The Joy of Port

My favourite tasting of the year so far was the Blandys Madeira seminar and I had no expectation that I would go to anything so wonderful again in 2011 – how wrong I was. Barely a fortnight later I was completely spoilt by another line up of amazing Portuguese fortified wines. This time it was Port and I was totally won over.

Our hosts were the effortlessly charming Johnny and Paul Symington whose family have been Port merchants for the best part of two hundred years and own most of the really great Port brands including Graham’s, Dow’s, Cockburn’s and Warre’s.

Paul Symington in full flow…

Remarkably though they can trace their involvement in the Port industry back through 13 generations to 1652 when Walter Maynard, Oliver Cromwell’s representative in Lisbon, exported 39 pipes of Port wine. Walter later settled in Oporto, married a Portuguese lady and one of their descendants married into the Symington family in 1891, but it seems that a good many others had married into various other Port houses along the way.

In recent years the family’s focus has been in expanding their portfolio of vineyards in the Douro Valley so that they control every aspect of their Port production. As Paul Symington told us, in the past they and all the other famous brands were more like negociants, shippers in Port parlance, than a domaine but that is less and less true today. As Paul told us, they have become farmers rather than merchants.

In fact this tasting was all about vineyards as the subject was their Single Quinta Vintage Ports. A Quinta is a wine farm or vineyard with a house and winery on it and the Symingtons now own 26 of these throughout the prime Port lands of the Alto Douro. By some strange oversight in my career I have never visited the Douro, but from the photographs they showed us it looks a stunningly beautiful place.

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Australian Luxury

Like lots of us in wine I have tried a great many Australian wines in my time.  Many of the wines that excited me in my youth came from down under, but I have rather foolishly ignored what Australia can offer for far too long. However, a few experiences recently have made me realise that I should rekindle that dormant passion and renew acquaintance with some of the amazing wines that Australia makes.

Some recent Australian highlights have been a range of wines from Grant Burge – whose sensational Barossa Valley wines should be more widely celebrated – and unearthing a bottle of 1992 Lindemans Limestone Ridge Coonawarra Shiraz-Cabernet. This had been sleeping in my wine rack and had developed more complexity than I would ever have imagined. Interstingly the current vintage, 2008, has 14.5% alcohol – whereas my 1992 came in at just 12.5%.

So this new found desire to study Australia more together with my ongoing mission to discover great wines that do not require a mortgage for me to buy them, took me to this years Wolf Blass Luxury Release tasting.

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Madeira – remembrance of wines past

the Madeiras waiting to be tasted

I was privileged recently to try some wonderful Madeiras in a tasting that marked 200 years since the founding of Blandys as a Madeira producer in 1811.

I have long been a theoretical fan of Madeira, it is an amazing wine, but I cannot claim to have drunk or tasted much of it in my life. I have always – unfairly – lumped it in with Port and Sherry, both of which I appreciate yet hardly ever drink. Truth to tell, I find Sherry hard work and by the time I think of drinking Port I have usually had quite enough alcohol already.

Early on in my career I volunteered to do some of the pouring at a Madeira tasting, for Les Amis du Vin wine club. It was at the Charring Cross Hotel in London and my reward was two half-filled leftover bottles of Madeira to take home. So I duly carried a bottle from the 1870s in one hand and a 1910 in the other – past all the down and outs (a novel feature of London in the early 1980s) who were holding their bottles – meths or cider I expect, so I fitted right in.

Sadly my tasting notes have long gone – I have high hopes that today’s computerised versions cannot become lost!

However I also have wonderful memories of drinking a 1916 Vintage Malmsey one Christmas many years ago, but most of the Madeira I have tried in recent years has been pretty humble fare – always very nice, but more workaday.

The examples that Blandys served were certainly not that. They were incredibly fine, complex and fascinating wines that were all hugely enjoyable too. In a world of young, fruit forward wines it was fabulous to try something so very different – Madeira is an absolute classic of the old fashioned wine industry. It is very eighteenth and nineteenth century with its story closely linked to that of Europe’s colonial expansion. Madeira was the very last European port of call for a ship going just about anywhere, so was the last chance to replenish the wine supplies. As a consequence a vast amount of Madeira wine was shipped to the Americas – it seems that the signing of the Declaration of Independence was toasted with Madeira – as well as Australia and India et al. All the heating and cooling the wine endured during the voyages when crossing and recrossing the equator appears to have done it no harm at all. On the contrary, it seems to have sort of pasteurised it and made the stuff almost indestructable. It remains the only wine that you can leave open for decades and each glass-full will taste as fresh as the first.

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