Wine of the Week and the Rewards of Long-Term Cellaring: Smith-Woodhouse 1977 Vintage Porto

Dec 31

There’s a lot of champagne being opened and guzzled and written about at this time, but I’ve always thought it odd that the wine that requires a lot of chilling is consumed the most at the coldest time of the year. If life made sense, they’d serve champage at the summer solstice, and vintage port at the winter solstice or New Year’s Eve. And then for Robert Burns Day later in January, everyone gets souced on Scotch, regardless of their hemisphere.

Anyway, this week’s Wine of the Week is one of the classic wine categories, vintage porto, and from a classic vintage, 1977. This is also an ode to the now-disappearing art of delayed gratification by way of laying down wines in your cellar with the intention of opening them some 20 years later.

Sometimes this backfires, as when I have lately discovered that it was a mistake to age any Right Bank (i.e merlot and cabernet franc-based Bordeaux) in my cellar for more than a decade. And even when you plan it right, as they say, “There are no great old wines, only great old bottles” (i.e. bottle variation makes it hard to rely on any single wine in the abstract to live up to expectations when cellar aging is stretched out over decades).

This particular wine, the Smith Woodhouse 1977 Vintage Porto, is (was) the oldest wine in my cellar, and five  years ago when I drank another 1977 Vintage Porto (Warres), I was dismayed in that particular wine which seemed on the way down. I was encouraged by Michael Broadbent MW’s notes on the Smith Woodhouse, which he said was holding up better.

Having had a particularly good year in 2012, I decided that 35 years was enough bottle aging (too much of a good thing etc.) and resolved to open the wine on Christmas Eve and drink it over the next week through the end of the year.

Because of its age, I decided against decanting it off the sediment, although I had stood the bottle upright for two weeks for the lees to settle to the bottom of the bottle.  I simply poured the wine carefully into a glass each time I needed one, then pumped out the air with a “vacu-vin” to preserve the remaining wine.

I recommend using a “screw-pull” corkscrew for wines 20 years old or more, since the cork will crumble easily and I had to do some “surgery” on the cork remaining in the bottle neck to prevent it falling into the wine, but managed with patience to extract it all.

Unless you plan to drink the whole bottle at a sitting, this is what I recommend with very old wines, rather than decanting, because you will oxidize the entire bottle in the process of decanting. This does mean though that you’ll need to pour carefully to prevent sediment entering the glass.

After all this build-up, I was not disappointed. The wine was a bit feeble at first, with a bright fruity spirit. It gradually opened, with rich, full, fruity, touriga nacional-dominated hedonistic wild berry fruits, and fragrance to match, with a plump, fat mid-palate of figs, dates and cherries but with a bright fresh finish, smooth tannins carrying it all through, and tasting both mature and surprisingly vibrant and youthful at some 35 years old. This bottle could have lasted until 40 years with grace, but I feel I caught it on the tail of its long and jubilant peak. It kind of made me want to cook up an excuse to enroll in some program in Oxford or Cambridge to be able to attend their high table dinners where a vintage porto of this age would be considered run-of-the-mill (maybe what you’d drink on a Tuesday night for example), and for which I’d gladly settle.

In fact, of all the portos I’ve had in many decades, this was the most full, rich, characteristic of the region and complete. It made me think of Gustav Holst’s symphonic work “The Planets”, specifically “Jupiter, the bringer of joy.” It was a great reward of the art of cellaring great wines and delaying gratification, and although I doubt you can find any more of this vintage, there are other great vintage ports from 1994, 2000, 2003 and 2007 I urge you to find and lay down (although if you want to wait until the 2007 vintage is as mature as this 1977 porto as, you should have graduated from high school in that  year!)

A good way to get a sense of the potential of a vintage port is to look for a Late Bottled Vintage from a great year (those mentioned above) and try it five years or more later. LBV portos are a  great value and having been aged 4-6 years in the cask before bottling (vintage portos are bottled only two years after the vintage and have to mature in the bottle), they are pretty much ready to drink when you buy them. Great vintages like 2007 though will continue to improve in the bottle if you lay them down, for 10 or more years after the vintage.

So, to 35 year old vintage porto, Gustav Holst, and the carefully cultivated art of delayed gratification in building a cellar, here’s a toast, and to a New Year in which we call can drink well and look forward to future years of rewarded patient cellaring….Prosit Neu Jahr!

Dr. Bruce Zoecklein Announces Enology Extension Replacement at VT

Dec 21

Virginia state enology professor emeritus Dr. Bruce Zoecklein, who retired full-time duties in 2010 but remains part-time at Virginia Tech’s Department of Food Science, has announced his replacement in extension duties.  Molly Kelly, a PhD student of Dr. Zoecklein’s whose research focuses on  the characterization of the aroma composition of Petit Manseng, will assume full-time extension duties for enology in the Department of Food Science on Dec. 25th.

In a newsletter to the industry, Dr. Zoecklein explained that when he first came to Virginia Tech in 1985, his responsibilities included teaching, research and extension support for the 31 wineries in the State, but with over 220 wineries currently, the department’s resources have been overwhelmed. Accordingly, Dr. Joe Marcy and Dean Alan Grant, Virginia Tech made the decision to replace Zoecklein’s position with two faculty positions. Kelly will assume the 100% enology extension, duties, and the other position will handle enology teaching and research.

Kelly comes to Virginia Tech from the Surry County Community College in North Carolinia whose enology program has its own bonded winery which under her direction has made many award-winning wines. Prior to her position at Surry, she was a microbiologist at the New York State Department of Health and on the Bio-defense Team. “Ms. Kelly will build upon our extension efforts designed to support the growth and development of the Virginia wine industry through educational programs and applied research providing an educational bridge between viticulture and enology,” says Zoecklein.

He also announced that his emeritus part-time duties with Tech will end this summer.

Dr. Zoecklein (along with his viticulturist colleague Dr. Tony Wolf)  has presided over a remarkable transformation in quality and reputation for the Virginia wine industry, in large measure due to his enology research, teaching and extension work over the last 27 years, and is admired and appreciated throughout the Virginia wine industry and beyond. We look forward to welcoming Ms. Kelly to the Virginia wine industry and following in her mentor’s footsteps at Virginia Tech’s enology program.