Cooler nights, shorter days, festive gatherings, celebrations; whatever the reasoning, Vintage Port and winter pair well together.
In 2015, an additional reason for Port celebrations: the 200th birthday of Fonseca Port. Now firmly established and seated under the sixth generation of the Fonseca family, with David Guimaraens, as winemaker and technical director of The Fladgate Partnership, Taylor Fladgate, and the eponymous Fonseca Guimaraens Port houses. While the friendly and energetic Guimaraens is widely renown as one of, if not the top Port winemaker of this generation, it’s little surprise, since his first harvest was in 1973, at eight years old. He grew up at his father Bruce’s side, watching the great changes his father and his generation made in Port production. After winemaking studies in Australia and winemaking across Oz, California and Oregon (Bruce sent the young man to gain outside experience and perspective), David returned back to the family business in 1990, with the fresh perspective and modernity intended by his father.
No other Port house has had six generations of the same family making ports, and Fonseca has a distinct advantage of five decades of experience with Vintage Port, the crowning jewel in any portfolio. “It’s not possible to make a Vintage Port every year” according to David (aptly nicknamed “Porty”). “It’s only the best of the bests – a reflection of the house style and a reflection of the decision to put that in the bottle. We only single out years which are extraordinary years – with the capacity to age for a lifetime in the bottle. Nature decides which are the best years.”
When I queried David about the changes in Vintage Port over the past twenty years, he was quick to reply that the main change was in viticulture. “Simplifying the grapes for more consistent colour and structure worked for easy harvesting in the 1970’s and beyond, but it also made for simpler Ports, more about fruit bombs and power. We need Ports to age, with layers of complexities and character.” To that end, David has championed bringing back some lesser used autochthonous grapes, such as Tinta de Barca and Tinta Francesa. He co-ferments these grapes with the other very good and recommended Port grapes like Touriga Nacional, Touriga Roriz, Tinto Cão and Tinta Francisca, mirroring the field blends of history and in a modern way of restoring the balance and complexities of the past. “Vines cannot be cheated. Man can only understand when the fruit has been translated into wine, and then it takes years to appreciate the subtleties.”
Though viticulture, and a return to sustainable farming methods is a massive shift (David also pioneered the first ever organic Port, Fonseca’s Terra Prima), it wasn’t the biggest shift. “The most significant change has been in the use of spirit.” According to David, this is the “silent revolution”. Until 1991, the government dictated the spirit that they could use, and quality wasn’t controllable. 2000 was the first classic vintage that reflects the cleaner, more refined spirit, one that reveals its fruit much better in youth. “Our careful selection of premium spirit for fortification has allowed for smoother, cleaner ports, and a much better transition from youth through maturity.” Though Spain is the largest provider for spirit, David selects his best spirits direct from France.
The final main change David has seen is through the reintroduction of the granite lagares for the Vintage Ports. These super-dense vessels are where foot-trodding takes place over many hours, and help keep the grapes and must at the ideal temperature for slow, stable fermentation. In the 1990s David designed mechanical pistons into lagares to replicate the gentle foot plunging of the past, revolutionizing the way that port was made. That said, even today Fonseca doesn’t use the mechanical plungers for their prized Vintage Port, keeping tradition and the handicraft (footicraft?) heritage of the wine intact.
Tasting Vintage Port with David Guimaraens
When I asked David about appreciating Vintage Ports through time, he offered up the following life cycle:
First 10 years – young and fruity. Best examples of Ruby Ports here.
10-20 years – transformation stage. Start to show first developments of bottle maturity. The Ports are a bit like teenagers – sometimes behave and sometimes don’t behave.
20-40 years – sufficient bottle maturity, but with vitality and freshness of fruit still there. A great window to drink Vintage Port.
40+ years – separates the men from the boys. Not all Vintage Ports will be able to make it. This category really shows if it’s a great level, great year – if the winemaker got it right and a reflection of his/her skill. This phase is of a plateau – the wine can go on for 20+ years from her. Then it will start to throw fruit, get a bit tired and slowly fade.
