It may be an awful cliché, but one of my favorite wine sayings is this: “Wine improves with age. The older I get, the better I like it.”
One of the greatest opportunities at the annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival that took place in Miami Beach in February was the chance to attend “vertical” tastings of some of the world’s top wines.
A vertical tasting is one with several vintages of the same wine, to see how it changes with age. In this case it was Graham’s Vintage Red Ports from 2007, 2003, 2000, 1994, 1983 and 1970. Where else could you do this? I’ve always made it a point to cultivate friends with good cellars, but I don’t know anybody who could (or would) duplicate it.
Now, port is a powerful, ultra-sweet dessert wine made in Portugal from sturdy red grapes with names like tinta roriz, touriga nacional and others. Winemakers add yeast, which ferments the natural sugar in the grapes into alcohol until they reach a level of 5 or 6 percent, then they add a dollop of grape brandy to bring up the alcohol level to about 20 percent. This stops the fermentation, leaving an intensely rich, sweet, powerful wine.
With all that sugar and alcohol and those powerful grapes, port wines tend to age very well. The British wine writer Jancis Robinson in the year 2000 or so tasted the 1948 vintage of Graham’s, pronounced it “sublime,” and predicted it would improve for another 30 years.
In the tasting, the ports took on greater, I would say, wonderfulness, with age. Deep purple hue turned slightly tawny, powerful acids and tannins softened, youthful fruit flavors turned more to truffles and spice and toffee, while building, if anything, the sweetness that makes port go so well with dessert.
In fact, vintage port with bittersweet chocolate is one of the finest flavor combinations I know.
So why doesn’t everybody drink port?
“Vintage port lives in the ghetto of after-dinner,” said Tom Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator magazine, sponsor of the port seminar. “It is distinctive, misunderstood and underappreciated.”
Paul Mugnier, national sales manager for Graham’s, agreed. “We drink so many big red wines during the meal that, after dinner, we’re ready for bed.
But he soldiers on: “Champagne is the wine of celebration; port is the wine of relaxation.”
Port is improving as big houses like Graham’s exert greater quality control over the independent farmers who grow the grapes. Piston plungers are slowly replacing the centuries-old practice of crushing the grapes by putting them in big, shallow concrete “lagares” and stomping them for hours by foot (although many still argue that the perfect pressure to crush a port grape is your personal pedal appendage).
Still, it’s the aged ports that are a treat in a vertical tasting like this. The taster has to switch a gear in his/her head to be sure to appreciate the complexity, the hint of truffles and tea that come with age.
And now, since I’m a couple of hours older than when I started this column, I think I’ll go pour myself a glass of port, which will have aged a bit more as well. I’m sure I’ll like it.
• 2007 Graham’s Vintage Port: deep purple hue, intense aromas and flavors of red and black plums and mint, medium-sweet, youthful, with powerful acids and tannins; $100.
• 2003 Graham’s Vintage Port: powerful black cherry, sweet chocolate and spice flavors, sturdy acids and tannins, youthful and intense; $103.
• 2000 Graham’s Vintage Port: intense aromas and flavors of black plums, milk chocolate and coffee and tar, full-bodied and smooth; $110.
• 1994 Graham’s Vintage Port: intense flavors of black cherries, bitter chocolate and spice, very rich, creamy, plus a hint of black tea denoting age; $113.
• 1983 Graham’s Vintage Port: tawnier hue, black raspberry flavors but also black tea and tobacco from age, sweeter, mellowing, gaining complexity; $116.
• 1970 Graham’s Vintage Port: tawny color, aromas of sweet dried roses, black cherries, dried candy and mocha, hint of truffles, complex and spicy; $250.
Fred Tasker has retired from the Miami Herald but is still writing about wine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)