The Port Provenance Tasting

By Graham Wright


The Brief

My brief was a simple one – we needed to test drive a cellar, and not just an ordinary one either as it was jammed packed with mountains of Portuguese and Australian port.  And why is the provenance of this cellar questionable?  For the “cellar” was a home, a suburban Adelaide home, where every cupboard, clothes cabinet, dressing room, bedroom, dining room, and every nook and cranny had been filled to the gunwales with fortified and spirituous exotica.


From Stephan Lumb’s initial listings and my own pricing estimates, the wines appear to have been collected during the 1980’s and early 1990’s and with each new purchase, the previous treasures were then hidden from sight – literally, layer upon layer of bottles.  And sadly, most had been stored up-right, outside their original packaging and cases, little to protect them expect their weight of numbers from the changing elements an Adelaide climate can give.  So the simple question was – could these wines have survived? 


The second part of my brief was to re-list and sell these wines.  Excepting a few collectors and aficionados, the styles that were presented to us were virtually unknown and little consumed especially in this age of high powered sweetly rich red table wines. 


We need to taste!  And I needed help!!


The Expectation

My initial inspection of the stock revealed dusty old cartons, containing dusty old bottles, higgledy-piggledy stacked, a virtual dogs breakfast.  But a little delving, a little poking around and a modicum of research, revealed something quite wondrous, as it was saddening.  Old, old bottles of tawny port, late bottled vintage, colheita and vintage, all from Portugal and from both the super famous and not so famous Port Lodges of Villa Nova de Gaia.  Cockburn, Dalva, Quinta do Noval, Warres, Graham’s (always a grand name), Kopke, Feist and Royal Oporto, to name but a few.


Being such a pessimist, I wholeheartedly expected most of these wines to be in poor condition with low ullage levels, bordering on the un-drinkable.  However I did have a higher expectation for the two vintage ports on show, based on the way they are made and the need for long term cellaring to render them drinkable.  I could only think of hot Adelaide summers, cooked, jammy fruit, brown colour and as with any wine or spirit (it’s true) the presence of the blasted TCA


Assembling The Cast

As I may have mentioned, I definitely needed help, as my experience with these styles of wines and in such an aged condition, was very limited indeed.  But help came in the form of two highly qualified and passionate wine professionals, Mr. James Godfrey, Head of Fortified Wine Making at South Corp and a recent visitor to Oporto, Mr. Glen James, head Penfold’s Nuriootpa operation.  Both with a vast amount of experience and lots of affection for these famous wines of Portugal.


The rest of the tasting team included senior members of the wine trade, a lone retailer and importantly a good number of serious wine collectors and equally serious fortified consumers and winemaking students.  All in all, a highly knowledgeable team.


What Was The Cellar Really Like?

So what were the conditions like in this quite extraordinary cellar?  What we know is that most of the stock that was to be sold was stored in an upright position and generally stored above ground with little or no air-conditioning.  Bottles were literally piled in front of one another, and what I can glean from the listing crew, it was quite a task to list the entire collection that also featured an extensive array of blended and single malt whiskies.


Unfortunately, most, if not all the bottles in this extensive fortified collection were taken out of their original cases and packaging.  Overall, the wines had remarkably good levels but the labels were scruffy and dusty.  I just had to keep reminding myself that it is a provenance tasting, nothing more, nothing less.


The Tasting Method & The Wines

The wines were chosen out of interest and as a representation of the styles that were originally listed.  The wines were tasted sited, in flights and with some lively and informative discussion.  A couple of choices were made on the basis that the wines came from poor years, just to see how these would stand up.  Can’t always have the best, you know!


All of the wines were decanted two hours prior to the tasting, and the wines were…

Flight 1: The Basics – Fonseca Bin 27 & Gould Campbell’s Finest

Flight 2: Aged Tawny’s – Taylor’s 10yo, Graham’s 20yo & Fonseca 30yo

Flight 3: Colheita’s – Dalva 1936, Gilbert’s 1940 & Porto Feist 1966

Flight 4: The LBV’s – Cockburn’s 1978 & Porto Noval 1974

Flight 5: The Vintage’s – Warres’ 1975 & Quinta do Noval 1966


The Results & Some Idle Thoughts

The general conclusion that can be drawn from this tasting was that excessive bottle ageing had more of a deleterious effect on these wines than the provenance of the cellar.  It was quite rightly pointed out that most of the wines in this tasting should have been consumed at an early age, as that’s what they were designed for.   Hence, they lacked vibrancy and freshness and generally showed excessive bottle age characters.


But having said that, the Aged Tawnies and in particular the Colheita’s, were at times quite stunning (see notes below) and quite the surprise of this tasting, if you don’t mind a bit of bottle age character.  The standouts for this author were the Graham’s 20, Fonseca 30, Dalva 1936, Gilbert’s 1940 and the Feist 1966, as they were sound, highly intriguing, complex and pleasingly drinkable.


