Tag Archives: Douro

Tasting the Past: The Port From 1916

“Epic” is a grossly over-used adjective nowadays, which is unfortunate since it is the most appropriate word I can think of for an incredible event I attended recently.

The occasion in question, held by Tindals Wine Merchants, was billed as an exciting but nevertheless not uncommon tasting of a range of old Dow’s Port vintages. But it actually turned out to be an intensely familial affair that involved history, war, revolution, fire and tongs, a long-lost treasure, a travel through time and a heartfelt toast to those gone and those yet to come.

What caused this tasting to be more than a relatively straightforward retrospective was the inclusion of an exceedingly rare and long-forgotten bottle of Port from 1916. Not only was it a century old, but its significance was heightened by the resonance that particular year has on us Irish.

The more experienced and established wine writers have at least one vinous experience in their lives that was for them transformational or transcendental, or both. I thought it would be some time yet until I had mine – until this event, that is.

Tasting The Past: The 100 Year Old Port

 

Out of the Frying Pan…

In case enough stops weren’t pulled out by Tindals, the venue was One Pico, a restaurant I highly admire but ashamedly hadn’t been to in some years. What’s more I was welcomed on arrival with a glass of Champagne Henriot Brut Souverain, a very fine and elegant Champagne which I also have to admit I hadn’t tried previously, but one I’m sure to revisit many times again.

After some small talk with the always-ebullient members of the Tindal family I was introduced to a gentleman I didn’t recognise but whose name immediately rang bells: Johnny Symington, of the eponymous family who own a host of the most well-known Port brands such as Graham’s, Cockburns, Dow’s, Warre’s, Quinto do Vesuvio, and more.

Johnny was an absolute gentleman, a disposition that seems to bestow itself liberally on the family members of winemaking dynasties. He burned with keen interest in everyone he spoke to, and spoke eloquently about his family’s wines and history over the meal.

port1

Ah yes, the meal. The food was sublime. Really, One Pico is a true Dublin icon, and I urge everyone to make it their next destination for a meal out. In the noise generated by the Michelin stars and edgy, modern openings, it’s easy to forget the restaurants that are just simply classically excellent, day in, day out.

We started with the largest slab of foie gras parfait I’ve ever faced, and doubts about my ability to finish it were quickly dispelled via warm toasted brioche and fig chutney. This was paired with the Dow’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port (see below for tasting notes), a sublimely decadent treat.

Next was an autumnal Wicklow venison with beetroot, Roscoff onion, chanterelles and blackberries, a hearty and lusciously savoury dish paired excellently with the Quinta do Vesuvio DOC Douro (again see below for tasting notes), a dense wine that shared many of the characteristics of the dish.

The final course, a selection of cheeses, was to be paired with the flight of Ports about to be presented to us. But first, there was the matter of opening that bottle of 1916.

port2

… into the Fire

The moment arrived for the grand opening of this piece of history. There were no markings on the bottle, apart from a barely legible “1916” imprinted into the cork. But the corks on these antique bottles are now so brittle that corkscrews would easily disintegrate them – how then to access the ancient liquid inside?

The answer, as befitting the occasion, was quite dramatic. A pair of long-handled tongs was heated over a gas burner (with great patience!) by Nigel Werner, the Tindals Director of Fine Wine. Once red-hot, they were clamped around the neck of the bottle for a short while, before quickly being replaced by a cloth soaked in iced water.

The sudden change in temperature splits the neck of the bottle in a razor-sharp, clean line, with no shards or splinters to worry about. It’s quite a sight to behold.

Tasting The Past: The 100 Year Old Port

Now opened, we were each treated to a not insignificant measure of this rarity, a 100-year-old wine. Though everyone present was grateful for the chance to witness its release from its century-old tomb, not many held too much hope for a successful end product: it was stored upright all that time and not exactly in cellar-like conditions, so the odds were definitely stacked against it.

The liquid that poured from the neck of the unlabeled bottle into my glass was a pale tawny in colour and tasted … well it tasted really quite excellent, actually. In fact it was really delicious. The air in the room changed perceptibly as everyone else realised that they had, as the American saying goes, “lucked out”.

The 1916 Dow’s Port was light and ethereal, round and long, with coffee, toffee and pipe smoke flavours. Johnny noted that it was quite feminine in style, in contrast to the more concentrated Vintage Ports we’re used to today. It was an experiential treat, and one surely to be unrivaled.

 

The past beats inside me like a second heart” (John Banville, The Sea)

The 1916 bottle had an interesting history to it, as you might expect. It was donated to the tasting by siblings Sofia and Toby Couchman from Carlow, who discovered it in the back of a press in their family home. It was purchased by their grandfather some time ago and ‘tidied away’ by their grandmother, which goes some way to explaining how it may have been forgotten until now.

port3

Johnny introduced the rarity by informing us all that it was his great-grandfather, Andrew James Symington, who made the wine, most likely with his son, Johnny’s grandfather, at his side. In his preparation for its big reveal, Johnny delved into the archives to see what his grandfather made of the wine at harvest.

