Recently I had a really unique chance to sit down with Robert Bower, who is 8th generation from the family involved with Taylor Fladgate, which makes some amazing Port under a variety of brand names.
Robert, who was educated in the UK, had a fabulous British accent (Port was mass-marketed by the Brits and is still the largest market for the sauce so most producers have English roots) and a ton of energy and passion for his product. He had a dry sense of humor and an honesty that I really appreciated...and his stuff was awesome, so it was a good 2 hours of sipping and chatting!
Before I get into some super dork detail, let's review Port and how it's different from regular wine. For a gross simplification, here's a quick checklist:
- Pick grapes from special vineyards where it's ass hot (incidentally 80 varieties areauthorized for use although only 5 are used for quality stuff -- Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cao, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Barroca are most common for red Port). Use a variety of grapes so you can get different flavors in the blend.
- Bring the grapes from the remote location where they're grown into a winery, take the stems out, and then stomp them by foot, press them really gently, or use a machine to create a grape soup. Ferment them for a short while.
- Just when things are getting frothy, pour an crapload of brandy into the fermenting vat, stop the fermentation, murder all the yeast and then figure out what you're going to do to affect the flavor of the wine. That means you either leave it a vat a while or age it in a bottle. The wine will be sweet and have high alcohol but this last point on aging vessel is no small one. It determines flavor and quality in a big way.
Robert was pretty straight with me about the world of Port. Although he's biased, I believed his assessment. He said that 80% of what is out there is crap and that although continental Europe drinks Port, most of it is bad stuff. The 20% of quality wine goes mainly to three markets: the UK, Canada, and the United States.
What makes good Port? Robert and Taylor Fladgate have been delving into this issue in a MAJOR way over the past decade and their experiments yielded some cool results. His team, looking for the next evolution of their products, decided to change their production methods and it's made a huge difference in quality (I got to taste stuff before and after the change and it was like night and day). There are three things that they've been monkeying with:
It all starts in the vineyard.
Moving the vineyards to 100% sustainable agriculture. Using fewer pesticides and placing vines in places where they will best be able to thrive without irrigation and sprays, viticulturist Antonio Magalhaes has improved the quality of the grapes grown in each vineyard. He picks each plot when it's ready, not when it's most cost effective to have workers there. Also, the grapes are brought into the wineries in very small baskets to preserve grape quality and avoid crushing them too soon (this is bad because juice leaks out, fermentation from yeast on the skin could start and off flavors can result, etc).
The wineries are located near the vineyards (in Port sometimes they move the grapes great distances to get to the wineries since the vineyards are remote), so quality is preserved. Since you've got nothing without great raw material, this is important.
As an aside, although I generally think that Sustainable Agriculture is total BS, in this case, Robert explained that a lot of the vineyards ARE actually organic but the paperwork to complete in order to call them that in the EU is so unwieldy that they'd rather just call themselves sustainable (something I've heard many times before, BTW). That said, I'll add that the Douro has pest problems, so to support agriculture,sprays are kind of necessary. Still, whatever Taylor Fladgate is doing has yielded an improvement in grape quality, apparently.
Big changes in winemaking.
- Fermenting all together. They are doing something called co-fermenting. What does this mean? Well if you AREN'T co-fermenting, you take one grape type, pick it, crush it up, ferment it by itself, filter it to get the goop out, age it, and then mix it up with other grapes you want to blend it with. In the case of co-fermenting, you take the grapes you want to use in the approximate proportion you want to use them and ferment them all together. This is the old school way of doing things: how people used to do it before wine became more science than art and it's not too common. Robert says that it creates lighter, more floral flavors and a note of complexity and uniqueness to the wines that you can't find anywhere else. I buy it.
- Simulating the human foot. Taylor Fladgate did a crazy study to figure out the human foot's motion in crushing grapes and why the resulting wines seem to taste so much better than those crushed in mechanical presses. They created a special automated crusher/fermentation tank that closely simulates the motion of the foot. Although their higher end stuff is still tread (people dancing around in grapes), some of their mid-tier wines have seen improvements in quality with these custom tanks. Very cool.
- Use better sauce. Per my very detailed description above (I kid, I kid), you gotta pour colorless brandy (a spirit made from grapes) into the fermenting wine to stop fermentation and leave a little sugar in it. Most places use cheap brandy sold by the Portuguese government. Like in cooking, every ingredient matters. Taylor Fladgate raised the quality of the brandy they used in recent years and it's created a huge jump in quality -- you can taste it when you taste the wines.
