I am a lucky member of the venerable Portvinsklubben af 1981 (“Port Club of 1981”), a Copenhagen-based club of Danish and Swedish Port enthusiasts. The Club meets for tastings about 6 times a year, normally tasting 6-8 Ports chosen by a member from a theme and normally, though not exclusively, from the Club’s well-stocked cellar.
Tastings are normally semi-blind, i.e. the participants know which wines are served, but not in which order. Wines are normally judged using a 20-point system, and discussions about certain member’s generosity or stinginess in awarding points frequently occur. It is probably safe to say that I am normally among the stingy ones, with Ports earning 14-15 points being considered really good, and from 17 upwards really excellent to outstanding.
Once the tasting proper, which takes place in comparative silence, has finished, participants are encouraged to state their guesses as to which wines are which in the order. Certain members are really excellent at this. To my everlasting chagrin, I have never been better than 4 out of 6. Subsequent discussions are lively and often loud, and the merits or otherwise of specific wines are fiercely stated.
Every 4 years, the Club arrranges a week-long tour to Porto/Gaia and the Douro valley, visiting the good and the great. I have not yet been able to participate, despite years of membership, but I firmly intend to do so next time, which is some 3 years from now.
From time to time, the Club will invite importers and/or producers to come and present their ranges of Port. On these occasions we will not normally judge the wines on the 20-point scale, but will sit back and listen to the invitees presenting their wines. One such evening was last Monday, 27 August 2012, where we had the pleasure of welcoming Alvaro Van Zeller, a true star of the Douro, famous for his association with the likes of Port houses Barão de Vilar, Andresen and Feuerheerd.
Alvaro, who is the scion of a family with 14 generations of history in Port production, studied at São Paolo and Bordeaux universities, and started his winemaking apprenticeship at Quinta do Noval. He has since moved on to work with the above-mentioned houses, and is now also partner and winemaker at the new Port house of Maynard’s , whose wines it was he had come to present.
Maynard’s is a very new venture, having started in 2010. It was born from the realization that in order to break through on the UK and US markets, an Anglo-Saxon name was preferable. Alvaro counts among his forefathers a certain Maynard, and that name has come to grace the stylish bottles of the new venture.
Much has been written about the differences between the “Portuguese” and “English” Port styles, with the former normally being seen to be sweeter and less structured, and the latter as slightly drier and more tannic. While this historic distinction no longer represents any sort of ultimate truth, Maynard’s is deliberately being produced in a firm and relatively dry style, in keeping with its Anglo-Saxon aspirations. Alvaro stresses that while Maynard’s is produced in the same facilities as Barão de Vilar, great care is taken in choosing wines for each house in keeping with the house style. Due to Alvaro’s access to growers and wine producers in the Douro, Maynard’s has already been able to put a fairly wide range of wines onto the market.
Maynard’s buys grapes from growers for table wines and pink Port, while proper Port is being bought from wine producers, who make wines under Alvaro’s supervision. Particularly in small years, selection of wines for Maynard’s is heavy and quantities are small. Alvaro may also add up to the allowed 15% of wine from a preceding and/or subequent vintage in order to increase quality.
Alvaro is a treasure trove of information and knowledge about Port. The following are just a few interesting points made during our tasting:
- A discussion has beeen ongoing as to the quality and style of the alcohol used to fortify. According to Alvaro, brandy contains aldehydes which fix colour much better than pure ethanol does.
- However, in terms of taste preferences, the jury is still out as to whether brandy or pure ethanol is preferable. A major scientific study has now been undertaken to address this issue.
- There has often been talk as to the relative scarcity of Vintage Port years during the 1970’ies and 1980’ies. Alvaro told us that this did not just have a climatic background, but that a major contributing factor was the progress in agronomic sciences. When newly-hatched viticulturists in those decades ventured into the Douro vineyards, the would measure PH and find that it was far too low, leading to vines suffering. Vineyards would therefore be covered with chalk in order to increase PH. Unfortunately, while this relieved stress on the vines, it was found that it was exactly this stress that made the vines produce superior fruit. Equally unfortunately, it would take until the 1990’ies before the chalk had been sufficiently washed out of the vineyards and the vines could recommence producing beautiful fruit.
Alvaro had brought the following wines to the tasting (this time with my usual general disregard for colour, but with my scores on a 20-point scale):
Powerful, intense and masculine nose with fat blackberries, sweet black olives, liquorice, sweet spices, violet, hint of exotic wood and walnut, pepper. Medium weight to full in the mouth, powerful, dryish balance, intense and concentrated, some tannin. Long, with blackberry liqueur, liquorice, violet, minerals, walnut and some alcohol heat. Handsome wine. 16 points.
