Grahams 20 Year Tawny Porto

The annual beer hibernation offers an opportunity for me to put on my ruminating wig and think long and hard about things other than beer. Like hot sauce. Or an obsidian goblet filled with an aqueous form of eldritch horror. Or, um, port wine. Alright, I shouldn’t have mentioned that Lovecraftian liquor, but I assure you that it is literally unspeakable and indescribable, which obviates the need for a post. I mean, the very geometry was so corrupt that… you know what, I should stop writing about that. For reasons. You’ll have to settle for port.

I’ve only reviewed four different port wines here, but they’ve all been Ruby Ports. In general, most of the port I’ve had has also been a Ruby Port. So many robey tones. But in many ways, Tawny Ports seem like they’d be more up my alley. Like a true dork, I’ve covered the general differences and definitions before, so I won’t belabor the point, but Tawny Port is typically aged in oak a lot longer, resulting in a gradual oxidation leading to a change in flavor and color (instead of those robey tones, it’s got a more earthy, orange-brown hue – i.e. tawny). The Indication of Age for port tends to follow specific designations of 10, 20, 30, or 40 years. Unlike some spirits, this indicates an average age of a blend (not, for example, the youngest age of the components) and the goal is to approximate the “house style” consistently from release to release (rather than a unique vintage feel). Up until now, I’ve only ever really had a 10 year old, which is certainly distinct from the various ruby expressions, but now that I’ve had a 20 year old, the difference is much more apparent. Let’s take a closer look:

Grahams 20 Year Tawny Porto

Graham’s 20 Year Tawny Porto – Pours a clear, pale orange brown color, kinda like a dirty copper penny color. Smells sweet, syrupy, fruity, but with a nutty character in the background. Taste is very sweet, concentrated, rich, fruity, syrupy, a little nutty, almonds, some oak present, and some oxidation providing complexity. Mouthfeel is rich, full bodied, and sticky, just a faded hint of bright acidity in the background. Overall, unlike any port I’ve ever had, quite sweet but with a very nice complexity. A-

Port Nerd Details: 20% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a taster glass on 3/3/18. 20 Years Old.

Beer Nerd Musings: Lots of beers are aged in port barrels, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any sort of distinction made between Ruby and Tawny barrels (though, of course, they do exist… naturally, it doesn’t specify how old the Tawny port was though…). I would certainly be curious about how much of an difference the older barrels make. I mean, a 20 year old barrel has to have a different character than a 2 year Vintage port barrel, right?

Certainly a bit pricey, but worth it at least once. I don’t know that this is the sort of thing that would enter my regular repertoire, but it definitely works as a special occasion tipple.

Barão de Vilar Vintage Port

Vintage Port is generally a pricey proposition, but one of the few good things about the PLCB monopoly is that when the Chairman sets his sights on Port, you’re in for a bargain or two. Most Vintage Ports I see sell for $70 or more, but currently in PA, this bottle can be had for $39.99. Still expensive, to be sure, but not a bad shake. I do enjoy the occasional nightcap of Port, though it’s usually something more along the lines of a basic Reserve Port. However, since we’re on a little quasi-hiatus from beer, I figure it’s worth splurging on a bottle of Vintage Port.

Near as I can tell Barão de Vilar (the “Baron of Vilar”?) is a longstanding but somewhat obscure producer that has been attempting to expand their footprint. Vintage Ports aren’t an every year thing, but 2011 appears to have been a particularly good year, referred to as a “Classic” that is drinkable now but which will also age well.

Barao de Vilar Vintage Port

Barão de Vilar Vintage Port 2011 – Pours a beautiful, inky dark purple color. Smells amazingly good, ripe dark fruits, chocolate? A slightly earthy note? Taste is full of rich fruit and a surprisingly strong tannin character. I don’t mean to imply that this is some sort of tannic monster, it’s more of a relative thing. Tannic… for a port. It’s not unpleasant and it certainly does make the wine distinctive, though I have to wonder about the implications. Does this make the bottle a particularly good candidate for aging? Perhaps! I mean, I don’t really know, this is a beer blog, so take this with a giant asteroid of salt, but it seems worth a flier. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy. Not dry, but again, that tannic character does contribute more dryness than your typical port. Overall, this is drinking well right now, but I’m guessing it will age really well. B+

Wine Nerd Details: 20% ABV bottled (750 ml corked). Drank out of a copita glass on 2/28/16. Vintage: 2011.