A couple more Port basics before I get into the wines. I need to give a little more context and detail. There are two main categories for Port -- ones that are aged in wood and ones that are mainly aged in a bottle.
Wines that stay in a wooden cask for a long time are influenced by the oxygen that permeates the grain and spaces between the slats. The wines become a little oxidized, which means they have been exposed to oxygen and are changed by the time you pop them open. Most Port is aged in wood. Here are the types you should know about:
- Ruby -- Big, dark, fruity and simple, this berry flavored wine is strong and only aged 2 to 3 years in a barrel before bottled and sold. It will keep you warm on a cold night and it's not expensive! There's a Reserve version of Ruby as well, made with slightly higher quality grapes and approved by an advisory board to make sure it's up to snuff in flavor.
- Tawny -- Technically, these wines become kind of amber colored or orange-brown because they spend more time in a barrel and with lots of oxygen hitting them (oxidation) they lose color and get a tawny hue (sadly, the real inside dirt is that the bad producers sometimes use unripe grapes to achieve the color because they don't want to hold wine in the barrel for a long period of time, they'd rather just sell the stuff they have and let you think it is made well).
- Aged Tawny is a subset. It has to spend at least 6 years in a cask. It's nutty, mellow, and has a butterscotch flavor from the oak and from the age. You'll see 10, 20, 30, and 40+ years on the bottle, but this is another bait and switchy thing -- this isn't how old the wine is, but whether a panel of experts thinks it TASTES like the wine is that old. Weird.
- Late Bottled Vintage -- These grapes are all from one year, but they are bottled after the grand poobah of all Ports, vintage Port -- hence they are bottled "late," or 4 to 6 years after the harvest. There are a few different types -- those that aren't filtered and need to be decanted (and are similar to fine vintage Ports), those that are matured in a bottle for a minimum of three years (even more similar to vintage Ports), and those that are filtered and treated to have no sediment (this strips the flavor so these aren't that great but are most common).
Taylor Fladgate invented this kind of Port in 1970, Robert knew a thing or two about this wine! Just for clarification, Here's how Taylor Fladgate eloquently describes vintage Port v. LBV:
"Vintage Port and LBV both present a selection of very fine full bodied red ports from a single year. The fundamental difference between the two styles lies in the way each is matured. Vintage Port is kept in wood for only twenty months or so before being transferred to the bottle where it will continue to age.
Late Bottled Vintage, as the name suggests, is bottled later, remaining in wood between four and six years. During this relatively long period of wood ageing, an LBV matures and settles down - it is ready to drink when bottled, does not need to be decanted and can be served by the glass for several weeks after the cork is drawn."
Bottle Aged(ish) Port
Vintage Port -- This is the most prestigious of all Port. The grapes are all grown in one year. Vintages are "declared" only 3 in 10 years, on average, and only when the fruit is essentially perfect. Rather than aging with the effects of oxygen, the wine is bottled after 2 years in a cask (that's why I say "ish," it actually does see some wood) and then left to age without any air. This is a slow process and changes the wines into powerful, complex, flavorful deliciousness.Vintage Port is expensive but has longevity: this is the stuff to collect.
There are other types of Port -- Crusted (unfiltered so it has lots of sediment but tastes very rich and complex), Garrafeira (special aging vessel is used), Colheita (tawny Ports from a single year that are aged for a super long time), white and rosé Port, but the ones above are the main categories to know about.
A note on pairing from Robert...go with the color:
Dark wine = fruity and great with chocolate
Light wine = nutty and great with creamy dessert (creme brulee)
Ok, so let's talk about some examples of this stuff for a tangible illustration. Taylor Fladgate owns a number of brands -- they acquired the old house of Croft a while back, Fonseca is theirs, and, of course, Taylor Fladgate.
Wine #1: Croft Pink
From a three hundred year old Port House, now owned by the Fladgate Partnership, comes a new kind of wine! This is the first rosé Port ever made, however I'm not sure what I think about calling it a Port.
Although it's made like a Ruby Port, it tastes very little like one and is being marketed as a cocktail mixer, for all intents and purposes. It's sold in nightclubs and I bet it will show up in a rap song or two before long. I guess they are planning to pay the bills with this one so they can finance the finer Ports they make (and there are plenty of them, but let's be clear, it's costly to hold wine in a barrel for as long as is required to make this stuff).
Color: Kind of a dark pink color, this was like strawberry juice. It was a beautifully arresting color -- much darker than most rosé and it looked like a cocktail drink.
Smell: Not much to this to smell. Some mild strawberry and raspberry hopped out of the glass but it was very light. On the plus side, it wasn't syrupy, which I half expected.
Taste: "This is Port?," I thought to myself. Inconceivable! There was a mild strawberry flavor but this felt like something that needed to be mixed with club soda. It's a cocktail wine for sweet lovers, but I'm not sure it's for Port lovers.
Drink or sink?: Drink but when you're in the mood for a cocktail! On their Web site they have a few recipes for mixed drinks or additions to this wine that would make it a great porch sipper, but much the way White Zin is just barely wine in my mind, this sweet, not-so-winey beverage needs a different category. Great for a Sunday brunch party with some lemonade thrown in, though!
One of the biggest Port shippers, Fonseca has been around since 1822 and is reliable, if not always exciting.
Color: A dark plum color with thick, colored tears (the stuff that drips down the glass -- it's a combo of alcohol and sugar in this case. They are colored because the grapes had lots of ripeness and pigment to them when picked!).
Smell: This wine was made using Fladgate's new methods of production. Unlike a lot of Ports I've had, this one had a very interesting floral note to it and some menthol and strawberry stuff that I've never smelled in a Port. When I commented on this, Robert told me that it was due to the co-fermenting process. Apparently that creates softer, more floral notes.
The other thing I noticed was that despite the high alcohol, the characteristic cilia singing that I usually get in Port wasn't there. Robert's response -- better quality brandy doesn't smell alcoholic. Makes sense from my experience drinking Popov "Vodka" (I seriously don't even think that's real Vodka if any of you have had it) versus Grey Goose.
Taste: Wow! Blackberry, black plum, coffee, and mocha flavors filled out my mouth. The wine was full of fruit yet not heavy at all. And it didn't feel alcoholic /burn going down. The acid was a nice balance to the rich fruit and espresso notes. This is a flavorful, sweet wine, but has a certain lighter touch to it that makes it very pleasing.
Drink or sink?: Drink. Seriously, for $20 this is a great Port. For a giant brand that produces a lot of wine, they manage to keep the quality high. A very reliable bet if you're shopping for an everyday Port.
Wine #3: Taylor Fladgate, Late Bottled Vintage 2005
Remember from above: this is the halfway house between the expensive Vintage Port and the other young Ports on the market.
Color: A little more garnet than the last one, due to age, this was still a dark crimson red with thick legs from the sugar and alcohol.
Smell: This was another surprise. This smelled more like a Cabernet than a Port. It was delicate, and elegant not syrupy and heavy. More like blackberry, raspberry, and cherry with some licorice to boot.
Taste: This was intense with cherry, raspberry, and blackberry flavors. It had a ton of licorice too and it felt heavy, but it was still kind of elegant because it had enough acid to balance the fruit, high alcohol, and sugar. Pretty decent tannins but they were balanced by the sugar. Very complex and I felt like the flavor went on and on.
Drink or sink?: Drink. Excellent wine. This would be so great with blue cheese, if you're a fan, or chocolate cake. Another great bargain for the price.
Wine #4: Croft Vintage Port, 2009
Croft is the oldest Port house, established in 1588. It was the big competitor to Taylor Fladgate for over 300 years but sadly, in the 1980s Croft lost its edge, especially in the US, and couldn't make it work, financially. Taylor Fladgate bought the house in 2001. Improvements have been made and the wines are being restored to their former glory.
This vintage Port is from the prestigious Roeda vineyard, which has insanely high quality grapes and is considered one of the best vineyards in the entire Douro area.
Color: Seriously, this wine was almost black. Super dark and inky, this was going to be a stunner for sure.
Smell: Robust with lots and lots and lots of black fruit scents and a big dose of licorice, mint, and little saddle leather. But even with all that fruit, this wine was elegant and kind of like a women's perfume.
Taste: All power. Espresso, mocha, mint, and a creamy chocolate mousse flavor made this wine feel like dessert by itself. The wine was soft feeling but still had good tannin and acid to make it stand up. It had a ridiculously long finish -- the flavor just hung around and I was happy for that!
Drink or sink?: Drink. I would say that at $65, this is well-priced. This wine is one of the best Ports I've ever had. It's ready to drink now, so I don't know that I'd hang on to it for a long time, but it's worth the instant gratification if you've got the cash. It was insanely good and I think Taylor Fladgate buying Croft was an entirely positive thing.
