Vintage Port and Oxford. Celebrating three centuries of a classic combination.
Wines from the Douro have been central to the UK market since the late 18th century but true vintage port does not really start until around 1805 when the Christie’s sale catalogue first mentions it as a separate style. Our dinner does not go back quite that far – merely 130 years or so. Michael Palij is a Master of Wine, the President of the Oxford Wine Club, and an avid collector of Vintage Port.
The Venue: Corpus Christi College was originally founded in 1517 as a new centre for free thinking and academic excellence. 495 years later the Founders’ Room will serve as a suitably majestic venue for what promises to be one of the most exceptional tastings of vintage port ever staged in the UK.
We’ll set the scene with two of the greatest recent vintages: 2007 and 2000. Both were hot years with meagre harvests – a characteristic of the greatest vintages in this part of the world. 2007 may come to be regarded as one of the finest vintages since 1927 and this will be a perfect introduction to nascent greatness.
From here we’ll sample another pair from the same decade, 1994 and 1992, the former garlanded with effusive praise from all corners and the source of more than one perfect score.
The 1980s were not kind to the Douro with one notable exception: 1985. Originally under-estimated (and still exceptional value) these are just now beginning to hit their most impressive stride.
Decanter calls 1977 ‘a vintage of the century’ and I’d not disagree. These are supremely elegant wines and the first vintage that I bought when I emigrated to the UK in the late 1980s.
From 1977 there is nowhere to go except to 1963. The Symington family introduce it as ‘a monumental vintage of legendary proportions that needs no introduction. One of the 20th Century’s finest. A vintage Port against which all others are judged’. Decanter notes that ‘no other vintage has such an extensive roll of honour’.
It will be interesting to compare this with 1960 which, for Michael Broadbent, was ‘an enthusiastically declared and received vintage, slightly sweet in its prime but always elegant’
And then the legendary 1927, a seminal moment for every devotee of the world’s greatest fortified wine. There is only one bottle in my cellar.
Notwithstanding such a glittering canon of vintage port, the star of this tasting will be the Whitwham’s 1880. In 1999 Cristiano van Zeller made an extraordinary discovery: a 20,000 litre cask that had been set aside for a British shipper 119 years before. In the intervening century-odd some 10,000 litres had evaporated but what remained was extraordinary:
deep golden-caramel colour with just hint of burnt ochre red at the center. Nose of sweet coffee and vanilla with an almost herbal quality. On the palate a sweet, rolling, well-balanced explosion of flavour: dried grapes, marmalade, cappuccino, caramel and concentrated port flavours
Technically it’s therefore a Colheita (or vintage-dated tawny) but we’ll not split hairs this evening.
The Tradition: Ten bottles of vintage port in one evening shows a certain symmetry and will demonstrate that the traditions of the Georgian age live on in Oxford today. Getting drunk on a regular basis was considered dashing and a sign of masculinity. 'Two bottle men' may have even been moderate drinkers by some standards: there were three bottle, four bottle and five bottle men. Politicians Pitt and Sheridan drank six bottles a day but were surpassed by a certain Dr John Campbell who could get through thirteen bottles of port in a day. In fairness to Dr Campbell though, port was a much lighter drink than it is today as it was not until after 1878 that port was fortified. Looks like we’ve just sneaked in under the wire with the 1880.
The Dinner: we are fortunate that our long association with Corpus has permitted us exclusive use of the Fellows’ Dining Room (the Founders’ Room) for this event. Pairing an entire meal with Vintage Port would tax the creativity of the finest chef. With this in mind we shall taste some of the wines before dinner and there will be Champagne, red and white wine to cleanse our palates.
The Fine Print: A group of just 12 guests will dine in the historic SCR in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on Friday 7 December, 2012. Tickets are £250 each or £400 for two. Excellent and convenient accommodation can be found at The Old Bank Hotel (www.oldbank-hotel.co.uk). To join us please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Palij MW