Taylor’s Port

Monday, March 18, 2013

Reported by Larry Woods

Taylor's PortI was thrilled when I learned that Mr. Jorge Ramos of the iconic Taylor’s Port House would be travelling from Portugal to Eastern Canada and would come to Ottawa to run a Port tasting for the Guild. I met Jorge (pronounced as “George”) in Portugal last October when I visited Porto and the Douro Valley. I had contacted Taylor’s a few weeks before my visit and Jorge arranged a fabulous tasting of some twenty different Ports and a tour of their wine lodges. Taylor’s has been in business since the late seventeenth century and is widely respected as a top quality Port producer. They sell their products in North America under the Taylor Fladgate name and also own two other port producers— Fonseca and Croft.

Our Guild Port tasting began with refreshing Pink Port cocktails made with one part Croft Pink Port and two parts soda water with a mint leaf added to each glass. Jorge explained that Pink Port is a new Port product category created by Taylor’s in 2009 to appeal to younger consumers (25-35 years old) and that 70% of sales are made to female purchasers. Pink Port was designed for spring and summer drinking in contrast to traditional Port, which is more popular in the colder months of the year. Jorge explained that Taylor’s history of innovation in Port goes back many years—for example, in 1934, they created the first dry White Port.

View from Quinta do Panascal Winery, by Larry Woods
View from Quinta do Panascal Winery, by Larry Woods

An eight-minute introductory video gave a good overview of the Douro Valley where the grapes for Port are grown and explained the process by which Port is made there. The Douro Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a magnificent valley with 250,000 hectares of land, of which 50,000 are planted with grape vines on steep terraces that are beautiful to look at, but challenging to maintain and must be harvested by hand. Rainfall varies from 300 mm/year in the Douro Superior (upstream) to 900 mm/year in the Baixo Corgo, further downstream. There are 40,000 growers of the various grape varieties that are used to make Port, including:

  • Touriga Nacional, for depth, volume and stamina;
  • Touriga Francesa, for floral scent and firm tannic backbone to provide structure;
  • Tinta Roriz, for richness, aromas, elegance and complexity;
  • Tint Barroca, for colour and rustic character;
  • Tinta Cão, for ageing potential; and
  • Tinta Amorola, for structure and balance.

Jorge explained that after an earthquake caused substantial damage in Lisbon in 1755, the Douro region became demarcated and heavily regulated so that the government could collect taxes to help repair the damage. Each vineyard in the Douro was assigned a rating from A to F and all of Taylor’s properties are in the top- rated “A” category. The average age of the vines used to make Taylor Ports is about 50 years old. Taylor’s does not use grapes from vines that are less than 15 years old as their fruit is not concentrated enough to make Port. Taylor’s is very selective about the quality of grapes it uses and buys grapes from only about 70 of the 40,000 growers. Irrigation is allowed only in the first year after a vine is planted and the roots grow deep into the rocky soil, called “schist”. Amazingly, new terraces are created using laser-guided bulldozers that build the terraces with a 7% backward slope so that rain water does not go over the ledges causing erosion, but flows naturally back into the hill to irrigate the vines.

Lagares at Quinta do Panascal by Larry Woods
Lagares at Quinta do Panascal by Larry Woods

In the first flight, the Taylor Fladgate First Estate Reserve Port was made from grapes grown on the first property that was bought by Taylor’s in 1755. It is aged in large oak vats so that the wine is exposed to very little oxygen, resulting in the fresh, fruity character that this Port exhibited. The Fonseca Terra Prima Port is the world?s first organic Port, made with organic grape spirit and a blend of two to three vintages of grapes from the Fonseca Quinta do Panascal property. The two 2007 Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Ports illustrated the difference in style between Taylor Fladgate (more reserved and austere) and Fonseca (more voluptuous and plummy, due partially to more south facing slopes in the vineyards). Jorge explained that the LBV category was created by Taylor’s in response to customer demand for a Port that is from a single vintage, but does not require bottle ageing before drinking. LBV Ports are aged in large oak vats for four to six years before bottling; their colour is an intense dark red and they have intense dark fruit flavours.

Jorge explained that every year on April 23rd, St. George’s Day, Taylor’s announces whether or not they have declared a classic vintage year—this typically happens about three times per decade, when there has been a great crop of very high- quality grapes. In lesser years, but when the quality of harvested grapes is still high, Taylor’s releases single vineyard vintage Ports, which do not have quite as much ageing potential as vintage Ports.

