The English writer Evelyn Waugh said it best regarding this month’s wine selection. “Port is not for the very young, the vain and the active. It is the comfort of age and the companion of the scholar and the philosopher.”
As my knowledge of wine has grown over the years, I have slowly become more fond and often, looked forward to drinking port. With a nice meal and good friends, sitting around the table talking about one thing or another, cigars would be lit, dessert trays were brought out and displayed and then, the port would be served. The fortified grapes would be balanced by the combination of the chocolate desserts and tobacco leaves, making the flavors deep and flawless.
Port, like all wines, has varying degrees of quality, varietal and terrior. A true port is only made in Portugal; specifically in the northern provinces of the country, knows as the ‘Douro Valley’. Port is characteristically a sweet, red wine and is most often served as a dessert wine. Other varietals are dry, semi-dry, and I’ve even seen a few white ports.
Outside of Portugal, other areas that produce quality fortified wines come from Australia, South Africa, Canada, India, Argentina, and the United States. With the safeguard of the ‘European Union Protected Designation of Origin’ guidelines, only that which comes from Portugal may be labeled as port or Porto. The problem arises in the United States, where wines labeled “port” may come from anywhere in the world. The US also overlooks this with many other designated regions; Champagne for example.
During the production of port, the wine is stimulated by the addition of a neutral grape spirit, known as aguardente. By adding this spirit, it halts the fermentation process, leaving remaining sugar in the wine, which boosts the alcohol content. Aguardente is sometimes referred to as brandy, but it bears little similarity to commercial brandies. The wine is aged, often in barrels which are stored in caves.
The name “port” comes from the 17th century from the seaport city of Porto, which is at the entrance of the Douro River, where the product was brought to market and exported to other countries. The Douro valley was defined and established as a protected region in 1756, making it the oldest protected wine region in the world.
There are hundreds of grape varietals that can go into making a port wine, but primarily, only five are used. They are Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional. Of these five, the Touriga Francesa grape is the most widely grown. More often than not, the varietals are blended, as not many port producers use a single varietal for bottling.
Port also comes in many styles, but can be classified into two main categories; wine sealed in glass bottles, which reduces aging and wine aged in oak barrels. A simpler explanation is normal ports (standard rubies, tawnies and white ports) and special categories, which include everything else. When you get into specific style such as Tawny, Colheita, Garrafeira, Ruby, Reserve, Rose, White, Late Bottled, Crusted, Vintage and Single Quinta Vintage, all have a small detail of difference and it depends on the characteristics that you are looking for. For this review, I have chosen the most famous type, the ‘Vintage Port’, from one of the most famous producers, Fonesca. Why would I bother drinking anything else?
What does a vintage mean for a port? It is slightly different than a normal wine. Vintage Port means 'the year in which a wine is made'. They restrict their production of bottles labeled with the year, to only their very best years, and this distinction only happens a couple of times a decade. That’s saying something.
When a port winery or house feels that its wine is of quality and good enough to be declared a vintage, they must send samples to the IVDP (the US equivalent to the Department of Agriculture) for approval. It’s the IVDP who decides if the wine should be declared ‘a vintage’ or not. When there are strong years; meaning superb grapes almost all the port houses will declare their wines for that year.
Over the last 50 years, with the ever increasing wine-making technologies along with enhanced ways to track and predict the weather, have dramatically helped increase the number of years in which a vintage can be declared. There have been years when only a couple of ports have been declared. It’s been over thirty years since there were no ports declared at all.
The port I will be reviewing this month is the Fonseca 1977 Vintage Porto. When released in 1979, it was hailed as a classic. In the last 35+ years some critics have said that 1977 has not held up as expected, while others say it is one of the best years of the century. This is when the fine art of being a wine critic becomes a roller-coaster ride of judgments. A couple of years ago, Wine Spectator reviewed it in a vertical non-blind tasting and gave it a 100.
As with any wine, this one being no exception, I knew it would be best served with friends, and this particular bottle has been in my cellar for quite a while, I felt it would be appropriate (and really fun) to share it with some of my ‘Las Vegas’ friends. Once a year, there is an ‘all boys’ trip to Las Vegas, that’s spearheaded by my good friend, Tommy Bennett. During this ‘men only’ trip, we spend a very hearty 2 ½ days, eating at some of the finest restaurants Las Vegas has to offer, we gamble, we smoke some amazing cigars and we drink, extremely well! So I decided I would share this wine with this particular group of gents, after being invited to my friends, Mr. Sterling’s home, for an afternoon of watching the Master’s Golf Tournament, where we would once again enjoy some fantastic cigars, drink some remarkable wines (in addition to the 1977 Fonseca I supplied) and eat some remarkably delicious food, that was being prepared by Chef Jason Virden.
