Archive for January, 2009

Port tasting recap

Monday, January 12th, 2009

Last Tuesday we tasted through 5 ports:

Port is fortified wine from Portugal; it takes its name from the city of Oporto, where the wine is made and stored (although the grapes come from futher inland in the Douro region). Like Champagne, only the wine from that region can be called Port; everything else is just fortified wine made in the style of Port.

All Port is made in basically the same way – neutral grape spirits or brandy is added during fermentation; the alcohol kills the yeasts and stops fermentation, leaving residual sugar, and also adds alcoholic strength. The result is a strong (about 20% alcohol), sweet wine. From there, there are several categories:

Ruby: A blend from multiple vintages; usually doesn’t see much if any time in oak. At its best, it’s simple, fruity, and a good introduction to Port. (Lesser-quality Ruby is often pasteurized for stability, resulting in stewed flavors.)

Late-Bottled Vintage: A significant step up from Ruby. The grapes come from a single vintage, and the wine spends 4-6 years in oak (hence the term “late-bottled” – vintage port only spends 18-20 months in oak). They’re ready to drink sooner than vintage port because the extended oak aging softens and smooths the wine. Generally they don’t improve in bottle as much as vintage port. The best LBVs are unfiltered (look for it on the label); they do have the potential to improve somewhat in bottle.

Vintage: Also from a single year, using the best grapes from the vintage (LBV gets the grapes that don’t make the cut). Generally vintages are declared only in excellent years, but it’s at the discretion of each winery. Because the wine only spends 18-20 months in barrel, it needs extended bottle aging to soften up and will improve significantly in bottle.

Tawny: Port from a blend of vintages that’s been aged in barrel for an extended period, giving it a tawny color and nutty flavor. There’s a lot of bad artificial tawny made; look for wines with an age designation. Tawny generally starts getting good at 10 years (the age designation refers to the average time the wine has spent in barrel); there are also 20, 30, and 40 year versions, plus colheita tawnies, which are from a single vintage.

The first wine we tried was Ferreira’s Ruby Port ($16.50). Exactly what ruby should be – grapey, juicy, fruity, with a kick, but everything in balance. Not complicated, but very well made.

Next was Quinta do Noval’s 2003 LBV, unfiltered ($21.95). A nice step up from the Ruby. I think good LBV is the best value in port – almost as good as vintage but at a fraction of the price. The Noval was exceptionally smooth, with licorice, dark fruit, integrated spicy oak, nice balance.

We moved onto vintage for the third wine, starting off with the 1995 Smith Woodhouse “Madalena” ($39.95). 1995 was a mediocre year for port, and most producers didn’t declare a vintage. Smith Woodhouse did, but used the Madalena designation, which is its line of “lighter” vintage ports from lesser vintages. The upside to vintage port in off years is that although it’s not as concentrated and won’t age as well, it is ready to drink sooner and is significantly less expenseive. At 13 years in, this wine is drinking beautifully now – very elegant and refined, with more depth and intensity than the LBV.

Fourth was the 2000 Warre’s vintage ($61.95). Unlike 1995, 2000 was a great year for port and every producer declared the vintage. This wine is simply awesome; it’s a baby right now and will be ideal in 10-15 years, but was still delicious. Much more concentrated and richer than the Smith Woodhouse, with layers and layers of flavors. Fruit is still tight, but there’s enough there now to justify cracking open a bottle. Black currant, anise, black cherry, dried herbs, spice, minerality. Just wonderful.

We finished off with the Quinta do Noval 10-year tawny. Unlike the first four ports that have more red and black fruit flavors, tawny is much more nutty and cararmely. The Noval is a great example of 10-year tawny. Hazelnuts, a bit of orange peel, caramel, toasty oak, exceptionally long finish. A great way to end the tasting (or any evening).

Polar Plunge!

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

We did it! Some may question the sanity of jumping into a very cold lake in 10-degree weather, but it was a great experience. I just liked the adrenaline rush, while Aimee has now firmly established her credentials as cold-hardy – no one can give her grief about being from California any more.

Aimee made it onto the CBS 58 newscast – check out the full video at

Polar plunge - beforeWe started fortifying ourselves around 10 with some Kahlua and coffee (Aimee) and cava (me) and got to Bradford Beach around 11:30. It was crazy crowded, with lots of tents, informal camps, and an equal mix of spectators and participants. Lots of fun costumes and general revelry. Damn was it cold, though! About 20 degrees, but with wind chill about 10. Water was about 30, with lots of floating ice.

(Photo at right is of us pre-plunge)

A couple of shots of Kentucky Vintage bourbon warmed us up a bit (very nice bourbon, actually; we sell it at the shop and I can vouch for its efficacy), and right around noon we stripped down to our bathing suits and shoes (necessary because of the rocks and ice as you’re running in) and headed in. I’ve skydived several times, and this felt a bit like that – as you’re leaving the plane, there’s a pit in your stomach and you wonder why you’re doing this, but then as you jump the adrenaline kicks in and it’s exhilarating.

Ice banks blocked most of the access to the water, so there were only a few access points – I felt like a lemming following people in single file. We splashed around a bit and dunked ourselves (confirming that yes, it’s cold).

Phil after the plungeWe couldn’t get out the same way we came in because of all the people still entering, so we ended up getting out a bit down the beach and separated – far away from our towels and our friend Paul who was waiting to photograph us. Thus, no photos of us in the water or Aimee or getting out, alas. We dried off and headed home to a long, hot shower.

(Photo at right is me post-plunge).

Definitely not something I need to do every year, but totally worth doing.

New Year’s Eve

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

We had a great day at the shop on New Year’s Eve – far and away our best day ever. Thanks to everyone who shopped with us! Our offering of Nicolas Feuillatte at 19.95 (cheaper than Ray’s!) was a huge success; we sold out everything we had. The last few days have been quite busy as well; I’m a little bit embarrassed by how picked over the shop seems and am looking forward to getting my deliveries on Tuesday. Will also be swapping out the wine list quite extensively, especially the reds. Everyone’s loving what’s on there now, but it’s been a while and I want to keep it fresh.

Back to NYE – we were at the shop until about 8:30 or so, then had a quiet evening at home. Cooked wonderful lobster tails from Saint Paul Fish and filet from Rupena’s, complemented by Charles Lafitte Rose Champagne, which was delicious. Champagne is a great food wine, and rose in particular can work with heavier foods such as steak because of the additional body from the red grapes. We made it to about 12:10 before crashing, just long enough to ring in the new year. We needed our sleep, though – we had a big day planned for 1/1!