A Vintage Port Archaeology session: a tasting of mystery ports possibly dating back to 1851
Edinburgh, 22nd October 2006

This was a long, leisurely Sunday in Edinburgh. The main event was a port sleuthing operation, with the ports provided by Linden Wilkie, who writes:

In 2004 I went to my first Straker Chadwick auction. There was a section that caught my eye, with the description: Discovered in a Cotswold Farm Barn: Bottles / labels generally are dirty, some labels missing, sold “as is”: A quite extraordinary parcel of venerable wines. Most of the bottles had chalk marks and stickers applied with handwritten notes Vintage 1852, reseal 1952, or Vintage 1858, reseal 1952

Anyway, I bought them. I don’t think 5 of the 6 bottles are that old – more turn of the century looking. The 6th does indeed look that old, but is also perhaps a bit worn out! Three have great levels, three not. More on that below. Anyway, there was a 7th bottle in one of the lots, described as “ullaged”. It turned out to be 2/3 empty! So I decided it was unlikely to have any merit as a wine and so decided to open it there in the auction rooms. Some glasses and a corkscrew were provided. The top half of the cork came out, and the bottom half would not budge so I pushed it into the bottle – “plomp”. Amazingly though, the wine had a positive port fragrance, and still some colour. I poured it out into three glasses, the first a clear amber with red reflects, the other two more cloudy and filled with sediment. The clear glass actually tasted not too bad – definitely port and very old. We took the bottle outside and smashed it to retrieve the other half of the cork. Putting the two pieces together it was possible to read the branded cork: “CROFT VINTAGE 1912”.

Linden had brought the ports up on a horrendous 7-hour train journey. The bottles were carefully nurtured all the way and, after Linden and I had met up on the train, we decided to head straight to the venue to drop off the wines and other supplies for the Sunday. The combination of a wannabe David Coulthard cab driver and the cobbles and speed bumps of Edinburgh's streets made sure the wines were woken up. Fortunately, they had around 16 hours to recover before we opened them, and there weren't any problems with sediment at all.

Linden said that the bottles had been utterly filthy and encrusted with all kinds of muck and cobwebs when he bought them: he'd carefully cleaned the bottles and we were now presented with 6 very old looking bottles of port with varying levels, and one very, very old looking hand-blown bottle, with a third of its contents missing.

Some of the bottles had hand-written paper labels. We treated these labels with distrust, though contempt may have been better placed. Were they wild guesses based on an old cellar book? Were they the remains of a collective folk memory of the seller's family? Were they deliberately designed to deceive? Why was the wine in a barn? What happened to the Lafite? I guess we'll never know.

We started on the ports around 11:15, and got to bottle G at 13:20. I returned to the ports again after lunch finished around 17:00. The notes below contain the first and later tastings.

Bottle A
This is a brown 3 part moulded bottle, with the level of the contents at base of neck.
This has a paper label which says "2 bottles Chateau Lafite Resealed 1952."
Further archaeological excavation of the seal revealed that this was London-bottled by Hedges & Butler, but we could get no further information from the seal. The cork was extracted in, I think, two pieces and closely examined for any and every clue it might reveal. Unfortunately, I didn't note whether we got anywhere with those examinations!

In the glass, this has a dark-ish mahogany colour.
It's a touch raisiny on nose and has some fairly slight oxidation, some old notes and high tones. Quite sweet on palate, quite pruney and old. It loses some of its stinky oldness after a while and picks up some more figgy notes.
Six hours later around 17:00, this still has an old, slightly oxidised pruney, raisiny nose. Fairly sweet on the palate; it's now a bit spirity on the finish, but nothing to worry about.

Bottle B
This was a green three-part moulded bottle, with the level into neck. The bottle has a paper label, saying "Vintage port 1851 resealed 1952".
"RRE" is clearly visible on the seal, so probably Warre's. After much (and I do mean much!) forensic investigation, we've identified a definite 5 and probably a 9 before it: we think the seal says either 1895 or 1955. The consensus is coming round to 1955.

The soon-to be patented port cork extraction equipment is demonstrated by Toby. (I must get a proper camera ...)

This is the first outing of the day for Toby's mallet: the cork, once retrieved, settles it - this is Warre 1958 (and the handwritten labels have nothing to do with the contents of the individual bottles).

This has a very light, almost pinky appearance. Sweet, nutty, almondy nose. This is very pleasant, and quite lively with interesting flavours and a floral elegance. For me this has a bit of a tawny feel to it.
At 17:00, this has come round a lot and now has lots of floral elegance.

