Try this word association exercise with a friend and see what happens. Tell them to say the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the following phrase:
I am willing to bet nine out of ten people respond with one word:
The fact is, most people who have any exposure to wine are familiar with “Port” and have probably tried it at some point. That being said, very few people are “experts” when it comes to Port, and for good reason. There’s Tawny Port, Colheita Port, Crusted Port, and Vintage Port, among others, which all serve to make understanding Port difficult for anyone but the most interested aficionados. While I am planning a more in-depth look at Port as a whole, I want to delve into one peculiarity of Port wine production: Late Bottled Vintage Port, also known as LBV. I decided to tackle LBV first because I recently had one of the most sublime wine-tasting experiences of my life involving the Warre’s 1984 “Traditional” LBV pictured above, but more on that later…
To Age or Not to Age?
If you’re anything like me, aging wine is something rich people with huge wine cellars do. I tend to drink most of the wine I buy within a year of purchase. If I’m being REALLY disciplined, I can probably hold out for three years, but it’s difficult. I just can’t resist temptation for that long. The problem, of course, is that I inevitably end up being disappointed when I open a bottle too early. I might even say such occurrences impart a serious sense of self-loathing. My typical inner dialogue usually sounds something like this: “You’re an idiot. When will you learn?”
My self-loathing is usually tempered by the fact that I know the vast majority of wines sold today are meant to be enjoyed on release and that, until you open it up, it’s impossible to say whether you’re making a mistake. Yes, if you typically buy multiple bottles, you should know after the first one is consumed whether you need to age the wine, but the vast majority of consumers, myself included, buy wine one bottle at a time.
So what does this have to do with LBV Port? Quite a lot, actually. You see, some LBV Ports are meant to be aged and some are not. How are you supposed to know which is which? To understand the answer, I need to give you a little background.
Vintage Port Explained
Port houses in Portugal only “declare” a vintage in exceptional years. While the decision to declare is up to the individual Port houses, there exists an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” to only declare in exceptional years. Furthermore, they usually try to limit declarations to three out of every ten vintages. This is primarily for economic reasons; they don’t want to flood the market with vintage-declared Ports, which would devalue their most prized product.
The deliberations about whether to declare or not usually take place 18 to 24 months after the grapes are harvested, fermented and fortified, which means the following year’s crop (or maybe even two years’ worth) has already been turned into Port before the decision is made. This process is both a blessing and a curse. It gives the Port houses time to see how their wines develop, but it also means problems can arise if there are a string of good vintages.
Take the early 1980s, for example. If you look at any of several Vingate Port charts, you’ll notice there were a number of good years beginning with 1980. 1982 was a good year, but only a handful of houses declared, while ’83 and ’85 were widely declared. Can you see how the “3 out of 10″ vintages rule might have created a problem?
Complicating this fact is that 1984 was actually a decent year. Because the ’83s and ’85s were so stellar, however, the Port houses were in a bind. When the time came to declare 1984, most of the producers decided to pass. So, what’s a Port house going to do with what is undoubtedly a pretty good wine? Blend it into a low-priced Ruby or Reserve? Sell it as a Single Quinta (i.e. single vineyard) Vintage Port? Those are certainly options that many producers exercised, but some decided to go the LBV route. Accordingly, LBV Ports often appear in good, but not great, years like 1984 and some of these wines are undoubtedly worthy of aging for 20+ years.
Aging LBV Port
Which brings us back to the question; how do you know whether or not you should age that LBV Port you just picked up from your local wine shop? The answer typically can be found by looking at the cork.
When the time comes to bottle an LBV Port, the producer will make a decision with respect to the quality of the wine. If the wine is really good and will benefit from additional bottle aging, it will be transferred directly from the barrel into the bottle and sealed with a traditional cork. It may also be given two foil capsules; the first one being a lightweight capsule, perhaps made of aluminum or tin, while the second will be more heavy duty and may contain some lead. In the picture to the right, you can see the traditional cork and the remnant of the lightweight capsule, which is actually placed under the authentication seal. LBV Ports bottled this way used to be labeled “Traditional,” but that term is no longer allowed. Instead, they will be labeled “unfiltered” or “bottle matured,” or sometimes both.
If the winemaker decides the wine will be best if consumed early, it will be fined (a process that removes excess solids from the wine) and filtered before bottling and a “cork stopper” will be used to close the bottle. Many experts believe the fining and filtering process removes some of the wine’s character, but one thing is certain; it definitely removes the wine’s ability to age. These wines usually carry no designation other than “Late Bottled Vintage” and should almost always be consumed within 5 years of purchase.
The Proof is in the Port
Now, if you do happen to get your hands on an “unfiltered” or “bottle matured” LBV Port, let me give you a good reason to keep your hands off of it by describing the aforementioned sublime LBV experience I recently had.
So, I invited a friend and fellow wine-lover over and we opened it. We then poured it into our glasses through a micro-screen filter to catch any sediment that might try to sneak out. It. Was. Amazing. Even my wife, who can be a little picky when it comes to wine, fell in love. The wine was about as perfect as a wine can get. The bouquet was so complex it was hard to name all the different scents we could identify. Apple pie, caramel, grilled pears, vanilla, toasted almonds, and on and on. The wine’s texture was as smooth as silk. If it hadn’t been 20% alcohol by volume, we may have finished the entire bottle right then and there.
It doesn’t really make sense for me to do a formal tasting note for this wine because of the simple fact that you probably won’t be able to find it for sale anywhere. If you do, or even if you find something similar, I highly suggest you buy it, no matter how much it costs. The real reason I’m telling you about this wine is to convince you that you need to keep your hands off any vintage-dated ports you own that have a traditional cork.
Doing so will put you a step ahead of those people who’s only knowledge of Port is due to its status as the world’s most ubiquitous dessert wine.