I have known Don Schliff for over 25 years, since he came to visit Quinta do Noval in 1994. He had a reputation even then as one of the great collectors of Vintage Port, and one of the most knowledgeable Port tasters. I thought I would put him to the test, and so decanted a bottle of the Quinta do Noval Nacional 1962. This is an extremely rare wine, and very little known. The 1963 is justly famed as one of the great wines of the world, but although the 1962 Vintage was not generally declared, the Quinta do Noval vineyard made some lovely wines that year, and in particular the 1962 Nacional, which is a wonderful wine, an austere but very pure fine and complex expression of the Nacional. This, I thought, would flummox him, and indeed anyone. However great it is, it is very rarely talked about, and very rarely tasted. We began to drink the wine at the end of lunch and I asked him what he thought it might be. In his deceptively laid back and relaxed way, he said, “Well, I don’t know. It kind of reminds me of the Nacional 1962!”
I knew from that moment that I was in the presence of someone who knew Vintage Port, and nothing since then has contradicted this judgement. Don has over the years organised some astonishing tastings in Los Angeles for small groups of sophisticated – some fanatical – connoisseurs and lovers of old Vintage Ports from his cellars in Los Angeles, and from time to time has asked me to participate.
On Sunday February 2, 2020, he invited me to be present at what was surely an historic and certainly unrepeatable tasting of fine old Vintage Ports, mostly from his personal collection.
Here is the list of wines that was put before us:
Shipper Unknown 1834
Shipper Unknown 1844
Cossart Gordon Solera 1844 Bual Madeira
Shipper Unknown 1887
Quinta do Noval 1931
Taylor Fladgate 1945
Taylor Fladgate 1994
Quinta do Noval 2000
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2000
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2011
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2017
Niepoort Garrafeira 1987
Rather than try to give tasting notes on each wine, I prefer to talk about the wines that particularly stood out for me. The first two in particular, the 1834 and the 1844, from that well known producer whose wines I have so often come across, “Unknown Shipper” (By this age, all trace of labels has vanished, if there ever were any, and it is rare that the cork can give very much information apart from the year of production, which is also sometimes still printed in a wax seal over the cork.) Both were remarkable, still alive, and incredibly, fresh and enjoyable. The 1844 was actually one of the stars of the whole tasting. These were very old wines. The 1834, made just 19 years after the battle of Waterloo, still had fruit, from grapes grown so long ago, in an unrecognisable world. The Duke of Wellington himself, who liked to drink several bottles of Port each day, may well have drunk this wine, which would have been 18 years old when he died in 1852. How extraordinary it is that a bottle of wine can survive so long, and form a link for us with events and people from so long ago.
This is one of the characteristics of Vintage Port. It can be an astonishingly long lived wine. It is not immortal. Even the very best Port wines have a limited life, reach their apogee, and then decline, sometimes over a long plateau of decades, and will finally reach the stage where they have nothing more to give. But they can live longer than us, and this enables us to have a relationship with them that can last for generations.
In the opening lines of his Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats addresses the Urn itself
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time
But this would equally be an appropriate address to a bottle of ancient Vintage Port, ageing quietly and serenely in the cellar of a great collector like Don Schliff.
Time plays a vital role in the development of all wines. Even simple white wines that might be ready to drink in the year following harvest require at least a few months after the harvest to make them ready to drink. Great complex wines, both red and white, may require many years ageing, in barrel, in bottle, at the winery, in the cellar of the wine drinker, in order to reveal all that they have to offer.
But time is the friend of Vintage Port in particular. You can of course drink some Vintage Ports when they are very young. One of the final wines we tasted at Don’s tasting was the 2017 Quinta do Noval Nacional, which I believe to be one of the great Nacionals the Quinta has ever produced. I am quite certain that this wine will be wonderful to drink in a century, and indeed I very much hope that a group of Port lovers like the one that was united by Don at the Bel Air on Sunday will taste this wine in 2120. But it is also a hugely sybaritic pleasure to drink this wine in its infancy today. This is no crime: just a different way of enjoying it. But time will undoubtedly allow the wine to reveal layers of aroma and complexities of flavour that are only present in a concentrated, impressive, but as yet unrevealed form today.
Some of the wines in this tasting I had drunk before, some of them decades ago with people who are still alive today, some with people who no longer are. Some of the wines in this tasting I hope to drink in years to come, perhaps with my sons, who are still mostly too young to enjoy them today, but with whom it will be a pleasure to observe their discovery of what great wine can be. And some of the wines I shall share with them, they will be able perhaps one day to share with their children, when I may no longer be around. These wines traverse generations, and form a link at the present moment at which we drink them both with the past and with the people with whom we may have shared them before, and with the future, and with moments to come when we will enjoy them again, or when others will. Vintage Port is a wine that permits this kind of experience.
So an event such as the tasting that Don organised on Sunday 2nd February in LA goes way beyond the fact of being just a wine tasting; it is an experience of wines in time, wines which in some cases have travelled through many decades to be with us on that day, and which in some cases have very many decades before them, during which we may get the chance to revisit them again, perhaps to share them with some of the people there on Sunday, perhaps with other people; and during which they will also be discovered by people who are perhaps not even yet born.
