structure that is still well delineated and delivered smooth yet chewy tannins and a hedonistic mouthfeel and finish. This is just about as good as mature Port can get and this wine has the backbone lasted at least another 2-3 decades. 99 points. Thank you Bill! The discussion lingered as to which was the best Port wine of the weekend ... mostly split between this Noval and the 1927 Niepoort, although always the "Port contrarian", the short list of my top four VP follows after dessert.

For dessert
1970 Fonseca (Magnum) – this wine is so darn good and from magnum it is still amazingly youthful. After the rare Noval Nacional, this is my favorite wine of the vintage ... even though I have a soft spot for the Taylor. This is slightly more profound and with the backbone of a four star General. Not only is the color lacking any real evolution yet (due to magnum?) with purplish-red, but the dense, youthful and sweet plum flavored fruit is extremely primary. The tannins are well rounded and the mouthfeel is smooth and viscous except for a touch of alcohol ("baby fat"). What a glorious and very long finish. 96 points

Many of us had the opportunity to try two other VPs, consumed in a comparative taste off during the weekend:

2000 Fonseca Vintage Port – I had rated this my 2nd favorite wine of the vintage when reporting on 30 of the 2000 vintage Ports in June of 2002. I have tried this wine at least a half dozen times now and it is one fantastic wine which I prefer to the 1994 at this same age. Very dark ruby in color. Huge, overwhelming my palate with power and finesse at the same time. Please explain that! Great depth of raspberry and prune flavors and a fine unctuous Port with tight gripping tannins that are to be reckoned with. Great length on the sweet finish too. Wow! 97 points and a beauty for at least the next half century and will probably outlive our yet to be born grandchildren.

2000 Niepoort Vintage Port – the reason that I enjoyed this "competition" was that I had rated this my top wine of the vintage and it was great to try these two, side-by-side a year later. Dark purple-centric color with full opacity. The Niepoort will require sandblasting of teeth, rather than a toothbrush itself. Violets, spicy cinnamon and freshly picked floral notes. Succulent, ripe juices with chewy, concentrated sweet fruit on the initial palate attack. The brash tannins come in with the second wave, and then the unforgettable 45-second finish dominates the tongue and mind. Phenomenal wine that may someday show as well as the 1927 did this weekend at 76 years of age. 98+ points

Epilogue: Choosing the better wine here is merely a matter of personal stylistic preference. Otherwise we are really just splitting hairs with the exercise, as both are absolutely tremendous wines. What a treat drinking young Ports for a change. My top four vintage Ports from the entire weekend (both 2000 youngsters are excluded), in order of preference:

1. 1931 Quinta do Noval
2. 1945 Croft – tie
2. 1927 Niepoort - tie
3. 1912 Taylor

If you should have any feedback, questions or would like more information on Port wine, please feel free to contact me by email: Portolover@aol.com. Please now read the tasting notes composed by my good friend Nicos Neocleous, on the other wines tasted during three memorable evenings:


Roy Hersh is a regular correspondent on wine-pages UK Wine Forum, where his authority on Port and other fortified wines is much prized. Recently Roy staged an extraordinary tasting in his home town of Seattle, where possibly one of the world's greatest ever collections of Port and Madeira wines was ammassed for an appreciative gathering of aficianados. When a second Forumite, Nicos Neocleous, made the journey over from London for the event, it meant we really needed a full report here on wine-pages.


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