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A Passion for Port

The limited production of vintage port is keeping frenzied fanatics thirsting for more
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

The judge had no idea what he gave up. On a lazy summer evening in July, I opened an unlabeled bottle of 1920 vintage Port that I had purchased from a retired judge a few years ago in London. It was ambrosia. Seconds after being poured into a decanter, it filled the room with aromas of crushed berries, raspberries and toffee. A ruby brick-red color, it was still full-bodied, very sweet and as soft as the finest silk. The flavors of ripe fruit, butterscotch and toffee lasted for minutes on my palate. I can still taste the ancient Port when I think back to that glorious evening.

I drank the Port with seven friends who will never forget the experience either, even after drinking two world-class Merlots from Bordeaux the same evening, a 1961 Le Gay in magnum and 1955 L'Evangile. The fact that we were smoking Davidoff Chateau Haut-Brion cigars only enhanced the occasion. "I have to hand it to you," said a wine merchant friend from Hong Kong, looking a bit rough the morning after. "That was one hell of a Port. It outclassed everything we drank last night."

Despite such memorable experiences with vintage Port, it never ceases to amaze me how many people still haven't experienced the great pleasure to be found with this special fortified wine from the terraced hillside vineyards of Portugal's Douro Valley. Perhaps it has something to do with its high alcohol content? Drinking one bottle is like partaking in more than one and a half bottles of California Chardonnay. Or maybe sweet dessert wines such as Port don't quite fit into today's dining style? After savoring California Cabernet Sauvignon with a meal, it's difficult to think about following it with a glass or two of Port. It could even be the old crusty image of the drink: gentlemen in smoking jackets drinking decanters of Port just doesn't seem to belong in our modern lives.

The more people who have these predilections, the better for me and everybody else who love a good glass of Port. There just isn't enough to go around, so we don't need more vintage Port lovers. A British friend in the Port trade in Portugal once said to me that if wine drinkers in America ever acquired the taste for vintage Port, there wouldn't be any left for the British or anybody else in Europe. "God forbid the thought," he said, while drinking a glass of 1963 Croft vintage Port. "We don't need bloody cork sniffers from the Colonies to get on to the stuff," he added, only half-joking.

Believe it or not, Americans are the biggest consumers of vintage Port, even though their consumption probably doesn't amount to more than 60,000 to 65,000 cases a year. That's literally a drop in the vinous bucket when you consider that a wine producer such as Robert Mondavi makes more than 120,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon each year -- and that's just one of about a dozen wines the winery produces. The majority of those tens of thousands of cases of vintage Port come from a handful of producers and from a range of different vintages, from baby Ports such as 1997 and 1994 to granny ones like 1927 and 1935. Most vintage Ports sold in the States are usually very young wines, no more than 10 or 20 years old.

Some Englishmen consider Americans barbarians since we drink our Port much too young. Plenty of people in the States are already drinking 1997s and 1994s. In a perfect "English world" those wines wouldn't be drunk for another 20 years. However, I often point out to the British that their ancestors drank vintage Port only four or five years after it was bottled. In the book Port Wine and Oporto (printed in the 1930s), Ernest Cockburn wrote that gentlemen in some of London's most exclusive men's clubs were drinking vintage Ports just five or six years old. In the 1930s, they were more than happy to be drinking 1920, 1922 and 1924 vintages. In essence, we Americans are simply upholding a long-established British tradition.

Americans drink the most vintage Port, but the British still dominate the trade. They own most of the big name vintage Port houses, including Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Graham, Dow and Warre, among others. If you want to understand what it was like living 100 years ago in a British colony, visit one of the British Port houses. Their empire has never crumbled.

They are all extremely civilized human beings; avidly following cricket, serving tea in the afternoon and sending their children to boarding schools. British Port shippers even have their own club, the Factory House, which is limited to English Port-producing passport holders and, of course, men. A female American wine writer was once mistakenly invited to the Factory House for lunch and a few of the older members were very put out when she arrived in the club's dining room. Many hid behind their chairs. She was immediately shown the door.

Nonetheless, the British know how to make the best vintage Ports. If I had to rank Port producers today, I would put Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Dow at the top of my list. Quinta do Noval would also make the list, but it's not British. Portuguese Port houses just do not have the tradition for making great vintage Port.

This said, a serious non-British producer is Niepoort, but the shipper makes so little vintage Port that the owner, Dirk van der Niepoort, a fifth-generation to run the house, drinks most of it with his friends, family and agents.

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