Lesson in Wine Tasting: White Ports

Nicola Thomson at work  - wholly focussed on her palate

Nicola Thomson at work – wholly focussed on her palate

In April 2009 I worked behind the scenes at the International Wine Challenge (IWC) in London and became friends with Nicola Thomson, who has since come to visit me here in Porto several times.  Nicola is an independent wine professional who organises and presents wine tastings and courses, writes restaurant and wine reviews and has judged at the IWC as well as other wine competitions.  She holds her WSET Diploma and will shortly begin her MW studies.

Tasting and Judging Wines:  How-To

Watching and listening to Nicola taste wines is an education for me; though I hold an Advanced WSET certificate myself, we certainly were not taught this depth of analysis, nor do I yet have the range of experience she possesses, all of which helps inform her assessments.

Nicola is incredibly methodical and focussed in her tasting.  When she is judging wines you can see her attention turn inward, focussed on her nose and palate, and she excludes all distraction – woe betide the person who attempts to interrupt her before she has concluded her assessment!

A white background is critical to properly appreciate colour!!

A white background is critical to properly appreciate colour!!

First the appearance:  the ideal professional tasting room for a wine maker will have a big bank of windows facing north, and the majority of wall and counter surfaces will be a clean pure white.  In the tourist tasting rooms, designed for comfort and atmosphere, it can be challenging to assess the colour under artificial lighting in a room which is often tiled and furnished with wooden tables.  The day we visited Ferreira we didn’t have a large enough notebook to provide a clean white background so, as you can see, I bravely volunteered to improvise.  What one suffers for one’s profession!  Deeply blushing visage cropped out of photo so as not to influence your perception of wine colour!

Nicola assesses the colour in detail, tipping the tasting glass at a 45° angle to get a good view of both core colour and the fade (or not) to rim, and assesses clarity and viscosity.

Next, after a really good intensive swishy swirling of the glass to release the aromas, she plunges her nose into the glass as far as physically possible and inhales deeply.  While even neophyte wine lovers start by trying to “guess that aroma” and identify scent notes within fruit, vegetable, floral, mineral and occasionally animal scent ranges, Nicola is also able to identify chemical scents, which tip off a professional judge to skill or faults in winemaking.

Finally, she takes a mouthful of wine, gives it the same kind of good swishy swirl as before but inside her mouth, and then spits.  Only exceptionally will she actually swallow the wine, which is wholly unnecessary for judging purposes.  I’ve observed  winemakers work almost wholly by scent, not palate, particularly when working with newly-made wines or creating blends.

When tasting a range of comparable wines – e.g. a vertical tasting of multiple vintages of a single wine, or a range of makers’ wines from a given region or vintage, Nicola will assess each wine individually then return to compare pairs or other multiple samples, as the contrast between wines can highlight qualities across all sensory perceptions: sight, smell and taste.

Ratings and Critics

Whilst 20 or 100 point wine rating systems are in wide use and have their place, Nicola, like most professionals, has strong feelings about their pros and cons.  In her view, reviews need to be more technical and detailed within the trade, with separate scoring and notes for each appearance, nose and palate, and then offer an overall score.  For consumers, the notes need to be more clear and concise and focussed on the qualities a potential buyer can relate to their own preferences:  for example flavour components, dryness or sweetness, texture, alcohol levels both real and perceived.  Across the board notes need to be more objective, scoring systems and deduction of points need to be explained and justified.

For example, if a judge or critic tastes a wine they don’t like – not their preference for personal consumption – the professional needs to re-focus and rate the wine in terms of whether it is well made, and fits expectations for the style or region.  It is not uncommon to see the identical wine rated wildly differently, which shouldn’t happen if a wine is fundamentally well made.  If points are deducted, explanation should be offered – if a critic had to explain his or her scores in terms of technical winemaking faults, we would see fewer wines silently down-graded because the critic just doesn’t like that flavour profile, region, maker or wine style.  Whilst these kinds of preferences become notorious within the trade or obvious to a dedicated amateur, it is grossly unfair to both winemaker and the casual consumer.  I have heard winemakers say that they simply cannot sell a wine over a certain price point if a well-known critic scores it below 85.  A consumer who reads a review and doesn’t know the personalities and their biases will miss out on wonderful wines because they see a score and a few flavour observations, and no rationale for point reductions.

Certainly I have learned to ignore certain critics because their scores seem unjust to me, based on my own tasting experience, and instead I focus on comments regarding flavour families, tannins, acidity and overall balance – but everything except flavours are too seldom remarked.

Nicola also explained to me that in recent years it has become more important to broaden our thinking on style and regional expectations.  With the introduction of new-world wine making techniques in old-world regions and the use of “international” grapes in regions usually characterised by indigeneous varieties, judges should not necessarily down-grade a wine for not fitting the classic pattern, but rather offer a score that assesses the inherent quality of the wine and winemaking, and then note the exception to expectation, so a consumer can decide if the wine is of a profile that suits their preference, whether typical of a region or not.  Again my personal experience provides examples of this:  if someone asks me for a Douro wine – in other words, they want a wine that demonstrates the terroir and unique qualities of the Douro – I will name Muxagat, the wines of Mateus Nicolau de Almeida.  I can think of several fabulous wines made in the Douro which are well made and wonderful to drink, but are “so NOT Douro” that I would never name them in this context, though they would be among the first to mind if someone simply asked me to recommend an elegant,  richly flavoured, well-balanced red.

The White Port Tasting Notes

In August Nicola mentioned she was looking for a nice white port, so I took her to the two tasting rooms I knew had interesting offerings at that time:  Offley and Ferreira.  In November we visited the C. da Silva tasting room which has since opened, and Gonçalo Devesas treated us to a comprehensive tasting of their amazing range of whites.  No other maker offers the depth and variety of white ports offered under the Dalva name.

Here follow Nicola’s personal tasting notes and comments on the white ports she has tasted at Offley, Ferreira and C. da Silva.  We have deliberately offered the raw, detailed notes as made on the day, to give you a glimpse into the working of a judge’s mind and the full range of considerations to be assessed.  In reviewing them, Nicola commented they were perhaps cryptic, but were enough to bring to mind her taste memory of the specific wine – even one tasted 3 months ago.

A few reference points:

A = Appearance
N = Nose
P = Palate

IVDP standards limit Volatile Acidity (VA) to 0.9% grams per litre; below is their table of standards for sweetness levels in Ports.

Sweetness Volumetric mass *Baumé Sugars (g/l)
Extra dry < 0,9980 g/cm3 0,0 <40
Dry de 0,9980 g/cm3 a 1,0079 g/cm3 0,0 – 1,3 40 – 65
Semi dry de 1,0080 g/cm3 a 1,0179 g/cm3 1,4 – 2,7 65 – 90
Sweet de 1,0180 g/cm3 a 1,0339 g/cm3 2,8 – 5,0 90 – 130
Very sweet > 1,0340 g/cm3 >5,0 >130

Offley’s Cachucha 8 years, mixed vinification, Canadian and Swedish markets, small production €12.50 bottle  A:  nectarine skin tone in colour, with a fading pearl rim, medium intensity, vibrant and eye catching. N:  Nectarine, spicy cinnamon, baked, vanilla pod, spicy white pepper sensations, lovely perfumed undertones  P:  medium plus acidity, balanced alcohol and body, incredibly intense mouthfeel repeating characteristics shown on the nose.

Ferreira Branco Lagrima Short fermentation 24 hours  Sugars 135 g/l  Cold fermentation -7°   A:  lovely legs, a colour tone of pale tangarine  N:  perfume, vanilla, stewed spiced apricots, intense, incense and frankincense aromas combining with candied fruits (peach, apricots). Very complex nose. P:  hints of poached peaches, white pepper,  mouthwatering acidity balances well with the complexity of character and luscious sweetness (not cloying v.fresh) long length with a good viscosity

Ferreira Branco White 3 years (2-5 yr wine blends)  A:  light copper in colour with vibrant green tints N:  (similar to a fino sherry with notes of sweetness), softer more elegant notes than lagrima however not so complex  P:  higher acidity than lagrima, more refreshing less sugar  Floral, stewed lilac, violets, white blossom, tartness of grapefruit changing on the palate to candied peaches, apricots, little vanilla and spice, white pepper  Food pairing suggestions:  pecan or pumpkin pies

Ferreira 10 Years White 8 to 14 years in blend  A:  nectarine skin, hints of dark wood (mohagany), slight copper highlights.  Shade from deep chestnut to copper green tints to a peach to a mother of pearl rim  N:  savoury, sweet-sour baked apples, peaches, nectarine, juicy peaches, summer meadows, honey comb  P:  Bursts of juicy acidity, primarily very juicy as nose on the front palate, mid palate shows spicy hints of oxidisation, back of the palate baked almond, peanuts, and well integrated alcohol Serve with pies, pecans

Dalva Porto Lote Miguel Castra – white €18, Chef from Porto Sheraton, now Lisboa restaurants, 2009 new port for pairing with foie gras, tuna, starters, dessert cake, only 500 bottles limited edition, 10-15 year off dry, 74 g/litre, white varieties has 0.8 volatile acidity (vs IVDP limit 0.9), 2 casks used, 500 bottles numbered, signed, madeirised high acidity  A:  peach skin, fading rim, (pinkiness), apricot hue, divine thick delicious legs  N:  Candied orange blossom, intense VA, honeyed peel, chocolate orange, mocha chocolate orange  P:  Intense maderised sensations, notes of caramel with hints of tangerine toffee, stemmed ginger, baked vanilla with light cardamom spiciness High acidity akin to madeira, excellent lively zingy palate, Intense body and long length, very concentrated serve with tuna, BBQ grilled sardininhas, zesty and concentrated [smiley face]

Dalva 20 Year Old Dry White €40, residual sugar 63 g/litre A: More amber in colour than previous 15 year old, rich intensity. N: Soft VA, white truffle, hints of creamy walnut whips  P: Nectarine, passion fruit, hints of fig, lovely searing acidity, Balanced alcohol, fresh with lovely white spices, cinnamon, long length, butterscotch on the back palate, very elegant, integrated and very complex, long long length.

The first four Dalva whites: Lote Miguel Castro, 20 YO Dry, 1963 and 1952

Dalva 1963 Golden White €119  2009 bottled, only 9 old pipes of 1963, 538 litres  each A:  Rich deep intense amber, chestnut hints  N:  Volatile acidity, burnt caramelised candied  oranges, lovely nuttiness, walnut, truffle, lovely deep perfume, lilac and floral notes  P:  luxurious, intense, elegant, walnut, medium acidity, balanced alcohol, long length, mouth feel is full, round and delicious.  Front palate: complexity of minerality, Middle palate; baked confected vanilla toffee, Back palate: nutty creaminess, Devonshire condensed cream fudge.  With underlying baked white blossoms and hints of spiced pear.  Wine evolving constantly in the mouth.

Dalva 1952 Golden White €149, very rare, only one cask of 400 litres is left.  Packaged with a special cap to use after opening, has an oak top to the cork stopper, helps to preserve flavours and quality of wine after opening, with micro-oxygenation.  A:  Intense mahogany, copper hue, highlights of chestnut.  Elegant cathedrale legs.  N:  Lively butterscoth, coco, chocolate, roasting coffee beans, hints of black pepper and sea salts  P:  Spiced stone fruit, mango, passion fruit, uglifruit and nectarines,confected candied pink grapefruits, long length which keeps evolving, vibrant acidity, amazing intensity, Baked varnish, cardamom, again very elegant, hints of damsons and plums, very balanced and complex.

Dalva 1985 Colheita Bottled October 2010 €39  A:  Chestnut, deep vibrant intensity, copper hue  N:  Volatile acidity, rich, intense, nutty, spicy, hints of Christmas cake, lovely madeirised notes, underlying hints of ginger and coconuts, baked vanilla pods  P:  As nose, medium acidity, warming mulled spiced sensations, rounded soft alcohol, velvet mouthfeel, incredible sensatinos of baked apricots with cloves, creamy sticky toffee and caramelised pears (imagine a spiced pear covered in toffee like apples on a stick), excellent length, still going five minutes later.

Dalva 1967 Colheita Rui Paula €99  A:  Deep brown walnut, mahogany hues  N:  Intense almond and prune, dark chocolate, capuccino or espresso, volatilile acidity, candied cinnamon, spicey mixed spices, nutmeg  P:  Intense volatile acidity, nail varnish, baked spicy nutmegs, prunes, dmanson, black cherries, baked fruit cake, long length, fruit cake and madeira ginger, pinprick sensations, dark, baked, stewed fruits.

Dalva 1934 Colheita €360  A:  sediment, tawny, copper hues  N:  Intense volatile acidity, rancio, deep chocolate brownies, triple chocolate, white spirits  P:  Full concentration, medium acidity, concentration of vibrant dried stone fruits, combining with intense chocolate, acidity obviously has slightly diminished, however full concentration with a fantastic length and elegant mouthfeel.  Incredible herbal medicinal back palate.

Notes from Cynthia: One thing I learned, which Nicola and Gonçalo explained to me, is that volatile acidity – that pungent (but not necessarily aromatic, it can be quite neutral) fume that rises up from the back of your palate into your nasal passages, sometimes clearing your brain amazingly – is a good thing in older ports, it is a demonstration of age, and a desirable quality in well aged, wood-aged fortified wines such as port and madeira.  In young wines, and in almost any non-fortified table wine, it is a fault, but not in aged ports and madeiras.  The phrases varnish or nail varnish and turpentine (turps) can be other ways of describing this sensation.

Overall, every one of these wines was a treat.  The Dalva 1963 Golden White was my pick for something I might actually afford for myself one day for a very special occasion or friend (who will be expected to share!), and the Dalva 1934 Colheita was bliss.  Mellowness bottled.   The off-dry Dalva Lote Miguel Castra is now in my cupboard, and one afternoon soon I intend to settle into the kitchen to try my hand at various petiscos – the Portuguese starter plates rather like tapas – and experiment with taste sensations to pair with this unique port.

And, by the way – remember I said a professional judge usually, really has to, spit if they are going to keep going?  Well… I couldn’t help but notice that at C da Silva, Nicola neglected to spit all but one mouthful (and she promptly took another).  Guess the wines distracted her.

One thought on “Lesson in Wine Tasting: White Ports

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