Binny's Tasting Panel: Navigating the Douro, Blind

Navigating Douro Wines Blind Tasting

The Tasting Panel embarked on their maiden fortified wine voyage down Portugal’s winding Douro River with ports of call that included Reserve Rubies, 10-Year-Old Tawnies, 20-Year-Old Tawnies and the incredible 2016 Vintage Ports. We tasted through examples from top houses, noting the distinct differences between producers, but also recognizing house traits that bridge all styles. When we finally reached the end of our journey and slipped into port, we had a list of favorites that rippled with power, energy and finesse. The quality of port wines has never been higher, the tannins never better managed, the flavors never more hedonistic, yet prices never reach the stratospheric levels that so many of the world’s great terroirs command. Given the quality in the bottle, port remains one of fine wine’s greatest values. Let’s dive into the Douro!

Two houses dominated our tasting and it’s honestly no surprise. Both Graham’s and Warre’s are venerable old houses that make spot on versions of fantastic port across all styles. They are both loaded with flavor and depth of character and lean into sweet, layered, fruit richness and spice.

Other houses also impressed, but decadence won the day, as is so often the case in blind tastings. If you prefer power, intensity, and mind-addling complexity, Fonseca might be the house for you. Both ruby and tawny styles were marked by a layered herbal and savory notes that append so much interest to Fonseca’s muscular style. Noval showed its quirky, intellectual side in wines that were full of fascinating aromas and flavors that made them true wines of contemplation. We parsed and parsed but at this level, port houses are incredibly quality minded, so the bar was very high and the competition very stiff. In the end the panel can truly say that there wasn’t a disappointing wine in the tasting. Bravo, port!

Reserve Ruby:

 

Graham's Six Grapes

Alicia proclaimed this a textbook example of the reserve style right off the bat. A saturated ruby-purple color precedes a nose full of brambly, black and raspberry fruit, stewed black cherry and a litany of complicating scents including cocoa, clove, mint and elusive floral notions.  Frankly sweet, bold and well-structured in the mouth, there is a lifted sense of purity and a degree of finesse despite the plush waves of luscious fruit. The top scorer in the reserve category and well deserved.

Noval Black

Another outstanding reserve that may represent the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum. The color is equally saturated, but the nose is more savory showing hints of licorice, earth, pipe tobacco and orange blossom alongside ripe plum, wild blueberry and cherry. One taster immediately noted the pulled back and balanced sweetness of the fruit on the palate that features flavors of blackberry pie filling and chocolate covered cherries. The finish is firmly tannic, quite spicy and has the warm glow of alcohol. For those who like their sweetness tempered by the savory. Although ostensibly pop and pour, this has the structure to improve with a day of aeration.

10-Year-Old Tawny:

 

Graham's 10-Year-Old Tawny

This presents a classic 10-year deep ruby core, fading to tawny at the rim. The nose still has loads of red and blue fruits with subtle oxidative aromas of walnut, honey, candied orange peel, black tea and a little smoke just starting to peek through. The palate, in typical house fashion, is quite sweet featuring jammy plum and cherry, dried apricot, dates, brown sugary Sugar Babies candy, burnt honey and the lift of orange zesty acidity. The finish is long, silky and full of sweet brown spice, chocolate and a hint of toffee that frolic amid the fruit.

Warre's Otima 10-Year-Old Tawny

This has a slightly paler and more mature color. The nose has some freshness from notes of tangerine, red currant and cinnamon Red Hot candies. Macerated strawberries, candied cherries and dried cranberries are joined in the mouth by toasty walnuts, honey and baking spice. The finish is easy, sweet, long and friendly with lingering molasses-like richness, spicy cinnamon, chocolate and buttery toffee. Cindy concluded her written note (this was her top scoring 10-year) by exclaiming- “Gimme that blue cheese!” There was none to be had, so it’s good she didn’t say it out loud. We could have had a riot on our hands.

20-Year-Old Tawny:

 

Graham's 20-Year-Old Tawny

A deep, complex, sweet and concentrated 20-year tawny that is never heavy and conveys a sense of elegance despite its richness. This is the one to try if you’ve never had a 20-year before. The color strikes a perfect 20-year red core that quickly fades to burnt orange. A heavenly mix of dried fruits, nuts, spices and chocolate covered caramel aromas are so inviting. This has the classic Graham’s concentration of sweet fruit. Dried apricots, dried cherries, brown sugary dates, fig newton and spicy, brandy soaked, candied citrus studded fruit cake are kept lively by a streak of orange zesty acidity. Candied walnuts, pecan, almondy, chocolate covered English toffee, custardy crème brûlée and savory umami note are all delivered on a silky, creamy body. Flavors echo on the long nutmeggy finish. Doug appended- “Love it!” to his note.

Warre's Otima 20-Year-Old Tawny

Offering the palest, most transparent and mature tawny color of the tasting, belying the rich concentration in the glass but also accurately conveying the fully developed oxidative nuttiness of this exceptional 20. The nose is expansive showing loads of honey roasted almonds, black tea leaf, mint, orange blossom, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Interestingly, our collective notes mentioned figs, dates and citrus but as expected from the nose and appearance, this is leaning into nutty, nougaty oxidative notes with fresh fruits close to being subsumed. The finish is long and loaded with sweet baking spice, butter, brown sugar, peanut brittle and chocolate covered salted caramel, offset by orange zest, mint and a lingering notion of walnut bitters. Nate commented that the perfectly balanced sweet caramel, cherry and citrus flavors reminded him of an Old Fashioned cocktail. Heads nodded in agreement. Delicious!