“It’s a beautiful thing, a very long life cycle. Very few wines in the world can go through this progression and last the test of time.”
Saúde to the next 200 years and future Fonseca generations.
Here are the Fonseca ports we've tasted at Gismondi On Wine this past year, starting with the oldest to newest Vintage Ports, followed by the Tawnies and then the ever-consistant Bin No. 27.
94. Fonseca Vintage Port 1970 $429.99
Last tasted in 2004 and this fabulous old lady, now fully mature is still holding on. Bruce Guimaraens said “It fills the mouth with bottled sunshine and finishes long.” Soft round and delicious eleven years later it remains on a fully mature plateau mixing caramel, figs, brown sugar, aged worn wood, resin and spice. There is both weight and balance and the finish lingers forever, with herbal dried cherry and fine peppery spice. A beautiful old bottle of port, complete in the mouth with gentle, though persistent drive and flow through exceptional length. A lovely illustration as to why you would wait 40 or 50 years if you could to drink these magnificent wines. Bravo. I guess it explains why at Fonseca they say, “Anytime you are not drinking port is a complete and utter waste of time.” AG-TR
95. Fonseca Vintage Port 1985 $369.99
There were three classic Fonseca Vintage Ports in the 80's: 1980, 1983 and 1985. This rich, powerful vintage is a highlight, capturing all of Fonseca's voluptuous, grippy power. Vibrant plum hue still, gives the appearance of youth - with just a touch of brick maturing hues. The nose was quiet at first, but once woken from its thirty years' slumber, it showed stone, plum, sandstone, dried violets and fragrant rock roses. The voluminous, vibrant palate was juicy and electric, streaming peppery spice, herbs, cassis, cherry and raspberry jam with a lovely vein of black liquorice through the very long, velveteen finish. Tannins still grippy, though Fonseca firmness is fading around the edges - a lovely point in its evolution. Blockbuster, and such a great example of house and style. TR
93. Fonseca Vintage Port 1985 $369.99
The '85 harvest was a giant yielding the most Port in the last 50 years. Our sample was a touch musty on the nose but on the palate it is a blockbuster. At the 30 year mark it is supple and round with plenty of brown spices, licorice, still some spirit and along warm palate. It's starting to lose a little color but it remains one of the best of the vintage as its primary licorice chocolate and coffee flavour morph into something more mellow and complex. A beautiful creamy soft round port for the holidays. AG
96. Fonseca Vintage Port 1994 $250.00
Twenty years down the road and ten years since we last tasted it the '94 remains sensational. Always enormous in color and concentration it has finally shed its youthful aromas. (Back in the day they added up to 22 per cent colorless spirit but the colour remains impressive). It’s really just growing in the bottle and many think it will keep comfortably until 2040. Bruce Guimaraens said, "It has the structure of 1977, maybe 1955, probably also 1985 which will be a classic year.” It's was a tiny vintage 50 per cent less production than average. Look for fresh raisins, big blackcurrants, huge density and power and fabulous length. A blockbuster port for the cellar that is still soaring. AG
93. Fonseca Vintage Port 1994 $250.00
A star of the 1990's Vintage Ports for the house, this 1994 shows Fonseca's fiery, cassis concentration, and was the first declared vintage that David Guimaraens was responsible for. Firm and youthful cassis, with cracked pepper, almost steak spices to texture. Gobs of concentrated cassis jam, blackberry generously fill the youthful palate, hemmed by an elegant wild blackcurrant and fine dark chocolate note. Tannins show their characteristic Fonseca grip, though the mouth filling volume and simmering fiery character on the lengthy finish balance out the whole beautifully. So much life here - another decade before I would crack again, and then it should be masterful. TR
93. Fonseca Vintage Port 2000 $130.00
