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In high exultation

By |  June 2 2009

Early experiments by other Douro tablewine producers were often technically inept or unambitious. And anyway, why clatter dominoes about if you could play chess-with Vintage Port? Could anything reflect the grandeur and drama of its origins more effectively than the most densely fruited and most lavishly textured of all fortified wines?

The Douro is one of those rare places on the planet where sunlight, shuffled minerals, organic matter, microorganisms, squalls of rain, local varieties, and hundreds of years of human effort come together to make something limitlessly fascinating. Explosive as few wines are in its youth, Vintage Port does what almost all great wines do as time passes: matures. It finds new beauties within itself without ever entirely losing the old ones. Its aromas and flavors cannot be duplicated elsewhere. It has peers but remains a world reference.

But haven’t we been here before? On June 25, 1763, in the Mitre Tavern in London’s Fleet Street, Dr Johnson and his enthusiastic young Scottish friend James Boswell drank "a couple of bottles of port." They discussed whether or not Colly Cibber was a blockhead and if ghosts existed. Johnson told Boswell "there is a good deal of Spain that has not been perambulated; and a man of inferior parts to you might give us useful observations on that country." Boswell walked home "in high exultation" at between one and two in the morning.

The Port they drank on that occasion was a dry table wine. By the time Dickens’s Mr Tulkinghorn sat down, in the early 1850s, to drink an after-dinner bottle of "old port" by an open window looking on to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Port had generally become a sweet, fortified wine. (Tulkinghorn’s was a "radiant nectar [that] blushes in the glass to find itself so famous, and fills the whole room with the fragrance of southern grapes.") There had been, of course, a transition period between the dry and the sweet.

That transition period was coming to an end when Joseph James Forrester published his 1844 pamphlet A Word or Two on Port Wine. Ever since the 1820 vintage, Forrester felt, shippers had been increasingly ready to "adulterate" their Port with brandy in order to produce a wine "black strong and sweet" every year. Forrester argued for a "pure wine" without added brandy. Forrester’s rearguard action failed: The market went with Tulkinghorn, and by the turn of the century Port was the drink we know today, with which I am deeply content. I’m halfway through a bottle of 1980 Smith Woodhouse just now: perfumed and substantial, its rose-sweet wealth and meaty warmth qualified and shadowed by necessary backing austerities. What else remains to say?

Foolish question. There are, of course, no endings in the wine world. That game in the upstairs room was more serious than I thought. It’s not chess, but I’m now beginning to think it is every bit as profound as chess. And it may have wider appeal.

Vintage Port remains one of the world’s greatest wines. Its sales figures and auction prices, though, show that it is undervalued, undercollected, and underdrunk. There are no more Tulkinghorns. Today’s lawyers, no less plump on the misery of others, may well drive themselves to dinner, may well revere dry red wine with their cutlets, and thus may well consider Port an exaggerated indulgence.

In winemaking terms, too, the world has changed utterly since the pre-electric days of Dr Johnson and Baron Forrester. What would happen if one took Douro grapes and tried to make them into wine with the care and technology now given to a Bordeaux second growth? Why, something like Quinta do Noval 2005, I guess.

I was impressed by the debut vintage of this wine, which was 2004. The 2005 is even better. I’ve drunk it three times, always for the sheer pleasure of it, but with half an eye for any potential flaws, like a rough gemstone. I can’t find any. It’s dark and brimming with fruit-but fruit that has the typical wild austerity of the Douro to it: damsons, sloes, elderberries.

These fruits aren’t simply sweet: They always have the faintest of bitter twists to them (a Douro hallmark). Texturally, the wine is magnificent: sumptuous and fine-grained, with the fruit perfumes somehow inlaid into those tannins like marquetry work. It’s concentrated and long. A sip floods the mouth with flavor, echoing the diagnostic energy of great young Vintage Port, yet without its crackle of alcoholic fire. Instead, all is fullness and poise, with neatly judged equilibrium between acidity and alcohol and an overall sense of naturalness and freshness. By the third day, it was better than on the first. The seamless tannins and wild fruits continued to charm; notes of chocolate and coffee had begun to creep out of the woodwork by then. It seemed as great as anything from Priorat, yet without the penetrating and sometimes slightly odd medicinal note common in those wines. As great as fine Bordeaux, too, though different in character-wilder and further flung.

I’m now addicted to the game in the upper room. Almost every new wine I taste from the Douro seems to up the achievement levels. Surely this old vineyard must constitute the most exciting new fine-wine region in Europe, if not the world.

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