Vintage Port 2016:

 

Graham's Vintage Port 2016

Wow! What a great example of the vintage and the sweet, packed and stacked Graham’s style. The color remains a saturated black-purple and the wine is still youthful, with decades of life ahead of it. A complex nose of blackberry puree, blueberry, plum, root beer, licorice, sweet and savory (cumin) spice, decadent chocolate syrup and orange marmalade prepares you for the intense and layered flavors. In the mouth this is seamlessly integrated with sweet silky tannins and flashy, fleshy fruit making for a supremely sensuous wine. This is a tour de force in modern vintage port winemaking that showcases the decadent pleasure of youth and the power that will allow this to improve for many years to come. Brilliant!

Warre's Vintage Port 2016

Only two-tenths of a point separated this from the Graham’s vintage, our top scoring wine of the tasting. It’s another monumental 2016 that combines silky, sleek and seductively ripe tannic structure with amazing concentration. If you are still thinking all vintage port needs a decade plus in bottle, Warre’s along with Graham’s has a message for you. These, undoubtedly, can be enjoyed now without any sacrifice in aging potential. Opulent aromas of fresh waffles drizzled with blueberry syrup, blackberry jam, plum sauce, floral raspberry mingle with earthy tree bark, anise, tobacco and dried flowers. Plush and luscious in the mouth with layer upon layer of decadent fruit, blackberry pie a la mode, maple syrup, chocolate covered brandied cherries, marzipan and milk duds. An exceptionally long, silky finish flashes with star anise, Raisinets and dense figgy fruit. Beautifully ripe, perfectly integrated tannins linger like a coating of velvet on the tongue. The panel was thoroughly seduced.

A brief guide to the styles in our tasting:

Reserve Ruby

From basic ruby up through the pinnacle of ruby styles, vintage port, the ruby family of port is distinguished by shorter aging time before release and an emphasis on sweet, ripe fruit and spice. Port lovers with long memories may recall that this category was once known as Vintage Character Port, in an attempt to telegraph the rich, fruity style. The use of the word vintage was abandoned given that these are always multi-vintage blends, but these can be thought of as sharing vintage port qualities while being inexpensive and ready to drink. Reserve rubies are invariably branded with proprietary names, like Graham’s Six Grapes or Warre’s Warrior and are very popular restaurant pours.  

Aged Tawny

Just as vintage is the ultimate expression of the ruby branch of port, aged tawnies are at the top of the pecking order in their class. They see extended aging in large oak casks known as port pipes, in which they undergo a long, slow, intentional exposure to oxygen. The resulting oxidative qualities of roasted nuts, caramel and toffee are highly prized. The age statements come in increments of 10 (10, 20, 30 and 40 are the most common) but are not precise measures of aging time, as the wines are blended from lots of various ages. However, they must meet color, flavor and aroma requirements that are laid out as typical for each age. Given that they are already exposed to so much oxygen they tend to deteriorate at a glacial pace, so tawny port can remain open and sound much longer than rubies or table wines.

10-Year-Old, the youngest of the aged tawnies, retains a good deal of the rich primary fruit found in rubies but the tannins have mellowed considerably and the first notions of oxidation are starting to peak through in subtle notions of caramel and nuts.

20-Year-Old is considered by many to be a sweet spot in tawny maturation. The intersection of full, nutty, toffee-like oxidation and layers of bright, fresh, cherry and plum fruit that is starting to veer toward the concentrated dried fruit flavors of fig, prune and Medjool date. Many panel members expressed this belief, and this tasting didn’t change any minds but one who moved from the 10-year to the 20 camp.

30, 40 and beyond is where fruit is sacrificed for mature oxidative flavors and aromas and a style that may hint at dried fruit (especially 30) but is all about candied nuts, caramel and savory spice. These more mature options are beautiful but were not explored by this panel.

Vintage Port

The ultimate ruby ports are only made in the very finest years. Port houses will declare a vintage year when they deem the harvest and resulting wine is of exceptional quality. Vintage ports are aged in cask for a mere two years. When this period is drawing to a conclusion the IVDP, port’s regulatory body, assesses quality and ratifies the declaration. 

In some years, a few houses may declare if their vineyards performed exceptionally well, but in truly great vintages declarations are broadly announced for most producers. 

Vintage ports are exceptionally tannic and powerful wines that have historically required a decade or more in bottle (that is aging done by the consumer) to lose their youthful fire and masses of tannin. (All styles are fortified with neutral grape spirit making them considerably higher in alcohol than unfortified wines.) 

 These days, careful extraction, impeccable tannin management and perfectly ripe fruit result in incredibly velvety and precocious wines that some even enjoy upon release. This has been accomplished without sacrificing the ability to age for many decades and many connoisseurs still wouldn’t dream of opening a good vintage until its tenth birthday. After which the considerable tannins start to melt away allowing secondary and tertiary qualities to emerge.

Although not inexpensive, vintage port represents one of fine wines greatest price to quality ratios. These are, at the very least, must tries for any true wine lover. Once experienced, however, the overwhelming likelihood is that room for a few cases will need to be made in the cellar. They are that impressive. 

Contributing Panelists:

  • Angel Aguilar, Wine Consultant, Lincoln Park
  • Alicia Barrett, Wine Educator & Tasting Panel Chair
  • Cindy Brost, Wine Manager, Downers Grove
  • Nathan Cornish, Wine Manager, Orland Park
  • Doug Jeffirs, Director of Wine Sales
  • Tracey Ramsey, Wine Consultant, Lincolnwood
  • Chris Speir, Factotum, Lincolnwood Office