Guest columnist Annabel Jackson attends a tasting of very old ports on the 260th anniversary of the founding of the Douro DOC.
Isabel Vieira was tidying the family cellar in the Douro Valley in Portugal and found a barrel – with wine in it – that had been long forgotten. She sent a sample to Bento Amaral, director of technical and certification services at the Tasting Chamber of the official body, the Institute of Douro Wine and Port (IVDP).
Informed by his decades of experience of tasting port at the highest level, Amaral came back with the news that, based on his analysis, this port was about 150 years of age. The analysis was 7.6g/L of acid and 286g/L of sugar. Interestingly, the port also had 1.4g/L of volatile acidity. This is often abbreviated as VA and usually regarded as a wine fault, though here it was not registered as a fault. In tasting terms the port shows caramel and spice, and is fresh and sweet. It is as delicious as a dessert and tastes like the blow-torched crispy sugar topping of a crème brulee.
So 200 bottles of this Bulas Very Old Port, each bottle numbered, are available for 800 euros each. It represents a sobering moment, tasting a wine which is older than your grandfather and his father before him. A wine which has lived through war and revolution. It is at this point that wine becomes something completely beyond a commodity.
As Amaral puts it, a good vintage is a gift of nature, in which you can feel the heat of the Douro. The resulting wine represents a kind of “magic” – it represents the transformation by man of what is given by nature on the vine. Except perhaps for some control of temperature, which would be a more modern initiative, man doesn’t manage the ageing process: wines like the Bulas Very Old Port effectively age themselves, the liquid in dialogue with the barrel.
This wine was part of a masterclass in the handsome Portuguese city of Porto, held to celebrate Port Wine Day, now in its third edition, and which this year also coincided with the 260th anniversary of the Douro DOC. The tasting began with the Dow’s 2011 which Wine Spectator awarded 99 points out of 100 and is celebrated as perhaps the top wine of an already fantastic vintage – regarded by some as the best year ever for vintage port in the Douro.
Every wine tasted between this 2011 and the grand old Bulas has its own story, its own history, its own place in the midst of diversity.
Dalva Colheita Branco 1963 (1963 was another terrific year for red port) is quite diverse in the red vintage spectrum. It is higher in acids, lower in tannins, less full-bodied with an oily texture and a very dry finish. Kopke Colheita Branco 1935, also in a dry style, is delicious chilled as an aperitif, or with foie gras. With just 74g/L of sugar, it would have started out life incredibly dry. Ferreira Vintage 1952 (1952 was also the year that Portugal’s first internationally known table wine, Barca Velha, was released) is in a style now fading out: it is more about delicacy than power, with floral and honey aromas, and a certain precision on the palate.
In such a diversity of bottle or cask age, it’s interesting to see how our approach should differ. In a young vintage port we’re looking for depth of colour, intensity of aroma; we’re also looking for elegance, fruit, structure and acidity. With older ports, it is what we are not looking for that counts.
Poorly aged or over-aged wines might be showing signs of rubber, pharmaceutical compounds, dried leaf and herb. These are not the usual aromas associated with vintage port; and nor is a bitter finish appropriate. Colheitas are single vintage ports, aged for at least seven years in barrel but usually much longer. Their year of bottling can have significant results. Amaral likens wood-aged Colheitas to wild horses, and bottle-aged Colheitas to domesticated horses. The Niepoort Colheita 1952 at this tasting, for example, was bottled in 1987 – so it shows significant bottle-aged characters in addition to cask flavours. On the other hand, Cruz Colheita 1985, a bright and glistening wine with a highly tactile, satinate texture, was bottled in 2015.
The Bulas, as mentioned earlier, is on the market at 800 euros. It is a small sum given its rarity and age. But perhaps this column should end with the Real Companhia Velha Colheita 1977 – a vintage which is often compared to 1963 in terms of quality – which was bottled in 2012. Where else could you find a 40-year-old wine of such balance and freshness with nutty-citric characters and lively seaweed notes (from bottle ageing) on the market for a mere 80 euros?
Let’s hope a few more producers find some dusty old forgotten barrels in their cellars.
Disclaimer: Annabel Jackson was a guest of the IVDP at the Port Wine Day conference on September 10.