Fonseca 40 Year Old Tawny

While in Portugal, I made a visit to Quinta do Panascal, Fonseca’s flagship estate in the Cima Corgo sub-region. It’s an incredibly good visit; the self-guided audio tour, in concept quite off-putting, is actually fantastic, and the estate itself is one of the more scenic in the Douro. I was there during harvest and, in a region that is discovering ways to ease the cost and pain of making wine, Quinta do Panascal is quite old-fashioned in the winery. Lagares were full and hordes of Portuguese men were treading the grapes for hours on end. It was like stepping back in time and, although none of this necessarily means a better wine, it’s certainly fascinating to see such old traditions being practiced.

One can taste though a pretty comprehensive range of wines at the Quinta, which of course I did. I’ve chosen to write this one up as a companion note to the Quinta de Noval 40 Year Old Tawny. Both show an angularity of flavour that pushes them into more distinctive territory than their 20 Year Old counterparts, though this wine much more so than the Quinta de Noval.

Whereas Fonseca’s younger tawnies have the sort of familiar generosity one expects of this style, the 40 Year Old is immediately more challenging. There are some pretty funky aromas here that move past a familiar nutty oxidation into territory that encompasses sardines, sea spray and decaying vegetation. In the mouth it comes alive by presenting its flavours within a strikingly rich, yet incredibly clean, palate structure. This feels more structured than, say, then 10 Year Old, with a good whack of tannin on the finish, carried easily by its rich body. I love the combination of funky and clean here, and find it the most characterful wine of all the Fonseca tawnies.

Price: $AU200 (approx)
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Quinta de Noval 40 Year Old Tawny

I’ve tasted so many wines over the past couple of weeks it’s difficult to know where to start in terms of writing them up. I’ll begin with a highlight of my recent visit to Northern Portugal. Tasting in the Douro Valley and Vila Nova de Gaia, it’s at times tempting to focus on the new breed of table wines, as there’s considerable excitement in the region for these styles. But in tasting both these and the vast array of more traditional Port wine styles, I was struck by the effortlessness of the fortified wines, whereas the table wines, at times truly excellent, also showed an occasional struggle to achieve finesse. The strengths of some regions are just self-evident.

This particular wine jumped out during my tasting blitz of the region, not because it was the best wine tasted by any means (that honour goes to various 2011 vintage ports) but because it provides such deep satisfaction. Tawny port is such a great style in terms of the immediacy and ease of its pleasures; there’s no digging deep here, just a pure, hedonistic wine experience. The aroma is wild, certainly wilder than its 20 year old counterpart, with a striking savouriness and clarity of aroma, well articulated and clean despite its richness. Indeed, this isn’t a combatively expressive wine. There’s no shortage of aroma, but it doesn’t suffocate the nostrils as some richer fortified wines can. Interestingly, the typically nutty oxidative aromas are here, but not in as much abundance as in the 20 year old. Perhaps it has evolved past even those notes.

As good as this smells, it’s all about the palate. It’s amazingly unctuous and mouth-coating, seeming to press its flesh against every last corner of the mouth. Interestingly, there’s still good tannin and decent freshness, and it’s not a heavy wine, despite its rich flavours. Indeed, this is a pretty good example of how refined a very old tawny can be. It’s tempting to look to these styles for impact and overwhelming intensity of flavour, but that sort of scale isn’t an inevitability; this has plenty to give, but it never feels assaultive.

Just lovely.

Quinta de Noval
Price: €60 (375mL)
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Quinta do Vale Meao Meandro Red 2011

Today’s spectacular train journey along the Linha do Douro has deposited me in the pretty town of Pinhão, Portugal. I’m in the heart of Douro wine country, surrounded by terraced vineyards that defy common sense and Quintas whose names shout loudly from brightly whitewashed walls along the river banks. I went to a local restaurant tonight, one that I can recommend highly (the Restaurant bar veladouro), and drank entirely on the recommendation of the house. Why aren’t Portuguese table wines better known? I’ve had several beautiful wines in my two days in the country so far, and I’m quite confident there will be more to come.

Just bottled in June of this year, this is a blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Sousão, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão. The aroma shows notes that span a range from determinedly odd to almost familiar. Hessian, tart dark berries, sea spray, sap and a subtle sprinkling of fruit cake spice. It’s already busy for such a young wine, although its notes do stand apart from one another somewhat. Still, the overall impression is one of complexity, subtlety and and balance, with juicier berry notes sneaking in over time.