The basic tawny and ruby ports (flight 1) suffered quite badly, not from poor cellaring mind you, but from excessive bottle age.  They can still be consumed with gusto, but please do not expect wonders from them.  The other styles that also suffered from excessive bottle age were the two Late Bottled Vintages (flight 4), looking a little tired and out of character.


Somewhat surprisingly, the two vintage ports were the one’s that showed the most obvious side effects from poor cellaring conditions, including the fact that they have appeared to have been stored upright for quite a considerable amount of time.  Why surprising?  The basic nature of a vintage port is that it is a strongly structured and tannic wine, built for long-term bottle ageing.  You notice that terms like structure, depth or power do not sadly, appear in my tasting notes.


And just a note to those who collect aged ports, be careful of the corks: most were quite mashie, especially the long one’s used for the VP’s and the stoppers used for the tawnies were very, very short, not ideal for any sort of cellaring.  And finally, there were no reports of TCA!


So Where To Now?

On the basis of these results the ports were generally sound and very interesting, so Oddbins will be offering an extensive selection of this type of wine in our first Auction in February.  So long as you are aware of how these wines have been cellared, there are definitely some gems to be had or perhaps may I suggest that a well chilled port with dash of soda makes a wonderful summer drink!


All notes by Graham Wright unless otherwise stated.

ST = Stephen Tanzer, RPj = Robert Parker Jrn, JG = James Godfrey


Graham Wright

Oddbins Wine Auctions

November 2004


The Tasting


Fonseca Bin 27 Port - Guimaraens Vinhos (Symington)

Type: Superior Ruby, 1st released 1972

Style: Rich, velvety, full bodied, luscious, blackcurrants, cherries, intensity


Notes: Very light brown, no red notes at all.  Sweet raisoned fruit, hints of chocolate, coffee and muscat with a whiff spirit.  On the palate, very ripe (overripe) fruit with leathery bottle aged characters mid palate then falls away to a steely/spirituous finish.  Overall looks frail and tired.


Conclusion – JG = lacking the vibrancy expected from a ruby.  GW = Enough sweet, ripe fruit to make it drinkable...just.


Gould Campbell Finest Old Tawny Port 20% - Smith Woodhouse (Symington)

Type: No age statement wood matured tawny

Style: Amber/Tawny colour, soft & silky palate, could deteriorate in bottle.


Notes:  From its very pale dark amber/burnt orange colour to its dull, oak nose, the omens didn’t look good for this wine.  Ultimately dull and lifeless.


Conclusion – Pity, the extended bottling aging has killed any fruit that was originally in this wine.


F Flight One: The basics


Taylor’s 10 Years Old Rich Old Tawny Port Bottled 1977 – Taylor Fladgate Yeatman (Symington)

Type: Aged wood matured tawny

Style: Elegant & smooth, delicate wood, rich & mellow fruit

Comment: ST – Cherry, mineral, smooth & structured, intensity, firm back bone, not especially sweet, slightly harsh finish.


Notes:  bright, pale burnt orange in colour, almost varnish like.  Initially a slightly sweet, sherry character that soon descended into a dull oakiness dominated the nose.  Surprisingly, the palate was full, rich and creamy, with lots of cinnamon, vanilla and bottle age notes.  The spirit was lively leaving a distinct dry herbal note on the end.


Conclusion – GW = saved by the glycerol richness of the spirit.


Graham’s 20 Years Of Age Port 20% Bottled 1983 – W & J Graham & Co (Symington)

Type: Aged wood matured tawny

Style: Light, “gloriously” smooth, nutty, soft lingering aftertaste

Comment: ST – brooding, concentrated, unctuous, aggressive, weight, solidity, strong extract, long & sweet glycerol finish


Notes:  Clear light tawny colour, with at long last, a hint of red.  Rancio! Almond, marzipan, nuts, candied citrus fruit, delicate but quite perfumed.  Great length, clean spirit finish with a degree of intense ripe fruit mid palate with just a hint of freshness.


Conclusion – JG = Good example of style, GW = Check out the bottling date – that touch of fresh fruit makes a world of difference.


Fonseca 30 Years Old Rich Port 20% Bottled 1973- Guimaraens Vinhos (Symington)

Type: Aged wood matured tawny

Style: Olive gold hue, density, concentration, clove, nutmeg, lush & viscous, length

Comment: ST Pale tawny, flamboyant nose of orange peel & resin, focused, juicy yet minerally firm, liquorice.


Notes:  deep marmalade colour and a nose reminiscent of a very light, aged Australian tokay: rancio, prunes & spiced orange and subtle oak.  Warm and spicy with great spirit lift, good length with a crisply clean finish.  Someone suggested that this wine was crisply acidic as well.