Bottle C
Another green three-part moulded bottle, with a level into neck. No misleading handwritten labels on this.
But, after cleaning away some of the crud, it's definitely a 1966 from the seal; and the blotty spots on the cork may point to Taylor's. But it's rather like making things out of ink blots.
This has a markedly younger colour. It's rather scented on the nose with camomile & apple soap and naphthalene - but in a nice way! Very very fragrant nose. Very nice on the palate; a touch high toned with a hint of spirit on the finish.
At 17:00, this is no longer terribly giving on the nose, though it's still fragrant with some mothballs. Very good on the palate still - very integrated with some lovely fruit. The high tones have largely gone. Very integrated and lovely.

Bottle D
This is brown three-part moulded bottle, with a level at bottom of shoulder. The handwritten label again says "Vintage port 1851 resealed 1952". Well, we know to disbelieve that. Is this going to be another bottle of Warre's '58? No, it isn't. Even a cursory look at the seal shows it to be different, and further scrutiny reveals it says something "Limited Produce of Portugal". Not too helpful. The cork, once retrieved from the smashed bottle is pronounced very old by Linden, who's probably pulled more very old corks that most of us. The cork is completely black.

The wine, when poured, has a 20-year tawny appearance with a slight green tinge at the rim; and notable clarity. Linden says the nose is very similar to a Taylor 1908 he had recently and the cork certainly looks old enough.
The nose feels a bit maderised - quite nutty, but also with a high toned fresh apple note.
The palate is just what very old port should be. Very smooth. Not at all very sweet; dried out a bit (in a nice way). This is very interesting stuff. There's a vegetal edge on the finish and after.
At 16:00 it feels nowhere near as maderised and high toned, and is all round much more normal.
At 17:00, the nose has turned to more cooked stale nuts and the palate is more high toned. Rounded on the palate with an old sweetness.

Bottle E
Another green 3-part moulded bottle; level bottom of shoulder. Once again the handwritten label refers to "vintage port 1851 resealed 1952".
After much forensic investigation again an "AM" is discerned on the seal. But again, the best solution is to push the cork in and - after decanting - the bottle falls victim to Thor Bailey's hammer. The cork is unambiguous: Grahams 1955.
A nice light mature tawny appearance. Sweet, nutty nose - light and fragrant. Lovely open palate. This has a nice sweetness and still lots of power. Given the level, this bottle is probably more advanced than it should be. There are no tannins left.
Come 17:00, the nose is very sweet with some minor high tones and there's good balance and sweetness on the palate.

Bottle F
This is a very old hand blown bottle, and would fit the 1851 identification, though this bottle doesn't have one of the fallacious handwritten labels. The level would also match a 150 year old wine: it's one-third ullaged, and there's a very heavy sediment.

In an attempt to preserve the bottle, we had a go with port tongs on this. But nobody had used port tongs before and I suspect we just couldn't get them hot enough.



In the end the cork was pushed in and the ancient bottle smashed - we're Port excavators not bottle collectors!

This has a fairly young light tawny appearance with an orange rim. The nose is strongly laden with VA and worse (David mentions vomit). I knew this reminded me of something and now I'm on the train I know what it is: the carriage vestibule outside the toilet. A quite particular smell, combining (presumably), rust, brake dust, rubber, and sealed unit toilets including whatever, if any, chemicals that Virgin Trains employ in the toilets of their trains.

Everything points to this being 1850s. It's quite mealy on the palate, and this has dried out now. It has nutty maderised flavours. It's just a bit reminiscent of a 1914 Boal from Barbeito that I tasted earlier this year.
By 17:00, this had a cheesy acidic nose, still with lots of VA and a bit stinky. On the palate it's really quite dead now. Shame.

My suspicion is that the original owner did have some 1851, and this was perhaps the last bottle of it, and that at some point one member of the family said to another that the bottles in the barn are 1851 port and that entered the family folk memory.  But probably not worth worrying about now.

Bottle G
Opened at 13:20.
The capsule clearly states vintage 1912. The cork reveals we've hit the jackpot on this: it's Taylor's 1912. This is an almost legendary port, and one of the best years for Taylor's ever apparently.
The colour is lovely and alive - a light, lively pale red. The nose is somewhere near perfect, with sweet black and red fruit, opening up with time. The palate too is well nigh perfect. Lovely balance. It has great elegant dried fruit flavours, but with a nice sweetness too.
Four hours later, the nose is clear, direct and fragrant. Focussed, proper palate: full, fragrant and damn near perfect. A great experience. This really is as good as it gets.

That was the star turn. Like all good archaeologists, we were now ready for a drink and lunch.

With the exception of the Vilmart, the wines were served blind.

1990 Vilmart Grand Cru Cellier d'Or, disgorged 8/4/99 for the 'third millennium', 12%
A mid greenish gold colour. A creamy biscuity nose with some concentrated pear fruit. This is a full, lovely-textured champagne. 92/100

1998 Puligny Montrachet Les Perrières, Etienne Sauzet, 13.5%
A very restrained nose: Buttery with a fine peardrop character. Very fine palate. Quite fresh, especially on the attack, but showing plenty of maturity. Very Good Indeed. 90/100

1994 Meursault Genevrières 1er Cru, François Jobard
Quite a vibrant yellow gold. The nose is rich with some smoke, some butter/beurre noisette and lots of nutty minerality. Lovely palate - nice minerality and a nice weight. Dry tasty minerals on the finish. Very Good Indeed. 91/100

1983 Tokay Pinot Gris Réserve Personnelle, Rolly Gassmann, 13.5%
A markedly green-tinged mid gold. Very muted nose, but I'd guess it's either pinot gris or a rich pinot blanc from Alsace. Definitely Alsace pinot gris when it's in the mouth. Rich and full, with just a bit of sweetness. Very well balanced. It's very surprising that it's 1983 - I'd have put it ten years younger. 92/100.
It stood up well to some delicious Arbroath Smokies.

1991 Ruchottes-Chambertin Grand Cru Clos des Ruchottes Monopole, Domaine Armand Rousseau, 13%
A lightish ruby. There is some fairly sweet raspberry fruit on the nose along with a certain gaminess. Light, fragrant palate with some fairly forward fruit and soft tannic structure showing especially on the finish. I feel this has some age on it, but not a great deal. Early to mid 90s maybe? Nice balance. 88/100

1964 "believed" Gevrey Chambertin
My bottle, so I knew what it was. My experience of these English bottled generic 1964 burgundies has been that they improve well with being open, so this was decanted about two to three hours previously.
It has a deepish colour. There's some black fruit and some pinot fruit on the nose. I reckon this is part pinot noir and part grenache from the Rhone or southern France.. Decent palate: there is some pinot noir character, but it feels more southern France really. This is probably the weakest, least Burgundian bottle of this lot that I bought at auction at Straker Chadwick. 86/100

1981 Château Haut-Bailly, AC Pessac-Léognan
A deepish garnet appearance. There's black fruit on the nose , with just a little blackcurrants. Open and mature on the palate, with very good fruit, nice woody spice and a gentle tannic structure. Don't know exactly what this is, but I think it's a good maturing claret that's going to be drinking well for another ten years at least. Very Good Indeed. 90/100

1986 Château Lafite Rothschild, AC Pauillac
A dark garnet red. Nice elegant nose with some sweet floral blackcurrant fruit and some cedar. At first the nose feels quite mature, but then it has some younger unresolved character. Good, quite sweet fruit, fairly open on the palate. Still with quite firm tannins on the finish. Very Good Indeed.

2004 Amayna Pinot Noir, Leyda Valley, Chile
A youngish garnet. Unforgiving nose; a touch rubbery with some red fruit. Could this be a South African pinot(age)-syrah blend? Spicy palate. It does have an elegance of its own. Curious chocolatey flavours on the finish. I only had the 2004 Amayna Pinot Noir a couple of months ago, but wouldn't have recognised it. This is a slightly better bottle, I think. 88/100

1990 Quarts de Chaume, Château Bellerive
A bright, brassy gold. Soft delicate nose with some melony fruit. Pure and direct on the palate. A quite austere attack, maybe even a touch astringent. At this stage, this wasn't for me, but returning to it after about 30 minutes in the glass, I found it top be opening up more and to be much more impressive. Very Good/Very Good Indeed. 88/100

1948 Monis Collectors Port Superior Limited Edition (Stamp Collection), W.O. Paarl
This is bottle 4607 of 5000 produced.
A slightly treacly appearance, almost like a very light PX. Quite cloudy too. The nose has dried fruit and nuts is lots of rancio tones. The palate is sweet and attractive with a touch of toffee/caramel. Very smooth. It's sweet, but not overly so. Quite malmsey-like actually. I'd have thought there was a bit of muscat in this, and would have been heading off to old Australian liqueur muscat territory. Very Good Indeed. 89/100

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Last updated: 23 October 2006