- The Underground Wine Letter - http://www.undergroundwineletter.com -


By Christine Graham

Don Schliff, renowned Port collector and one of the founders of Wine Warehouse, the famous wholesalers headquartered in Los Angeles, organized another historic Port tasting in February 2020, featuring Decades of Port 1834 to 2017. The wines for this spectacular tasting came directly from Don Schliff’s underground refrigerated cellar. Most of the wines were acquired from England over the last 40+ years and the bottles have lain undisturbed since then. The provenance was perfect!

The Ports are English bottled except for the 1958 Ferreira, 1955 MacKenzie, 1927 Niepoort, and 1945 Taylor, which were Oporto bottled. All fill levels were base of the neck or better. Most of the Ports were opened by Don with Port tongs just before the tasting.

The high alcohol, elevated sugar levels, convex neck, and gradual deterioration of corks in vintage Port make their removal challenging when using a traditional corkscrew. Long ago aficionados dispensed with cork removal and decided to open the bottle by breaking its neck below the level of the cork. However, unlike the showy French who snap off the tops of large Champagne bottles with sabers, the Portuguese came up with the idea of applying a circumferential, red hot iron to the bottleneck 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 that allows the neck to be easily snapped off.

The event was held on February 2, 2020, at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles where 42 Port enthusiasts flew in from all over the world for the tasting.   Special guests were Christian Seely of Quinta do Noval, Author Richard Mayson, Darrell Corti, famed Port and Sherry expert, Hugh Symington, Daniel Niepoort, and Roy Hersh.  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  Bipin Desai, Manny and Willette Klausner, Robert Michero, Cary Feibleman, Martine Saunier, Richard Torin, Ken Frank, Anthony Dias Blue, Andrew Quady, Lambert Jemley, Peter Mahan and Andrea Scuto.

This extraordinary tasting was accompanied by an outstanding luncheon prepared by the Hotel Bel-Air’s restaurant Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air.  Famed chef Wolfgang Puck’s renowned cuisine perfectly complemented the Ports.

Red hot Port tong arms


      The Genesis of the Port Tasting

The 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 event, please click here [1]).  In February 2017, Don presented another unforgettable Vintage Port tasting featuring The Great 7’s: 1997, 1977, 1947, 1927 and 1867. Don presented a Vintage Port tasting in February 2018, featuring four top 1935s and twelve 1945s. In November 2018,  Don presented a tasting featuring five different bottlings of the 1931 Quinta do Noval plus 1945 to 2016.  In February 2019, Don presented a tasting surveying 100 years of Taylor Fladgate from 1890 to 2016 (to read about this event, please click here [2]).  The first flight of this most recent event consisted of six Vintage Ports and a Madeira: 1834 and 1844 both Shipper Unknown, 1851 Warre, 1858 Ferreira, 1868 and 1870 Sandeman and Cossart Gordon Solera 1844 Bual Madeira. The second flight comprised four Vintage Ports: 1887 Shipper Unknown, 1908 Sandeman, 1912 Cockburn and 1927 Niepoort. The third flight consisted of 1931 Quinta do Noval, 1945 Taylor, a 1963 Fonseca, 1955 Mackenzie, and 1970 Graham. The fourth flight included 1983 Cockburn, 1994 Taylor Fladgate, 2000 Quinta do Noval and Quinta do Noval Nacional from 2000 and 2011. The fifth flight consisted of 2017 Quinta do Noval Nacional, 2017 Niepoort and Niepoort’s Garrafeira 1987. There was also a mystery Port, the 1863 Niepoort Garrafeira.


Conceiving and executing a multi-course meal for a Port tasting is almost as difficult as doing one for Sauternes.  Both share the quality of extreme sweetness, but one is made from botrytized raisined white grapes, while the other is a sweet red wine whose alcohol level is supplemented with brandy to the 18-20% range.  So Port, in addition to sweetness, has the heat of alcohol for the cook to contend with.

The classical accompaniment for Port is Stilton cheese and freshly cracked walnuts.  Some cultures like spiced savories with the wine.  Our editor, John Tilson, likes popcorn.  The common feature of all three groupings is salt and umami.


The meal began with a variety of Hors d’Oeuvres: Pumpernickel Blini with Osetra Caviar; Crispy Air Pocket with Jamon Iberico, Black Garlic; Spicy Big Eye Tuna Cone, Daikon, Pickled Ginger Aioli; Prime Beef Short Rib, Hanson Mills Heirloom Grits,  accompanied by Champagne Krug Grand Cuvee 160eme Edition in Jeroboams

The Five Course Tasting Luncheon:

Foie de Poulet
Preserves, Frisée, Heirloom Radish, Brown Butter Brioche
Shipper Unknown 1834, Shipper Unknown 1844, Cossart Gordon Solera 1844 Bual Madeira, Warre’s 1851, Ferreira’s 1858, Sandeman 1868 and 1870

Pan-Seared European Sole
Jerusalem Artichokes, Butternut Squash Puree, Port Wine-Ginger Sauce
Shipper Unknown 1887, Sandeman 1908, Cockburn’s 1912,
Niepoort’s 1927

