It appears that good-to-excellent vintages of wines are coming from the winemaking capitals of the world at a more frequent rate.
According to the Wine Spectator's vintage chart, only two of Left Bank Bordeaux and only one of the Right Bank vintages since 2009 have not earned at least a 90-point score. In California’s Napa Valley, only the rainy 2011 vintage negated a 90-plus winning streak since 2004.
We were eager, then, to participate in a New York tasting of 2016 vintage ports. The general declaration was the first since the last declared vintage in 2011. What was so special about these ports?
We met with Rupert Symington of Symington family estates at a New York tasting to discuss the general state of the port industry, and, more specifically, to get his take on the soon-to-be-released 2016 vintage ports. Symington Family Estates are the leading land owners in the Douro Valley, owners some of the most prestigious port brands including Graham’s, Dow’s Cockburn, and Warre’s.
Port's image is often that of a man sitting alone in front of a blazing fire clutching a glass of port. But Symington scoffed at the image. He argued that is not how port in general or Symington in particular portray port's image.
“A glass of port in company” or "the wine of after-dinner bonding" is Symington’s ideal setting for port consumption, eschewing modern trends such as including port in cocktails.
“We have been accused of not changing, and appearing stodgy, and we do it very well,” Symington said.
Port production remains largely unchanged. However, in a nod to modernity, Graham’s introduced in 2000 robotic lagar-treading machines that are utilized along with traditional foot-treading methods.
One other notable change is a distinct movement to early drinking vintage ports. Symington said “parcel picking” as grapes become fully mature has replaced the past practice of mass picking.
The 2016 vintage will be released in about 6 months. In a departure of past practices, 30 percent of the 2016 vintage will be held for later release. A number of the 2016 vintages are delightful now.
Following are our favorites of the ports we tasted. Prices for the 2016 ports were not available.
Cockburn’s 2016. Only 5 percent of Cockburn’s production was used in the vintage port. Ripe bing cherry and plum notes with a hint of ginger. Already open for business and drinking well.
Croft 2016. Another early drinking candidate harvested from a 90-year-old vineyard planted as a field blend. Ripe berry fruit with a tropical fruit nose of citrus and grapefruit rind.
Dow’s 2016. Dominated by the touriga nacional grape, this is a brooding monster that is very dark and dense with some plum notes. Be patient with this classic port.
Quinta Do Noval Nacional 2016. A distinctive streak of licorice with ripe plums and cherries define this early drinking port. Only 170 cases were made of this wine which is harvested from a 4-acre vineyard.
Quinta Da Romaneira 2016. Owned by Quinta Do Noval, this single-vineyard port offered complex notes of berries, rhubarb and herbs and is open now.
Quinta Do Vesuvio 2016. A hint of licorice along with ripe berry and cherry notes define this sweet rich port that is already drinking well.
Taylor Fladgate 2016. Bright raspberry and plum notes are accented with a note of woodsy herbs. Needs a moderate amount of time (at least 5 years) to fully open.
If you have ever seen the Discovery Channel’s show "Moonshiners," then you probably have at least a passing image of Tim Smith. Usually clad in denim overalls sans shirt, Tim portrays an illegal moonshiner turned legal, tax-paying moonshine maker often with his friend Tickle.
"Moonshiners" follows a cast of countrified characters, some literally toothless, surreptitiously crafting moonshine in the hills and hollows of Virginia and other states. The show claims nothing illegal was done during the filming of the illegal whiskey-making episodes, so it takes a leap of faith to tune in. The one thing that is definitely real about "Moonshiners" is that Smith really does make a moonshine spirit called Climax Moonshine. It is made at two legal and licensed distilleries in Culpeper, Va., and Ashville, NC.
Smith makes three different spirit products, all named after his hometown of Climax, Virginia: Climax Moonshine, Climax Wood-Fired Whiskey, and Climax Fire No. 32. All use the original moonshine formula based on a mash bill of corn, barley and rye, and all the grains are grown on his own farm. According to Tim, this is also the original mash bill from his illegal moonshining days of yore.
Smith, an Army veteran and chief of the Climax Volunteer Fire Department, started in the moonshine business with his father and told us that he has been “making moonshine for 5 years legally, and 40 years illegally.” He started the legal moonshine business after his father -- who described legal whiskey making as “sidin' with the law” -- died.
Smith’s moonshine crushes the image of moonshine being a skull-splitting, fiery potion that can strip paint. The Climax Moonshine Original Recipe ($29 for 750 ml) is 90 proof and drinks very smooth and clean with hints of vanilla on the palate. Tim says the rich smoothness and the vanilla notes come from the corn used in the mash bill.
The Original Recipe drinks well neat or as a substitute in cocktail for rum or vodka. Tim also makes a wood-aged whiskey, Climax Whiskey Wood Fired ($29 for 750 ml) with an appealing amber hue and interesting woodsy flavor. According to Tim, pictured above, the whiskey is only aged for 24 hours using a proprietary process involving oak and maple wood chips. The base for this whiskey is the original moonshine recipe. It is great by itself or as a substitute for bourbon or whiskey in cocktails.
Tim’s answer to the popular Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey is Climax Fire No. 32 Cinnamon Spice. Tim said his Climax No. 32 is a full 90 proof compared to Fireball’s 66 proof while both products present a full blast of sweetened cinnamon flavor. Smith uses “Big Red” chewing gum concentrate to flavor his clear spirit, and a $1 donation per case are donated to charitable firefighter causes.
Le Vigne Winery Sangiovese Estate Paso Robles 2014 ($37). This is a deep rich sangiovese with a complex fruit mélange of plum, cherry, and blackberries. Some spice notes along with a bit of oak complete the very appealing package.
J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon Hilltop Paso Robles 2014 ($35). J. Lohr is a quality producer of red wines from Paso Robles. Classic cassis and black cherry notes with just a hint of oak make this a great package.
St. Supery Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 ($45). Effusive blast of cherry aroma with pure delicious cherry fruit flavors in the mouth with a touch of oak. A classic pure fruit driven California cabernet sauvignon.