As it turned out, AJ Symington’s prediction was eerily prescient: “This vintage was quite good – I can see these wines lasting for some time.” I thought it touching to envisage Johnny reading his great grandfather’s hand-written notes of a wine that he now had in front of him.

It was time to toast the occasion. Picture the scene: we all held aloft glasses of a pale tawny liquid that came to life in the year that our own young country was awakening. Indeed, mere metres from where we were standing young men fought and died for a freedom that we enjoy today. Elsewhere in Europe, many, many others were perishing for a much greater cause.

A few years later a man bought a bottle of wine as a treat to himself; today, two of his grandchildren were sharing it with the great grandson of the person who made that very same drink.

We were all literally drinking the past, and what’s more it tasted alive, elegant, deferential … so very present. The past was now living on inside us, beating like a second heart.

And lest we ever forget about our own transient appearance on this earth, Johnny Symington signed off with the most resonant toast on this most symbolic of afternoons: “Here’s to the next hundred years.”

 

THREE TO TRY

Tasting The Past: The 100 Year Old PortDow’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port

€48 from Searsons

I’ve really taken to Tawny Port this year and it’s guaranteed I’ll have some on my Christmas table this December.

Tawny differs from other Port styles in that it’s aged in barrel rather than in the bottle, meaning it loses its bright red colouring and takes on a nutty, dried fruit character. What’s amazing about this (and other Tawnys) is its balance: sweet but refreshing, never cloying, decadent yet elegant, and just so moreish.

Tasting The Past: The 100 Year Old PortQuinta do Vesuvio DOC Douro

€60 from Searsons

Quinta do Vesuvio is another Symington family property.

Most well known for their very highly-regarded Ports, this is one of the two still red wine offering from the property.

It was very dense and intense, with dark plum, blackberry and chocolate. A chunky but elegant wine, and ideal with the venison that day.

 

Tasting The Past: The 100 Year Old PortDow’s 1994 Vintage Port

€180 (Magnum) from Searsons (in-store only)

The fact that you can pick up a magnum of 22-year-old Vintage Port from Dow’s for €180 is a travesty, but one anyone with half a wine brain should gleefully exploit. Though I didn’t get to taste the actual 1994 on the day I couldn’t let this recommendation slip by, and having tasted the Dow’s Ports back to 1916, 1947, 1963 and more, I can however absolutely attest to its longevity. The Wine Advocate give this 96 points this year, too – need any more reasons to pick up this beauty for Christmas?

This article first appeared on TheTaste.ie

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A Foray into Niepoort

I was lucky to be invited to a preview of  Niepoort wines the night before the Wine Mason portfolio tasting a short while back (though I could not make the portfolio tasting itself, unfortunately).

I must admit that, apart from a brush with one or two of their famous ports, I was completely unfamiliar with Niepoort until recently. As mentioned, Niepoort is perhaps most famous for its Ports, but the last couple of decades have seen this shipper place much more focus on its dry reds. In particular, it’s the 5th generation of this famous wine family, Dirk Niepoort, who has made it his particular goal to expand the expertise of this historic wine family beyond the fortified.

Exchequer Charcuterie
Charcuterie … lots and lots of charcuterie

The Niepoort family has been creating Port wines since 1842, but it wasn’t until 1991 when Dirk Niepoort started a new era in the company with the creation of their first red dry wine, “Redoma”. What followed was a white in similar vein, then an alternative red – all receiving exalted praise. The rest, as they say, is history.

Indeed, Hugh Johnson has high praise for this sea-change, noting in his famous Wine Companion that, “With restless energy [Dirk] Niepoort continues to acquire small estates and parcels from which he produces an expanding portfolio of table wines of remarkable character and individuality, and usually steering clear of the massive, oaky styles that are coming to dominate the region.” High praise, then.

In recent years Niepoort have looked to Dão and Bairrada, completing what they call “The Niepoort Triangle” of different terroirs: Schist  in the Douro, Limestone in Bairrada and Granite in Dão, creating a range of wines vinified to best represent these areas and their particular characteristics.

And so it was that I found myself amongst a small group of esteemed wine trade colleagues within the big and bright front window of The Exchequer Wine Bar in Ranelagh. Paulo Silva, export manager at Niepoort, was on hand to provide the background info for each wine, though if I’m to be absolutely honest I was a little too distracted by the mountains of gorgeous charcuterie laid on by The Exchequer to fully take in everything he said. Below are my thoughts nevertheless…

 


 

Dócil Loureiro, Vinho Verde 2014
€16.95 from Searsons, The Corkscrew, and Hole in the Wall

Vinho Verde carries with it something of a bad rep, if it’s known at all. This huge, expansive area – Portugal’s largest wine region – is most famed for producing easy, quaffable wines that offer simple transient pleasure and nothing much else.

