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!

Wine of the Week: Blenheim Syrah ’09

Oct 30

A year ago I tasted the 2008 vintage at Blenheim, made by then-new winemaker Kristy Harmon, and was impressed with the quality and elegant style that complements Virginia terroir so well. Today I enjoyed the ’09 viogner, dry rose, and most of all, the 2009 syrah.

This is the most compelling Virginia red wine of the 2009 vintage I’ve tried to date. This is not a “shiraz” style wine; it’s a northern Rhone style, with garrigue, spicy cherry, white pepper and smoky earth on the nose; very different from the standard red Bordeaux aromas. The wine is 86% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre, 4% Grenache, 50% barrel aged in French oak; Kristy confims that the grapes are all Virginia-grown (the Grenache and Mourvedre are from a vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley AVA).

On the palate, the flavors are lively and bright cherry and spice, with a smoky oak complexity that grows with time.

While enjoyable now, this wine will be at its best starting from a year from now for 4-5 more years, and lasting up to a decade due to bright acidity and stelvin closure.

This is definitely a food wine; the aromas and flavors call out for something like cassolet, coq au vin or roasted veggies and roast meats.

Wine of the Week: Afton Mtn. Riesling 2009, Monticello

Oct 28

Since Tony and Elizabeth Smith bought Afton Mountain Vineyards last year, wine quality is improving with some exciting new wines to show.

2009 was a top vintage for Virginia whites; a cool, long growing season ensuring both ripeness and freshness.

Although there are 33 wineries in Virginia that make riesling, it’s a real challenge because it rots so easily in this climate; some large producers use out-of-state fruit).

This wine showed that a cool but clean vintage like 2009 can produce excellent riesling in Virginia. The nose is subtle, with hints of yellow apple and pear. On the palate, it is fresh and bright, with lime and apple flavors, bright acidity, and a clean long finish.

This is a good candidate for a “locavore” Thanksgiving wine, and a good sign that Afton Mountain is in good hands.

Wine of the Week: Braganini Reserve 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Michigan

Sep 01

It’s been a record hot year across the country (except for California), and if you want to cool off to top domestic sauvignon blanc, this is a brilliant, refreshingly Loire Valley interpretation of the classic white Bordeaux grape.

The Braganini Reserve was produced by St. Julian winery in Paw Paw, Michigan (SW). David Braganini is the grandson of Mariano, the founder of St. Julian. 2008 was a cool year in the East, including Michigan. This wine has the subtle, delicate bouquet of lemongrass and crushed limestone, pointing to the Loire Valley rather than Marlborough, NZ. On the palate, the wine is dry but has a rich, ripe mid-palate viscosity much like cool-climate chardonnay. Lemon curd and a hint of sage overlay this viscosity, with a clean finish. An excellent food wine, this will also reward those who can enjoy delicately dry and fresh Loire-style sauvignon blanc (alc. a mere 12%). For growers in SW Michigan, it may be time to consider plantings of this classic grape which seems to have much promise here. Note: this wine was finished with a Stelvin (screwcap) closure, ensuring its freshness which is holding well.

Wines of the Week 8/22/10

Aug 23

Since this posting category has been vacant awhile, I’m posting two today to represent the last 2 weeks.

#1: Hermann J. Wiemer Johannisberg Riesling Late Harvest 1999, Finger Lakes, NY

Readers of this blog know I’m a major riesling fan, and also a fan of Finger Lakes riesling. Hermann Wiemer Vineyards on west Seneca Lake is one of the few of the leading riesling producers in the region who offers library vintages of riesling for sale at the winery. This does a service to those who want pre-aged riesling, and also demonstrates that Finger Lakes riesling can age very well.

There’s a big focus in the riesling world these days on dry rieslings, and it’s good we can all appreciate them as such, but Wiemer does us  aservice by offering late harvest classics like this that can show how much style and dimension you can find in classically sweet (German auslese style) rieslings that can match the Germans for finesse, even if made in the New World.

The 1999 vintage was a warm one with ripe grapes, but especially good for late harvest rieslings, as was the recent 2008 vintage. The wine seemed vibrantly youthful, just coming into its prime at 11 years.  The bouquet was complex, with some petrol hints of age, but mostly sappy ripe yellow and red apple fruit, with yellow peach and even a hint of tropical/tangerine fruit. On the palate, it seemed racy and young; vibrant fruitiness danced over a taut and typical Finger Lakes acidity, which kept the 4.5% residual sugar perfectly balanced. While this particular vintage may no longer be for sale at the winery, look for others; great “keeper” vintages should be 2006 and 2008, but 2001 and 2005 will also reward those who want to enjoy in the near term.

#2: Hiddencroft Cabernet Franc 2007, Loudoun County, VA

The first Hiddencroft wine I tasted was their excellent petit verdot, also from the outstanding ’07 vintage, so I wasn’t too surprised to find this small production wine up to the same artisanal standards, but I felt thi swas quite possibly the juiciest, richest (but fruit-forward) caberent franc I’ve ever had. The dark spicy plum was there, also some cardamom hints, smooth tannins, and not a hint of green “veggies” anywhere. Since I also liked their petit verdot so much, it wasn’t surprising to learn that this was actually a blend, (88% Cabernet Franc/12% Petit Verdot) aged in a combination of French and American oak barrels for 12 months. Maybe this proves that the best cabernet franc in the world (like Ch. Cheval Blanc?) isn’t all cabernet franc, but has a strategic portion of a fellow red Bordeaux grape added in.  Hiddencroft is a small winery in Loudoun County

Wine of the Week: Sweely Estate “1867” Meritage 2006

Jul 01

This wine has won high honors at the VA Governor’s Cup (reds) last February and also at the recent Monticello Cup competition. The 2006 vintage was a difficult one in Virginia; many of the reds seemed hard and closed after release, and are only now coming into their own. This is a good example.

(French) winemaker Frantz Ventre composed a classically (Right Bank) Bordeaux ratio for the blend; 75% merlot, 25% cabernet franc. The color is impressively dark. (note: I tasted the wine at the winery, then took an open bottle home to taste after it had “breathed” for awhile to bring it around).

The nose shows classic St. Emilion character; briarfruits, black cherry and cassis, with aromatic herbs like sage, basil and rosemary, but also a clean “earthy” character wtih hints of pencil lead.

On the palate, the wine is elegant and graceful in a Bordeaux style, while still having some depth and weight of fruit/oak integration. The texture is dense with solid cherry and briarfruit but the oak adds rich complexity without detracting from the freshness of the finish.

If you want to flummox your connoisseur friend by serving this instead of a Grand Cru St. Emilion of the same age, this is the one to do it with!! I recommend buying this wine now, but at least 2 bottles; one to enjoy when the weather turns cool in the fall, and the other to lay down for another 3-5 years.

(Note: it’s called “1867” because the old barn on the property was built then; the land grant heritage dates to 1726.)