The forgotten magic – Port style wines from the Cape

What isn’t to love about port? Richness and sweet alcoholic deliciousness are guilty pleasures, admittedly, but at its best it’s also marvellously complex and interesting in its various stylistic guises. The difficulty, perhaps, as with other sweet wines is where and when to serve it – the leisurely elegance of cheese, nuts and fruit at the end of a meal, accompanied by a few glasses of port (and then a taxi home if that’s not where you are) is a perfect, but rare, arrangement.

SASA’s latest tasting, hosted at Auslese on the 10th of March, saw a collection of Portuguese Ports and Cape counterparts across the major styles of the category presented by Cape Wine Master and Port guru, Boets Nel, and Higgo Jacobs. Wines ranged from current release non-vintage Ruby Ports to beautifully aged vintage Port from the early 1960’s.

Ports – and their Cape equivalents – are basically distinguished as to whether they are aged primarily in bottle (reductively) or in large casks (oxidatively). Ruby Port is in the first camp, though it’s actually not aged long at all – and is often a vintage blend, as consistency is the prime requirement, along with simple, mildly structured pleasure. So with our first pair. Calitzdorp Cellar Cape Ruby. (R45) is dark-fruity and not spirity. Rich, balanced by decent but separate acid, with a sweetish finish. It was that sweetness that mostly suggested to me it was a local version, though interestingly it had the same residual sugar as the Niepoort Ruby, from Portugal’s Douro Valley. It was the higher alcohol in the latter (20% versus 18%) that probably gave it its drier balance. My note on the Niepoort was: More complex, less pure, less simply fruity  nose. Shows more alcohol, more dry tannin. Drier finish. Integrated. A little elegance with the charm. Slightly herbal finish. As you can see, I preferred the Port, though the Calitzdopr Cape Ruby is great value.

The second pair were of the oxidatively matured style – tawny by name and tawny in colour. Much closer in quality – and price, in fact:

  • Quinta de Vallada 20 Year Old (about GBP 23 in the UK for 500 ml). Tawny with hint of amber-olive on rim. Lively fresh nose, some almond nuttiness, spice, coffee. A nice bit of spirity fire. Light, fresh feel. Fantail finish, slightly sweet. Better integrated of the two.  
  • Boplaas Cape Tawny Vintners Reserve Bin 1880. (a tiny bottling, about R250 for 375 ml). Deeper red version of tawny [reflecting its comparative youthfulness – about 10 years in cask, Amber rim. Luscious, a touch less finesse than previous, more fruity, but less obvious spirit.

Someone very reasonably suggested that these tawnies would go well with spicy food.

Then we returned to the bottle-aged style. As the name implies, Late Bottled Vintage ports are kept in barrel for longer than Vintage ports – a good few years as opposed to perhaps 18 months – in order to make them supple and drinkable sooner. LBVs are consequently a bit less opaquely black than Vintage, and a bit lighter in character too. They’re often a source of very good value, as with these.

I was very pleased when the first of the pair was revealed as Axe Hill Cape LBV 2010, as I hadn’t admired the 2009, but did like this very much. Lovely complex bouquet, with prune and liquorice, and some dark chocolate and coffee from the oak influence – which some tasters thought too obvious. Some power, density and tannic grip; fairly long finish, though not great intensity. The spicy Krohn  LBV Port (about GBP 15) was less appealing to me – a bit too easy-going for the style: softer, lighter, rounder, less tannic, a bit more acid-bony.

Then we moved onto three serious Vintage-style wines (frequently in South Africa the best add “Reserve” to the Cape Vintage designation). There were two fine examples from De Krans, a decade apart: 2007 and 1997. Good dry tannins were, of course, more prominent in the younger wine, which was also notably more complex, no doubt largely due to the greater contribution from touriga nacional – the soft, delicious and charming 1997 was mostly from tinta barroca.

I found, however, the Warres Quinta de Cavadinha Vintage Port 2002 altogether more exciting and somehow lifted, with an almost delicate prune-spice bouquet. Some sweetness, but a drier, more savoury finish than the De Krans pair, and very long-lingering. Needing longer in bottle still to attain real harmony of its components.

There were three older wines. The Rustenburg 1990 was past its best, though still alive, with a tawny rim to its mahogany colour and an almost pungent, oxidative nose. To me, unpleasingly toffee-sweet and lacking structure – very much in the older style of Cape fortifieds.

Showing much more vigour were two (very different) wines from the early 1960s. Ferreira Vintage Port 1963 (it’s a famous vintage) had a lovely subtle aroma and palate, beautifully developed but not in the least oxidised. The great joy with old port like this is the totally resolved tannic structure, almost undetectable as such, but holding everything together in its sublimely velvet grip.

The Monis Collectors Vintage Port 1961 was a special release (in 1987), and has sold for large sums at the Nederburg Auction. I don’t know how long it had been in cask versus bottle, but it actually showed more tawny character than I’d have expected – from the olive-rimmed tawny colour, to the complex aromas and flavours (menthol, liquorice, toffee, tea and much else) and the great richness of body. No hurry to drink up!

There is, of course, no greater and rarer pleasure for a winelover than fine old bottles summoning up the warmth of summers of many decades past; and few wines age as splendidly as good fortifieds. This was altogether a most memorable occasion.

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