Tasting The Past: The 100 Year Old Port
“Epic” is a grossly over-used adjective nowadays, which is unfortunate since it is the most appropriate word I can think of for an incredible event I attended recently.
The occasion in question, held by Tindals Wine Merchants, was billed as an exciting but nevertheless not uncommon tasting of a range of old Dow’s Port vintages. But it actually turned out to be an intensely familial affair that involved history, war, revolution, fire and tongs, a long-lost treasure, a travel through time and a heartfelt toast to those gone and those yet to come.
What caused this tasting to be more than a relatively straightforward retrospective was the inclusion of an exceedingly rare and long-forgotten bottle of Port from 1916. Not only was it a century old, but its significance was heightened by the resonance that particular year has on us Irish.
The more experienced and established wine writers have at least one vinous experience in their lives that was for them transformational or transcendental, or both. I thought it would be some time yet until I had mine – until this event, that is.
Out of the Frying Pan…
In case enough stops weren’t pulled out by Tindals, the venue was One Pico, a restaurant I highly admire but ashamedly hadn’t been to in some years. What’s more I was welcomed on arrival with a glass of Champagne Henriot Brut Souverain, a very fine and elegant Champagne which I also have to admit I hadn’t tried previously, but one I’m sure to revisit many times again.
After some small talk with the always-ebullient members of the Tindal family I was introduced to a gentleman I didn’t recognise but whose name immediately rang bells: Johnny Symington, of the eponymous family who own a host of the most well-known Port brands such as Graham’s, Cockburns, Dow’s, Warre’s, Quinto do Vesuvio, and more.
Johnny was an absolute gentleman, a disposition that seems to bestow itself liberally on the family members of winemaking dynasties. He burned with keen interest in everyone he spoke to, and spoke eloquently about his family’s wines and history over the meal.
Ah yes, the meal. The food was sublime. Really, One Pico is a true Dublin icon, and I urge everyone to make it their next destination for a meal out. In the noise generated by the Michelin stars and edgy, modern openings, it’s easy to forget the restaurants that are just simply classically excellent, day in, day out.
We started with the largest slab of foie gras parfait I’ve ever faced, and doubts about my ability to finish it were quickly dispelled via warm toasted brioche and fig chutney. This was paired with the Dow’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port (see below for tasting notes), a sublimely decadent treat.
Next was an autumnal Wicklow venison with beetroot, Roscoff onion, chanterelles and blackberries, a hearty and lusciously savoury dish paired excellently with the Quinta do Vesuvio DOC Douro (again see below for tasting notes), a dense wine that shared many of the characteristics of the dish.
The final course, a selection of cheeses, was to be paired with the flight of Ports about to be presented to us. But first, there was the matter of opening that bottle of 1916.
… into the Fire
The moment arrived for the grand opening of this piece of history. There were no markings on the bottle, apart from a barely legible “1916” imprinted into the cork. But the corks on these antique bottles are now so brittle that corkscrews would easily disintegrate them – how then to access the ancient liquid inside?
The answer, as befitting the occasion, was quite dramatic. A pair of long-handled tongs was heated over a gas burner (with great patience!) by Nigel Werner, the Tindals Director of Fine Wine. Once red-hot, they were clamped around the neck of the bottle for a short while, before quickly being replaced by a cloth soaked in iced water.
The sudden change in temperature splits the neck of the bottle in a razor-sharp, clean line, with no shards or splinters to worry about. It’s quite a sight to behold.
Now opened, we were each treated to a not insignificant measure of this rarity, a 100-year-old wine. Though everyone present was grateful for the chance to witness its release from its century-old tomb, not many held too much hope for a successful end product: it was stored upright all that time and not exactly in cellar-like conditions, so the odds were definitely stacked against it.
The liquid that poured from the neck of the unlabeled bottle into my glass was a pale tawny in colour and tasted … well it tasted really quite excellent, actually. In fact it was really delicious. The air in the room changed perceptibly as everyone else realised that they had, as the American saying goes, “lucked out”.
The 1916 Dow’s Port was light and ethereal, round and long, with coffee, toffee and pipe smoke flavours. Johnny noted that it was quite feminine in style, in contrast to the more concentrated Vintage Ports we’re used to today. It was an experiential treat, and one surely to be unrivaled.
The past beats inside me like a second heart” (John Banville, The Sea)
The 1916 bottle had an interesting history to it, as you might expect. It was donated to the tasting by siblings Sofia and Toby Couchman from Carlow, who discovered it in the back of a press in their family home. It was purchased by their grandfather some time ago and ‘tidied away’ by their grandmother, which goes some way to explaining how it may have been forgotten until now.
Johnny introduced the rarity by informing us all that it was his great-grandfather, Andrew James Symington, who made the wine, most likely with his son, Johnny’s grandfather, at his side. In his preparation for its big reveal, Johnny delved into the archives to see what his grandfather made of the wine at harvest.
As it turned out, AJ Symington’s prediction was eerily prescient: “This vintage was quite good – I can see these wines lasting for some time.” I thought it touching to envisage Johnny reading his great grandfather’s hand-written notes of a wine that he now had in front of him.
It was time to toast the occasion. Picture the scene: we all held aloft glasses of a pale tawny liquid that came to life in the year that our own young country was awakening. Indeed, mere metres from where we were standing young men fought and died for a freedom that we enjoy today. Elsewhere in Europe, many, many others were perishing for a much greater cause.
A few years later a man bought a bottle of wine as a treat to himself; today, two of his grandchildren were sharing it with the great grandson of the person who made that very same drink.
We were all literally drinking the past, and what’s more it tasted alive, elegant, deferential … so very present. The past was now living on inside us, beating like a second heart.
And lest we ever forget about our own transient appearance on this earth, Johnny Symington signed off with the most resonant toast on this most symbolic of afternoons: “Here’s to the next hundred years.”
THREE TO TRY
€48 from Searsons
I’ve really taken to Tawny Port this year and it’s guaranteed I’ll have some on my Christmas table this December.
Tawny differs from other Port styles in that it’s aged in barrel rather than in the bottle, meaning it loses its bright red colouring and takes on a nutty, dried fruit character. What’s amazing about this (and other Tawnys) is its balance: sweet but refreshing, never cloying, decadent yet elegant, and just so moreish.
€60 from Searsons
Quinta do Vesuvio is another Symington family property.
Most well known for their very highly-regarded Ports, this is one of the two still red wine offering from the property.
It was very dense and intense, with dark plum, blackberry and chocolate. A chunky but elegant wine, and ideal with the venison that day.
€180 (Magnum) from Searsons (in-store only)
The fact that you can pick up a magnum of 22-year-old Vintage Port from Dow’s for €180 is a travesty, but one anyone with half a wine brain should gleefully exploit. Though I didn’t get to taste the actual 1994 on the day I couldn’t let this recommendation slip by, and having tasted the Dow’s Ports back to 1916, 1947, 1963 and more, I can however absolutely attest to its longevity. The Wine Advocate give this 96 points this year, too – need any more reasons to pick up this beauty for Christmas?
Don’t ask him what his favourite wine is though – that’s like asking what his favourite song is (although the latter would most likely involve U2).
Richie is also an avid food lover willing to give an opportunity to all cuisines: instead of getting carried away by trends or gimmicks, he cares about real food, that’s tasty and made with pride.
Richie has been involved in the wine industry since 2008 and is currently studying the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines & Spirits.