It’s rare to taste a wine that is over a century old. Rarer still is it to taste one that has been kept in the same place for 150 years and that comes from pre-phylloxera vines.
When Scion was first mentioned, it seemed almost unreal. A wine from the year that the Bordeaux wine Châteaus were first classified, a piece of history.
Phylloxera notoriously destroyed almost all of Europe’s grapevines in the 1800s. It arrived in France on the root stocks of American vines that had grown resistant to it. Sadly, vitis vinifera, the European grape vine, however, was not immune to its impact and succumbed to its devastation. The result was utter calamity in French vineyards and vineyards throughout Europe. The effects of the phylloxera epidemic are still felt and it is for this reason that European vines continue to be planted on American root stocks throughout the world, save for a few areas such as Chile.
This tawny Port has just made its debut in the U.S. market, although interestingly it was introduced in London and in Hong Kong in November 2010, two big auction markets for collectors. The wine retails for $3,200 and is clearly for collectors. Only 1,400 bottles have been produced. The wine was found by chance by winemaker David Gumaraens of The Fladgate Partnership, which contains the Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft labels. The Partnership bought two casks of the wine in 2008 from a family in the Douro Valley, which had held it for the past two centuries. The wine was sold because the owner had no living heirs.
Scion is remarkable not only for its history but for its exquisite flavors on the nose and palate. It had racy acidity and an amazing array of spice, fruit, floral and oak notes. In some ways it was reminiscent of an older sherry or a madeira. In no way, was it what one might have expected. Its long, lingering finish and persistence on the palate confirmed the sensation that one was in front of an exquisite gem.
However, if $3,200 for one bottle of Port seems extravagant, Taylor Fladgate, the only historic Port house still run by the same family, has a host of other Ports for you to try at a much lower price point.
At this same tasting, we were given samples of the Taylor Fladgate Quinta de Vargellas 1991 and the Taylor Fladgate Vintage 1992 to try as well. They cost $100 and $180-$200 respectively, considerably less than the Scion.
Vargellas is one of three vineyard properties that Taylor Fladgate owns in the Douro Valley. Interestingly, Adrian Bridge, CEO of the company, said that people tended to favor either the 1991 or the 1992. Both, he said, we excellent vintages, although in 1991 the company decided not to make a vintage Port, only the single quinta.
Ports are for the most part, blended wines, across properties and often vintages. They are a blend of grapes as well. Tourigas-Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa tend to produce wine of enormous concentration and full body. Tinta Roriz brings firm tannins and a note of cedar while Tinta Barroca is considered more floral and Tinta Cão can be added as well. These blending decisions are made by Natasha Bridge. She is Adrian’s wife and the daughter of Alistair Robertson, owner and chairman of Taylor’s and Fonseca.
The Taylor family bought Quinta de Vargellas in the years between 1893 and 1896. It is a 164-hectare property. The family also has a property called the Quinta de Terra Feita, which has a further 116 hectares of vines. The third property, bought in 1998, is called Quinta do Junco.
Grapes that are used to make Port are still trodden by foot in large stone tanks called lagares. Each lagar contains approximately 6,000 litres of grape juice. Of course, Lucille Ball comes to mind when one thinks of the treading of the grapes, but it actually serves a purpose.
Apparently the shape of the human foot as opposed to mechanical hands pushing down the grapes is better able to extract color and flavor. This is doubly necessary for Port because it has a shorter maceration period than most red wines. Port is fortified with grape spirit of 77º alcohol, before it has fully fermented. This raises the alcohol level of the Port to anywhere between 19-22º alcohol.
Getting back to the 1991 and 1992 wines, Bridge said that the Single Quinta could last 35 years while the 1992, a classic vintage, could keep for 50. The 1991 was more floral with spice notes and a balsamic, liquorice aroma, with a full body and racy acidity. The 1992, however, in my book, was a cut above. It was plummy, with raisin and spice notes and gorgeous acidity; without a doubt, a perfect complement to any evening.
Bridge noted that Ports all go through their “teenage” years, a funky and clumsy period that can last four to five years, like adolescence. The 1992 had just come out of such a phase, he said.
We also tasted a 2000, a 2003 and a 2007. Of the three, I preferred the 2007. The wine is still quite young obviously, but I look forward to tasting it in the years to come. Bridge also suggested tasting different Ports at various times in their lifespan. These wines ranged in price from $25 to $75.
As if that weren’t enough, the folks at Kobrand, the historic importer of the Taylor Fladgate lines, offered four tawny Ports as a lead-in to the Scion. We tried the 10 year, the 20 year, the 30 year and the 40 year tawny ports. All were truly exciting expressions of what a tawny can be, but it was the 30- and the 40-year-old ports that impressed me with their searing acidity, enveloping aromas, and rich flavors without being syrupy or overdone. The wines were complex and well integrated, balanced without being extravagant.
These wines retail anywhere from $21 for the 10-year-old to $125 for the 40-year-old. It's not a bargain, but still a lovely gift and an amazing experience to share.
The entire experience made me wonder why I haven’t been drinking more Port all these years. Perhaps I can’t afford the Scion, but I have much to choose from and many Port houses to try.
Susannah Gold is a New York-based wine writer, publicist and certified Italian sommelier. She is the founder of Vigneto Communications, a boutique public relations, marketing and educational consulting firm specializing in the food and wine industry, and she posts on all things Italian at her blog, Avvinare.