Beer Nerd Musings: I’ve already speculated on the usage of port barrels to age beer, how a Vintage Port barrel would compare to, say, a Tawny Port barrel, and even the concept of fortified beer. This time around, I’d like to think on the concept of a “Vintage” year. I wonder how that concept could apply to beer. Interestingly enough, there are some examples of this sort of thing. Rodenbach does Vintage releases (in addition to their normal blended releases), but near as I can tell, they do them every year, so it’s not as selective as Port. Drie Fonteinen does have a beer called Oude Geuze Vintage and this is, in fact, not released every year (though it is most years). But again, it’s not quite a direct analog to Port. It is, in fact, the same beer as the “regular” Oude Geuze, but for whatever reason, the brewers decide that it needs more time to mature in the bottle. This could be because they think it has good aging potential, but it could also be because a portion of the current batch simply hasn’t carbed up enough or developed enough such that it would be consistent with the typical release. Now, usually, the Vintage release is received rapturously, but that could simply be because it has had more time to age. Unlike most beer, Lambic appears to age remarkably well, so this beer has a built in rarity and desirability right from the start. It’s probably the closest beer comes to something like a Vintage Port.

The PLCB also has bottles of Feuerheerd’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port right now, and that’s also worth picking up (not sure if I like it more than last year’s Reserve Port, but I’ll take it). Stay tuned folks, tomorrow we hit up some Bourbon.

Feuerheerd’s Ruby Porto Reserva

As the latest round of privatization talks ramp up in Harrisburg (don’t hold your breath), it’s worth noting that occasionally the PLCB does something decent. I mean, it’s still a archaic system filled with draconian rules, the selection is generally unreliable, and the state stores are basically devoid of any personality whatsoever, but sometimes the combined purchasing power of the state does lead to a good deal or two. In particular, the Chairman’s Selection program seems to offer some pretty deep discounts on select bottles of wine. On the whole, I’d much rather be able to find what I’m looking for than be at the mercy of the Chairman’s whims (he says, as if he buys a lot of wine), but sometimes that guy selects something fun.

Enter Feuerheerd’s Ruby Porto Reserva. I’ve seen this bottle around before (at least, I think this is what it was), the military stencils on the bottle are quite eye catching, but the price (around $30) was a bit too high for a reserve port (I went over the various port designations last year). Thanks to the Chairman, we’ve got a nice 50% discount going on here, with the bottle now selling for $14.99. I won’t leave you in suspense, if you like port and live near PA, it’s worth stocking up.

It’s a little hard to come by info on Feuerheerd (no official website I can find, not even a Wikipedia page). Founded in 1815 as part of a series of businesses for Dietrich Feuerheerd, it’s changed hands a few times since then, and came to be focused on port. These days, they appear to be a mid-list shipper when it comes to Vintage port, but this reserva is quite good. I’m not going to proclaim myself an expert, but it’s probably my favorite expression of reserve yet (with close competition from Graham’s Six Grapes). Thanks to the chairman, I can’t imagine a better deal on port ever coming to pass. Let’s take a closer look:

Feuerheerds Ruby Porto Reserva

Feuerheerd’s Ruby Porto Reserva – Pours a very dark red color, purple around the edges, a little glint when held to light, nice legs. Smells fabulous, lots of fruits, plums, berries, and the like, with some oak, and maybe something more earthy, like leather or tobacco. Taste is very sweet, rich, tons of dark fruits, plums, cherries, berries, and the like, a hint of oak, spice, and booze. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, chewy, very sticky, a bit of boozy warming character, but very soft for a port. Overall, well balanced and very well crafted, certainly one of the better ruby reserves I’ve had, though it lacks the true complexity of a vintage porto. On the lower end of A-, a true competitor to Six Grapes (my current go-to), if not a superior option.

Wine Nerd Details: 20% ABV bottled (750 ml, about a week after opening). Drank out of a copita glass on 1/1/15. 2014 vintage.

Beer Nerd Musings: I wonder if anyone’s ever tried to make fortified beer. I know there are a number of techniques that will yield super-high alcohol in beer, but nothing that uses a similar process to Port or Sherry. I suppose you could argue that a big, barrel aged stout or barleywine is a close approximation. After all, you’re basically adding a small proportion of spirit to the beer (and for the most part, fermentation has stopped once it hits the barrel). Not quite fortified in the manner of Port, but along those lines perhaps. A quick googling reveals the practice of Needled Beer, basically beer spiked with spirits of some kind. Apparently the drink of choice for only the lowest sorts. And hey, looky, Great Divide made something called Needled Beer, a 20% ABV barleywine. That sounds rather more like it. Of course, there’s only one checkin, and it doesn’t seem to appear anywhere else (even Ratebeer or Beeradvocate), but hey, it’s something.

I’ve been considering an oak aged homebrew that used port instead of bourbon (I’m thinking Wee Heavy as the style, but may resort back to barleywine or stout again), and given the price point on Feuerheerd’s, it might be worth picking up an extra bottle for that purpose.

