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Not Just Any Port in a Storm
By Michael Apstein
Mar 8, 2011
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“An overpowering wine,” was how Adrian Bridge, CEO of Taylor Fladgate, described their just released pre-phylloxera Tawny Port, which he dated to about 1855.  Labeled Scion, it was overpowering, but not so much in taste--it was rich but vibrant--as much as its origin and its price, about $3,200 a bottle. 

Traditionally, Vintage Port has been--and still is--the most revered of the various types of Port, despite accounting for only about 2% of the market.  Bridge notes that there has always been a strong secondary market for Vintage Port.  “The decade of the 1990s was all for Vintage Port and cigars.”  Bridge explained that people were snapping up older vintages because liquidation of private cellars, forced by the recession of 1991 and 1992, brought wonderful stocks to the auction market.  He noted that in the last 10 years aged Tawny Port has become very popular, especially in restaurants in the U.S., where now, two-thirds of their 20-year old Tawny is sold.

London has been the epicenter for the Port market, according to Bridge, but he notes that Hong Kong is now “picking up.”  There has been a special interest in pre-phylloxera Port among the Chinese, which explains why they introduced Scion to the trade there before New York.  Indeed, Silvano Dressino, the Resident Manager at the JW Marriott in Hong Kong, a hotel well-known for its extensive wine program, informed me that Jebsen Fine Wines, a leading wine distributor in Hong Kong and China, has already scheduled a consumer tasting of Scion and other Taylor Ports for March 10.


Vintage Port

Vintage Port and aged Tawny Port start life the same way.  The grapes are harvested, crushed, and the alcoholic fermentation is initiated.  After about three days, the winemaker separates the juice from the skins and seeds, adds brandy, and transfers the young Port to barrels.  The brandy raises the alcohol level to 20% (explaining why it’s called a “fortified” wine), which kills the yeast before all of the grape sugar has been converted to alcohol, leaving a sweet wine balanced by the fire of brandy. 

If Nature has been kind that year and the wines particularly distinctive, an individual Port lodge “declares” a vintage:  They bottle their best wine within two years of the harvest without blending it with Port from other years.  This Vintage Port develops in the bottle and after a couple of decades is ready for drinking at optimal maturity.


Aged Tawny

The winemaker identifies other young Ports, destined to become aged Tawny Port, for long term barrel aging and eventual blending.  These aged Tawny Ports (the adjective referring to their color after ageing, when ready for sale) and labeled according to the average age of the wines in the blend, 10, 20, 30 or 40 year-old.  They have become so popular because they have incredible complexity involving an interplay of sweetness and nuttiness balanced by the warmth of brandy.  Additionally, they are very user-friendly.  By contrast to Vintage Port, they require no decanting, are ready to drink upon release, and deteriorate only very slowly after opening.  Hence, you can have a glass after dinner, restopper the bottle, and enjoy another glass a week or two later.


Evaporation

Taylor sets aside wines every year that they earmark for their 10- and 20-year old Tawny Ports, according to Bridge.  But making 30- and 40-year is considerably more difficult and unpredictable.  The problem inherent to making all aged Tawny Port is the roughly 3% per year evaporation due to barrel aging. 

Bridge explained, “To make one bottle of 40-year old Tawny, you have to start with 4 bottles to account for the evaporation.  It gets scary to plan sales in the future because of the stocks you have to lay down.” To sell 2,000 cases of 40-year-old Tawny, you need to lay down 75,000 liters of wine, which, according to Bridge, is an enormous investment. As he pointed out, “Then 40 years down the road, should the demographics of the market change, you may be left with a wine you don’t want.”


A Farmer’s 401k

Bridge says that although they select some of their own young Ports for their 30- and 40-year Tawny Ports, they are always looking to buy barrels of old Ports from local farmers for blending. The tradition among farmers in the Douro Valley, home to the Port vineyards, is to save barrels of particularly notable wines for a rainy day, a Port farmer’s version of a 401k plan.  Since there are some 30,000 growers with small vineyards that tend to stay within the same family for generations, there can be a considerable number of old barrels of Port aging quietly in the stone cellars in the region.  Each year Taylor, arguably the leading Port house and well known for their aged Tawny Ports, purchases 3 or 4 casks of 100 year old wines that they use for blending into their 30- and 40-year-old Tawny.  A 30- or 40-year Tawny may only contain 1 or 2% of these 100-year-old Ports, but even that small amount adds considerable complexity.


The Story of Scion

In the cellar of a small grower was a family heirloom, four barrels of Port that had been passed from one generation to another.  No one ever thought they had the right to sell it.  But when the last surviving family member, a widow without children, died and the estate was left (to nieces, nephews, the museum of the Douro and the social security office of Portugal), the executor needed to raise money to resolve the estate.  He contacted Taylor, which had been interested in the wines while the widow was alive, but never reached agreement.  Now they did.

Taylor originally planned on using the wine in their 40-year-old Tawny blend, but after tasting it, they decided it was unique.  They had never seen a wine quite as complete as this, according to Bridge.  “Most wines that old are very concentrated, but lack the acidity and come across as cloying,” he explained. “You can use wines like that in very small quantities for the 30- and 40-year-old blend, but you would never think of bottling them separately because they are unbalanced.”  But he felt this one was different.  It had great acidity and the requisite balance to bottle it without further blending. 

Bridge thinks that it was lucky that it was stored where it was, in a house with big thick masonry walls on the edge of the Douro River in a cooler part of the region.  He figures a mile or two in either direction would have been too warm and the wine would have been cooked.

Bridge freely admits there’s no way to know the wine’s precise age and for logistical reasons it had likely been topped up with other Port.  But from their negotiations with the widow while she was alive, they became convinced the wine had never been moved and was indeed from the 19th century.  Furthermore, by analyzing it for lead, they determined it had rarely been moved from barrel to barrel.  Transferring wine at that time would have been done via lead pipes, which would have left a residue of lead in the wine.  They cannot label it as an 1855 Port because it is likely not from a single vintage, but Taylor is convinced it is an authentic pre-phylloxera 19th century wine.

They bottled about 1,400 bottles, of which 100 will come to the U.S.


Prices

To approximate the cost of an aged Tawny, multiply its age by $2.50 per year, according to Bridge, which means a 10-year old will sell for about $25 a bottle.  But his formula certainly does not work for Scion and is a broad generalization at best since Taylor’s 20-year old Tawny can be found easily at less than $50 and their 30- and 40-year-old sells for about $100 and 150, respectively.  For my money, the 20-year old Tawny Ports offer the most bang for the buck, delivering more suaveness and nutty complexity than the 10-year olds without breaking the bank.  And remember, an aged Tawny--having been exposed to air while barrel aging for decades and hence inoculated against further oxidation--can be savored over the course of a month or two.  Depending, of course, on your self-control….

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Questions or comments about aged Tawny Port?  E-mail me at mapstein@winereviewonline.com