Conclusion – JG = Excellent


Dalva Colheita 1936 Over 40 Years Old Bottled 1976 – C da Silva (Vinhos)

Type: Wood aged tawny, vintage dated, min 7yrs in oak and can be stored up to 40 years in glass demi-johns.

Style: Rich & full bodied, fruity


Notes:  Clear orange with a hint of aged Para-esque green.  Rancio evident along with nuts, orange zest & peel, candied fruit, toffee and Mr Godfrey’s “ethereal” character with the spirit adding an additional element of life and zest.  Quite in the mid palate with a nice dollop of complex, ripe fruit yet finishes a little hot and spicy (possibly drying out?) at the end, but overall an amazing presence in the mouth with lots of aged intrigue.


Conclusion – JG = Heady, intriguing, great presence.  GW = Extraordinary, given the poor vintage, cellaring conditions and length of time in the bottle, a joy to taste & drink.


Gilbert’s Coheita 1940 Tawny Adamado Garrafeira – Gilbert’s (Amorin/Natureza Group)

Type: Wood aged tawny, vintage dated, min 7yrs in oak and can be stored up to 40 years in glass demi-johns.

Style: Rich & full bodied, fruity


Notes:  Medium deep toffee, almost Oloroso in colour.  Initially big, bright sweet oak and equally sweet but aged fruit flavours with a note that JG calls the “ethereal”.  Lively spirit envelops some sweetly glycerol fruit, excellent length and very well balanced, mid palate intensity that is sweetly inviting and charming.  A taste of toffee and glace fruits lingers at the end.


Conclusion – GW = Remarkably fresh and intriguing for it’s age


Porto Feist 1966 19.5% Bottled 1978 – H & CJ Feist Vinhos (Barros/Almeida)

Type: Wood aged tawny, vintage dated, min 7yrs in oak and can be stored up to 40 years in glass demi-johns

Style: Rich & full bodied, fruity

Comment – RPjr – Coheitas, rarely exploited (by marketers), could last 10, 20 or even 30 years.


Notes:  Bight, tawny orange with a nose of subtle earthiness, raisoned fruit, marzipan, cinnamon, spice and just a hint of fresh citrus fruits and spicy oak.  In fact quite lifted perfume.  Gently fresh on the palate yet still rich and warming, hints of toffee, cream, oranges and lemons and well integrated spirit.  Finishes clean if a tad short.


Conclusion - GW = Looks like Mr P is right!  Looking good.


Cockburn’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 1978 Bottled 1983 – Cockburn Smithes & Cia Lda (Allied Domecq)

Type: Wood aged, single year, kept in wood for twice as long as a vintage, bottled 4 to 6 years after harvest

Style: Intense and concentrated fruit, can be light, drink on purchase


Notes: Oxidised, tawny no red notes.  Coffee oak, marzipan, aged fruit with a hint of VA – basically dried out.  However, on the palate, good length, tight and wood grainy, moderately dry, medium to light weight but showing lots of bottle aged characters of leather, wood and spice.


Conclusion – JG = Needs vibrancy, sweet fruit & tannin.  This wines lacks all three.  GW = Looks out of sorts, possibly dried out.


Porto Noval 1968 LBV Bottled 1974 – Quinta do Noval AJS da Silva (AXA)

Type: Wood aged, single year, kept in wood for twice as long as a vintage, bottled 4 to 6 years after harvest

Style: Intense and concentrated fruit, can be light, drink on purchase


Notes:  Surprisingly the colour was a bright, burnished gold/orange with a nose of strawberry and orange peel and quite lifted and lively.  Gently rich on the palate but is a little short, hints of vanilla ice cream in the middle but finishes quite hot and spicy.  Say goodnight!


Conclusion – JG = Lacking character.  GW = Out of balance.


Warre’s 1975 Vintage Porto – Warre & Co Lda (Symington)

Type: Wine from a single year, 2-3 years in wood, bottled matured

Style: Light, elegant, soft & smooth, fully matured

Comment: RPjr – restrained, mineral scented, soft, supple & mature


Notes:  Clear, bright orange with a hint of pink! I kid you not.  Very light looking with little viscosity while the nose displays the distinct notes of citronella and dried herbs.  On the palate, very light and very short, generally lack in all departments. 


Conclusion – From all and sundry = Bizzare.  JG = lost its fruit, no colour, been stood for far too long.  GW = We have a problem!


Quinata do Noval 1966 Vintage Port Bottled 1968 – AJS da Silva (AXA)

Type: Single vineyard, single year, 2-3 years in wood, bottled matured

Style: Solid, structured fruit and tannins.


Notes:  Medium to light tawny red with an oxidised orange note and on the nose the oxidation continues with just a hint of spice but lots of earthiness, leather and aged characters.  On the palate, light and spirity, lacking structure, tannin and length and depth.  Flat, dead fruit.  Long term cellaring has not helped this wine one bit.


Conclusion - JG = Looking oxidised and if had been stored incorrectly upright.  GW = A big disappointment.