So there you have it, my first non-beer review of the year. Not sure if I’ll be tackling any more Port this year, but maybe I’ll grab a Tawny before the 40 days are up (Since I haven’t really written about them before and I honestly haven’t drank that many of them, that would probably work). I’ll be keeping the lid on any Vintage ports I own for a while, but maybe next year… In the meantime, there will be some bourbon reviews next week, and at least one beer review while I’m at it. Stay tuned.

Graham’s 2011 Vintage Porto

Do you have a lot of money? Then Vintage Port is for you! I took a flier on some 2011 Vintage Ports, but man, they sure do put a hurting on the wallet. I can’t say as though it’s something I’ll be doing very often, but then, it’s still an interesting aspect of this pursuit. As mentioned earlier this week, Vintage Ports appear to be the pinnacle of the Port world, hence the expense.

A Vintage Port is made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year. Only 3-4 years in a decade, on average, are declared vintage years and the decision is made by each individual port house (or “shipper”). The decisions do not come lightly, and they generally seem to group together. The decision to declare a Vintage is made in the spring of the second year following the harvest. Last year, the decision was made to declare 2011 as a Vintage year, and all signs point to this being a classic Vintage that could rival any of the past 20 years, if not further back than that. As mentioned in my earlier post, Vintage ports are released relatively young, but they are meant to age in the bottle, and will last decades. They say the 2011 Vintage is ready to drink right now, but will continue to evolve over time.

There are also Late Bottled Vintages (LBV), which are still from a single year, but come later in the aging process, and thus don’t quite have the same quality of Vintage years. There are different ways to treat these wines, but filtered LBV Ports are meant to be drunk right away, while unfiltered LBVs can lay down for a while, just like Vintage ports. LBV ports tend to be much more cost effective, from what I’ve seen, but then, the quality is clearly not as high as Vintage Ports.

What we have here is Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port, generally regarded highly by Port nerds (at least as far as I can see). It was certainly very expensive, but it at least came in a small 375 ml bottle that is at least approachable to tackle in a relatively short timeframe (it will certainly last a long time, like all port, but it apparently loses its distinct character after you’ve had it open for a while). Vintage ports are unfiltered, so I did need to decant this first. I saved the dregs of the bottle for use in my upcoming Beef Bourgogne recipe, which will hopefully impart a little extra zing.

Grahams 2011 Vintage Porto

Graham’s 2011 Vintage Porto – Pours a dark red color (robey tones, bro), purple around the edges. The nose is beautiful, lots of sweet fruit, berries and plums and the like, but also a light earthiness that matches very well, along with hints of not-quite clove spice (I mean, it’s not spicy, but it’s bringing to mind clove for some reason). The taste starts with an intense rush of flavor, again lots of sweet, rich fruit and berries, but that’s tempered by the earthiness from the nose, an almost tobacco type feel here, with that quasi-clove spice character pitching in as well. More complex than I’m used to from port, but it’s all harmonious. Mouthfeel is medium to full bodied and has a nice richness to it. Well matched acidity and a surprisingly dry finish. Not crazy dry, but for a port, certainly so. A hint of pleasant boozy heat also works its way in. The balance here is superb, and everything works well together. Overall, one of the best ports I’ve ever had, though the price still stings a bit. A-

Wine Nerd Details: 20% ABV bottled (375 ml with cork). Drank out of a copita glass. 2011 Vintage.

Beer Nerd Musings: As I mentioned previously, there are beers aged in Port barrels, though I don’t know of any that are specified as Vintage port barrels, which would be interesting. One of the things I’ve been wondering about barrel aging is how the age of the barrel impacts the secondary use. Would a Vintage port barrel (with 2 years primary use) be much better to use than a 30 year Tawny Port barrel? I suppose the same could be said for Bourbon barrels, and it may be something I pedantically pursue by emailing brewers when I get drunk. Only one way to find out, I guess.

Given the expense, I would clearly never use Vintage port with my homebrew, but as I mentioned in the previous port post, Graham’s appears to be my favorite of the shippers, and their Six Grapes reserve is pretty awesome in my book. I would definitely consider soaking some oak cubes in Six Grapes and using those to age my beer on…

So that concludes this weeks’ Port festivities. I believe this coming week will stay in the wine world, with a white and red, though who knows how this weekend will strike me. See you next week!

