by Andrew Chalk
Port is one of the most distinctive and transformative wines. How about trying some from the oldest port producer, the original port if you like? That would be Kopke, established in 1638. Recently, winemaker Carla Tiago came through town and gave me a tasting of some of their products. It was a great opportunity to taste each wine and to appreciate the breadth of styles found in port wine.
First, features common to all these ports: Classic port grape types (touriga Franca, touriga nacional, tinta roriz, sousão, and possibly others) are fermented, a process in which sugar is converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide . Before the process completes, grape brandy is added which raises the alcohol level and kills the yeast promoting fermentation. At this point we have port wine and, since some of the grape sugar is unconverted, it is sweet. Were you to taste it at this point, you would recognize it as port. However, it is the things that follow, the aging if you will, that create the distinctive styles of port.
Kopke Late Bottled Vintage 2016 Porto. Late Bottled Vintage (often abbreviated to LBV) port takes the unaged wine and ages it in large casks for between four and six years. Then it is bottled and sold, ready to drink. No further aging is necessary. The resulting port is ruby in color, resolutely full-bodied, strongly reflecting the aroma of the constituent grapes and the fruit in the mouth. Those fruits are overwhelmingly dark fruits, blackberry and plum. Hints of pencil lead and aromatic spices such as sage also predominate.
LBV port is usually paired with dark chocolate, desserts featuring berries, crème brûlée, cheesecake and medium cheese (e.g. medium cheddar, manchego, fontina). Or just a movie - it is enjoyable to quaff.
Kopke Vintage Port 2020 Porto. Vintage port is the most compelling expression of port and the one that gives port its reputation as a globally definitive dessert wine.
The unaged wine is aged for two years in oak barrels followed by aging in bottle. Here is the key. In bottle, port will age a long time due to the high level of alcohol and the residual sugar. Fifty years is not uncommon. As it does so, it undergoes an extremely slow but fundamental maturation that means port from the best years of the 1970s and 1980s is now at its peak. As an informational exercise for customers, port houses will announce when a new vintage of their vintage port is very good. Such an announcement is called a declaration and such a year is called a ‘declared year’ by that port house. Kopke declared in 2020 and reviewers appear to agree. Critics watched by Wine Searcher scored this wine 92/100 points. So buy some now (around $90) for consumption in 2050-2060. Enjoy with stilton or stichelton cheese.
Kopke Colheita Port 1975 Porto. Colheitas are an interesting animal. Take the unaged wine and age it for at least seven years in small barrels (known as pipes, and less than 500L in size). Then bottle what you can sell, leaving the rest in barrel until enough demand reappears. It may take several years to exhaust the barrel supply, bottling on demand like this. So check the back label for the bottling date. The 1975 vintage may be bottled several times as the barrel supply is exhausted, meaning that those tapped later have spent longer in barrel than those tapped earlier. I know of no other wine where this is done.
Note: I have described Kopke’s procedures, other houses may bottle all of the supply of their Colheita in one pass. Check with their websites.
The significance of all this is the effect it has on the expression of port produced. It might sound as though a Colheita is just an LBV that has been aged for an extra year (7 rather than 6), but this would be wrong. The barrels are much smaller and the barrel aging may be much longer. As a result, Kopke’s Colheita has lost the fruitiness of its LBV. In its place is a wine that is nutty, concentrated, has dried fruits (oranges and apricot), and a long, soft, appealing finish. It is like one of the tawny ports described below. At this tasting, it was my favorite.
Kopke Tawny Port 30 Years Old, Porto. Also 10-year and 20-year versions of the same wine. Tawny port is likely the most popular port style in the United State (figures are murky). It is what to order in a restaurant as an after dinner imbibement. The age statement on the label refers more to the character of the wine in the mouth than the execution of a mathematical formula involving weighted average ages. The age designation must be approved by the port regulatory body and is subject to the market’s emphasis on reputation as well.
Basically, the older the age statement the more intense the wine, the longer the exuberance-inducing finish on the placate, and the lighter the color of the wine. But the nutty, dried-fruit, honey and vanilla lineage in the tasting note is common to all. Buy as old as you can afford. Do not age, it is ready to drink on release.
In the world of port, several long-established houses stand out. In case Kopke was not in that rank in your mind, now is the time to place them there. The product is first class and increasingly available.