Wine #5: Fonseca 10 Year Aged Tawny
Color: The wine had a brownish center but was amber colored -- a little orange-brown from aging in a barrel for a long time.
Smell: It actually smells like a Sherry! It had a nutty sharpness to it that reminded me of eating almonds or cashews. A little raisiny too.
Taste: This was so nutty! Like a dried fig, it packed a little bit of a punch but was subtle and not overpowering. Great mouthdrying tannin and mouthwatering acidity made this a killer wine -- really well balanced.
Drink or sink?: Drink. This was a great wine but be prepared for the high alcohol and the astringency from the high tannin. I would have thought the wine would have mellowed with time but it was a little sharp. Not my favorite of the day, but still solid.
Wine #6: Taylor Fladgate Tawny, 20 Year Aged
This is the most popular Port sold in restaurants.
Color: This was much lighter than the 10 year old tawny. It was amber/rust colored -- wine loses color with that much age and even though it's from a different brand, the comparison between the two was proof.
Smell: If you're a hiker, you'll know what I'm talking about when I say this wine smelled like GORP! It was like a nut mix with dried fruit. I smelled almond and apricot. So aromatic and savory.
Taste: I felt like I was drinking nuts (maybe hazelnuts?) flavored with dried thyme. This also had a Sherry-like flavor to it (a very good thing) but it was more herbal and had acid to give it a different feeling. The acid cleaned out the nuttiness and lightens the alcohol.
Drink or sink?: Drink. Much more mellow than the 10 year tawny, this is a delicious sipping wine. I can see why it's so popular in restaurants. It would be great with almonds or with creme brulee. A solid bottle of Port.
Wine #7: Scion 1855
At the end of the tasting, Robert pulled out this bottle. I can't do justice to the story, so I'll link to it, but long story short, the Taylor Fladgate winemaker, David Guimaraens, learned about a Port that had been made before the Charles Manson bug that killed all the vineyards of Europe, Phylloxera, was in the picture.
I know that this wine is not normal and that it's a rare experience but I wanted to share it here because it's a piece of wine history and it's kind of interesting to know that a wine can age for this long and still taste great.
The wine had been in a cask for 150 years (since 1855) and the family who owned it refused to sell it. Finally, the owner passed away and there were no descendants, so the folks managing her estate decided to sell the casks. the wine contain was in perfect condition, something totally unheard of normally.
Taylor Fladgate acquired the barrels in 2010 and decided to bottle it as a collector's item. There are only 1,400 bottles left and each is $3,500 a bottle.
This is the oldest wine I'm sure I will ever have and probably the most fascinating. I can't even begin to describe it well, but I'll try.
Color: Brown, thick, and heavy looking, I was pretty amazed that this was so old. It was completely in tact visually -- excellent storage, the alcohol, sugar, acid, and tannin from the oak had preserved this wine well.
Smell: The wine smelled like earth. It wasn't musty or old-smelling, like I expected. It had a dirt-like smell with a molasses or leather undertone. I really didn't know what to expect.
I know this is so dorky to admit, but I actually felt nervous tasting this. This is an historical marvel in the world of wine and an experience that I'll never have again.
Taste: I was floored. This was delicious. Like maple syrup and honey, dried apricots and melt-in-your mouth nut butter from a dessert. But it wasn't heavy at all. The acid was completely kicking and the wine was totally balanced. It tasted like terroir/earth but this was still Port -- with sweetness, acid, and a nutty, dried fruit character. It was earthy, fresh, and mellow unlike anything I've ever tasted.
Drink or sink?: I can't describe to you how fabulous this wine was...and it's not just because it was supposed to be good because it was old. I think, given how Port is made and all the natural preservatives in it, the excellent storage conditions of the cask of wine, this had aged into something remarkable (I'm not sure that in the absence of high alcohol and sugar, regular wine would hold up as well, honestly, but I'll probably never find out!).
What an amazing experience Robert gave me -- one that I will remember for the rest of my life and never be able to replicate. Tasting this wine is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I feel unbelievably grateful and lucky to have had it.
Although the Scion made this tasting experience one of the most memorable of my life, I have to say that the other wines in the portfolio were high quality, excellent wines that I'd drink any day of the week. Fonseca, Croft, and Taylor Fladgate are exceptional Port houses and I feel like I have more direction about what to buy after this tasting...one of those brands (and Graham's, which is also terrific) are it.