1985 vintage port
HIGH summer, even a summer like this one, may seem an odd time to be thinking about vintage port, that heaviest and most thawing of all wines. The declaration of a vintage in Oporto, though, always takes place in the wine's second summer, when it has spent some 18 months in cask and is just about ready to be bottled. The theory is that the wine's long-term potential can- not be judged until after the second winter (not a prevalent theory in Bordeaux, where greatness can apparently be de- tected within six months). The extra year's grace also gives the shippers a chance to decide between two vintages: for if '86 had looked better at this stage than '85, I imagine that the declaration would have been postponed, as happened with 1982 and 1983.
That is all academic now, for '85 has become the first vintage to be declared unanimously by all the main shippers since 1963. This does not mean, as some gently puffing winds have bruited it about, that it is the best vintage since 1963. The finely honed palate of Bill Wane, one of the most knowledgable men in the business, pinpoints its quality in the narrow space between 1966 and 1970 (two of the most underrated port vintages of the last 30 years, especially the latter).
I recently tasted 20 of the leading ship- pers"85s, and was certainly impressed by a number of them. The first thing one looks for in young vintage port is an almost black opacity of colour extending right to the rim of the glass. The second is very difficult to describe: it is a combination of rawness and tightly furled fruit on the nose — anything too loose-knit or open is suspect for the long haul. As for the palate, an old port hand confided to me, people in Oporto do their level best to avoid actually taking the liquid into their mouths. Apart from the unpleasant burning sensation, though, one requires concentration of fruit, quite a bit of tannin, and something called backbone.
Backs vary a lot, in fact: there is the strong, muscular variety; the ramrod, stiff and straight, aspired to by guardsmen; and the more supple sinuousness of, say the Rokeby Venus. Fonseca falls into the first category, big and broad, an excellent wine packed with fruit, but just possibly lacking in subtlety; Churchill Graham similarly, but with a ounce or two less power. The two ramrods belong to Taylor and Wane, both immensly solid in colour, concen- trated and backward. I'd take these two to last well into the 2020's, a somewhat depressing thought for persons already of a certain age. The Rokeby Venus might be Noval (I think the comparison may be a shade flattering to the port), a feminine wine certainly, with a beautiful colour and an unusual, nervous acidity.
The two '85's I liked most, however, seemed to possess the best features of both the masculine and the feminine (though a hermaphrodite back sounds rather odd). Grahams is a gentle giant, with intense fruit on the nose (just possibly a hint of strawberry jam), a soft velvety texture and a very long finish. Cockburn (how good to see this great name of the past on form) has one of the most massive opaque colours of all, and lovely deep fruit on the nose (more like blackberries than strawberries this time). I should put in a word also for Gould Campbell, a second division brand from the Symington stable, but showing excep- tionally well in the best company, with great depth of colour and classic structure. Croft, Dow and Rebello Valente impress- ed me also.
Now for the market. The talk is all bullish. Demand and prices for vintage port rose rather suddenly when the Amer- icans entered this most traditional of Brit- ish markets with the 1977 vintage. The opening prices of the '85's certainly do not look cheap at between £135 and £156 per dozen FOB for the top-flight shippers.
When you add on duty and shipping costs, and VAT on the whole caboodle, you are looking at between £176 and £200 all told. You may have to pay a lot more for first-growth claret, but you can pay a lot less, at current auction prices, for port of the last two generally declared. vintages, 1983 and 1980. Christie's tell me that '83s are going for around £130 (plus 11.5 per cent net buyer's premium) and the Cin- derella 1980 vintage (much better than people think, the buzz goes) for only about £100. But the best port bargains at the moment are surely the 1970s, wines of a classic vintage now selling for £170 and £200 at auction. The 1985s may be equally good, but they are 15 years younger and no cheaper. Shome mishtake, surely?