An Exceptional Vintage Port Tasting

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Don Schliff's Exceptional Tasting
Don Schliff’s Exceptional Tasting

I was in Los Angeles recently for an unforgettable tasting organised by Don Schliff of the Wine Warehouse. Don has an extraordinary personal collection of Vintage Port, and opened for a group of enthusiasts a range of remarkable bottles from his cellar, which we tasted in the convivial surroundings of the Hotel Bel Air in Beverly Hills.

I first met Don when I had just started at Quinta do Noval over twenty years ago. He came to visit the property and we had lunch. I knew little about the trade at that time, but was aware that Mr Schliff was a distinguished member of it. So I decided to open one of the more obscure, but one of my favourites, of the old Nacionals, the 1962. I thought to myself: he has made the effort to come here, and so we will open something he will never have had the chance to taste before.

As the decanter went round at the end of lunch I asked Don what he thought of the wine. In a very laid back way he answered “It kind of reminds me of the Nacional 1962!” I realised that I was in the presence of someone who knew more about Port than most people do. As time has gone by I have come to respect even more his encyclopaedic knowledge and fine judgement of great Vintage Ports.

So when Don invited me over for this tasting, it was irresistible. An extensive range of Vintage Ports from 1963; and then a vertical of Quinta do Noval Nacionals: 1963; 1958; 1962; 1960, and finally a 1927 from Dow and a bottle of the 1931 Quinta do Noval Vintage, the legendary declaration that made Noval’s reputation.

While we tasted the 1963s, we were served an outstanding lunch prepared by Wolfgang Puck, who proved that Vintage Port is not just a wine to be drunk in isolation (though that works very well) but also has wonderful gastronomic possibilities when you are in the hands of a master chef.

The 1963s were generally showing very well indeed, the stars of the show being for me Fonseca, Taylor’s and Dow, which was actually my number one wine. Quinta do Noval Vintage 1963 was lovely but the three I mention had more concentration and power. The 1963 Nacional was in another series, and I have to say in another category, as always, astonishingly youthful reserved complex and powerful. And then we tried the other Nacionals, all beautiful and in great condition. The 1960 was particularly lovely, fine delicate and aromatic. And then we finished with the great 1927 from Dow and the astonishing 1931 Quinta do Noval Vintage. I have tasted this wine a few times over the past twenty years, and each time it amazes by its youth, and seems not to grow one whit older. There must be very few bottles left in the world by now, but to anyone who has one, there is no hurry to drink up: this is a wine with at least a couple of decades left in it.

Well, this tasting was one of the great experiences of my life, proof if any proof were needed that Vintage Port is one the greatest wines produced on the planet, capable as we know of providing great pleasure when fairly young (I am drinking some of my 2000 and 2003 Novals right now and they are wonderful), but also capable of revealing extraordinary complexity, finesse and aromatic intensity as they age.  Thank you Don for a memorable experience.

Photo courtesy of Roy Hersh, whom I was delighted to see at this tasting. Roy was writing up the tasting for The SOMM Journal, and his report will later appear in For The Love of Port.