The release of the 2011 port vintage, the most widely declared since 2007, has inspired wine columnist for the Lady magazine Henry Jeffreys to think about upholding the time-honoured tradition of laying down wines
The most exciting thing to happen in 2011, at least for me, was the birth of our daughter, Helena. The second most exciting thing was the vintage in the Douro Valley which has been declared by all port shippers. There's talk of it being the best since 1977, my birth year. With the collision of these two momentous events, I would be mad not to buy a case of port for my daughter to open when she's 21. My wife, who doesn't like port, thinks I'm doing this more for me than for my daughter. She does have a point, I am hoping that I'll be allowed a glass at Christmas. I'd like Helena to grow up to like port as much as I do but more than that, I want to start a tradition.
Despite my auspicious birth year, there was no port for me when I turned 21. It's not that we didn't pass on wine for the next generation in our family. We just did it in a less formal way. When my grandfather died, I inherited a bottle of 1982 Mouton Cadet, a ½ bottle of 1937 Army & Navy Claret and a dusty magnum of Williams & Humbert Dry Sack. The sherry turned out to be delicious. The others are still unopened under the stairs and I expect undrinkable. A friend of mine did rather better when he inherited an old pile in Lincolnshire. The man from Christie's wasn't impressed with the contents of the cellar but we found, amongst the old bottles of supermarket Soave and Navy Rum, some treasures including six bottles of 1961 Malartic Lagraviere, (superb and still young-tasting) and a bottle of Blandy's 1795 Terrantez (no hurry to drink that one.)
Heirlooms such as these were made possible by a British invention - the modern wine bottle. Previously bottles would have functioned much like a decanter and much too delicate for storage purposes. A super-strength dark glass was created around 1633 by Sir Kenelm Digby. Bottles made from this glass found their true calling with the signing of the Methuen Treaty of 1703 with Portugal and the creation of port, made by adding brandy to the powerful wine of the Douro. Bottles evolved from an onion-shaped thing designed for the table to something that we would recognise today, designed for lying down. All the ingredients were now in place for that most British of fine wines, vintage port. Here is P. Morton Shand, a man who like my wife didn't care for port, on the subject:
"A properly matured Port is rightly considered unequalled as the test of the pretensions of a county family to proper pride, patient manly endurance, Christian self-denial, and true British tenacity."
And this is how it went for over 300 years. Wine would be brought over in barrel from the Continent, bottled in England, or, in the case of the finest Bordeaux, bottled in France. Once bottled, wines could last for years or, in the case of Madeiras like my friend's Terrantez, centuries. Large institutions such as banks, publishing houses, regiments, club and colleges would have cellars as would many private houses. This began to change after the War. Many private houses sold off their cellars to pay death duties. Companies looking to become more streamlined abolished extraneous costs such as wine cellars. This gathered pace in the 1980s and coincided with a boom of interest in Bordeaux. I remember a now deceased uncle telling me that by the late 1990s his Château Palmer collection had become too valuable not to sell. He complained that his club, a St James's institution, had also sold off its rare wines. Thanks to advances in vine growing and vinification, wines became accessible younger. There was no need to tie up funds in the cellar, one could buy wine as it was needed.
I went to a redbrick university and my only experience of High Table was at one of the newer Oxford Colleges at which we were served a nasty Californian Merlot. I assumed, therefore, that college cellars had gone the way of the banks'.(Either that or they were saving the good stuff for someone more important.) Happily for students, it would seem that my experience was atypical. For this article, I spoke to people involved with buying wine for an Oxford College and at a prominent London club. All asked to remain anonymous. I learned that some institutions are still buying wine much as they would always have done. They still keep large stock of maturing wine, they still buy en primeur and some colleges still have a dedicated wine butler whose job it is to manage the cellar. Most of all, they still have a sense of altruism and tradition. They are run, like The Wine Society in fact, for the benefit of their members, present and future.
One thing that has changed though, is how long they keep wine for. Modern Bordeaux, still the most important wine in these institutions, can be enjoyed at five years old. Tastes are changing too. The French have always thought there was a whiff of necrophilia about the English love of very old wine. My source at the gentleman's club, a very traditional place, tells me that le Goût Anglais> is still going strong with his members but over in Oxford the youngsters don't want to drink ultra-mature wines. Their tastes are now more in line with those of the French, Americans and, increasingly, Chinese who like their wine young.
Vintage port, however, bucks this trend because all that tannin, alcohol and sweetness make it pretty much undrinkable young. I know because I've tried. These are wines that demand long ageing. Over at the Oxford College they were on the 1983s and 1985s. These were going for about £30 a bottle which makes me wish I'd worked harder at my A-levels. What really makes port the perfect drink to mark a birth is sadly also the reason that its popularity is in decline: one doesn't drink it very often so there is a sense of occasion to opening bottle.
So it has to be port for little Helena, now I just have to decide which to buy. I'm tempted by the Fonseca, apparently the star of the vintage, but this tasting note for the Churchill by Jancis Robinson MW from her Purple Pages caught my eye: "Absolutely classic 'Brit style' vintage port. Sort of the Léoville Barton of the Douro?" Doesn't that sound like it'll be wonderful in 2032? I just hope I'm allowed a glass.
Henry Jeffreys is wine columnist for the Lady magazine, a keen attender of Wine Society tastings and writes a blog called Henry's World of Booze