Exceptional Excellent Very Good
“There’s a risk in a few years time that no one will know what aged vintage port tastes like,” Rupert Symington said, shaking his head wistfully as we sipped one of his family’s newest releases, the Graham’s 2016 vintage port. Symington was in Washington recently to promote these wines, released only in June, but his mind was partly in the future, a quarter-century or so from now, when these new wines should reach their prime.
“Being lucky enough to have tasted a 25-, 50-, even a 75-year-old bottle of vintage port, I know how wonderful it can be,” Symington added. “The greatest wines I’ve ever tasted have been old wines.”
Times are changing. British wine merchants traditionally aged ports in casks for years before bottling and selling them, but few if any are doing that today. Producers rarely hold back reserves of their vintage ports, preferring to capitalize on instant cash flow from high ratings and the fanfare of a new release. And wine lovers rarely have the extensive cellars to allow them to collect wines and age them for decades. Today, most wine is consumed within days of purchase.
“People live much more rapidly today,” Symington added. “That port moment, where everyone lingers over a bottle after dinner, still happens over the holidays, but otherwise we rarely take time to open and enjoy a bottle.”
Vintage port, of course, is too scarce and pricey (usually over $100 a bottle) to drink every day. And there’s less of it than there used to be. Port houses only declare a vintage in the best years. Symington said his family’s brands, which include Cockburn’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and Quinta do Vesuvio, in addition to Graham’s, made less vintage port in 2016 than in 2011, which was already a smaller output than 2007, also excellent years. That’s because they are increasingly relying on their own estate fruit rather than purchasing grapes, a move that sacrifices quantity in favor of greater quality.
Luckily for us, there are other styles of port, more affordable and easy to find, that we can enjoy anytime. Here’s a quick primer of the various styles:
Vintage port is aged in cask for two years before bottling, with minimal exposure to oxygen. It is meant to age for years and even decades in the bottle (in your cellar after you pay for it, mostly) before it sheds its tannins and unfurls an exotic compote of dried fruits. But with our modern lifestyle, it’s good to know that vintage port is wonderful at release; just be prepared for primary, upfront fruit flavors and lots of tannin. After about four years from the vintage, they tend to close down and hibernate until they are about 10 years old.
Ruby ports are fruitier and more supple than vintage and are intended for immediate enjoyment. They typically are blends of wines from several years, meant to promote a house style immune to vintage variation. A ruby is often not labeled as such, but it may be called “reserve” or have a proprietary name, such as Graham’s Six Grapes.
Late-Bottled Vintage, or LBV, is essentially a single-vintage ruby, meant to offer some of the character of a vintage port but at a fraction of the price. They are aged longer than vintage ports before bottling, so they are more accessible and meant to be drunk right away.
Tawny port is the opposite of the vintage and ruby styles. Aged in 600-liter vats called pipes, the wine is drawn off, or racked, into large vats once a year so sediment can be removed, then returned to the pipes. In the process, about 3 percent of the wine is lost: some in the discarded sediment, the rest — the “angels’ share” — to evaporation. Before the final blend is bottled (usually beginning six years after harvest), the pipes are topped off with younger and/or older wine to balance the flavors and create a house style unaffected by vintage variation. Because the wine is exposed to oxygen in this way, it takes on a browner “tawny” color and a nutty flavor. Aged tawny, labeled as 10, 20, 30 or 40 years old as an approximate average age of the wine in the blend, is a special treat. A special subset of port called “colheita” is a single-vintage tawny.
White port can be hard to find, but it makes a nice dry aperitif and is useful in cocktails, such as the port tonic, a great summer cocktail to start an evening right.
Port of any style is an excellent dessert wine, or dessert by itself. Rubies and younger vintage ports are great with chocolate cakes or other pastries, especially if there is a fruit element to the dessert. Older vintage ports are favored by cigar hounds. Aged tawnies cry out for custardy finales (flan, puddings) or buttery cookies. In fact, a bottle of port and a platter of holiday cookies would be a fine ending to any feast this season.
