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!

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