The Last Drop

Super old ports are the new thing. But if you're not dropping $4,000 for one of these bottles, there are also plenty of great alternatives.

Henry Jeffreys
February 21, 2018
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If you're looking for a quick pick-me-up, look no further than Taylor’s 1863 Colheita port. I was at a dinner at the Factory House in Porto, the club for British port shippers, but had such a bad cold that my finely-honed olfactory system was completely out of action. The parade of rare wines, including vintage ports from the '50s and '60s, may well have been Thunderbird for all I could taste. But this final wine was different: A barrel-aged port from when Abraham Lincoln was in his prime, it had an intensity, a balsamic quality that just breezed through my congestion, invigorating and reviving me. Just as well, as I was meant to give a speech.

According to Ben Howkins from Last Drop Distillers, a rare drinks specialist, the port business has woken up to the treasures that lie in their cellars. 

Old wines like the Taylors 1863 would previously have been blended into age statement tawnies, kept as family treasures to be traded at some point, or just drunk by port producers at their private dinners. Taylor’s were first out of the blocks with Scion, an 1855 wine released in 2010. Two years ago, Graham’s produced a 90-year-old tawny port, a blend of three vintages, 1912, 1924 and 1935, to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday. And this March, the Last Drop will launch the “Centenario” Port Duo, two old tawnies from 1970 and 1870. Only 770 sets will be produced.

These wines are different from the vintage ports beloved by British and American connoisseurs, which are only aged for two years in wood and then bottled. You buy them young and then they need to be kept a long time. I have a case of Churchill 2011 under the stairs (my daughter’s birth year, which should be ready to drink when she turns 21). But wines like this Taylor’s cold cure are colheitas, which means they are tawnies from a specific year that are aged in barrel with oxygen contact, like an amontillado sherry. They are nuttier, paler, and mellower than their vintage cousins.

Howkins told me that the best thing about these old tawnies is all the work has been done for you. You don’t have to wait 20 years and then guess when the time might be right to open. There’s no mucking about with dodgy corks, wax and decanters. Just pop open the bottle and satisfaction is guaranteed. The Portuguese have long preferred wood-aged ports to bottle-aged ones. Being lighter, they certainly suit the climate better. But now, tawny ports are starting to attract interest in Britain and America.

That fabulous Taylor’s 1863 came from the cellars of Wiese and Krohn, a small house who Taylor’s chairman Adrian Bridge acquired in 2012 mainly to get his hands on their rare wines. For their first foray into fortified wines, The Last Drop enlisted the help of Dutch shipper Cristiano Van Zeller whose family has been in the Douro since the 17th century. Van Zeller has unrivaled contacts amongst the growers of the Douro and managed to persuade two to part with their precious wines.

Howkins let me have a taste in London recently. Both wines are a deep gold color, tinged with the green. The younger is pungent and sweet, with the bracing acidity of a Madeira; the older one is mellower, with notes of orange and chocolate. Both have an extraordinary length and intensity—you’d never guess they were 100 years apart.

Sadly, they are a bit out of my price range.

The Centenario duo will be released at the end of March for $4,850, excluding tax.

That 1863 Taylors will cost you around $4,000 for a bottle.

The Grahams 90-year-old is a mere snip, at around $1,000.

All of them are lavishly packaged to appeal to collectors; the sad truth is that many of these beautiful wines, so easy to appreciate, are unlikely to be drunk.

Happily, for us non-plutocrats, you can get a taste of the magic at a far more reasonable price. The day after my dinner at the Factory House, Adrian Bridge and his wife Natasha gave me a glass of Taylor’s 1967 tawny, which was a symphony of nuts and oranges. Natasha is Porto royalty. She was formerly head winemaker at her family firm, the Fladgate Group, which owns Taylors, Fonseca and others. After an unhappy period of dominance by multinationals, most of the big names of port are once again in family hands. Ben Howkins, who worked in Porto in the '70s and '90s, thinks that quality has never been better especially for wood-aged ports.

And you don’t have to spend a fortune (unless you want to). You can find out more about the Centenario ports here, and here are four more everyday wines to try:

Graham 10 year old ($20.77)

Grahams are now part of the Symington Group, another great British port family. You can’t throw a cork in Porto without hitting a Symington. This wine, in contrast to the Sandeman below, is packed with upfront fruit raspberries and strawberries, which fade effortlessly into mature tobacco notes.

Sandeman 20-year-old ($43.39)

This comes from an old British house now owned by Portuguese family firm, Sogrape. It's a benchmark 20-year-old Tawny. The age is an average, so it contains much older and younger wines. There are whispers of youthful fruit mingling harmoniously with walnuts and dried orange notes.

Kopke Colheita 1999 ($46.99)

Originally a German house, now in Portuguese hands, they have long specialized in old colheita ports. This won't be to everyone's taste—there is a certain funky earthiness about it—but there's also some very pretty red fruit, orange citrus notes and then a massively long walnut finish.

Taylor’s 1967 ($214.19)

Taylors started releasing old colheitas in 2016 with the '66 The '67 is the one I tried in Oporto recently. It’s got that all-important cold-taming menthol notes on the nose and then rum, dried apricots, marmalade and a finish that you can taste an hour later. Not cheap, but a bargain compared with the really rare stuff.