Douro Valley, Portugal, $27
This wine is a collaboration of wine importer Bartholomew Broadbent and Dirk Niepoort, an iconic figure in the Douro Valley and producer of some of its most sought-after wines. It’s a ruby that captures some of the quality of an aged vintage port, in a way late-bottled vintage ports don’t quite accomplish. Proper consumption of this wine would be a civilized (and moderate) pour after dinner, sipped slowly over conversation. I just can’t stop gulping it. Alcohol by volume: 20 percent.
Imported by Broadbent Selections, distributed by Country Vintner: Available in Maryland at Beer & Cheers Too and Downtown Crown Wine and Beer in Gaithersburg, the Bottle Shop in Potomac, Hop N Grape in North Bethesda; on the list at Botanero in Rockville.
Douro Valley, $28
Despite spending several years in cask before bottling and release, this wine tastes vibrant and fresh, with a lip-smacking energy and tension that seem to keep the flavors going like a gong echoing across your palate. ABV: 20.5 percent.
Imported by Broadbent Selections, distributed by Country Vintner: Available in Maryland at Beer & Cheers Too and Downtown Crown Wine and Beer in Gaithersburg, the Bottle Shop in Potomac, Hop N Grape in North Bethesda, Old Town Market in Kensington; on the list at Botanero in Rockville. On the list in Virginia at Lebanese Taverna (Tysons).
Douro Valley, $24
From Quinta do Noval, this is one of my favorite ruby ports. It’s game on, with dark fruit and chocolate flavors bursting exuberantly from the glass. ABV: 19.5 percent.
Imported by Vintus, distributed by M. Touton Selection: Widely available in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
Douro Valley, $33
This is a very reasonable price for a 20-year tawny. It doesn’t pack the power and finesse of some of the more expensive labels, but it has the proper mélange of citrus, spice and nuts in its flavor basket. ABV: 20 percent.
Imported and distributed by M. Touton Selection: Available in the District at Bacchus Wine Cellar, Bloomingdale Liquor, Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits, Eye Street Cellars, Morris Miller Wine & Liquor, Wide World of Wines, Wine Specialist, World Liquors. Available in Maryland at Bradley Food & Beverage and Georgetown Square Wine and Beer in Bethesda, Montgomery County Liquor Stores (Cabin John, Darnestown), Old Farm Liquors and Viniferous in Frederick, Old Line Fine Wine, Spirits & Bistro in Beltsville, Rosewick Wine & Spirits in La Plata, the Wine Shoppe in Waldorf, Twist Wine & Spirits in Lexington Park. Available in Virginia at Chain Bridge Cellars in McLean, the Wine Outlet (Great Falls, McLean, Vienna).
Douro Valley, $13
White port is good for an aperitif, but it’s even better as the base for a refreshing cocktail, such as a port tonic. Mix one part white port with three parts tonic water and some muddled mint or just a slice of lemon or lime, and you have a sprightly pick-me-up cocktail to start your evening. Save the rest of the ports for dessert. ABV: 19 percent.
Imported by Tri-Vin, distributed by DMV: Available in the District at Georgia Avenue Food Barn, Paul’s of Chevy Chase, S&R Wine & Liquors. Widely available in Maryland, including at the Bottle Shop in Potomac, Bradley Food & Beverage in Bethesda, Diamond Square Beer & Wine and Grape Expectations in Gaithersburg, Frederick Wine House and Spin the Bottle Wine Co. in Frederick, Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery and General Store in Hyattsville, Kensington Pizza and Kabob House in Kensington, Montgomery Village Beer & Wine in Montgomery Village, Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-Op in Takoma Park.
Availability information is based on distributor records. Wines might not be in stock at every listed store and might be sold at additional stores. Prices are approximate. Check Winesearcher.com to verify availability, or ask a favorite wine store to order through a distributor.