In the Spirit of the Season: Charity and Vintage Port

1955 Port tasting 3

With Christmas less than a week away, this post brings together two topics I associate with this time of year: charity, and the delicious, complex, fortified wine called Port.

It just so happens that a Chicago couple, Linda and Jamie Garard, found a way to bring these two things together for a memorable two days of tastings that raised significant funds to support vital medical services for Chicago’s homeless.

Jamie is a major wine collector with a strong preference for buying in magnum–the format that is twice as large as a standard sized bottle, and that tends to keep wines fresher. It’s ideal for wines that are meant for long aging. Linda knows the key players at all of Chi-town’s major restaurants. The two of them believe in supporting worthy causes, and have found that providing great wines from their cellar for tasting events at Chicago’s top culinary destinations can lead to generous contributions toward the couples’ favorite charities.

As it happens, Linda, Jamie and I all share a birth year—1955. That year proved to be not only a decent one for people, it also produced excellent, long-lived wines in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Portugal’s Douro region—the source of Port.

Port is the name for fortified wines produced from a variety of grapes grown on the hot, steep, terraced hillsides of the Douro Valley. Port is made in a variety of styles, including white Port, ruby Port and tawny Port.

Vintage Port—made from top vineyard sites in the best vintages, as declared by one or more producers, are made up exclusively of wine from a single vintage, aged in cask for two years and then bottled. They represent only 1% of Port production. These wines, like other Ports, are fermented to about 6 to 8% alcohol before fermentation is arrested by the addition of a flavorless grape-distilled spirit that is 77% alcohol called aguardente. This process preserves much of the grapes’ natural sugar and sweetness which would have been converted to alcohol if the fermentation had not been stopped by killing off the fermenting yeasts with the aguardente.

Vintage Ports from great years like 1955 can take decades to mature, and then last for many decades more. The result is rich, spicy, often chocolatey, warming wines that are ideally enjoyed on cold winter evenings. Port is especially popular around Christmas time in England, and makes for a wonderful end to a holiday evening spent with friends and loved ones.

Early this year, Jamie asked Roy Hersh, editor/publisher of the For the Love of Port newsletter and this country’s foremost expert on Port, to attend and speak at a horizontal tasting of 1955 vintage Ports Jamie had collected. Roy agreed.

Jamie Garard, RJ and Roy Hersh

Jamie Garard, RJ and Roy Hersh

Jamie, who knew me through my CellarTracker reviews and blog, reached out to me through Facebook, which indicates my birth year, to see if I’d be interested in attending. Since I’m a big fan of Roy’s, love Chicago, and found the opportunity to taste through a horizontal of birth year Ports irresistible, I quickly said yes. In the months leading up to the event, Jamie indicated there would also be a dinner the night before to welcome Roy and me to town.

Jamie and Linda proceeded to contract for a buy out of one of their favorite restaurants, one that welcomes BYOB– one-Michelin-star EL Ideas–for a party of 26 the Friday before the Port tasting. They invited a group of wine lovers who agreed to make a contribution to Pilsen Homeless Health Services. Many of them also brought special bottles to share, in addition to the magnums on hand from the Garards’ cellar.

The result was a very enjoyable gathering of wine-loving charitable folk over a 12-course tasting menu prepared by Chef Phillip Foss and his innovative team. Foss designed his latest restaurant to be casual and comfortable, with tables running perpendicular to the long, open kitchen. He welcomed us with an invitation to enter the kitchen whenever we liked to see what was going on and talk to the chefs.

Chef Foss and Jamie Garard at EL Ideas

Chef Foss and Jamie Garard at EL Ideas

Highlights amongst the wines we enjoyed this first evening included, all from magnums, the 1990 Henriot Rosé Champagne, a glorious 2006 Chave Hermitage Blanc, and the 1995 Arnoux Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Aux Reignots.

For the main event, Saturday afternoon and evening, Linda arranged for a wonderful, large space at Chicago’s culinary academy, Kendall College. This space was set up both for our tasting at one end, and for our dinner to follow at dining tables in the middle. Jamie and assistants from Kendall began decanting the Ports at 2:15 pm, and they were poured into our tasting glasses—11 glasses arranged on a placemat identifying each of the wines that Roy had printed—starting at 4 pm. Two scheduled attendees who had made their $500 contribution for the event were unable to join us, so the Garards left it up to Kendall College to designate two students to take their places.

Roy introduced the tasting by giving us some perspective on the 1955 vintage and what was going on in the world, and Chicago, when the grapes for these wines were harvested, foot trodden and put into cask. Chicago’s Mayor Daley won his first election that year. Disneyland also opened in ‘55, and Rosa Parks was famously arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus in December that year.

Ports were still mainly bottled in London in the mid-1950s by the Port shippers based there, so all or nearly all of our ‘55s would have been bottled there rather than in Portugal. The weather conditions in 1955 were ideal for an excellent vintage—mainly hot and dry, with a small amount of rain at opportune times. The vintage was declared by 26 houses, the biggest vintage declaration since 1927.

