Don Schliff began collecting Port in 1969, inspired by a restaurant named the Studio Grill in Hollywood where Vintage Port was served by the glass. For many years the restaurant’s owner Ardison Philips organized vertical Port tastings on the Saturday between Christmas and New Year. When the restaurant closed (and Philips went on to be a winemaker), Don Schiff took over the role, organizing a tasting of 1945s from 13 shippers in October 1993. Other tastings have followed, including a retrospective of 1955s in 2007, ‘Great Sevens’ in 2017 and 100 Years of Taylor Fladgate in 2019
I am very grateful to Don Schliff for generously inviting me to attend this tasting spanning three centuries of Vintage Port (with one or two other fascinating wines thrown in as well). The tasting took place at the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles over the course of a long Sunday lunch. It was divided into five flights with a different course of the meal served with each of the flights. There was a welcome champagne break to refresh the palate between flights three and four. No spittoons were provided and so all the wines were tasted and mostly consumed, which may account for some of my rather hazy notes towards the end of the event. (We started tasting at midday and finished at around six in the evening).
The tasting spanned 183 years and only one decade was not represented: the 1890s where a magnum of Dow 1896 failed to arrive on the day. (See my book, Port and the Douro, for a note on this). Two bottles of each of the wines below were decanted apart from the 1851, the only wine that had a question mark over its condition. Apart from this there were no corked wines.
This was a magnificent tasting where the guest stars were both Ports themselves as well as some of the attendees: Christian Seely representing Quinta do Noval, Hugh Symington representing Symington Family Estates, Daniel Niepoort (representing his family Port shipper), Darrell Corti (Corti Bros. in Sacramento, CA.) and Roy Hersh (For the Love of Port). A good discussion of the wines followed each of the flights and I was happy to provide some context for the twentieth century wines. I decided that it would be churlish award marks or a star rating to the nineteenth century wines, most of which were remarkable survivors. The notes on these wines speak for themselves.
1834 Shipper Unknown
From a renowned mid-19th century vintage, decanted from hand blown bottles: lovely mahogany / amber colour; smoked earth aromas, like hot, dry ground after summer rain; soft and delicate with a touch of peppery spice mid-palate (could this be the merest vestige of tannin?), long creamy finish. Remarkable. A true survivor. How to award a mark?
1844 Shipper Unknown
Pale brick-red tawny hue; toffee and spice on the nose, still fresh, delicate but not in anyway fragile, soft caramelised tawny character with a long lithe finish, another remarkable wine. It would be lovely to know more about its origin but there were no clues. Another wine that would be churlish to mark.
Cossart Gordon, Solera 1844, Bual
Introduced to this tasting as a point of comparison though of course a solera is not a vintage but a complex blend of wines. I had not tasted this particular solera before: lovely golden amber hue; toasted aromas though squeaky fresh, lovely orange peel tang on the palate with a savoury finish, seemingly quite dry in style for a Bual.
I have only tasted one wine from this vintage before, from an unknown shipper but a stunning wine. Great Exhibition Vintage. Pale brick red in colour; rather flat and oxidized on the nose (could the be a touch of cork?) and this did not improve with time in the glass (sadly there was only one bottle); better on the palate, sweet milk chocolate fruit retaining some grip mid-palate, fruit still evident with all-spice on the finish. Only one bottle of this wine and it was a let down on the nose. Hard to award a mark to this.
Oporto bottled: mid-amber in colour, and closer to Madeira than Port, out of sync. with the other wines in this flight, could this be from white grapes? Tropical aromas with a touch of smoke, camphor and eucalyptus, similar on the palate (‘cinnamon stick’) according to one taster, singed, unusual but retains sweetness and finishes well.
Sandeman 1868 (believed)
A great pre-phylloxera vintage, generally declared: pale brick red; a touch resiny on the nose with gentle summer fruit on the palate, but a touch earthy, leading to a resiny finish, rather short and spirity.
Produced in the midst of phylloxera: very pale pink–amber hue; lifted and rather hollow on the nose, drying out on the palate, a touch of sweetness mid-palate but fragile in the extreme. One bottle very resiny in character. Something of a ghost.
Shipper Unknown 1887
Declared to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee: pale, washed out colour, rather hazy too; hollow on the nose, a touch of caramel toffee, very delicate with a washed out tawny character and a rather thin, fragile finish.