The Fonseca winery was founded in 1822 and one of the wonderful things about their winemaking skills is that their wines mature slightly quicker than other Vintage Ports. Robert Parker once said of the Fonseca, “It has a unique character and it’s always the most flamboyant, exuberant, and exotic of Vintage Port. The character is completely different from that of its peers.” Fonseca produces 8,000-14,000 cases of Vintage Port a year. It also produces a Tawny, a white Port and non-vintage Ports.
As the 1977 Fonseca is nearly 40 years old, it needed a solid hour of decanting. With a bottle this old sediment plays a part in the overall look and taste. You don’t want to wait too long after decanting, as once the oxygen gets into the wine, at this age, the aroma and taste can actually start to evaporate. A younger port however, can decant for 2-hours or more. So, with great care, I slowly poured the port through a cheese cloth, as this helps pick up even the smallest particles and allows the color of the wine to really come through. Instantly, the deep musty aroma opened up and at once, I had a sense of what the wine was going to be like. While I let the wine do it’s magic, I left it alone for a time and chatted with friends and enjoyed some other incredible wines along with some damn good food.
And by damn good food, I mean incredible! Chef Jason did not hold back and after spending the early part of the day prepping, he treated us with jalapeno halves there were stuffed with shrimp and bacon, followed by sautéed mushrooms, grilled salmon that had a robust sriracha sauce that was gently laid on top and the ‘piece de resistance’ was the marinated New York strip; which consisted of minced garlic, Dijon mustard, Montreal seasoning, soy sauce, Worchester sauce and a dash of liquid smoke.
A couple of the other bottles we shared included a unique 1996 Australian sparkling Shiraz, followed by Italian wines from Piedmont and of course, I brought the legendary port as well as a flawless 2006 Nickel & Nickel cabernet. As the day progressed, with this group of stellar gentlemen, of which there were 10 of us, we bet on each stroke of the Master’s tournament, ate and drank, laughed and had some great conversations. Again, hats off to Mr. Sterling, as we all enjoyed the company, the food, the drink and of course the view from his beautiful waterfront condo.
In the end, we polished off 2 cases of wines from all over the world, with a price tag of around $3000. However, I’d have to say, as did several others who were there, that the highlight of the day was most definitely the 1977 Fonseca. The color was a stunning cognac and the nose had slight plum, licorice, and raisin. For nearly 40 years, it sat corked in a bottle and as at least half the guests agreed, “it was the best port they’d ever had.” had.
For anyone even remotely interested in trying port, the 1977 Fonseca is still available at auction and high end wine retailers and I would encourage anyone to try it and to experience one of the best ports this side of the 1964 vintages.
Fonseca, Vintage Porto, 1977
Produced by: Fonseca
Winery: Fonseca Porto
Label: Vintage Porto
Region: Douro Valley
Appearance (Color): Cognac (decant with a cheese cloth or coffee filter)
Aroma (Complexity): powerful notes of raisin and maple
Body (Texture and Weight): medium and silky
Taste (Balance of Flavor): plum, licorice, moss and smoke
Finish (What lingers): raisin and apricot
Food Paring: chocolate, cigars, decadent desserts, refined coffees
Serving Temperature: 64°
Final Rating: 99
My rating system is based on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.
Wine PointsHow Good the Wine Is
95-100 Classic: a great wine
90-94 Outstanding: wine with superior character & style
85-89 Very Good: wine with special qualities
80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
70-79 Average: drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
60-69 Below Average: drinkable wine but not recommended
50-59 Poor: undrinkable wine, not recommended
Serving Temperatures for Fortified Wines
64° Vintage Port
63° Amontillados & Olorosos Sherry
59° Ruby Port
57° Tawny Port (older) & Madeira
52° Tawny Port (younger)
47° White Port, Finos Sherry
John Turi has had an impulsive career as a writer, wine aficionado, and artist. He has two published books of short fiction and poetry. He is a former child actor with the anxiety to prove it. He began college with a major in Mortuary Science and then switched to Creative Writing and then finally finished at a free love hippie art college in Southern California with a degree in graphic designer and sculpting. For over eight years he worked in the wine industry and acquired a delicate palate for varietals. For the last 20 years he has become a private rare book and wine collector. He desires California Pinot Noirs, and his true love is Kosta Browne. As a way to pay for his wine collection he works as a senior marketing manager / business development for an adult sex toy company. On his downtime he is busy writing a business plan for a unique wine bar concept somewhere in Southern California, preferably Long Beach (Naples area). Currently he resides in Southern California with his lovely wife and motivational speaker Shawn-Marie.