Tim James: Adventures with port and a wine-strainer

By , 8 April 2024



There was a time when, while waiting for a connection home at Heathrow, Schipol or Malpensa, I would wander acquisitively though the duty-free shops to spend some left-over euros. Even as recently as when we were starting to make bitter jokes about the rand becoming a 7/11 currency – seven rands to the dollar, eleven to the pound. Dream on. The pound’s moved closer to the dollar and both of them have moved very much further away from the rand. It’s no consolation, really, that the duty-free shops have become less interesting, especially the wine selection. Plus, somehow these days I don’t find myself in the vicinity much.

My best purchases in those far-off days, apart from wine, were probably a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators, a nice set of earphones destined to be chewed up by my dog Ollie, and a stainless steel wine-funnel. You could use the funnel simply as an aerator, as the bottom was blocked off and the liquid diverted through half-a-dozen holes to splash down the sides of a decanter. I don’t think I’ve ever been concerned about aeration; more important was using the removable mesh strainer, either to remove sediment or fragments of shattered cork.

Last week it was called on to do both, when, in autumnal mood, I opened a bottle of 1995 Die Krans Vintage Reserve Port (the P-word was still allowed for the local stuff back then, and the winery hadn’t yet changed its “Die” to “De”). The long cork stuck, broke and crumbled, so out came the strainer and it did its job very nicely, also catching quite a bit of sediment, as you can tell from the pic, while the wine spattered into the decanter.

The wine was entirely from tinta barocca in those days (or tinta barroca as everyone else in the world spells it); it now has a majority of touriga nacional with tinta roriz (aka tempranillo) and a small portion of tinta barroca. At nearly 30 years old, it had held up admirably and was even to improve with significant air exposure. It was good and delicious, the tannins had meltingly resolved, joining the acidity in a rich firmness. But somehow it didn’t quite answer. I’d have liked a bit more weight and power, perhaps, and in effect it was a touch too sweet.

So I thought I’d try comparing it with a bottle of the “proper” stuff. I don’t have much of that, but found my one bottle of 1991 Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port – a single-estate wine from one of the grandest properties of the Douro, bought for the illustrious Symington portfolio just two years before the wine in my bottle was made. It still bore its price-sticker (on which, in a rare show of intelligence, I’d noted the date of purchase – 2/7/97): R158.99, a lot of money in those days, certainly for me. I see this vintage is still available in Europe and America, for something like R2000-plus per bottle.

This wine also needed the services of my filter. But before discussing that, let me say that the wine was lovely, from aroma to long-lingering finish, though perhaps not great. Both more fragrantly delicate and powerful than Die Krans, and more complex, the tannins similarly resolved into velvet, and less obviously sweet. But not too much overshadowing the local bottle at all – which, if anything, showed more improvement over the few days both were in their decanters.

What calcium precipitation does to vintage port.

Back to the filter. As soon as I started pouring the Vesuvio, it was clear from the light colour of the wine as it flowed that something was amiss. Then, along with the cork fragments came a substantial volume of what looked like black mud, and there was clearly still more mud in the bottom of the bottle. I poured a glassful and it looked really horrible. Like a dull, cloudy rosé, its blackish note the result of myriad particles which my filter mesh hadn’t been fine enough to catch. I don’t recall ever having seen such an unappetising-looking wine, or one with an appearance so far removed from what I was expecting. See the pic for an aerial view of my glass after the wine had settled for a few hours.

It seemed a risky thing to do, but I had a sniff at this unattractive stuff – lovely! – and then ventured a little sip, then more, with pleasurable results that I’ve already mentioned.

I’d never had a wine experience like this and have no scientific basis for understanding it. Nor, I suppose, does Joaquim Sá, MD of Amorim Cork in South Africa, but he has a lot of experience of port, and I wondered if this was a port thing. At first he couldn’t help and we agreed it was probably a wine thing…. I tried a few of the most technically sussed winemakers I know, but they needed to do a bit more research. Then Joaquim got back to me, obviously having tapped a Douro colleague or two.

The problem with my bottle he said, was “a calcium precipitation, which could have been caused by the quality of alcohol used during fortification”. It was known to have the effect of colour dropout and a heavy sediment accumulation. Presumably the precipitating calcium was dragging down the anthocyanins that give the colour.  (Or whatever….) Apparently, in the late 1980s, and presumably at least as far into the ’90s as 1991, there was a shortage of the spirits most favoured by port producers.

Joaquim didn’t tell me me more, and I’m left wondering a lot of things, especially as all the googling I could do didn’t get specific or name names. Not a mention could I find of anyone else having this problem with Quinto do Vesuvio 1991 or indeed with any port. Could it also be a bottle-specific problem (a tiny bit oxidation or some other problem giving a chain reaction)? Was my bottle doomed from the start or did it take all this time (it was well stored, incidentally) to reach this state?

I should try to find out more, if I can. But there is one minor positive emerging out of my little adventure with this foul-looking liquid that tasted like a 30+ year old fine quality port. I’m reminded that, although the appearance of a wine undoubtedly partakes in the pleasure one gets from it, it’s a subsidiary contribution. You don’t taste colour.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


1 comment(s)

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    Greg Sherwood | 10 April 2024

    Not a great year in 1991… or as we say, not a Vintage Port year but a Single Quinta year. Nevertheless, the Vesuvio should have been a lot more robust and assertive, darker in colour if not also richer.

    I see UK West Country merchant Tanners are selling the 1991 Vesuvio for circa £1,920 per bottle (£80), and describe it as… “Intense red colour. Packed with aromas of berry fruits such as blackcurrant and graceful floral hints. On the palate very complex fruit flavours, excellent ripe tannins and a sweet and powerful finish.”

    Like you, I would have expected more from your bottle.

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