To return to the wines, among the many great experiences we had that day, the stand outs for me were the following:
Cockburn’s 1912, amazingly youthful still, rich, ripe, fresh and long, with still some fruit and tannin;
Niepoort 1927, surely one of the great 1927s, still with a relatively youthful deep profound colour, complex rich, youthful and quite delicious. I had this wine for the first time with Dirk Niepoort in 1994 at his house, and it has remained on a plateau of excellence ever since, evolving slowly of course, but really not appearing to be very much older than that first great experience.
Quinta do Noval 1931. From the excellent bottling of Fearon Block Bridges and Routh, and an outstanding example of this great wine. The legendary 1931 greatly enhanced Noval’s reputation in the twentieth century. The major shippers did not declare the 1931, since the great depression had begun and they all had very large stocks of the great 1927 Vintage on their hands. But Noval has a history of eccentricity, and decided to declare the Vintage anyway. It was only as the years passed that it was realised how great the 1931 Vintage was, and the Quinta do Noval was the wine that showed this. As a result it has been a legendary wine for Port lovers ever since, much sought after, and now becoming extremely rare. I have been able to taste the 1931 a few times, and it still amazes by its youth and vigour. But not only is it still fresh, it has the typical Noval characteristics of elegance, and manages to be fine and delicate as well as long and powerful. It is recognisably typical of the Noval style, as I have come to know it in the Vintage Ports we have been making over the past 26 years, and this typicity is remarkable in a wine that is now nearly ninety years old.
The Taylor 1945 was also outstanding, and to taste this wine alongside the Noval 31 was to experience the radical difference in style between the two great houses, and indeed the two great Vintages. While the Noval was all finesse, the Taylor was monumental, rich powerful structured dense and profound, just a great wine.
Towards the end of this tasting of great old wines, there were two pairs of relatively young Noval wines, which I was very happy to see in such company.
Firstly, we tasted the 2000 Vintage Ports from both Quinta do Noval and from the Quinta do Noval Nacional. Since we first made these wines, they have been among my favourite Novals, a preference perhaps increased by the fact that 2000 has in my view not yet been recognised for the great vintage that I believe it to be. Both these wines were always very backward in their youth, closed tight and tannic, and extremely reserved. But I have always believed them to be among the great wines that the Quinta has produced, and over the past few years they have begun to open up a little and begin to reveal what they have to show. The Quinta do Noval Vintage Port comes of course from various parcels over the whole of Noval’s 145 hectare estate, representing a strict selection of the very best wines from the property that rarely exceeds 10% of the total production. The Nacional on the other hand always comes only from the tiny 4 acre parcel of ungrafted vines at the heart of the Quinta, which always produces a wine that is exceptional and quite different from the wines from the rest of the property. The 2000 wines are no exception to this, though I have always felt that the 2000 Quinta do Noval is one of the Vintage Ports from the Quinta that rivals most closely in excellence the Nacional from the same year, albeit with a different personality. Today was no exception to this: the 2000 Quinta do Noval Vintage was true to itself, still a little reserved, but very complex, spicy and fresh, with very big powerful reserved tannins, very long, very persistent. Above all very harmonious and balanced. The Nacional was all of those things, but with a few degrees more of intensity, very complete, very fine and very long. I remain convinced that this was a very great Vintage at Noval!
We then compared two of the great recent Nacionals, the 2011, and the 2017. I thought that it was important to show these two wines at this extraordinary tasting, alongside so many great old wines from the distant past, as a reminder that great and wonderful wines are still being made in the Douro! I believe in fact that the 2011 and 2017 Nacional wines are among the greatest Nacionals that the Quinta has ever made. They are of course still babies at the moment, but already the very different styles of the two vintages are evident. 2017 was a very hot dry year, with alarming heat spikes during the summer, and drought conditions during the growing period, with rainfall down to about half the normal (low) levels we are used to in the Douro. I remember worrying before the harvest that such extreme conditions were unlikely to produce balanced wines. But I need not have worried. The result of this year of very extreme weather conditions is unquestionably one of the greatest Nacionals ever, exuberantly and extravagantly ripe, exotic, dense powerful and expressive, even at this stage. The 2011 on the other hand was the product of a much more balanced and relatively temperate year, and its style reflects this. It has always been marked by a wonderfully complete balance and harmony, intense, pure, fine fresh and long, and is also clearly one of the great historic Nacionals . I am sure that Vintage Port lovers will be comparing these two great wines for many decades to come, and should a group of wine lovers meet as we did for a tasting of old Vintage Ports in a century’s time and taste these two, I am quite sure that they will still have wonderful things to reveal.
In conclusion, this tasting, hosted by the great wine collector Don Schliff was an extraordinary event. I should mention that the various flights of Port were accompanied by outstanding food prepared by Wolfgang Puck. It was a wonderful afternoon of celebration, certainly unforgettable, certainly unrepeatable.