Thursday, March 2, 2000
When I closed my eyes and sipped the 1927 Fonseca Guimaraens last Thursday at the Masters of Food and Wine vintage port tasting at the Highlands Inn, I noted the hints of cinnamon and cardamom. I caught a peripheral whiff of coconut and white chocolate, too.
But most of all, I saw the feet. Gnarled, strong, callused bare feet, dozens of pairs, belonging to dozens of long-dead farmworkers, feet that stomped up and down for hours on end in stone vats piled thigh-high with ripe, reddish-purple port grapes. They stomped, late into the night, more than 70 years ago in a barn in northern Portugal, so that I might sip the fruits of their labor from a crystal glass, in a cliffside room high above the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean.
I am humbled by their gift.
The event itself was extraordinary: an opportunity to taste 10 of the rarest and most highly acclaimed vintage ports of the 20th century, from the fabled Portuguese port houses of Fonseca Guimaraens and Taylor Fladgate. Director Adrian Bridge and his wife Natasha, whose palate tests every vintage the joint houses produce, were on hand to guide us through the opulence.
First on tap was the 1927 Fonseca. I''m a port lover and I''ve had a few good ones in my time. But nothing, nothing prepared me for the visceral pleasure of that old tawny sliding across my tongue. Would I pay $1,000 for the bottle? That''s the going price, according to Patrick Schrady, wine consultant at Nielsen Bros. in Carmel. If you can even find a bottle.
But our next port, the 1948 Taylor Fladgate, was even more astonishing--and expensive, setting the buyer back around $1,200, Schrady says. It''s a "legendary vintage," Adrian agreed. Natasha described the nose, or "smell," as muted, with a faint scent of port''s signature violet coming through. And the texture? Positively silky.
On to the ''63 Fonseca, a massive blockbuster of a port, almost jam-like with big, punch-between-the-eyes tannins and a strong alcoholic whiff (that''s the neutral spirits, added to the grapes during fermentation ). Then the ''66 Taylor--"very stylish," Adrian opined; "a lovely, long palate," Natasha nodded.
The 1970 Taylor, with its heady nose of chocolate and woodsy spice, suffered beside the browning giants that preceded it. On any other night, I''d have fallen over with delight if presented with a glass. But in this company, it was merely acceptable.
But then, it was time for the fabulous 1977 Fonseca, considered the best vintage port of the decade. In color and readiness-to-drink, it marked the demarcation point in the glasses'' lineup, midway between the brown and ready (1970 and earlier) and the ruby-red and put-''em-away (1977 and younger).
"Raspberries, cherries, there''s so much power underneath this," Adrian declared. "It''s all still waiting to happen." This one will set you back about $250, according to Schrady.
Why is vintage port so expensive? First, there''s very little of it--about 1 percent of all port made is declared "vintage." And in the great port houses like Fonseca-Taylor, it''s all done by hand. Mules pull the plows through the fields. Men dig stones out of the ground to prepare for planting. At harvest, workers dump carts filled with grapes into large stone vats, then come back in the evening, take off their trousers, and stomp on the grapes in a specific, time-honored rhythm.
The grapes are stomped for two nights, then left to ferment for 30 to 36 hours until about half the sugar in the grape has converted to alcohol. After that, the neutral spirits are added, and the process is complete. Just bottle and wait.
Adrian declares that nothing will replace the stone vats, mule plows and bare feet used at Fonseca-Taylor. "The human foot is very gentle," he said. "It doesn''t release the harsh tannins. We still tread every grape we grow."