A Vinho Verde can be a blend of a number of grapes in varying proportions; can be red, white or rosé; can range from dry to slightly sweet; and may or may not be slightly spritzy. Oh, and often they don’t bother declaring the vintage either. No surprise then why the region isn’t often taken seriously.

The most popular, or at least well-known, grape here is Alvarinho – better known by its Spanish name Albariño and the Rías Baixas region in which its produced – though other grapes used are Loureiro, Trajadura, Arinto/Pedernã, Avesso, and Azal Branco. No, I’ve never heard of any of them either.

But as it the trend worldwide, some serious wines are being made in historically less-than-serious places, with Vinho Verde one such example and Niepoort one such producer.

The wine has tropical fruits, peach and pear drops on the nose; the palate is fleshy and long with a touch of a slight bitterness at the end. Very good quality and a great alternative white for the summer.

 

Niepoort Rótulo, Dão 2013
€16.95 from Green Man Wines, Redmond’s, Corkscrew, Gibney’s, Blackrock Cellar, Terroirs, Drinks Store, Hole in the Wall, Donnybrook Fair

I’ve written about this before and it’s quickly become one of my favourites for a number of reasons: the flavour being one of course, but the price being another, and the surreal labelling a feather in the cap of this remarkable wine.

However on this occasion the wine seemed different to me: more vivacious acidity and brambly, juicy sweet fruit versus the taut intensity I’d experienced at The Corkscrew Wine Fair. This perplexed me until later I discovered it was the 2013 that was poured and not the 2012 as per the tasting sheet (and the fair), which would explain things somewhat. Either way this is still a very recommended wine.

 

Niepoort Lagar de BaixoLagar de Baixo, Bairrada 2012
€23.95 from Baggot Street Wines

This is 100% Baga, for which Dirk Niepoort has a “huge passion” apparently. This is something he’s had to keep in check for some while now, grabbing some small parcels of the grape whenever he could from various disparate estates. But finally in 2012 Dirk was able to acquire Quinta de Baixo and its 25ha. of Baga vines, and thus resurrect the Lagar de Baixo brand.

A meaty nose with dark cherries over a spicy peppery palate that’s nevertheless medium-bodied. Just the right amount of acidity and fruit; delish. Paulo admitted that this is made in a “modern, reductive” style, so accordingly could do with a little airing out beforehand … or let the bottle breathe naturally as you drink it all over the course of an evening with friends, which is the far more Portuguese way of doing things.

 

Niepoort PoeirinhoPoeirinho, Bairrada 2012
€39.95 from The Corkscrew

This is also 100% Baga, and was a really beautiful and elegant wine, with a floral characteristic and violets evident. The palate was light but expressively juicy and refreshing – this was very, very good, with my notes stating that it was a ‘contemplative wine’ – Paulo concurred, mentioning it was “expressive, a wine for smelling”, and that characteristically it was “between Pinot and Nebbiolo”. A really excellent wine, my star of the evening.

 

Niepoort ConcisoConciso, Dao 2012
€39.95 but not available in Ireland, though Wine Mason say they may be reconsidering this

A mix of 40% Baga, 30% Jaen, and 30% of “others”, this, I found, has a more funky, feral characteristic with heat and spice more to the fore. It had very lovely, dark, damson fruit elements to it and the acidity was just right, with a grippy yet light finish. Many will love it, but for my money the more elegant Poeirinho for the same price was more to my taste.

 

Syrah, Bairrada 2012
€39.95 but not available in Ireland

Another funky, reductive nose blew off after a short while of swirling to give a more approachable, chunky, chocolatey characteristic. The palate, though, was very surprisingly light and elegant, with an almost saline element to it; I noted white pepper and black olive too – in other words a Northern Rhône style, which is exactly what they’re aiming for (and a region for which Dirk has great affection, apparently. He’s full of affection, Dirk is).

Indeed, Paulo noted that this was “atypical of the region, a winemaker’s wine” which was originally meant to be Merlot, but since that didn’t work out to plan they tried Syrah instead, given they’d a 1ha. plot of 20+ year old Syrah vines hidden in plain sight at Quinta de Baixo.

A winemaker’s wine indeed: it’s aged for 20 months in one single 2500L barrel of Austrian oak, is a variety that should be nowhere near Portugal and is produced biodynamically … in other words a fantastic, caution-to-the-wind experiment for which we are all grateful beneficiaries, for I found this to be really excellent. Hopefully it’ll be available in Ireland soon!