Cast Iron Roasted Squab
Blood Orange, Heirloom Golden Sweet Potato, Liver Sauce
Quinta do Noval 1931, Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman 1945, Mackenzie’s 1955,
Fonseca’s 1963, Graham’s 1970

Champagne Break
Champagne Jacquart Brut Mosaic – Magnums

Whole Roasted Marcho Farms Veal “Orloff”
Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Roquefort Mornay, French Truffles
Cockburn’s 1983, Taylor Fladgate 1994, Quinta do Noval 2000,
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2000 and 2011

De L’Opera Chocolate & Honey Roasted Pear
Comté Cheese Crisp, Dark Chocolate Textures
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2017, Niepoort’s 2017, Niepoort’s Garrafeira 1987, Mystery Port


Port Producers

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.

Founded in 1751 by A.A. Ferreira, a family of winegrowers in the Douro Valley, it was the first Port Wine company.  Manuel Ferreira was followed by his grandchildren, then by Dona Antonia Ferreira, the grande dame of the Douro in the latter half of the 19th century, important in Douro viticulture and in creating new production facilities, the 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.

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 the 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.

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.

Founded in 1852 by Kenneth Mackenzie, a Sherry shipper from Cadiz, it joined with Driscoll & Co. in 1870.  The Port production of the Sherry house started during the 19th century but after WWII, the house was sold to J.H. Andresen.  In 1970 Andersen sold Mackenzie to Harvey in Bristol.  Their last known Port was the 1982 vintage.

Founded in 1842 by Eduard Kebe, the small Dutch company added F.M. van de Niepoort as a  partner in 1847.  In 1858, Niepoort became sole owner, managed for 20 years by Dirk Niepoort, the fifth generation in the family.

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.

Quinta do Noval Nacional
Nacional, the prestige Port of Quinta do Noval,  is the legendary 2.5 ha vineyard around the house.  Spared from the ravages of phylloxera in the last century, the precious, ungrafted vines produce the legendary Nacional in exceptional years, at least since 1931.  Nacional is always exceptional and different from the regular bottling.

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.

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.  Taylor Ports are noted for
their firm alcohol content.

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.

  Darrell Corti

  Port Tasting Notes

(Tasting notes are from Underground Contributing Editors  Christine Graham, Ronald Brown and Dr. Cary Feibleman, Robert Michero, Vice President, Riboli Family Wine Estates and Andrea Scuto, General Manager at Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood.

Flight 1

1834 Shipper Unknown
Dark amber color, faint aroma of dried fruit and spice, with similar delicate flavors, hinting of sweet cherries and peppery spice.  It is surprisingly good, still alive and fresh, good balance, with a light body, and a lingering finish.  Very nice, especially given its age. Very Good Plus.

1844 Shipper Unknown
Dark amber color, subtle nose of toffee, spice and caramel. Similar delicate flavors, bit sweet and hot.  Still alive and fresh. Similar to 1834, faintly sweet, but a bit fuller with more body, also very nice and enjoyable, especially given its age. Very Good Plus..

1844 Cossart Gordon Solera Bual Madeira
Amber color, aroma of caramel, dried fruit and toast, with a fresh quality.  Similar flavors, with excellent fruit and a dried orange peel note on a  medium-long, dry finish.  Very Good Plus.

1851 Warre’s Vintage Port
Brick red color, aromas and flavors of chocolate, dried fruit, mineral, spice and hint of paint varnish, bit sweet, short, spice and plum finish. Good.

1858  Ferreira Vintage Port (Oporto Bottled)
Amber color, aromas and flavors dried fruit, smoke, menthol, spice, bit sweet, tropical character, good body, medium-long finish. Very Good.

1868 Sandeman Vintage Port (Believed)
Medium amber color, subtle aroma of caramel, dried and fresh fruit, spice, raisin.  Similar flavors, with hint of walnuts, earthy note, short spirity finish.  Very Good.

1870 Sandeman Vintage Port
Pale rose color, dried fruit in nose and on palate, hint of almonds, bit sweet, faint mustiness, delicate, medium-long plummy finish.  Very Good.

Anthony Dias Blue and Peter Mahan

Flight 2

1887 Shipper Unknown
Celebrated Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Pale amber color, aromas and flavors of faint caramel, dried cherry and plum fruit, spice, a tawny quality, medium finish. Very Good.

1908 Sandeman Vintage Port
Medium amber color, aroma of menthol and flowers.  Similar flavors with faintly medicinal cherry fruit and light caramel tones, some tannins, balanced, lingering appealing fruity finish.  Very Good Plus.

1912 Cockburn Vintage Port
Medium dark amber color, lovely subtle aroma of flowers, berries, spice, pepper, coffee, light mint, plum and herbal character.  Similar flavors. Still youthful, showing freshness and richness, with nice fruit and some tannin, medium, slightly medicinal finish. Amazing 108-year-old wine. Outstanding.