Intense and concentrated nose with cherry essence, blackberries, minerals, leather, liquorice, black olives, walnut. Medium to full body, intense, slightly softer than the ’07, good acidity, fine tannin, dryish balance. Long, with liquorice, black olives, blackberry liqueur, violet, lavender, slight walnut. Very good wine. 17 points.
Medium weight, medium intensity, elegant nose with elderberries, light cherries, hint of rubber, liquorice, hint of alcohol. Medium weight and elegant in the mouth, fine acidity, light tannin, again on the dryish side, but slightly sweeter than the ’07 and ’04. Long, elegant, dryish, walnut, black olive, pepper. While not quite at the level of the ’07 and ’04, very good, elegant wine. 15 points.
Colheita 2001 (originally intended as Vintage, but then aged in wood and bottled, unfiltered, in 2011)
A sweet and fine nose with prune sauce, raisin, hints of exotic wood, wood tar and sweet tobacco. Relatively slender nose, quite intense, lightly sweet, then dry, with some tannin and rasp of exotic wood, good freshness. Long, with prune, raisin, exotic wood, hint of tobacco, slight volatile acidity. Unusual, quite muscular Colheita, but very good. 16 points.
20 Years Old Tawny (bottled 2011)
Soft and round, but quite deep and intense nose, with exotic wood, caramel, slight volatile acidity, sweet nuts and a green herbal hint. Medium weight in the mouth, soft and round, elegant, light sweetness, slight exotic wood dryness, kept fresh by fine volatile acidity. Long and very complex, exotic wood, raisin, caramel, light tobacco. An elegant and serious, utterly delicious wine. 17 points.
Colheita 1982 (bottled 2012)
Deep, dark, serious, yet quite fresh and quite intense nose with dark exotic wood, dark raisins, fine volatile acidity, wood tar and hint of liquorice. Medium weight and intense in the mouth, of a somewhat dark disposition, some volatile acidity. Long, dark and complex, dark exotic wood, prune sauce, sweet tobacco, volatile acidity. A rather intellectual wine, but handsome and intense. 17 points.
Colheita 1977 (bottled 2011)
Deep, broad and round nose with wood tar, exotic woood, dried fig, perfume, minerals, flowers, slight volatile acidity and walnut. Intense, concentrated and quite fat in the mouth, quite sweet, volatile acidity maintains freshness, light tannin. Long, with fig, wood, tobacco, flower, mineral, nicely fresh. This is amazingly young for its age, lovely wine. 17 points.
Colheita 1970 (I did not catch when this was bottled)
Complex and intense nose, dominated by volatile acidity, then some exotic wood, furniture polish, dry nut; borderline heavy on the volatile acidity. Quite light and elegant in the mouth, marked volatile acidity, dry exotic wood, some sweetness with burnt caramel. Long, intense and very complex, some volatile acidity, but also exotic wood, caramel, sweet tobacco, toasted walnut. This is very complex, but right on the borderline in terms of volatile acidity for me. 15 points.
Colheita 1963 (bottled 2010)
Hefty and very complex nose with marked volatile acidity, exotic wood, liquorice sauce, orange zest, lavender and light nougat. Medium weight, elegant and quite intense, with walnut skin tannins, fine sweetness, volatile acidity giving freshness. Long and complex, exotic wood, tobacco, prune sauce, fine freshness from volatile acidity, some citrus, sweet nut. Lovely wine, elegant, intense and complex. 17 points.
Colheita 1962 (this had been bottled just prior to the tasting, so 2012)
Very complex nose, with toasted nut, fat prune, citrus zest, light flowers, quite light volatile acidity, light hint of sweet meat. Fresh, light and elegant in the mouth, almost citric in its freshness, light volatile acidity, fine sweetness, very light hint of dryness. Fine length with caramel, flowers, citrus, light exotic wood, very light volatile acidity, very elegant and fresh. Lovely wine, very light expression, and very complex and yound. Alvaro thought this likely had quite a lot of white grapes in the original blend. 17 points.
I was left with the impression of a very highly qualitative venture, which despite its youth has access to some very superior wines, albeit sometimes in very small quantities. The house style is clearly fairly elegant, medium weight and intense, on the dryish “English” side, although certain wines can vary as a function of age and provenance. There is no doubt that a new star of the Douro has been born, and I wish Alvaro all the best with this exciting new venture.