The 2000 Fonseca seemed a monster a decade ago but it has transformed over the decade shedding some of its rich black cherry black plum jam aromas for bits of leather, licorice, blueberry and spice. A stylish port that is pretty soft and supple now, though with a slight nervousness that hints at another couple of years in the cellar before maximum enjoyment. Blackberry, Christmas cake and dark plum jam fruit is flecked with mint, licorice, pepper and black tea. Tannins are grippy and a bit chewy, and the finish lingers with medicinal hued cassis notes. Very Fonseca - opulent, aromatic, structured yet still drinkable throughout the ageing process. More forward then perhaps we thought it might be a decade ago. AG-TR
96. Fonseca Vintage Port 2011 $119.95
A huge future ahead of this giant of a port, reminiscent of 1994. An aromatic, ripe blackberry jam, liquorice, perfumed violets and black tea nose with an exotic five spice undercurrent. The attack is rich and plump with fabulous black fruits, soya, raisins, licorice, mint and plums that sit on a stony mineral undercurrent. Characteristic Fonseca's structured, grippy tannins are lined with graphite while vibrant, almost crunchy acidity weaves dextrously throughout the density. Amazingly approachable now but this wine will live for decades. Texture weight, balance, freshness - it’s all here but if you can wait, wait. Young collectors should be stocking up on this port and prepare to drink an icon in 2050. AG-TR
91. Fonseca Guimaraens Vintage Port 2012 $81.00
A vintage port from a non-classic year, this is a blend of three different properties (note the Guimaraens in the name of the wine, indicating the difference). Unlike the classic declared Vintage Ports, this 2012 (a much cooler vintage) will mature quicker - plus is half the price of the classic Vintages. Score! Deep purple, cassis hue, with massive stony cassis, blackberry and rock rose aromas. The youthful, velveteen palate fills the mouth with cassis, raisin jam, brown sugar and cassis. Tannins are big and grippy as presumed, but by benefit of blend, they are well managed by the gobs of perfumed fruit. Dark chocolate lingers on the finish. Approachable and drinkable now while you wait for your classic Vintage Ports in the cellar. TR
89. Fonseca 10 Year Old Aged Tawny Port $35.89
Consistent and classic, Fonseca 10 year old Tawny comes by its tawny colour through ten years of barrel aging. Lovely high toned, youthful notes of spiced fruitcake, walnuts, tea, golden raisin compote and spice. There's a grip and power here that gives a welcome kick to the smooth palate. TR
90. Fonseca 20 Year Old Aged Tawny Port $62.00
Twenty years in wood casks has mellowed this fruit into a beautifully smooth, silken place, but still one with the characteristic breadth and subtle fiery grip of Fonseca. Heady raisin pie, dried figs, walnuts, leather and peppery cinnamon spice are pulled along an undercurrent of deep butterscotch. Great length. TR
92. Fonseca 40 Year Old Aged Tawny Port $118.00
Undeniably alluring tawny, with four decades of cask concentration within its orangey ochre hue. At forty years, the potent sweetness has started to fade, and a lingering subtle savouriness and roasted coffee bean has begun to emerge. Delicate exotic orange florals and plum lead quickly into a quiet graphite note. Generous raisin pie, orange marmalade and intense walnut nuttiness lead the silken, palate, though a persistent grippiness still is evident under the mellow flow. Finishes with exceptional length, and a touch more fiery than anticipated for its age. TR
88. Fonseca Bin No 27 Finest Reserve Port N/V $23.00
First launched in 1972, Bin No. 27 is premium ruby, and an excellent introduction to non-oxidative style Ruby Ports (at a great price). In the Guimaraens family for five generations, this is a blend of deep, concentrated reserve wines, selected for their fruitiness. Dark cassis, tobacco and sweet plum jam lead, followed by rich raisin pie, dark chocolate covered cherries and black pepper. Tannins are velvety plush and acidity supports the whole nicely. The finish is a touch fiery and black tea astringent, but nothing that a wedge of blue cheese or flourless chocolate torte couldn't tackle. Ready for drinking now. TR