Given this, you’ll understand why some of the insights that I scribbled down during the later stages of a long port-tasting session have been forever lost to science – something that surely represents a tragedy for Britain’s sommelier community.
Nonetheless, my notebook contains enough legible pearls of wisdom to paint a picture of five quite distinct ports – starting with a benchmark Taylors Select Reserve: a cheap tipple picked up every year by a million grannies as the nights close in. Carrying plums, red cherries and a thin, acerbic nose, its pleasant sourness provided a decent jumping-off point for the night’s taste adventures.
These grew more interesting with Taylors’ 2007 LBV (late-bottled vintage): a boisterous tooth-coater with a heady nose and a spirited, dry punchiness. Giving our taste-buds a good battering, it was a lively and involving drink; and by comparison our next bottle, a 2006 Graham’s crusted port, initially seem rather cosy.
After a sip or two, though, the Graham’s expanded to produce a complex, floral set of flavours: I sensed tart elderflower notes, while my friend got leather, citrus peel and what he described as “good mud”. We certainly had plenty of time to explore them, for it left a long, lingering taste – and after that, a warm glow in the blood.
Leaping back a decade, we tried a Tesco Vintage Port: it was bottled in ‘96 on the Symington estate, after two years in the cask. The vintage returned us to the classic port flavours of the Select Reserve: the full-bodied fruity smack was back – only this time with pepper, liquorice, and an overtly alcoholic, spirit-like pungency that reminded us of sherry.
Finally, the big fella: a Taylor’s 40-year-old tawny port, whose grapes were picked back in ’69 – at the tail end of Portuguese dictator Salazar’s long regime. By this point, we thought we knew how port tasted; but the tawny redefined things again. Rusty red – almost mauve – in the glass, it too had sherry notes, but something too of the dessert wine: sharp without being tart, it first offered sweet grapes, then the long, woody flavours of its cask. Caramelised apple and dark cherries swam through the mix; and when it reached the brain, it left not the warm glow that characterised the others, but a convincing – if deceptive – mental clarity.
If only its effect on my handwriting was as clarifying on its action on my mind, you might have received further details. But after testing each of these ports twice – we had to be sure, you understand – our concentrations moved elsewhere. Perhaps, though, you can seek out those pearls of wisdom yourself. After all, it’s still only February: I thoroughly recommend gathering a good friend or two and a selection of ports, and making a bid to further educate your own palate in a Portuguese tipple that is perfectly suited to winter in these far more northerly climes.