The best grapes come from the properties that Taylor’s owns itself, and the volume of Port made from these properties is not large. For example, in 2009, Taylor’s made 6,000 cases each of Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca and 3,000 cases of Croft Port from its own properties. Jorge described the process Taylor’s uses to make their best Ports in some detail. At harvest time, they bring in 450 people, most of whom have many years experience. For example, one blender recently retired after 50 years service, having started at age 11! Picking begins at 6 a.m. and runs until noon, when it gets too hot to work outside. Workers take the afternoon off and then at 7 p.m. begin treading on grapes (that have been sorted and de-stemmed) in granite tanks called lagares. Up to their knees in grapes, two dozen workers spend the first two hours or more marching shoulder to shoulder in two lines slowly towards each other under the direction of a “drill sergeant”. This is called the corte or ‘the cut’ and the goal is to break every grape to allow the juices and pulp to escape. Then, they spend a couple more hours individually moving freely around the lagar, keeping the grape skins submerged under the service of the juice. This part, called the liberdade or the ‘liberty’ is perhaps more enjoyable, as it includes music, dancing and some drinking. The human foot is the best way to crush the grapes as the grape pits do not experience any damage (which would release bitter tannins into the juice). Machines are used for entry level wines.

At the Port tasting
At the Port tasting

After a few hours, the fermentation begins. After about three or four days, when the Port wine has reached an alcohol level of about 9%, clear neutral grape spirit (77% alcohol brandy) is added to the wine, about 100 litres of brandy to every 450 litres of wine. This kills the yeast and stops the fermentation and results in Port at about 20% alcohol by volume.

In the second flight, we had the opportunity to compare 1985 versus 2009 Vintage Ports from Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca as well as the 2005 Vintage Port from Quinta do Panascal. Jorge explained that Fonseca Ports will age longer than Taylor Fladgate Ports in vintage years, and that the summer of 2009 was so mild that the Ports are lighter and more elegant in style than in hotter years such as 2007. The 2005 Quinta do Panascal exhibited dark cherry, hints of spices and an excellent balance between acids and tannins—Jorge believes that this will rival the 1985 Vintage Ports in 10-15 years. Vintage Ports are aged in oak vats for only about two years and are then aged in bottles.

In the third flight, we tasted a “century of Port”, including the 10, 20, 30, and 40-year-old Tawny Ports from Taylor Fladgate. Each of these Ports is a blend of Ports from different vintages. The older Tawny Ports may contain a small quantity of Port from as long ago as the late 19th century. Taylor’s aims to have a steady house style for each age of Port, in the same way that champagne producers aim to have a consistent house style from year to year. Tawny Ports are aged for many years in oak casks and develop complex and pleasant aromas and flavours of butterscotch, caramel, nuttiness and dried fruits.

Based on feedback from participants, the consensus is that this tasting event was an excellent opportunity to learn more about port, and offered a rare opportunity to taste a variety of different Ports. The Guild is grateful to Mr. Jorge Ramos and Taylor’s and to their distributors, Sylvestre Wines and Family Wine Merchants, for putting on this excellent Port tasting.

Cocktail – Pink Port

  • Croft Pink Port, 140871, $19.95 (one part port, two parts soda water, mint leaf)

First Flight – Ruby Ports

  • Taylor Fladgate First Estate Reserve Port, 309401, $15.95
  • Fonseca Porto Terra Prima (organic), 67132, $24.95
  • Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage Port 2007, 46946, $17.95
  • Fonseca Late Bottled Vintage Port (unfiltered) 2007, 87551, $23.95

Second Flight – Vintage Ports

  • Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port 1985
  • Fonseca Vintage Port 1985, 214452, $199.00
  • Fonseca Quinta do Panascal Vintage Port 2005, 585893, $53.95
  • Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port 2009, 0256925, $135.00
  • Fonseca Vintage Port 2009, 256875, $69.00

Third Flight – Tawny Ports

  • Taylor Fladgate 10 Year Old Tawny Port, 121749, $34.95
  • Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny Port, 149047, $68.95
  • Taylor Fladgate 30 Year Old Tawny Port, 540252, $165.00
  • Taylor Fladgate 40 Year Old Tawny Port, 540260, $215.00

Taylor's Port