In the mouth, medium bodied with a fine tannin structure and mid-palate that is waiting to relax and please. For now, acid keeps things in good check, such that the experience of this wine remains somewhat linear. There’s a lot of savoury complexity through the after palate. including a contribution from oak that tastes rather raw for now. It’s clearly a young wine, but its components are achingly good in a restrained, modest way. The best is yet to come here.

I enjoyed this bottle of wine with a traditional Portuguese meal of salted cod gratin. An unlikely, but sympathetic, pairing.

Quinta do Vale Meao
Price: €20 (wine list)
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Cockburns Vintage Port 1967

When my father and my mother married in 1967, they had their reception at the Islander, a classic Tiki-themed restaurant in my home town of Stockton, California. Mai Tais were served in tiki-shaped glasses; the wedding pictures are a hoot. I wasn’t around then, but while I was growing up, I knew they were about to celebrate an anniversary when my Dad fetched a bottle of this wine from his cellar the week before, careful to give it plenty of time in an upright position, hoping to reduce the thick sludgy sediment that would wind up in their glasses.There were originally four cases of this wine, I think; my parents aimed to drink one on every one of their anniversaries until their fiftieth. In the meantime, they’re still happily married, but the bottles are a bit scattered: they joined the Peace Corps when they retired, I took over maintenance of the remaining cases, and it’s always been a small hassle getting the bottles to them in time for their anniversaries (they live in London, a short twelve-hour plane ride away from San Diego).When last I checked, I still had seven bottles in my cellar – just enough to make it to their 50th anniversary in 2017 as they’ve still got one in their flat. I reported this to my Dad last weekend and he said, you know what? You and Dan are celebrating your first anniversary this weekend, so I think you should share one of those bottles yourselves – and this is why I’ve got a glass of this wine in front of me right now.Amazingly, opening the bottle wasn’t the disaster I was fearing. The remaining bottles have started to weep a bit over the past few years, climate-controlled storage notwithstanding; the capsules are sticky and they smell, well, porty. I chose the one with a huge dried stain of escaped liquid on its side, washed it as best I could, and hacked away at the capsule with a knife. Thankfully, it came off fairly easy. I tried to wash the gunk off of the neck, but didn’t get too far. Removing the cork was surprisingly easy; although it was soft and not particularly tightly sealed, I managed to get it out all in one piece. Yes, it looked like a Stilton cheese you’d forgotten in the back of the fridge for a year, but at least it didn’t fall apart.Similarly, there wasn’t a lot of sediment still suspended in the wine; it all flowed smoothly into the decanter and left a huge block of crud behind, which promptly fell off the bottle walls shortly after I set the bottle back upright.The wine’s a very thin, pale liquid at this point, and yet it looks like watered-down pomegranate juice in the right light, still dappled with some brighter reds mixed in with the weary browns. It’s starting to look a bit like sangria at this point, but it’s also over-still, seemingly devoid of life.The smell is a shock: this wine does not smell forty-two years old. If I didn’t know anything about it, I’d have mistaken it for a run-of-the-mill decent quality Port at first, something like a LBV. However, a bit more time thinking about it and it smells of finely ground, lightly roasted coffee, with hazelnuts and milk chocolate, neon red strawberries, rancio notes, pistachios and rosewater… there’s a lot going on here. Overall, the effect is of imaginary Turkish coffee served next door to a bazaar specializing in oudh.Rich, unctuous, and plush in the mouth, an initial sip is briefly overwhelmed by very fine, sharp acidity before fanning out into a slightly hot, calming whirl of semi-dried sultanas, Nutella, and Turkish delight – but the overarching flavor is ironically that of simple, direct, rich red fruits, a strong echo of a good harvest nearly half a century later.If, as Randall Grahm recently tweeted, the mysterious, zen-like point of all wines is to bring us back, then this wine certainly brings me back. It brings me back to an imagined 1967 Portugal, where I’m standing in the Douro Valley wondering where all of this work will lead. It brings me back to the Islander in Stockton, California, drinking a mai tai out of a Tiki-shaped mug. It brings me back to childhood memories of my parents celebrating their marriage with a shared ritual year in, year out. It brings me back to standing in a port lodge with good friends just a few years ago, drenched from winter rains. It brings me back to bad truck stop bacalao, to the first time I ever tasted port at my uncle and aunt’s house in Oakland, to the first time I fell in love, to the first time I ever met my partner.Finally, I get the sense that this wine has someone returned full circle as well. I remember it when it was younger, deeper colored, stronger. I remember my Dad expressing disappointment that it had started to fade several years ago. And yet here it is, quite possibly no longer what it once was, and yet it brings me right back to the beginning.Thanks, Dad.Cockburns
Price: $NA
Closure: Cork