Buying vintage port is like going on a blind date in Manhattan. No matter how many close friends vouch for your blind date, you really can’t know in advance whether it will be fun or a disaster, and the only thing you know for sure is that it’s going to cost a lot of money.
You can’t even count on having a good time if the date isn’t completely blind. Since vintage port is a wine that we often keep for years, it’s not unusual to end up in a situation where one bottle of a given house and vintage is superb, and then the next bottle from the exact same batch is awful, because it has spoiled, because you didn’t rebottle it; this happened to me with a bottle of 1977 Smith-Woodhouse. I’m still recovering from the trauma. There are people who rebottle their vintage port periodically to avoid this outcome. I don’t personally know any. (Pet peeve: if the wine industry would just get over itself and admit that “real” corks are completely inadequate to the job they’re being asked to do, and move to some less stupid technology such as a bottlecap and wax seal, this wouldn’t be an issue.)
So vintage Port, because of value issues, remains for me a rare luxury. Most of the Port I drink, when I drink Port, is just straightforward nonvintage ruby Port; I’m fond of Cálem, but the variance in quality between all of the great Oporto houses in this segment of the market is very small. It’s hard to go too far wrong. Occasionally I’ll grab an unassuming bottle of cheap white Port, when I can find it, which isn’t often. That’s a little riskier (and many people don’t enjoy white Port). I dislike tawny Port intensely; i’d rather drink Sherry.
Ruby Port is a fine drink. Typically it will run you around $10 to $15 a bottle in the US, a little less overseas. The houses in Oporto, sensing an under-served market (“I want to be snobby about my wine, but I don’t want to pay for it.”) have developed a class of wines in recent years referred to, broadly, as “Late Bottled Vintage” In one of those amusing false cognates, “Late Bottled Vintage” is Portuguese for “not vintage.” Like vintage wines, LBVs come from a single year’s harvest, but spend much longer in oak casks compared to true vintage Ports, and much less time maturing in the bottle. This forces some complexity into the wine, at the cost of subtlety. They’re ready to drink earlier, although they will generally have a lighter body. A typical LBV will run you between $25 and $40.
Late Bottled Vintages have been a thundering success for the houses of Oporto. I believe this isn’t so much wannabe wine snobbery as a genuine desire to drink good Port, and drink it now: the only vintage Ports most of us can reasonably afford are the truly young ones. Buying a case of young vintage Port is a risky endeavor, because you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, and drinking a bottle of vintage Port before it’s matured feels like an ethical violation, at least to me. “Infanticide” is the word bandied about by Portophiles. Late Bottled Vintages are an understandable compromise.
The houses, emboldened by the success of the Late Bottled Vintage marketing experiment, have now developed a new product to capture the dollars lying between the $10ish Ruby price point and the $30ish LBV price point. These wines are referred to as “reserve” Ports. “Reserve” has a long and hoary tradition in the wine industry outside of the niche Port market. Roughly, it translates to “this wine isn’t any better than our standard wine, but I somehow think I can convince you to pay more for it.” On very rare occasions, you’ll find a reserve that is actually noticeably superior to its undesignated cousins. But less often than you would hope.
I succumbed to the marketing this week, mostly because my local wine store (I live in Pennsylvania, where human life is cheap and the State controls all liquor sales with an iron fist) didn’t carry an adequate selection of ruby Port. I decided to experiment, and picked up two “reserve” class Ports: Graham’s Six Grapes (on sale at $19/bottle) and Sandeman’s Founder’s Reserve ($18). As usual, we tasted the Ports with neutral crackers and a selection of good blue cheeses (Port and Stilton, Roquefort, or Cabrales is truly an incomparable paring).
The Graham’s Six Grapes was pretty bad. Its initial sweetness was very restrained — which I liked — but the rest of the experience was not so good. Everything about Six Grapes screams “alcohol.” Before the wine touches your lips there is a pronounced vodka aroma. The initial taste is good and not cloying, but the mouth feel is very thin and attenuated. The finish is short and bitter; basically instead of a tail I felt (or think I felt; same thing) the alcohol evaporating off the back of my tongue, and now I could taste the vodka aroma that I smelled up front. It held up a little better with food — the bitterness here actually melded fairly well with a tangy cheese — but on the whole I found this disappointing and unacceptable. I won’t buy it again.
The Sandemans Founder’s Reserve was acceptable, although, arguably, still overpriced. Much sweeter than the Six Grapes, it managed to stay just under cloying. It did this mostly by having an interesting middle — there’s a sour note that was equal parts offputting and intriguing, a bit like the hint of sour milk in Hershey’s chocolate. It lacked the attenuated wino-on-Saturday-night attack (and sustain, and release) of the Graham’s. The tail was noticeable if not outrageous. I initially thought the nose was a bit on the light side, but that was because I was comparing it to the beaker of rubbing alcohol that was the Six Grapes; when I tasted it again in isolation it was fruity, with almost a bright citrus or sangria aroma.
My foray into the world of “reserve” Ports has, simply, reconfirmed my prejudices: from now on, when I’m not willing to open one of my vintage Ports, I’m going to stick with a standard ruby Port from a house that I know and love. I’m sure there must be some reserves out there that might be worth the premium, but I’m not inclined to experiment much more with this particularly marketing label.
If you enjoyed this review, the following links may be of interest to you.
- The Wine Spectator’s Port basics page is a good introduction to what Port is and how it is made.
- My favorite house is Cálem. Visit them if you’re ever in Oporto.
- Almost as important as finding the right wine is finding the right cheese.
- Daniel Rogov has reviewed hundreds of Ports. He hates Six Grapes too.