Sandeman 1908 ****
Mid amber/mahogany; gentle floral – eucalypt aromas, lifted, a touch wild, all there but a rather unusual perfume nonetheless, firm, retaining some tannic grip with slightly medicinal cherry fruit, nicely balanced with the fruit lingering onto the finish. 17.5
Cockburn 1912 *****
Pale brick red colour; subdued initially on the nose but with a wonderful floral character emerging after an hour or so in the glass; sweet berry fruit, a touch of mintiness too, remarkable for its focus and freshness, retaining grip with tannins lingering on to the finish. The third time that I have tasted this wonderful wine and it has never disappointed. A wow of a wine at 108 years old! 20
Niepoort 1927 *****
Still deep in colour, red mahogany in hue; rich but lifted on the nose, a touch tropical in its richness and intensity, still focused with full, ripe, sweet fruit lingering on to broad finish. All there. The second time I have taste this remarkable wine. (Niepoort also bottled a colheita from the same year). 19.5
Quinta do Noval 1931 (UK bottled by Fearon, Block, Bridges & Routh) *****
Lovely colour, still with mid-deep hue at the centre, thin amber rim; wonderfully expressive on the nose: rich, focused with dark chocolate concentration at its core; similarly focused on the palate, lovely minty ripe fruit and a touch of dark chocolate, good grip, hanging together well and seamless from start to finish. (I was sitting next to Christian Seely, Managing Director of Noval, at the tasting who tells me that this is just as good and as the legendary 1931 Nacional). 20
Taylor 1945 (Oporto bottled) *****
Mid deep in hue, a touch lifted on the nose but sweet, seductive and almost syrupy in its richness; still dense and focused on the palate, powerful even, summer fruit, yielding to a very elegant leading to a long, lithe finish with a touch of liquorice and dark chocolate richness. Combines power and elegance in equal measure. 20
Mackenzie 1955 (Oporto bottled) ****/*****
This is the first time that I have tasted this wine and I had to look up the history of the house which no longer exists as an independent shipper. It was founded in 1852 by Kenneth Mackenzie as a sherry shipper and branched into Port. The company was sold to J.H. Andresen after World War II who then sold it on to Harveys in 1970. Apparently the label was last used in 1982. This wine did not disappoint: mid-deep youthful colour; ripe dense and initially quite subdued on the nose with dark chocolate depth and focus emerging; rich, ripe minty berry fruit baked by dusty-spicy tannins leading to a solid, foursquare finish. Bitter- sweet, just as it should be, and very expressive. According to others who have tasted this before alongside other 1955s, this wine competes with the best. 18.5
Fonseca 1963 (Oporto bottled) ***
Surprisingly pale in colour though still a youthful pink; weedy on the nose and a touch green too, not what I would have expected from this wine; lighter on the palate than I recall (though there has been some bottle variation with this wine), sweet, spicy, elegant with long sinewy tannins but this particular bottle is not wowing me. 15.5
Graham 1970 (Oporto bottled) *****
Mid-deep, brick red – garnet; sullen on the nose, still tight knit and a youngster in the context of this tasting; sweet berry fruit in classic Graham style backed by firm peppery tannic grip, rich, leading to a lovely peacocks tail of a finish. Very fine, as always. You can count on this every time as a great Vintage Port. 19.5
Cockburn 1983 ***/ ****
Well known as being very variable in quality with a high incidence of corked bottles, both bottles were consistent here. Mid-deep in hue, browning on the rim; open, fragrant but a bit hollow on the nose, fully mature; soft, sweet berry fruit, gentle on the palate but spirit showing though on the finish, backed by rather lean tannins. Very 1983 in style: this won’t be a keeper. 16.5
Taylor 1994 ****/ *****
Good mid-deep colour, thin ruby rim; showing ripeness on the nose though still not that expressive and seemingly a bit austere, perhaps needs time to open up; firm on the palate, lovely freshness with purity of fruit showing mid-palate and on to the finish. Not big but only just ready to drink with a good life ahead. 18.5
Quinta do Noval 2000 ****
An ‘unloved baby’ according to Christian Seely who was sitting alongside me at the tasting: still very deep, opaque in colour; tight-knit but lumpy and a bit hot and roasted on the nose, need time to settle down and for the fruit to emerge; solid, foursquare initially on the palate with lovely sweet berry fruit emerging and leading to a good, firm finish. This needs another five years or so in bottle before it can be truly loved as an adult. 17.5
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2000 *****
Deep, youthful, opaque; closed, dense with a touch of tar on the nose; similarly tight-knit and solid in the mouth, a massive wine with lovely dense, ripe black cherry fruit leading to a ripe but austere finish. This wine is still very reserved and needs time to open up – I would say another ten years in bottle for the wine to emerge from adolescence. 19.5
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2011 *****
Deep, opaque in hue; rich liquorice character on the nose, dense, still sullen; lovely fruit on the palate, ripe with dark chocolate and liquorice richness and intensity, already showing perfect definition and rather more expressive than the 2000 despite being 11 years younger. Start to drink around 2030. 19.5
Quinta do Noval 2017 *****
Opaque, black in hue; a wow of a nose, still open, opulent with beautifully expressive ripe berry fruit; full, voluptuous backed by firm ripe tannins, dense and rich but not showing any of the heat of the vintage, backed by broad, fine grained tannins leading to a massive finish. A ‘wow’ of a wine. Outstanding. 20
Niepoort 2017 ****
Very deep, opaque; dense but open, ripe cassis-like fruit, perhaps just a touch of hedgerow; a big wine with lovely, well defined minty fruit, still vibrant and in full bloom of youth, tannins a touch green and a little bit raw on the finish. 18
Niepoort Garrafeira 1987 ****
Garrafeira is a category of Port particular to Niepoort which combines ageing in pipe like a tawny before the wine is ‘bottled’ in 11- 14 litre glass demi-johns then decanted and rebottled in 75 cl bottles. This wine comes form Dirk Niepoort’s first vintage (also declared by Niepoort). Mid-deep at the centre, turning tawny on the rim; open semi-tawny character on the nose, quite difficult to describe; smooth and sauve initially yet with a distinct note of tannin and spice. A lovely in-between wine to conclude the tasting. 17.5
Niepoort Garrafeira 1863 *****
This was billed as a ‘mystery wine’ and served blind by Daniel Niepoort (representing the 6th generation of the Niepoort family) at the very end of the tasting. The wine was set aside by the founding father of the firm as a tawny then transferred to glass demi-johns around the turn of the twentieth century. Deep green tinged mahogany; rich, slightly baked on the nose with the torrefaction character of freshly ground coffee beans; gloriously intense, sweet old tawny character with wonderful concentration and focus, a streak of acidity running through like that of an old madeira keeps the wine fresh and alive on the palate all the way through to the finish. Wow! 20
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