Article By: Sandy Block, MW
After explosive growth in the 199Os, Port sales in the US have been in the doldrums, flat to negative, this entire decade. The larger trend is that the entire fortified wine category has contracted. Despite periodic calls to "re-invent" itself and become more relevant to younger consumers, the major fortifieds (Port, Sherry and Madeira) have not shown much life. Perhaps because of the enthusiasm whipped up every few years surrounding the declaration of a Vintage product, Port has been the most firmly established of these wine types, appealing to collectors and also a broader group of wine lovers who associate seeing a particular year on a wine label with quality.
In terms of sales and current market standing the LBV category is one of the healthiest, if most misunderstood, sub-varieties of Port. Ironically it is a relative newcomer to the venerable three hundred year old industry, having arisen as a style about fifty years ago during another period of slumping sales and calls to make the product easier to use. An LBV, or Late Bottled Vintage, Port is not what it appears. Despite the fact that it is vintage dated, it is not a true Vintage Port. The latter is bottled after about two years and requires extensive bottle aging, after which it must be decanted off a heavy sludge-like sediment and consumed in relatively short order depending on how old the bottle is. LBV, on the other hand, is also the product of a single harvest but is bottled after usually five or six years in cask, is filtered so it requires no decanting, and has a relatively long shelf life after opening so it does not need to be consumed in one sitting. Vintage in style (that is dark ruby, with relatively strong tannins and black fruit flavors) it was created by one of the preeminent Port houses, Taylor Fladgate, as an answer to the problem of how to serve a quality Port in a restaurant environment without having to worry about extra service steps, high costs and the potential for spoilage. It's a fair question as to how many people who order it in restaurants or buy it at retail, however, understand that it is not the Vintage Port they are getting.
Judging by my most recent blind tasting of LBV Ports, there is high quality across board currently and the wines represent true value. Whereas a Vintage product from a top shipper will cost $75 to $1OO upon release, for a wine that will not really be approachable for over a decade, the same house's LBV will generally be available for a quarter of the price. The irony is that the producer has also aged its LBV more than twice as long before sale. Whereas the complexity and nuance of the mature Vintage product may be lacking, the LBV is a pretty good approximation and is built for up front sensual pleasure.
The following are the cream of the current crop, listed in ascending order of preference.
Dow's 2OO1 LBV This renowned shipper's Port wa s a deep luminescent garnet color with grapey, pine-like scents and intriguing whiffs of tar and coffee. It promised a bit more complexity than the palate delivered however. Quite sweet, almost candied, it had an irresistible black fig, chocolate confectionary quality, and while directly appealing it seemed a bit simple compared to the other Ports. I would serve this with a tangy blue-veined harder cheese. It would also work with a fruit compote. $21
Cockburn's 2OOO LBV A more delicate style LBV, lighter in color and softer on the palate, this wine from one of the great old names of the industry had a clean, creamy feel on the palate. There was a touch of tangy citrus to balance off the rich, smooth, sun dried fruit accents. Stylish and understated, if it's possible to describe a wine with 2O% alcohol using that term, there were mellow chocolatey flavors along with the date and raisin. This would be an ideal foil for a chocolate mousse or even a creme brulee. $2O
Ramos Pinto 2OOO LBV Deep, brooding and opaque in color, this Port has an intense personality that begins with the aroma and carries into a long finish. Noted primarily for their aged Tawny Ports, as befits a Portuguese owned shipper, and their Douro table wines, I was positively impressed with the dramatic flavor impact this LBV made. Slightly minty, with blackberry, dark chocolate and tar-like scents, its flavors are ultra sweet and creamy. Cocoa-like, smoky and powerfully fruity, it's a real mouthful. Tannins are also substantial. The only drawback is a bit of an over-the-top structure, with virtually no balancing acidity. This is an ideal choice for a hard, well-aged farmhouse cheddar. $22
Ferreira 1999 LBV The largest Port shipper, also Portuguese owned, Ferreira is also noted historically for their aged Tawnies. In this context this wine had a fair amount of complexity and a slightly tawny-like feel to it. It is a so called "traditional LBV", meaning that in contrast to the predominant style it is bottled younger, after four years, unfiltered. Therefore, it does age and improve somewhat in the bottle and will also throw a bit of fine sediment. This Port is quite minty and raisiny, with smooth, lush toffee and caramel flavors. Jammy and minty on the palate at the same time, it actually tasted lower in tannin than most of the others, with an oozing richness. Try this with a black fruit tart or dense chocolate cake. $22
Taylor Fladgate 2OO1 LBV As the original producer of LBV (then known as "vintage reserve"), Taylor is also the category leader not only in the US market but worldwide. They have always been my benchmark for Vintage Port. This wine was of a different style than the others: earthy, tobacco-like, with not only rich black fruit extracts but a bit of powerful tannin. The flavors tended toward bittersweet chocolate and, despite a very velvety texture, there was an underlying tang of acidity to refresh the palate. The slightly tobacco, gamey scents carried through as grace notes, making the flavors a bit edgy and more interesting. Enjoy this thrilling Port with walnuts and black mission figs. $2O
Graham's 2OO1 LBV One of the prestige names of the Vintage Port market (along with Taylor and Fonseca), Graham has a reputation for producing the sweetest style Ports - and this wine will not disappoint people with insatiable sugar cravings. It was the best wine in this great company, however, because of its beautifully soft but concentrated flavors and its nuances of pepper, raspberry and caramel. Not the biggest powerhouse, or the one with the sweetest impression, it's just a beautifully silky and satisfying drink that I would prefer sipping on its own, without accompaniment, so as not to risk throwing any of its charming flavors out of balance. $21