Roy, who had taken part in an extensive 1955 horizontal in London a couple years previously, and who had tasted all of our wines before, in many cases several times, indicated that the wines were at their peak now, with some on “significant plateaus.” He had arranged the wines into three flights for our tasting, with the lighter Ports in the first flight, and the most complex and usually top performers at the end.

A couple of the wines—Dow and Sandeman—did not show as well as expected, or as well as samples Roy has tried in the past. Most of them, however, were glorious—perfect exemplars of how deep, flavorful, complex and delicious mature vintage Ports can be.

The Quinto do Noval Nacional bottling, which Roy had positioned last in the tasting, was extraordinary, and I rank it as one of my three top wines of the year—out of the more than 7,000 wines I tasted in 2013. I rated it 99 points. It fell short of 100 points only because one of the other eight vintage Nacionals I’ve tried, the 1994, was even more spectacular and structured, meriting the full 100 points. The regular Quinto do Noval 1955 bottling was just a step behind the Nacional for me, at 98 points.

Noval’s position as a top Port producer owes a lot to the tiny production (usually only a few hundred cases) of vintage Port from the ungrafted, 2.5 hectare parcel lying right next to the winery. This parcel’s name comes from the vines being planted on their own roots rather than being grafted onto American rootstock, as most European vineyards have been since the 1890s to protect them from destruction by the American vine louse phylloxera to which American rootstock had developed resistance. The Nacional vines are therefore planted directly “into the nation” rather than on rootstock.

Nacional parcel at Quinta do Noval

The parcel’s 6,000 vines are planted to a mix of the Port grape varieties Touriga Nacional, Tinta Francisca and Sousao. The vines are low vigor and produce very small berries, averaging in yield less than half that produced by other sections of the Quinta do Noval vineyard. There is thus so little of this wine made and its reputation is so high that it sells for the highest prices of any vintage Port. The current vintage, 2011, is selling for an average of $745 a bottle in the U.S.

Other 1955s I ranked highly at this tasting included the surprisingly delicate and delicious Fonseca, an elegant and structured Taylor, the unctuous Cockburn, and a characteristically sweet and rounded Graham.

Our three-hour tasting, including comments and observations on the wines by all participants, was followed by a delightful dinner prepared by Kendall staff and students, and more special wines. Among the highlights in that lineup was a 1955 d’Yquem and a Port dating back to 1853 that was bottled in 2001 from casks discovered by one of the former principals of Quinto do Noval. My tasting notes on those and the other fabulous wines from the two-day event appear below.

Our dinner also featured brief remarks by Dr. Maria Brown, the doctor who founded Pilsen Homeless Health Services in 1994 and who is one of its four current staffers, aided by a small army of volunteers from Rush Medical College, where Dr. Brown is associate professor of family medicine.

Pilsen Homeless Health Services' Dr. Maria Brown

Pilsen Homeless Health Services’ Dr. Maria Brown

Dr. Brown explained that the Pilsen clinic operates out of a small space at the Salvation Army, reaching out to those who desperately need help but who have fallen through the cracks of our medical system. She indicated that the $15,000 raised by the Garards’ event was a major boost for an organization that tries to meet a big need on a very tiny budget.

During the course of the evening, my dining companion Linda explained that she and Jamie got their start in leveraging wine and food for good causes in 2002 when they worked with the late Charlie Trotter and Dick Grace of Grace Family Vineyards on a fundraising dinner for an educational nonprofit. A few years later, for their 25th wedding anniversary, they invited charitable contributions instead of gifts and then organized a wine dinner that, altogether, raised $40,000. This money was turned into an annuity for Northfield Community Church’s annual youth mission trip.

With these successes, the Garards began organizing other wine events, including a tasting of 1970 wines in magnum, under the name Grapes for Great Causes. The Garards absorb the events’ administrative costs so that the full amount of participants’ contributions go to the designated charity. Counting this 1955 Port event, the couple have now raised over $875,000 for Chicago area charities.

This holiday season, I’m raising my glass to the Garards and Dr. Browns of the world. They represent the true spirit of giving and caring that should be part of our lives all year long, but which deserves to be especially honored and celebrated at this time of year.

1955 Port Horizontal Tasting 12/7/13

1955 Ports

1955 Ports

1955 Quinta do Noval Porto Vintage Nacional
Bricking dark cherry red color with ruby lights; seductive, lifted, raspberry ice cream, blackberry cream, black raspberry, deep black cherry, boysenberry syrup, coffee nose; rich, gorgeous, complex, balanced, black raspberry cream, blackberry syrup, blackberry cream, boysenberry syrup palate with firm, sweet tannins; very long finish 99 points

1955 Fonseca Porto Vintage
Bricking dark cherry red color with ruby lights and pale meniscus; honey, macerated cherry, VA, cherry jam, white chocolate covered strawberry, peaty, smoky, cocoa nose; delicious, youthful, delicate, cherry preserves, raspberry syrup, strawberry jam, sweet coffee, dates palate; long finish 98 points

1955 Quinta do Noval Porto Vintage
Bricking dark cherry red color with ruby lights and pale meniscus; appealing, VA, raspberry cream, berry sherbet, strawberry, lightly saline nose; very tasty, balanced, rich, round, creamy textured, raspberry cream, berry cream, sweet baked cherry, black cherry, blackberry ice cream palate; long finish 97 points

1955 Taylor (Fladgate) Porto Vintage
Bricking medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; tart baked cherry, black raspberry, berry jam, light caramel, cherry tobacco, smoky nose; tasty, poised, elegant, balanced, ripe cherry, raspberry jam, berry jam, honey palate with firm tannins; very long finish 97 points

1955 Cockburn Porto Vintage
Bricked medium brown red color with ruby lights; very appealing, pretty, raspberry syrup, blackberry jam, strawberry preserves, light sweet coffee, VA nose that adds tobacco notes after 30 minutes in the glass; delicious, unctuous, rounded, mature, sweet coffee, dried cherry, strawberry jam palate; should go 15+ plus years; long finish 96 points

1955 Graham Porto Vintage
Bricking medium dark red violet color with ruby lights and pale orange meniscus; VA, tart strawberry jam, cherry tea, maple syrup nose that adds a light tobacco note after 1 hour in the glass; rich, rounded, fully mature, strawberry jam, baked raspberry, maple syrup, sweet coffee palate; long finish 95+ points

1955 Croft Porto Vintage
Bricking medium ruby color with ruby lights; sweet tea, raspberry flavored tea, VA, raspberry jam, strawberry jam nose with light TCA; delicious, strawberry jam, ripe raspberry, cherry, raspberry syrup palate with firm tannins yet and heat; very light finish 94+ points

1955 Ferreira Porto Vintage
Bricked medium dark cherry red color with ruby lights; VA, dates, coffee, date cake, toffee, Barolo-like nose; elegant, vinous, unusual, Barolo-like, dried cherry, sweet coffee, dates, date cake, caramel palate with drying, sweet tannins; long finish 94 points

1955 Sandeman Porto Vintage
Bricked medium cherry red color with ruby lights and pale meniscus; maderized, musty, VA, sauteed mushroom, cherry syrup, tart blackberry, blackberry jam, black tea nose; tasty, tart blackberry, blackberry jam, dates, berry tea, blackberry honey palate with chalky tannins; long finish 93 points

1955 Warre Porto Vintage
Bricking medium dark cherry red color with ruby lights and rose meniscus; high VA, ripe fig, cream soda, cherry soda, dates, coffee notes that cleans up a bit after 1 hour in the glass; better on palate, light cherry syrup, tart raspberry, sweet coffee, raspberry jam palate with firm tannins yet; medium-plus finish 92 points

1955 Dow Porto Vintage
Bricked light medium cherry red color with ruby lights and light tan meniscus; oxidized, dirty, VA, tart orange nose; not as bad on palate as nose would indicate, but attenuated, cherry, cherry syrup, ripe raspberry palate; medium finish Not Rated/flawed

Other Significant Wines Poured
1955 d'Yquem

1853 Whitwham Porto Millennium- Reserve King Pedro V
Cloudy, bricked medium brown color with clear meniscus; appealing, lifted, cherry creme brulee, cherry chocolate, baked berry, golden brown sugar nose; rich, delicious, date syrup, saline, fig essence palate with buoyant acidity; very long finish (bottled in 2001) 97+ points

1955 Château d’Yquem Sauternes
Medium brown ruby color with ruby lights and pale meniscus; baked apricot, cherry compote, botrytis, macerated sour cherry nose; rich, delicious, cherry, raspberry jam, raspberry honey, tart raspberry syrup palate with good acidity; very long finish 96 points

2006 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc
From magnum – light medium yellow color; gorgeous, lifted, almond, vanilla, honey, sweet butter nose; rich, delicious, oily textured, lanolin, mineral, lemon cream palate; long finish 96 points

1990 Henriot Champagne Brut Millésimé Rosé
From magnum – light salmon color with abundant, speedy, tiny bubbles; mature, savory, sauteed mushroom nose; elegant, more youthful on palate than indicated by the nose, tasty, creamy textured, tart raspberry, mineral, golden raspberry palate with lively acidity; long finish 94 points

1995 Domaine Robert Arnoux / Arnoux-Lachaux Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Aux Reignots
From magnum – bricking medium dark cherry red color; dried cherry, raspberry, spice, talc nose; youthful, tart raspberry, black raspberry, tart black cherry, mineral, talc, rose extract palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 94 points

1979 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve
From magnum – lightly bricking very dark ruby color; maturing, cassis, berry nose; youthful, cassis, black currant, tart black fruit, black cherry, black tobacco, mineral palate with sweet tannins; long finish 94 points

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One Response to In the Spirit of the Season: Charity and Vintage Port

  1. Readers desirous of the placemats might like to know that they were made using the free program at

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