As if the two vin santos hadn’t already added a special (albeit fuzzy) glow to the evening our host returned from her wine stash holding a bottle of 1977 Warre’s vintage port. Turns out she’s been collecting vintage ports for about 25 years. This bottle was one of her early purchases and definitely a wise one. Founded in 1670, Warre’s is the oldest British-owned port house in the Douro and one of the most esteemed. The 1977 is considered by many critics to be one of the more outstanding vintages from the last century.
Vintage ports don’t lend themselves to spur-of-moment drinking. Since they’re bottled without being filtered, a heavy sediment builds up over the years. Although the grit isn’t harmful it does make for an unpleasant mouthful. Decanting, therefore, is essential, but that takes time. Since most bottles are stored on their side, standing them upright for a few days allows all the sediment to settle at the bottom, which greatly facilitates the decanting process. And ideally, decanting should be done at least 3 hours before pouring.
While all that sediment may complicate the opening process, it is also part of what makes vintage ports so complex, so long lived, and so unique. At its heart port is a red wine, a blend of five grape varieties: Touriga National, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cao. Traditionally the grapes were trod on by foot in long stone troughs called legares. Today, most producers use automated versions, which provide a similar amount of pressure and extraction as the human foot. Fermentation is halted with the addition of grape spirit before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol, resulting in a sweet wine with around 20% abv. Only the best grapes from the top vineyards go into vintage ports, and even then, only when the quality meets certain criteria is a vintage “declared.” This happens on average only three years out of every decade.
The wine then spends two years aging in barrel before being bottled unfiltered. Most of its development, therefore, happens in the bottle and requires at least 15 to 20 years before being ready to drink. Recently it’s become acceptable/borderline trendy to drink vintage ports after 10 or even 5 years of aging. One explanation given is that changes in the vineyard have made the wines much more approachable at an earlier age. Until about 30 years ago, the main grapes that go into port, along with scores of other varieties (more than 100 are allowed) were often grown side by side in the same vineyard. Not surprisingly, however, they don’t all ripen at the same time. At harvest some grapes would be underripe, while others might be super ripe. It was the harsh tannins from the underripe grapes that needed 20 years to soften. In the 1980s vineyard management began to change, and these field blends started to disappear. Plots were planted with the same grape varieties and harvested and vinified separately. This meant that each variety was harvested at perfect ripeness. No more underripe grapes. Another explanation has been that in America, at least, people’s palates have grown accustomed to big, bold, tannic wines, which is essentially what a younger port would be. Still others point to marketing by port shippers wanting to move inventory.
Photos from a trip to the Douro in 2012
None of that, however, applies to our bottle of Warre’s, which at 37 years old is hitting its stride. What has given this wine its longevity can be traced to the vineyard and the weather that year. In 1977 grapes for Warre’s vintage port came from vineyards along the banks of the Rio Torto, which lies about 30 miles north of Pinhão, a small village that sits snug along the banks of the Douro 50 miles inland from Porto. The growing season of 1977 began with a chill. A cold and rainy winter lingered well into spring. Vines were even hit by frost in May. Summer remained unseasonably cool until September when a final burst of sunshine and warmth finally ripened the grapes. That long,cool growing season, however, gave the wines structure: firm tannins and high acidity. The wines were so tannic some critics wondered whether or not they would ever calm down. After nearly four decades, however, our bottle of Warre’s proved silky smooth. The wine was still a bright ruby color but somewhat opaque and offered up notes of dried cherries and raisins with toffee and cloves. It had all signature elements of a Warre vintage port: rich but elegant, powerful but complex. It was a truly exceptional evening, one that we will always remember/have foggy recollections of with great fondness. Thank you Paul and Susan.
And finally, because we were in Scotland, there was this . . .
Scenes from beautiful Scotland: