Posts Tagged ‘Graham’s’
Fortified wines are a seriously undervalued category of quality wines. Somewhere we have bought the line that to be taken seriously wines must be dry (many fortifieds are also sweet) while proper concerns about alcohol consumption put a question mark against wines that can be around 20% in alcoholic strength. Vintage Port is the exception, not the rule, receiving lots of proper attention, but it is rare treat. But there is a whole range of excellent wines, many at really good prices for the quality and sophistication which they offer. And what really marks these wines out is their character as wines of the extremes – of location, climate, wine making, ageing and quality. Here is the line up I recently presented at the Officers’ Mess at Andover.
The evening started with two Sherries. The image of Sherry is cosy and suburban but it is made in an extreme location. The Southern tip of Spain is far too hot and dry to contemplate growing grapes for quality white wines. And most styles are made from one of the dullest grapes in the world, Palomino Fino. But it is the peculiarities of soil type (water retaining albariza chalk), the distinctive approach to ageing the wines in the solera system and making use of the climactic peculiarity of a hot region which is on the Atlantic coast which leads to great and highly distinctive wine. We tasted the two classic styles from which all other Sherry styles are based – if you ignore the inky black sweetness of PX. Las Medallas, Bodedgas Argüeso is a classic Manzanilla, the palest and lightest in the Fino style, a wine of mouth refreshing freshness and tanginess. The key to its distinctiveness is that it is aged under a layer of flor, a special type of yeast which rises to the surface in the barrel and which grows particularly thickly in the moisture rich environment of Sanlucar de Barrameda, right on the Atlantic coast. The solera system – a series of barrels which feed younger wines into progressively older blends – ensures consistency and complexity in the three year old final product. For a wine of this complexity, it is a great bargain at £7.
In complete visual contrast, a true Oloroso sherry is a mid amber colour and looks like a seriously old and viscous wine. Remarkably, it is made from exactly the same boring grape variety but, being fortified to a higher level, 18%, does not grow a protective layer of flor. As a result it ages in interaction with the air above it – hence the dark colour and the characteristic nutty, woody and even date flavours. Our example was an excellently made Viejo Oloroso from Sanchez Romate, who provide the Wine Society Exhibition range wine in this style. The only disappointment is that there is absolutely no indication about how old this ‘viejo’ is – I guess 10 years but perhaps more. (The Wine Society agree with this estimate and explained that it not financially viable to get the expensive certification of age for a small lot of wine.) To complete the sherries, this is a ridiculously good wine at £10.75 – but then, sadly for the producers but good for the discerning drinker, Sherry is deeply unfashionable.
The two sherries were followed by two Madeiras. If the tip of Spain is not recommended for white wines, the sub-tropical island of Madeira, 500+ kilometres off the coast of Morocco, surrounded by the Atlantic, is completely improbable – too hot, too wet, too humid. You have to add to those factors an overly rich volcanic soil and steep sites which require terracing. Once again the trick is in the ageing which breaks all the rules about keeping wines cool to preserve quality. Here you either actively heat wines to a seriously hot 50° for three months (the estufa method) or, more gently but equally improbably, leave them to age in a hot spot (the canteiros method), for example under the roof for years where temperatures will fluctuate wildly through the seasons – cf. the method of making Vin Santo in Tuscany.
Our two examples were from the grand old house of Henriques & Henriques: the first was the inexpensive Full Rich Madeira, no doubt made from the commoner Tinta Negro Mole grape variety and heat treated in the stainless steel estufagem you can see on their website. Moderately sweet, it offers marked, luscious, caramel flavours. Much more sophisticated was Bual, 15 year old, made from one of the four so-called noble varieties, in this case Bual (both a grape variety and a style), which is grown on the warmer south side of the island. In addition to the moderate sweetness it had a beautiful and complex combination of dried fruit, rancio, subtle wood and spice notes, with the characteristic acidity well clothed – poised, elegant, persistent. £22 for a 50cl bottle is decent value. And this is a baby by Madeira standards. Madeiras are probably the world’s longest living wines; if a wine can survive this heat treatment and has high acidity, it is virtually indestructible. For example, H&H still offer wines from the 1930s. Extreme indeed.
The second half of the tasting was devoted to four Ports, appropriately enough for an officers’ mess. Here the extremes are the summer temperatures and dropping rainfall as you get further inland, steep riverside sites which have to be worked by hand, fast extraction of the colour and phenolics in the first two days of fermentation and, in the case of vintage ports, decades of ageing potential.
The first two wines were in common styles – a simple, if high quality Ruby and then an LBV. Ruby is made from a range of red grapes, typically grown in the wetter and cooler western part of the Douro. Nowadays the fruit will be pressed mechanically with the aim of getting as much colour and tannin from the skins as is possible in the two days available before distilled grape spirit is added to leave a red, fiery, fruity wine. Krohn Porto Ambassador Ruby more than fulfils this brief. By contrast, the Wine Society’s LBV Port 2006, made by the dominant Symingtons group, was a star wine – showing a fresh attack of red and black fruit, edges rounded out by around 5 years in wood barrels, excellent balance between sweetness and acidity. Late Bottled Vintage (LBV to its friends) as a style is one way of getting something of the character of vintage port but without the wait or the need to decant. This example was made from quality fruit from the central, most prestigious, part of the Douro valley and has retained its weight despite being fined and filtered before bottling. Why ‘late bottled’? Because it is bottled just before it is ready to drink, while vintage port proper is bottled in its infancy, with all its growing up to do. This example from Symingtons showed outstanding value at £11.75 a bottle.
And finally, two contrasting example of aged wines. Inexpensive tawny port is paler than ruby and alcoholic, and that’s about it. True tawnies are wines that have been in a barrel long enough to go, well, tawny. A tawny made with high quality fruit of a single year, which has been wood aged for at least seven years, qualifies to be a Colheita, the Portuguese word for ‘harvest’ here doing service for a vintage wine – given that ‘vintage’ in the language of port has a very particular meaning. Krohn Porto Colheita 2000 was an excellent example, having been aged in wood for a full 10 years in the cooler Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Oporto itself. Amber in colour, pleasantly and slowly oxidised fruit flavours, it was long and subtle.
True vintage ports are extreme in other ways: only the best fruit in the best years will do; much greater use is made of the very best grape varieties including Touriga Nacional with its meagre yield of 300 grams per plant; and it needs years, decades, of ageing in the bottle to show its potential. Surprisingly, it is the simplest of all these wines to make – select the very best fruit, extract all that you can from the skins for two days, fortify, age in wood for a couple of years, bottle without any sort of treatment – no fining, filtering or stabilisation. Some of these wines are still made by the traditional pressing under foot in a long, low trough, producing excellent results if you can get people to do it; others by modern equivalents. The result is a wine of massive concentration and great levels of extract, which is pretty much undrinkable in its youth. It will throw a prodigious and solid sediment in time … and it will evolve ever so slowly in the bottle under its original cork. Graham’s 1980 Vintage Port showed really well at the climax to this tasting but has years left in it – a remarkable combination of continuing fruit and fine, evolved tertiary notes; a great balance between power and refinement; remarkably young for its 32 years.
Port undoubtedly has an image problem. Like sherry and madeira, its success in previous generations has left it pigeon-holed in the officers’ mess or the Oxbridge high table. The vintage variety needs decades of cellaring – and who today has either decades or a cellar? High in alcohol, the slightly improbable combination of sweet and red, it’s a wine searching for a place in today’s more relaxed life styles.
David Thomas, MD of Caviste, began to chart a path in this fascinating tasting of the contemporary wines of Portugal for Andover Wine Friends. Kicking off with stories of his own time in the Douro valley before he went on to qualify as an oenologist, he pushed past the barriers that stop us giving these wines their proper value. The barriers are:
- not many of speak us Portuguese
- unfamiliar and difficult-to-pronounce Portuguese grape varieties
- the stereotype that Port only produces either mass market plonk (Mateus Rose) or heavy Ports
- high alcohol levels.
The tasting led with four table wines. These were the backbone of the Portuguese industry before the ‘invention’ of port and are now coming quickly to some prominence again. Monte da Peceguina Branco 2007 is a quality white, mildly aromatic with good weight in the mouth (all that sun plus 20% fermented in barrels). Niepoort ‘Drink Me’, Douro Red 2007 gives a bit of clue – highly drinkable, with a good depth of fruit, made from five local varieties. Here is the first clue that Niepoort has a fun, modern designer in the team. British ceremonial would be so much better if busbies concealed bottles of wine!
The next two are seriously grown up wines: Quinta de Macedos Tinto Reserva 2001 is a bit of a mammoth – big, dense red fruit, powerful mineral notes and then a great whack of tannin, drying the mouth. As David commented, it’s a great wine for education – and only time will tell if the tannins soften and get silky.
But the star red table wine is Niepoort’s Batuta 2004, Niepoort take on claret but with twice as much fruit. Caviste have an allocation of only 12 bottles of this wine and a queue of customers despite the £50 price tag. It is made from local grape varieties, with some Touriga Nacional, but not too much as the aim is great depth of fruit but not overwhelming tannins. Barrique ageing leads to a lovely veneer of oaky notes above great power and structure – a beautiful, big red which will age for years and would perfectly match steak or other powerful meat dishes.
And all this was the warm up act for the ports. We pick up the key point about this great fortified wine:
- vines grown on impossibly dry and steep hill sides, beautiful if demanding
- endless sunshine and real heat
- the classic red port is made from Touriga Nacional, a low cropper with small, intensely coloured berries with loads of tannin
- gentle extraction of colour and flavour through the famous ‘treading’ of the grapes (or the modern equivalents of treading)
- half ferment the wine and then add high quality grape alcohol to ‘stop’ the yeasts dead, leading to dense, fruity, wines with 20? of alcohol
- entry level ‘white’ or ‘ruby’ (3 years old) port
- basically two types of ageing for more serious bottles: either in barrels for some years (10 or 20) or for decades in bottles if a declared, top quality, vintage
White port of any quality is a bit of a rarity. It is made with the Malvasia grape and so there is an Italian connection here – this is the same grape which goes into the mix for the Tuscan Vin Santo, another oxidative classic. Churchill’s White Port has the sweetness and orange marmalade quality of port without the powerful red berries flavour. David sang its praises with cheese and we duly obliged with Colston Bassett, quality Stilton. And such a beautiful colour too.
The next wine is the shape of the competition, Kalleske JMK Fortified Shiraz 2006, from Australia’s Barossa Valley. A beautiful, fruit driven wine, the alcohol perhaps not in perfect keeping with the fruit yet, but young, vibrant, good value. And a much coveted small bottle – like a perfume jar. Those Australians know a thing or two about marketing. Impressive sediment too.
Two textbooks red ports follow, showing the difference in style between ‘ruby’ and ‘tawny’ perfectly, the first all dense red fruits, the second classic rancio, figgy, oxidized through maturing in wood barrels. The colour difference between these identical blends, aged differently, is just about visible in the photo, at the rim:
And finally two great treats. First, the unusual Niepoort Colheita 1998, ie a tawny port with ten years of barrel ageing and a very short sojourn in the bottle. There is a hint of red fruit here but then we are back to marmalade, wood, figs and caramel, outstanding at less than £30 a bottle.
The Colheita came second in the post-tasting poll: ‘amazing colour, smoothness, warming’ according to Tahira. I agree – I voted for this!
By contrast to this attractively browning wine, Graham’s vintage 1977, despite being 20 years older, is in prime youth. Sourced by a wine group member (thank you Joanne!), it still leads with red fruit which are now followed by the elegant signs of age – but so balanced, poised, subtle. And apparently it was only just begin to show … but some of us don’t have another half a life time to wait.
The Grahams 1977 came … roll of drums … top in the post-tasting poll, but only by a short head! ‘Although still youthful, the tannins have softened to a great level of approachability, and there was a concentrated core of fruit’ said Martin; ‘the most satisfying of the Ports with quite a few levels of flavour’ according to Paul.
More about Port – well actually lots more – on the excellent: