A special tasting of Fonseca Port, marking the publication of the Port house’s first book

Bobbing around somewhat disconcertingly on the high and highly sprung Zebedee-like stools at The Wine Academy, I was glad to be dressed in black for this special Port tasting.  And pleased that my glass of Fonseca from the much heralded 1963 vintage (top left) was placed well out of range.  It was knock out and most certainly not to be knocked out!

Hosted by Fonseca’s MD Adrian Bridge, Monday’s special tasting marked the publication of the renowned Port house’s first book.  Simply entitled “Fonseca Porto,” it was researched by wine historian Andrew Jones.  The book clarifies the house’s founding date – 1815, not 1822 as previously supposed.

It seems settled that the first Vintage Port to be released under the Fonseca label was 1840, but fellow taster Steven Spurrier put in doubt the date of Fonseca’s first Bin 27 which, according to Bridge was 1972.  Spurrier reckons he’d tasted it before then, so it seems there may well be a second revised edition of the new book, perhaps to mark Fonseca’s bicentenary in 2015!

Looking forward, Bridge is upbeat about the future prospect of premium Ports like those which formed the basis of this tasting. Here’s why*:

  • Port enjoys better penetration than other fortifieds, with more UK households buying Port than gin, Sherry, Vermouth, Cognac and Malt Whisky;
  • In the last 16 years, UK Port sales have increased in excess of 50%, against a similar percentage decline amongst other fortifieds;
  • UK Port consumers are younger on average than other fortified wines with the 25-44 consumer age group accounting for 21% of expenditure, 45-64 age group for 48% and 29% for those over 65.  It suggests a real opportunity to develop Port’s appeal in the 35-44 age group.

(*Findings based on The Report just released by The Fladgate Partnership, which owns Fonseca).

Here are my notes on the wines and you can find out more about this illustrious house, its vineyards and Ports here (from whence I’ve taken the vintage reports).

Fonseca Bin 27 Port

Describing it as the epitome of Fonseca’s voluptuous “Rubenesque” style, Bridge says with its extra “presence, mouthfeel and mouth fill,” Bin 27 was designed to add another dimension to the entry level ruby category.  It is a premium ruby Port (a category typically aged for 3-3.5years in cask).  Deep purple in hue, it delivers plenty of upfront chocolate-laced blackcurrant and wilder bilberry fruit, without losing definition or freshness.  Gum cistus/menthol notes help too.  A clean finish has an attractive light grip of tannin and plentiful liquorice spice.  Very good.

Bridge reckons that this category has been the biggest beneficiary of modern technology because the piston driven systems that replaced pump overs and vinomatics give the wines more structure, volume and depth.  (The Fladgate Partnership still foot tread top wines).

Fonseca Terra Prima Organic Port

Fonseca’s Quinta do Panascal was one of the first properties in the valley to contain areas of vineyard with organic certification.  However, it’s no longer tended organically because of “drift” issues – it proved difficult to ring fence the organic parcels from those which were conventionally farmed (i.e. with some chemical usage).  Now 100% sourced from Quinta de Santo António, which is certified organic (for grapes and olives), this has effectively become a single quinta non-vintage Port. With Quinta do Cruzeiro, also in the Pinhão Valley, Quinta de Santo António has supplied Fonseca for over a hundred years.   On nose and palate, Terra Prima has a more refined, vinous quality than its premium ruby stable mate Bin 27.  The freshness as much as the spirit seemingly drives this wine, lending it a delightful rolling quality as the acidity teases out layers of red cherry, earthy raspberry, dried spices (think gingerbread) and cafe crème.  Finely structured, with lovely complexity, flow and length.  Very good indeed and reasonably priced when one considers that the organic spirit (sourced since 2003) is harder to secure and that, according to Bridge, cultivating the vineyard organically has cost 25% more for 25% less yield.

Fonseca Crusted Port

Fonseca has been making Crusted Ports since the mid 19th century.  They are reserve rubies (starting out something like Bin 27, says Bridge) which are aged for around three years in bottle, which explains why they throw a crust (sediment).  This is a completely different kettle of fish, less pure, more developed than the other premium rubies.  Old fashioned if you like, with dried fruits (raisins and prunes), sweet glace cherry, Camp coffee and leather hints.  Seemingly sweeter, it’s a mellow fellow.

Fonseca Unfiltered Late Bottled Vintage Port 2007

From a classic (declared) vintage, this deeply coloured LBV is very true to 2007 – aromatic, floral and elegant, with nice precision to its well concentrated spicy, chocolatey fruit.  Firm but ripe tannins underpin a long finish.  Youthful.

Fonseca 10 Year Old Tawny Port

This is the second tasting I’ve attended in as many weeks in which it’s been said aged tawnies are key drivers of growth (the first was the launch of Graham’s re-styled tawnies).  For Bridge, it’s the fastest growing Port category around the world, including in France (which market is well known for its love of entry level tawnies).  A youthful deep ruddy hue and, in line with the opulent house style, this is a solid but satisfying 10 year old, rich and dense with toffee, dates, boozy plum cake and a broad nutty finish, edged with spicy liquorice.  Good.

Fonseca 20 Year Old Tawny Port

An expressive, lifted nose and palate (with more overt spirit too).  In the mouth it’s less sturdy and more savoury, with a deliciously nutty spine and rich woody timbre to its caramel-edged dried apricot fruits.  A long resonating finish is something of a nut-fest, with buttery macademia, roast hazelnut and walnuts.  Lovely.

Fonseca 40 Year Old Tawny Port

Fonseca don’t make a 30 year old tawny because, says Bridge, the difference between the 20 year old and 40 year old is not so marked.  In the UK, The Fladgate Partnership account for 72% of the market by value for 40 year old tawnies (though it’s a tiny market – they produce just three pipes (200 cases)/annum).  As you would expect, a significant colour shift here – this is mahogany, rather than tawny in hue – brown, with no reddish/golden glints.   It’s deliciously silky in the mouth, with honey, nougat, marzipan, caramel, barley sugar, dried fruits and toasted almonds – liquid panforte!  An esteva note too, to remind you of its Douro origins.  Delicious, with absolutely no sign of drying out.

Find out more about the art of blending age dated tawnies here in my report of a hands on masterclass with Chief Blender, Natasha Bridge.

Fonseca Guimaraens 1996 Vintage Port

The viticultural season began with a very wet winter. January and February were colder than normal resulting in a late bud burst. Cool, wet conditions continued until just prior to flowering on 25th May. Flowering took place in hot weather and, when combined with the large number of inflorescences at bud burst, resulted in the largest potential yields since 1900.  There was a considerable amount of rainfall in September which caused many people to start picking. However, strong winds and hot weather, between the 27-30th followed which dried out the bunches and allowed the grapes to ripen fully. This was reflected in a marked improvement in all ports produced from 29thSeptember onwards.

Initially a little pinched on nose and palate but, as it opens up, it blossoms, with a lift of violets to its red cherry conserve fruit, hints of milk chocolate and delicate spice.  Elegant, with a long, finely honed finish. Lovely now – a medium term keeper.

(Incidentally, this was the last year that Fonseca focused more on the Guimaraens ( a blend of quintas) as opposed to the single quinta Panascal.  Bridge explained that the Guimaraens confused the fast-growing US market who were more interested in the single quinta category.)

Quinta do Panascal 1998 Vintage Port

The 1998 growing season started extremely wet. The water table was replenished but this in turn caused extensive erosion problems, particularly in old terraced vineyards. A cold spring followed with temperatures just above freezing in mid -April. With May came a burst of warmth. A dry, hot summer, with temperatures exceeding 40 º C during the first two weeks of August, was followed by daily showers during the harvest which began on 20n September.  The almost perfect growing season caused great excitement in the Douro until picking began. The rain during the harvest caused dilution of the fermenting musts and a corresponding reduction in the power of the final wines. Hopes were dampened and the overall yield turned out to be the lowest of the decade.

Located in the Távora Valley, like Fonseca’s Pinhão Valley quintas, Quinta do Panascal is south/south west facing though, higher, it’s more exposed, which accounts for its rich sweet fruit.   It was acquired by Fonseca in 1978. Though younger than the Guimaraens, the Panascal seems more developed with its broad, leathery, earthy nose with a smoky, burned edge. In the mouth it’s denser too, savoury, with meaty Bovril notes to its core of jammy fruit.  Lacks the purity and finesse of the Guimaraens.  Going back to it at the end it seemed a little tired.

Fonseca 1963 Vintage Port

A very cold winter delayed flowering and produced the latest véraison since 1946. A cool summer meant that the crop ripened very slowly. The harvest took place very late, in the second week of October when hot weather brought the crop to maturity. Harvest reports note that the wines were deeply coloured, full of flavour and with plenty of body. Most shippers declared 1963.

With almost 50 years under its belt the 63 looks like a tawny Port, though it has the focus and vigour of a bottled aged vintage Port in the mouth.  Deliciously earthily scented (like a truffle is earthy but perfumed), it shows lifted esteva and dried herbs on the nose and palate. There’s still a density to its wild honeyed, membranillo-like mid-palate.  Going through it reveals wave after soft wave of liquorice, clove, cafe crème, milk chocolate, toast and florentine notes, underscored by Barola Chinato medicinal dried herb notes.  The finish is long, beguilingly scented and smooth.  Just lovely and so complex, though for those familiar with the vintage, the bottle was apparently more developed than others.  I loved it.

Fonseca 1985 Vintage Port

The 1985 vintage was preceded by an exceptionally cold, wet winter, with night temperatures well below freezing in early January. Berryset was excellent and the young bunches perfectly formed.  The summer was hot throughout the region, with no rainfall during July and August.  Fonseca picked earlier than most other shippers and the harvest was brought in under ideal conditions before the rain which fell later in the month of September.  Conditions were ideal for fermentation resulting in must of exceptional colour and weight.

A very youthful wine, deep and dark of hue, with a narrow rim and a belter of a palate.  Ripe powerful tannins encircle a great girth of jammy fruit, dense spicy plum cake with a lick of liquorice and esteva; woodsmoke too.  No shortage of vigour here, its long, concentrated finish is beautifully under-scored by a cool schistous seam of minerality.  Terrific.

Fonseca 2000 Vintage Port

A wet 1999 vintage was followed by a cold and dry winter. April and May were very wet with half the annual rainfall falling in these two months. June and July were dry.  August continued dry, with the first half being extremely hot. The end of August and early September had perfect ripening conditions with long warm days. A couple of days of rain between the 10th and 18thSeptember produced the ideal conditions and finished off the ripening. The resulting wines were big and full bodied with intense colour and very attractive aromas.

A deep inky hue with a very narrow, youthful rim.  A coy nose and palate slowly unravels, revealing concentrated, still tight knit layers of orange blossom kissed plum jam, vivid cassis and sour cherry shot through with liquorice and sweet dried spices, especially cinnamon.  Lovely integration of fruit, spice and fine tannin; terrific balance too.  Suffice to say absolutely thrilled to have a case of 6 bottles in my cellar commemorating the year my career in wine began.

Fonseca 2009 Vintage Port

2009 will be remembered as a year of low yields. This was partly due to the small amount of fruit and also to the effect of the very dry ripening season. Dormancy ended very early, with bud burst starting at Pinhão in the first week of March. The ripening season started with relatively cool weather which continued throughout July but in August this turned to intense heat. From July through to the harvest in September, there was almost no rain. These hot, arid conditions produced concentrated musts, rich in colour, tannins and sugar and by early September the grapes had reached phenolic maturity.  An early start to the harvest on the Fonseca estates ensured that the wines had a good acid balance and avoided over ripeness.

For Bridge, the early start means that the 2009 is, he says, maybe bit more old fashioned, with its big brooding tannins and muscular fruit.  It also has the highest anthocyanin count (which accounts of the inky hue) since records have been kept.  Yep, not far off Quink ink, this palate staining keeper makes a fearsome impression with its charge of grippy, peppery tannins, dense, tightly coiled black fruits and bitter sweet edge of dark chocolate.  But there are glimpses of leavening notes too – orange blossom (and peel), violet and fresh coriander seed.  Still backward/turned in on itself.  Look forward to a less lip curled and surly encounter down the track.  Masses of potential.

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  1. Roy Kent MSc

    My name is Roy Kent. Today I spent the day in Lisbon and purchased two bottles of Fonseca Bin 27 thinking that I should like to lay them down in my cellar.
    But then I read that this port is for immediate drinking. If as I should like to do, keep them for sometime will they improve or remain static?

    • Sarah Ahmed

      Hi Roy. Bin 27 is a Ruby Port which are all about upfront fruit, so made to drink young. Although brandy spirit and sugar are good preservatives, this Port won’t improve. It might be static for 2-3 years (unopened) but the fruit expression will then tone down/fade, so it won’t have the exuberant fruit profile which the winemaker intended. Fonseca’s Late Bottled Vintage Port is unfiltered and will age for several years plus, while Single Quinta Vintage Ports like Fonseca Panascal will age for at least a decade. So they are good bets for mid-term ageing without breaking the bank and blowing out on a Vintage Port. Hope that helps. All best Sarah


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