Fonseca Terra Bella Reserve Porto

Alright, deep breath, drastic simplification of a complicated booze category incoming: Port is a fortified wine made by adding a neutral grape spirit (similar to Brandy) to the wine during the middle of the fermentation process. This raises the alcohol and halts the fermentation process, leaving residual sugars and thus resulting a sweeter taste (which is why this is often referred to as a “dessert wine”). Port originates from a specific region in Portugal and it’s a protected appellation (like Champagne, etc…)

While the terroir and grapes used are important (and there are multiple varietals), the bigger lever in the Port world appears to be how it is aged. I’m totally going to screw this up, but what you’ve got are basically Tawny Ports and Ruby Ports (and I guess I should include White Ports, which are made with white graps). Both are typically aged in wooden barrels, but Tawny Ports will age for much longer and often come with an Indication of Age (a term of the art, with official designations 10, 20, 30, and 40 years). Aging in barrels exposes the wine to a long, gradual oxidation and evaporation, leading to a loss of color (typically settling into a golden brown color) and differences in flavor. Because the aging is done in the barrel, the bottle is usually ready to drink when you buy it.

Ruby Port, on the other hand, typically spends a shorter amount of time in the barrel and is meant to age in the bottle. To be sure, most Ruby Port is not necessarily meant for extended aging, but there are many sub-categories here. Ruby, Reserve, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), Vintage, and several others exist. We’ll cover LBV and Vintage in a separate post, but Vintage port is supposedly the finest Port you can have. Ruby is typically a blend of very young Port, simple and fruit-driven flavors. Reserve Port is a blend of Ruby Ports with an older average age and thus added complexity and quality. The idea is to approximate some of the character of Vintage port through blending.

There are, of course, a bunch of other styles that could be added to this list, but we’ll stop now before we anger the wine gods any further with our pitiful summaries of complex subjects. What we have today is a Reserve Porto from Fonseca, who makes the seemingly ubiquitous Bin 27, also a Reserve blend. The difference between Terra Bella (aka Terra Prima) and Bin 27 is that Terra Bella is made with certified organic grapes. Go Fonseca. Alas, I think this falls a bit short of my gold standard Reserve, which is Graham’s Six Grapes (a little more expensive, but still in the $20ish range and worth the stretch):

Fonseca Terra Bella Reserve Porto

Fonseca Terra Bella Reserve Porto – Pours a very dark red, purple color (I feel like this is darker than normal, but then, it’s not like I took pictures or really studied most of my previous Portos). Smell has a big fruit profile, plums, grapes, and the like, some oak, maybe even a sorta earthy tobacco kinda thing, but now I’m kinda pushing my limited wine palate. Taste is rich and sweet, less fruit than the nose, but it’s there. That earthy tobacco stuff that I was reaching for in the nose is here in the taste too. The booze also comes through strong in the finish. Mouthfeel is rich and full bodied, with a bit of hot booze in the finish (I want to say it’s hotter than most ports). Overall, it’s a solid take on the Porto, though I found the balance a bit off. B

Wine Nerd Details: 20% ABV bottled (750 ml cork stopper). Drank out of a copita glass.

Beer Nerd Musings: I was originally turned on to Port Wine because some beers, particularly very high ABV beers, are often described as having a Port Wine character to them. In specific, Dogfish Head’s World Wide Stout, an 18% ABV monster imperial stout, was described by Sam Caligione as having “port notes” which I noted at the time made me want to check out the world of port.

And here we are a few years later, and I can certainly discern a port-like character in some beers, particularly high ABV, malt-forward barleywines, which often take on a vinous fruit character (even though there are no grapes used in their production), some examples being Dock Street’s Barleywine and Hoppin’ Frog’s Naked Evil, though you’ll often see fruity notes mentioned in barleywine reviews. Stouts are a little more rare, but the very high ABV ones like the aforementioned WWS and Brewdog Tokyo.

And there are, of course, Port barrel aged beers, though my luck with them has been decidedly mixed. The La Trappe Quadrupel Barrique was partially aged in Port barrels and turned out fantastic (but I’m not sure I’d call it better than the base beer). On the other hand, JW Lees Harvest Ale and Scotch De Silly were both aged in Port barrels and turned out rather horrid. However, I think the fault there lies with the European tendency to appreciate small amounts of diacetyl in their beer, while I have not tolerance for that whatsoever. So I can’t really blame the Port barrels for that. Otherwise, it’s not a treatment we see super often in the US. I imagine shipping the barrels over from Portugal would be an expensive hassle, but some brewers manage. Hill Farmstead has a variant on Damon that’s aged in Port barrels that gets amazing reviews. There are plenty of other beers aged in Port barrels, but they seem rather rare. I will need to keep an eye out for them…

So there you have it. A small glass of Port Wine has become a Kaedrin nightcap standard, and it’s often a nice way to follow up some beer. Oh, and it’s good on its own too. Stay tuned for Beer Club tomorrow, followed by some Vintage Port on Thursday.