Vertical tasting reveals nuances of port

It’s one of my favorite wine sayings: Wine improves with age. The older I get, the better I like it.

A vertical tasting is one in which several vintages of the same wine are sampled to see how it changes with age. One of the great opportunities at February’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival was the chance to take part in vertical tasting of some of the world’s top wines.

In this case it was Graham’s Vintage Red Ports from 2007, 2003, 2000, 1994, 1983 and 1970. I’ve always made it a point to cultivate friends with good cellars, but I don’t know anybody who could (or would) duplicate this.

Port is fortified with grape brandy to bring up the alcohol level to about 20 percent, and with all that sugar and alcohol, it tends to age very well. In the vertical tasting of the Graham ports, deep purple hue turned slightly tawny, powerful acids and tannins softened and youthful fruit flavors turned more to truffles, spice and toffee, while building on the sweetness that makes port go so well with dessert.

“Vintage port lives in the ghetto of after-dinner,” said Tom Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator magazine, sponsor of the port seminar. “It is distinctive, misunderstood and underappreciated.”

Paul Mugnier, national sales manager for Graham’s, agreed. “We drink so many big red wines during the meal that, after dinner, we’re ready for bed.” But he soldiered on: “Champagne is the wine of celebration; port is the wine of relaxation.”

Port is improving as big houses like Graham’s exert greater quality control over the independent farmers who grow the grapes. Piston plungers are slowly replacing the centuries-old practice of crushing the grapes by foot (although many still argue that the perfect pressure to crush a port grape is your personal pedal appendage).

Still, it’s the aged ports that are a treat in a vertical tasting like this. The taster has to switch a gear in his head to be sure to appreciate the complexity, the hint of truffles and tea that come with age.

And now, since I’m a couple of hours older than when I started this column, I think I’ll go pour myself a glass of port, which will have aged a bit more as well. I’m sure I’ll like it.

Tasting notes

2007 Graham’s Vintage Port: deep purple hue, intense aromas and flavors of red and black plums and mint, medium-sweet, youthful, with powerful acids and tannins; $100.

2003 Graham’s Vintage Port: powerful black cherry, sweet chocolate and spice flavors, sturdy acids and tannins, youthful and intense; $103.

2000 Graham’s Vintage Port: intense aromas and flavors of black plums, milk chocolate and coffee and tar, full-bodied and smooth; $110.

1994 Graham’s Vintage Port: intense flavors of black cherries, bitter chocolate and spice, very rich, creamy, plus a hint of black tea denoting age; $113.

1983 Graham’s Vintage Port: tawnier hue, black raspberry flavors but also black tea and tobacco from age, sweeter, mellowing, gaining complexity; $116.

1970 Graham’s Vintage Port: tawny color, aromas of sweet dried roses, black cherries, dried candy and mocha, hint of truffles, complex and spicy; $250.

Fred Tasker has retired from The Miami Herald but continues writing about wine for the McClatchy News service.

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