Harry Waugh, an Englishman who has done a great deal through his lectures and books to further wine appreciation in this country, spoke here last week on one of his favorite subjects - port.
"When I first toured the States in 1968," Waugh said, "if I mentioned vintage port, a penny didn't drop at Carolina, I remember saying to a group, 'I hold this glass [of port] in my hand with sadness because it means people here are beginning to be interested in port.' Your interest has grown, but the supply of port has not."
Waugh was speaking to a gathering only a man of his stature could have inspired, a joint tasting of four local wine and food societies.Those present tasted eight vintages of port from a single producer, Sandeman. The youngest was 1975, the oldest was 1953.
Vintage port, Waugh explained, became an English favorite in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the rough wines of Portugal were fortified with brandy, first to stabilize them for travel and then because - after aging in corked bottles - they developed a distinctive character and pleasing sweet taste.
In modern times, the English have continued to dominate the port market. This wine, produced in the town of Oporto by 20 to 30 firms (only a handful of which export to the United States), are available in several forms.
Vintage port, the wine of a specific year in which the grapes were of superior quality, is the most expensive form. These are reserved for special occasions and usually served at the end of a meal with a cheese such as Stilton and fruit.
The wine is fortified and aged in wood for two years, then bottled and allowed to age further. They taste quite harsh for as long as 10 years, but become progressively smoother and can be delicious after 20 or 30 years, or even longer. As they age, they will create (thorw) considerable sediment. It is wise to carefully decant a bottle of vintage port before serving it.
Blended ports, made from non-vintage wine, are aged for a time in wood then bottled as "ruby (up to 7 years of age) or "tawny" (aged 10 years or longer, sometimes much longer). The difference when they are side by side is one of color. Ruby is bright red; tawny has taken on an amber tinge. They are considered ready to drink when bottled, do not improve with age and cost less than vintage port. They are sold under brand names and do taste quite different. Waugh suggested trying various one "until you find which shipper's style you like best."
Among the wines at the tasting, Waugh spoke highly of the 1962. Only a few port houses (as the producers are called) declared a vintage that year and Waugh had not tasted one previously. It was, he declared, "just the wine to drink at home," meaning it had matured and is well balanced and at full flavor. The fuller, more complex 1963 he pronounced "a masterpiece," but added, "you shouldn't drink it now." In general, 1963 is one of the most highly regarded post World War II vintages. What little remains on the market is quite expensive. Another well-regarded vintage, 1960, also is scarce. The 1966, which shows hints of considerable elegance, also was judged immature, but the 1967 - another minor vintage - was "rather good." Both the youngest wine, 1975, and the oldest, 1953, were disappointing. Waugh called the 1970 "fierce but lovely."
Postscript from California
Port is no longer the sole preserve of the Portuguese. It has been produced in Australia and South Africa and several California vintners have tried hands at it.
Jim Olsen, a lean young man with glasses and the appearance of a prep-school history teacher, has already won acclaim for the ports he is making under the J.W. Morris label. The first release was a non-vintage "founder's" bottling in the spring of 1977. It is on sale in several local wine shops for about $5.50 a bottle. The vintage port is somewhat more expensive and, Olsen says freely, needs more time in bottle.
"There has been a lot of interest," he said during a brief visit. "We never had any trouble selling port, but we have tempered the enthusiasm with a realization that drinking port isn't the same as drinking table wine. For each case of wine, a person might drink a bottle of port." Therefore, J.W. Morris is currently making 6,000 cases of wine, a third port and two-thirds red table wine. Olsen expects to double his port production to 4,000 cases in the next two or three years, but plans to stop at that level.
He is experimenting with early and late bottlings of vintage port to achieve different time spans between wood and maturity. He has used pinot noir, zinfandel, petit sirah and carignane grapes and has quite creditable examples of the first two on the market as table wines.
Harry Waugh was favorably impressed by his first exposure to several unblended Morris ports. "They show a lot of promise," he said. "I'm sure there is a future for fine port in California, but it should be judged on its own merits, not against the wine from Oporto." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption