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Event organizer Don Schliff heating Port tongs before applying to neck of bottles

Don Schliff, renowned collector of Vintage Ports and one of the founders of Wine Warehouse in Los Angeles, organized another historic Port tasting in February this year, featuring twelve Ports from the great 1945 vintage, accompanied by four top Ports from 1935 and two Ports from 1870 and 1880.  The wines for this exceptional and truly memorable tasting came directly from Don Schliff’s underground refrigerated cellar.  The provenance was perfect as most of the wines were acquired from England over the last 40+ years and the bottles have remained undisturbed since then.

All of the 1945 Ports were Oporto bottled as was the Sandeman 1935 and the others were English bottled.  All fill levels were base of neck or better.


Red hot Port tong arms

All Ports were opened by Don with Port tongs just prior to the tasting.  The high alcohol, elevated sugar levels, and convex neck result in gradual deterioration of corks in Vintage Port making their removal challenging.  The Portuguese arrived at the idea of applying circumferential, red hot iron to the bottle neck to heat it to several hundred degrees and then quickly applying a cloth soaked in ice water.  The abrupt temperature change produces an encircling fissure in the glass allowing the neck to be easily snapped off.

Don Schliff applying Port tongs to bottle neck

The event was held on February 11, 2018, at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles where nearly 40 Port enthusiasts flew in from all over the world for the tasting.  Santa Barbara wine connoisseur Blake Brown assisted Don in the event’s organization and presentation.  Special guests were  acclaimed wine critic James Suckling, Christian Seely, Director of Quinta do Noval, Darrell Corti, famed Port and Sherry expert and Tim Littler of Whitwham’s.  Throughout the tasting these gentlemen offered insightful observations on the stylistic differences of the individual wines and Vintage Port in general.  Other distinguished people in attendance included Martine Saunier, Bipin Desai, Hugh Symington, Edward Lazarus, Fred Brander, Richard Carlton Hacker, Manny and Willette Klausner, Robert Michero and Anthony Dias Blue.

The Genesis of the Port Tasting

Dress was formal attire in honor of Ardison Phillips, who along with Don, Roy Brady and Andrew Quady, set the standard for Vintage Port Tasting Luncheons held at Ardison’s Studio Grill in Hollywood.  In 1985 Ardison and Don organized a black tie vertical tasting of Taylor Vintage Port from 1908 to 1980.  In 1987 they did a vertical of Graham’s from 1927 to 1983.  In 1988 it was Fonseca from 1927 to 1985.  Some of the illustrious people who attended included Roy Brady, Andrew Quady, Bruce Guimaraens, Manny Klausner, Fred Brander and Dave Williams.   A tradition was started for an annual black tie Port luncheon between Christmas and New Year’s that continued until Ardison closed the restaurant.

This event was a sequel to many Vintage Port tastings that Don has done in the past. The first was a tasting of  1945 vintage Vintage Ports that Don organized in 1993 at the original Spago in Hollywood. It included a tasting of twelve 1945 Ports with Clive Coates and featured a menu crafted by Wolfgang Puck.  In 2007 Don presented a retrospective tasting of the 1955 vintage, with 15 shippers at the new Spago in Beverly Hills where Ardison Phillipps was the guest of honor (sadly, Ardison passed away in 2011). In February 2015, Don presented a tasting of eight top 1963s along with Quinta do Noval Nacional 1958, 1960, 1962, 1963 and the famous bottling of Quinta do Noval 1931 at the Hotel Bel-Air, food pairings created by Wolfgang Puck.  (to read about this fabulous event, including tasting notes, Vintage Port in general, Wolfgang Puck and more, please click here [1] http://www.undergroundwineletter.com/2015/06/don-schliffs-1963-vintage-port-tasting/) In February 2017, Don presented another unforgettable Vintage Port tasting featuring The Great 7’s: 1997, 1977, 1947, 1927 and 1867.

The first flight of this most recent event consisted of four Vintage Ports from 1935: Cockburn,  Sandeman, Graham’s and Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman.   The second flight comprised four Vintage Ports from 1945: Ramos-Pinto, Robertson’s Rebello Valente, Ferreira and Quinta do Noval.  The third flight of four 1945 Vintage Ports included Warre’s, Fonseca, Dow and Sandeman.   The fourth flight of four Vintage Ports from 1945 offered Croft, Graham’s, Niepoort and Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman. The last flight of two mystery Ports came from 1870 and 1880


Port Tasting Notes

(Tasting notes are from Underground Contributing Editors  Christine Graham and Edward Lazarus as well as Robert Michero, Vice President, Riboli Family Wine Estates)

Founded in 1815 in Oporto by Robert Cockburn, in 1854 two brothers joined the firm, which was renamed to Cockburn & Smithes.  In 1863 the Cobb family joined the company, with all three families playing key roles in the firm’s development.  There were various changes in ownership, Harveys in 1962 by Allied-Lyons, later Allied-Domecq.  In 2005 Pernod Ricard assumed control, selling the Port House to Beam Inc.  In 2006 the Symington family took over all the vineyards and lodges and the brand name in 2010.
1935 Cockburn Vintage Port
Pale, mature ruby color, faint nose of plum, berries, cherries, spice, mint and currants with faint medicinal tone.  It is medium bodied, mellow, sweet, mature but with some complexity, soft raisiny, maple-tinged fruit, finish a bit alcoholic and hot – Very Good.

One of the oldest names in Port, it was established in 1588 when Henry Thompson joined Merchants Co. of York, then set up a business trading in wine.  It became a Port house in 1678.  Acquired by Gilbey’s in 1911, it was subsequently bought by IDV in 1952 and since 2001, has been owned and operated by the Fladgate Partnership (Yeatman, Fladgate, Fonseca).
1945 Croft Vintage Port
Lovely mature ruby color, with a nice, clean, fresh aroma of violet, coffee, tea, cinnamon and licorice.  Flavors of toffee, chocolate, coffee, cherry, cranberry, spice and licorice are complex, elegant, full-bodied, with a long, slightly sweet, alcoholic finish – Very Good.

Dow was founded in 1798 by Port merchant Bruno da Silva, then joined by Cosens of London, followed by James Dow in 1877.  By 1893 it was one of the largest Port wine shipping houses in Oporto.  The firm is now managed by the Symington family which first took a share in 1912.
1945 Dow Vintage Port
Mature ruby color, nose of raisin, licorice, dark berries, strawberries, cinnamon and cherries.  Similar flavors, surprisingly sweet as Dow is usually more dry, it is complex, full-bodied, balanced, deep and rich, with a long, dry, delicious finish – Outstanding.

Founded in 1751 by A.A. Ferreira, a family of wine growers in the Douro Valley, it was the first Port Wine company.  Manuel Ferreira was followed by his grandchildren, then by Dona Antonia Ferreira, grande dame of the Douro in the latter half of the 19th century, important in Douro viticulture and in creating new production facilities, building of roads, construction of hospitals and schools.  In 1988 Sogrape , who pioneered the vinha ao alto or vertical system of planting, acquired the firm.
1945 Ferreira Vintage Port
Light ruby color, faint cherry and spice nose.  Flavors of cherry, spicy black fruit, coffee, butterscotch and caramel are soft, round, rich, mellow and sweet, with a long, delicious finish.  A favorite of Darrell Corti for its classic English style – Outstanding.

Darrell Corti and Christian Seely

In the 1700s the Brazilian Fonseca family was operating in Oporto but the present firm was not formally founded until 1822 when the Guimaraens family acquired control through purchase of the Fonseca holdings.  In 1862 it was named the House of Guimaraens.  In 1948, ownership of Fonseca Guimaraens was consolidated with Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman.  The firm is noted for its consistency of style through the years.
1945 Fonseca Vintage Port
Lovely mature ruby color, it has a complex, fresh and attractive nose of coffee, raisin, tea, cherry, caramel and spice.  Multi dimensional flavors of plums, cherries, creme caramel, spice and vanilla, it is concentrated, full-bodied, mature, complex, with a well-balanced, expansive, spice-tinged finish – Outstanding.

Founded in 1820 by a textile firm of W & J Graham, with its roots in Glasgow, Scotland, eventually its reputation grew as shippers of fine Port.  In 1882, the Symington Family joined the firm and gained complete control in 1970.  Their property Quinta dos Malvedos is one of the most famous vineyards in the Douro.
1935 Graham’s Vintage Port
Slightly darker ruby color, with a rich aroma of plum, licorice, cherry, coffee and cacao. It is full-bodied, complex, elegant and mature, taste of caramel, plum, cherry syrup.   Wonderfully aged fruit, showing well, nicely balanced, complex, fresh and intense, finishing long.  A favorite of James Suckling – Very Good Plus.
1945 Graham’s Vintage Port
Mature ruby color, it has a slightly odd note in the aroma that blows off to show cinnamon, prune, cherry, plum and ginger.  Full-bodied, it shows similar flavors with some sweetness, mature, past its peak – Very Good.

Founded in 1842 by Eduard Kebe, the small Dutch company added F.M. van de Niepoort as partner in 1847.  In 1858, Niepoort became sole owner, managed for 20 years by Dirk Niepoort, fifth generation in the family.
1945 Niepoort Vintage Port
Ruby color, with violet hue, the nose shows sweet, juicy fruit, blackberry, butterscotch, caramel, chocolate and cherry.  Similar flavors are sweet with great appeal, wonderful balance, lovely and finesseful, finishing long – Outstanding.

Quinta do Noval
While founded in 1813 by A.J. da Silva, the first notes of the vineyard Quinta do Noval appeared in 1715.  In 1862 the firm was sold to Rebello Valente, back to da Silva in 1894, then to the Van Zeller family in 1963.  The name was changed from da Silva to the name of the famous vineyard Quinta do Noval in 1973.  AXA Millesimes acquired the firm in 1993, with Christian Seely managing it since then.  Nacional is the legendary 2.5 ha vineyard around the house.
1945 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port
Darker mature ruby color, with rich, complex aromas of cherry, oranges, cacao, dark chocolate, coffee, ginger, spice and plum.  Flavors resemble the  nose, with a burnt character, and  sweet maple notes. It is dense, finesseful, warm, full-bodied, balanced, precise, silky and seamless with a long finish.  A stunning wine with great personality from this Port powerhouse – Outstanding Plus.

Founded in 1880 by Adriano Ramos-Pinto and his brother Antonio, they did not start making Vintage Port until 1917.  Champagne Louis Roederer Group became majority shareholder since 1990.
1945 Ramos-Pinto Vintage Port
Nice, mature ruby hue, the nose is slightly minty, with creme caramel, licorice, coffee, cacao and burned candy.  Medium bodied, it is mature, at a peak, sweet, balanced, complex, with soft cherry, berry, cinnamon and plum flavors, edged with mint, finish a bit harsh – Very Good.

Robertson’s Rebello Valente
Founded in 1847 by Robertson Brothers, in 1881 it was bought by Rebello Valente and started shipping Port.  The firm was acquired in 1953 by Sandeman and then by Seagram in 1979.
1945 Robertson’s Rebello Valente Vintage Port
Light ruby color, it has a slight plum nose and flavor. Notes of cherry, licorice, violets and spice are sweet with silky tannins and a hot finish – Very Good.

Established in 1790 in London by George Sandeman, the firm was family-owned until 1979 when it was acquired by Seagram.  Sogrape bought the firm in 2002.
1935 Sandeman Vintage Port
with a stencilled purple wax seal commemorating the Royal Silver Jubilee for George V and Queen Mary.  First two bottles were corked.  Third bottle showed a pale ruby color, minty nose.  The sweet taste offered burned sugar, dark cherry and chocolate, ending in a shortish slightly hot finish – Good.
1945 Sandeman Vintage Port
Pale ruby color, the nose offers violet, creme caramel, cacao, ginger, berries and nuts.  Full-bodied, sweet cherry fruit, is focused, concentrated, with a silky mouthfeel, complex, elegant, mature, at a peak, ending in a long, delicious finish – Outstanding.

Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman
Established in 1692, the firm experienced many name changes from Bearsley in England to Taylor in 1816, then Taylor, Fladgate in 1837, followed by Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman in 1844.  This was the first British shipper to buy property in the Douro in 1744 in order to produce the wine themselves.  Their crown property is Quinta de Vargellas.
1935 Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman Vintage Port
Darker, mature pale ruby color, rich, sweet plum, cherry, vanilla, coffee, currant and cacao aromas and flavors.  Wonderfully balanced, still solid, beautiful mouth feel, rich, complex, intense, ending in a long and lovely finish.  Mature, at a peak – Very Good.
1945 Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman Vintage Port
Dark ruby color, nose initially closed but opens to offer cedar, raisin, almond, coffee, cacao and cherry.  Full-bodied, mature, at a peak, concentrated, complex, balanced and muscular.  It has great flavors of cherry, butterscotch, vanilla, licorice and caramel.  It has the great Taylor backbone ending in a long, harmonious, elegant finish – Outstanding Plus.

Established in 1670, it is the oldest Port house, and has continued to be a major force since then.  It is the first and oldest British firm in Portugal and a pioneer in the Port trade.  Originally known as Burgoyne & Jackson, in 1729 the first member of the Warre family arrived in Oporto.  In 1905 the Symington family joined the firm which had been family controlled and run by the Warres for over three centuries.  Symington became sole owner in 1908 and the company is now run by the 4th generation of the family.
1945 Warre’s Vintage Port
Pale ruby color, it reveals aromas and tastes of violet, cherry, cranberries, spicy dark fruit, maple and is slightly medicinal.  The fruit is faint but fresh, full-bodied, balanced, with round tannins – Very Good.

Old Mystery Vintage Port Tregnum
A tregnum is a special sized Port bottle, the next step up from a magnum, containing 2.25 litres (3 regular bottles).  Wine was made by an unknown Port house for Whitwhams & Co.  The vintage of 1870 was considered classic.
1870 Vintage Port
Light amber color, with a Sherry-like color, aromas and flavors of dried fruit, cherry, flowers.  Sweet, mature,  medicinal, still has some life, but dry, and complex.

Old Mystery Wood Port
Bottled by Dirk Niepoort, who refreshed the Port by adding 4-5% of the Niepoort 1945 Colheita.  The vintage of 1880 was considered good.
1880 Whitwhams Millennium Port
Darker color with Sherry-like notes, nuts, caramel, cinnamon, plum and cherry aromas and tastes.  Balanced, flavorful, healthy fruit, mature but very attractive.


James Suckling’s Notes on the Vintages

Notes on the vintages of 1935 and 1945 were provided by James Suckling from The Wine Spectator’s Vintage Port published in 1990.  Both vintages were deemed to be Classic, with the 1935 scoring 95 and the 1945 rating 98.  The 1935 Vintage Ports are aromatic, refined and firmly structured, possessing a striking harmony, with well-integrated fruit and tannins.  The 1945 Vintage Ports are youthful, concentrated, 0f superlative quality, magnificent wines, superb, packed to the brim with concentrated sweet fruit flavors and fine tannins.

Don Schliff’s Vintage Port tasting was a superb, unforgettable event, proof once again that Vintage Port is one of the greatest wines produced in the world.