1927 Niepoort Vintage Port (Oporto Bottled)
Dark red color, lovely, faintly tropical aromas and flavors of sweet fruit, caramel, cherry, plum and maple. It has good body, richness, complexity and intensity with delicious fruit, extending through the long finish. Evolving slowly, it is not yet at a peak. Outstanding Plus.

Flight 3

1931 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port (UK bottled by Fearon, Block, Bridges & Routh)
Dark ruby color with amber rim, lovely bouquet of soft, dried fruit, caramel, note of oak. Similar flavors showing delicate sweetness, coffee, dark chocolate, herbs, nuts and spice.  It is fresh, elegant, balanced, concentrated, youthful and long, with lots of life left.  Outstanding Plus.

1945 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port (Oporto Bottled)
Dark ruby color, aromas and flavors of dark chocolate, cedar, raisin, almond, coffee, cacao and cherry.  Full-bodied, mature, complex, balanced, dense, powerful yet elegant.  It has the great Taylor backbone ending in a very long, harmonious, elegant finish. Extraordinary.

1955 Mackenzie’s Vintage Port (Oporto Bottled)
Ruby amber in color, with a delicate bouquet of  lovely fresh and dried fruit, dark chocolate.  Similar flavors hinting of berries, mint, ginger, herbs and spice are balanced and complex, with some tannin ending in a very long, full, expressive finish.  Outstanding Plus.

1963 Fonseca Vintage Port
Light ruby amber color, it has a nose of delicate, dried fruit, spice, and nuts. Similar flavors are clean, with caramel, licorice, delicate berries and some tannin. It is a soft, complex, elegant wine, with a lingering finish of sweet, spicy fruit and a noticeable alcoholic note. Very Good Plus.

1970 Graham’s Vintage Port
Medium dark amber, with a slightly closed nose. It has a palate of sweet berries, pepper, chocolate, spice, flowers, licorice and a faint herbal note.  It is elegant, complex, balanced, rich, and tannic with a lovely, rich, very long, plummy finish.  Extraordinary.

Martine Saunier, Ron Brown and Don Schliff

Flight 4

1983 Cockburn Vintage Port
Dark ruby color, aromatic with red fruit, spice and nuts. Similar full flavors, with sweet berries, chocolate, plums, a medicinal note and soft, light tannins. The lingering finish is a bit spirity.  Very Good.

1994 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port
Dark ruby color, subtle aroma of dried and fresh fruit. On the palate are berries, cherries, spice, caramel, nuts, herbs and soft tannins. It is fresh, balanced, elegant and complex. Give it time, should really enhance in quality. Outstanding to Outstanding Plus.

2000 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port
Dark ruby color, with an elusive nose.  A palate of sweet berries and cherries, flowers, mineral and caramel is still a bit reserved.  It is complex, spicy, fresh, harmonious and balanced, with big tannins and a very long finish. Give it time. Very Good Plus.

2000 Quinta do Noval Nacional Vintage Port
Deep ruby color, a big wine with concentrated black cherry fruit in nose and mouth, it is still a bit reserved. It is complex, spicy, fresh, harmonious, balanced and intense, with firm tannins, and a very long finish.  It needs a lot of time, should be amazing.  Extraordinary.

2011 Quinta do Noval Nacional Vintage Port
Deep ruby color, rich and concentrated aromas and flavors of licorice, berries. cherries and dark chocolate.  Still very young, needing lots of time, it is balanced, harmonious, rich, deep, intense, fresh and long, predicting a great future. Extraordinary.

Flight 5

2017 Quinta do Noval Nacional Vintage Port
Very dark ruby, with a beautiful aroma of expressive berry fruit.  Similar flavors of mixed berries, nuts, spice, flowers and coffee are exotic, full, rich and concentrated, with firm tannins, and a long, powerful finish.  Very young, needing lots of time, it has a great future.  Extraordinary.

2017 Niepoort Vintage Port
Very dark ruby, almost black, offering aromas and flavors loaded with dark berries, cherries, plums, cacao, spice, cassis and mint. It is big, dense, vibrant, youthful, balanced, with some tannins,  and a long, slightly spirity finish.  Give it time.  Outstanding Plus.

1987 Niepoort Garrafeira
(Garrafeira, private cellar or reserve, is a Port from a single year aged for a short time in wood, followed by a longer period spent in glass demijohns, decanted of its sediment and then rebottled in conventional bottles.)
Medium ruby with amber rim, it opens with a tawny character on the nose. The palate is similar, becoming smooth, soft, spicy and warm, with a mature character, a note of alcohol and some tannin.  The lingering finish hints of medicinal cherry.  Outstanding.

Mystery Port
1863 Niepoort Garrafeira Vintage Port
Daniel Niepoort, sixth generation of the Niepoort family, said the wine was set aside by the founding father of the firm as a tawny then transferred to glass demi-johns around the turn of the 20th century.  Medium color with a light greenish tint, it has a rich nose of coffee, nuts and sweet fruit that carries over to the palate.  It is intense, sweet, round and concentrated, with some acidity, resembling old Madeira, offering fresh scents, tastes and finish.  Extraordinary.

Sommelier Rachel Macalisang

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