It was once the custom for a landed family with a large country house to ship and bottle a pipe of vintage Port, often to mark the birth of a child. A pipe is a serious quantity of wine amounting to approximately 57 dozen so you need a good, spacious cellar to store the wine for the 21 years or so it needs to reach maturity. This tradition gradually died out post war (along with many landed families) and was extinguished altogether after 1970 which was the last declared vintage to be bottled in the UK (after that it became mandatory to bottle vintage Port in Portugal). So for a pipe of Port to come to auction these days is a rarity, but Richard Harvey of Bonham’s has tracked one down and it is coming up for auction on February 18th 2016. The wine has impeccable provenance having been produced by Fonseca, shipped in 1966 by L.R. Voigt (latterly Rawlings Voigt) of Great Tower Street, London and bottled by Findlater Mackie Todd at a well-documented cost of £329 and 5 shillings plus, packing, loading, duty and delivery.
Bonhams have 20 lots varying in size from a dozen to 5 dozen amounting to 39 dozen in total. (The family have either drunk and or are holding on the remainder of the pipe). I was invited by Richard Harvey to taste the wine and four bottles were opened after a rather good lunch in Bonham’s boardroom (catered by Bonham’s rather splendid new Michelin starred restaurant at 101 New Bond Street, London W1). There was inevitably a certain about of bottle variation after 50 years and this is reflected in the notes accompanying the sale (e.g. lot 335, of 2 dozen, 5 are base of neck, 6 very top, 1 high shoulder, corroded capsules, 1 perforated, 7 with signs of old seepage http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/23370/lot/335/ ). I should point out that the last time I drank Fonseca 1963 (at Fonseca’s bicentennial dinner in 2015) there was also significant bottle variation from Portuguese bottled stock where cellar conditions are not normally as good as they are in a British country house.
The following notes are based on four different bottles, 2 (A & B) decanted an hour prior to lunch and 2 (C & D) decanted immediately before drinking:
Fonseca 1963 (A) **
Pale-to-mid amber colour, looking quite mature; rather flat, demure and loose knit on the nose, creamy and more colheita than vintage Port; similarly soft and creamy in style, not nearly as fresh or a focused and I would have expected, drying out and a touch spirity with soft tannins just about holding up on the finish. Pleasurable but not a great example: the cork had fallen in on this bottle. 13
Fonseca 1963 (B) ****/*****
Clearly much fresher with a pink hue in the glass; lovely fragrant, developed vintage Port aromas, perfumed, floral (violets?) with an underlying bitter-sweet chocolate core; much fresher and more focused than the first sample on the palate, with lovely pure cherry fruit, a touch medicinal (in a rather nice, reassuring way) with bitter-sweet grip and a long rapier-like finish. 18.5
Fonseca 1963 (C)
Pale-to mid amber, still firm, soft, sweet creamy fruit, a bit soupy and lacking in focus but better than (A).
Fonseca 1963 (D)
Better colour than (C), opening up in the glass over 20 mins. or so to reveal dark chocolate fruit, lovely focus but seemingly not quite as long on the finish as (B).
19 - 20 An outstanding wine (*****)
17 – 18 An excellent wine in its class, highly recommended (****)
15 - 16 A good wine, with much to recommend it (***)
13 - 14 An enjoyable but simple, straightforward wine (**)
10 – 12 A very ordinary wine without faults but with no great merit (*)
8 - 10 Disagreeable (no stars)
Below 8 Faulty