Drinking the 1855: An Adventure With Port

Jeremy Baile / Courtesy Fladgate Partnership

There’s a rule of thumb that wines, being “alive,” enjoy the same longevity as human beings. Most wines drunk today are about four years old, making them—according to this rule—the equivalent of snotty toddlers. Twenty years makes them supple and sexually appealing; 40 brings them to the edge of autumnal ripeness. The oldest red wine I have drunk was a series of early 1950s Penfold’s Grange sipped during a ghastly re-corking clinic in New York. Wall Street investors had brought in their bottles of 1950 and had them tested and topped up to make sure the wine they misspent thousands of dollars on had not turned to acetic acid. The wine itself was intact, but rather like the sturdy, nondescript moneymen who had owned it for the wrong reasons. Fifty-five and still puffing.

Those who drink too much and too well sometimes find their thoughts turning to the outer extremes of aging, much as the jaded voluptuary might start wondering about lovers over 75: do they offer something different, more rarified, more horrifyingly beautiful?

Wines can reach about 80 and then they start getting dodgy. The 1929 Bordeaux is famous, but we are surely reaching the point when those wines’ pedigreed molecules are beginning to break down, the fine lines of their once-magnificent muscles beginning to slacken and sag. Sad realities of all biological life. Up to a point, a wine—like a human—can balance the ripening of the heart and mind against the decay of the body. There is a long twilight zone in middle age, alas, where one seesaws between attractiveness and decrepitude, with odd days when the two things are in steadfast, nightmarish balance. So with wines.

But fortified wines—Madeiras, ports, sherries, etc.—throw this paradigm awry. They are among the few organic products that actually live longer than the humans who made them. In this respect they are like honey, whose longevity is mysterious. It has been anecdotally reported that honey found in ancient Egyptian tombs was still edible. Could port also last 4,000 years?

So we come to a winter night in New York when the ancient Porto firm of Taylor Fladgate offered to a long table of collectors and wine ignoramuses like myself a chance to drink the oldest port they had ever put on the market: an 1855 vintage derived from two barrels that had been forgotten for a century and a half in the private cellar of a local family in Porto. Renamed and rebranded as Scion, a limited edition sold in crystal flagons and 19th-century-style boxes for a cool $3,500, it has become one of those wines that compels you to search it out before a mere 2,000 bottles disappear down the gullets of the rich. I was apprehensive.

Years ago I attended an “1847” dinner, in honor of a bottle of Madeira from that year. Each guest had to bring an 1847 object with him, as well as wearing some idiotic piece of 1847 clothing. I put on a moth-eaten velvet waistcoat and brought a turtle from Chinatown, which I butchered and cooked in a big pot according to an 1847 recipe. All went well until the Madeira was brought out. It was like drinking liquid LSD. All I remember of that evening, which was supposed to be so civilized and so finely conscious of the past, was dancing on the table to Jimi Hendrix with my pants down and swinging a flagon in one hand. Happy days. But you can’t do that at Aldea on Manhattan’s West 17th Street. Instead, it’s Portuguese nouveau cuisine and serious attention to the contents of the glass. It’s a shame, somehow. Some things should be drunk on the QE2 or in a Naples bordello.

The collectors brought some enviable bottles for dinner, including a magnificent Imperiale 1964, a Rioja to drink on your death bed. But the port finale was what we were there for. In a society that hates and disrespects the old, it is curious that we fetishize certain old things, and one might wonder why port is one of those things. Perhaps it’s the laws of condensation. In barrel, 3 percent of a port evaporates every year and over decades it will take the equivalent of four bottles of juice to produce one bottle of 40-year-old Tawny. Moreover, in the instance of Scion no one knows how those two barrels made it through from the same decade in which Flaubert was writing Madame Bovary. A freak accident. The barrels were not sold and soon they had become too old, too valuable, to sell. So it went on decade after decade until they had outlasted the family itself. Adrian Bridge, Taylor Fladgate’s managing director, who was present at our dinner, admitted that he had never seen anything like it in Porto and probably never would again.

“Ten miles further up the valley where it was made it would probably not have survived because of the slightly greater heat. As it was, that spot was cool enough to slow down the evaporation and enable it to survive. It’s a true aberration.”

It’s interesting to drink a 10-year first, then a 20-year Tawny, because you clearly see how the color of port fades even within 10 years. It leaches out into the wood of the barrel. So a 30-year will have a delicate, pale, olive-green edge, while a younger one will retain its youthful strawberry rubescence. But as far as color was concerned, the 1855 had gone into reverse aging. It had been so long in the barrel that the color had actually leached back into the wine. This gave it a dark, smoldering, red-brown hue that was as vibrantly warm as the nose itself. So it was still alive, and yet this was a pre-phylloxera wine, a living fossil of a viticulture that has since disappeared. Concentrated over 15 decades, it was so condensed, so tightly packed, that its immense fragility did not make it seem weak or broken down. Its fruit and acid were in equipoise. It was not cloyingly sweet; it was dry and fresh and alive without being youthful: a perfect wine because its incredible age was its primordial quality.

I also had what could be called an 1855 hangover, though I am not sure that hangover is the right word. It was more like a chemical change induced by having living particles of the mid-19th century inside me for 24 hours. It felt like a melancholy slowness inside the mind, a dumb lingering sweetness of some kind, and I sat around the following day and did nothing but stare at the moldings on my decaying ceiling. When I lay down, my head throbbed and I was unable to think about events in Cairo or the price of oil. I didn’t care. For a day and night I was living in another year—the year the first bridge opened over the Mississippi, the year The Daily Telegraph was founded and David Livingstone first saw Victoria Falls. What lovers we’d make if we lived to be 160.

Osborne is the author of, most recently, Bangkok Days.