According to rock god Neil Young, rust never sleeps. Well neither does a great old vintage Port, like the Ferreira 1963 I have been sharing since procuring a stash from the dank cellar of a Nobel laureate in the Cape’s deep South.
Ever since my interest in Port began, the vintage of 1963 has been revered as the best ever. That was the year of the late bud-break in the Douro’s Cima Corgo region. A fresh wet breeze wafted through the valley in late July and early August, arresting the rush of the grapes’ sugars and cooling the slate soils that are known to bake the bunches from below. A full moon during harvest caused harmonious balance as the wines were fermenting in the lagares, and the old theory of a late sardine run along the coast of Portugal implying an exceptional wine vintage held true.
The only other 1963 I had previously managed to experience, was a colheita from Kopke. But after relieving the previous owner of his stash of Ferreira I was champing at the chorizo to put this down the hatch.
I recently took one bottle of this rare item to a gathering of the Wine Swines, the most famous male-only wine-tasting fraternity in South Africa to see how the Ferreira would stand-up to the scrutiny of such talented and experienced palates. And it turned out to be the most excitement the Wine Swines members had had since Dr Dixon Frugelvinger announced he was offering free prostate examinations for the month of September.
The Ferreira bottle was old and crusty, yet – unlike most of the Swines – showing no signs of leakage. Joaquim Sá, host of that month’s gathering, proved his skill as a cork aficionado by deftly removing the stopper that had been gently inserted onto the bottle 53 years ago. When this wine was made, Port was still being shipped in casks from the quintas to the storage cellars in Gaia by way of the rabelo boats on a treacherous journey down the Douro. Disaster often struck: boats keeled over causing crew-members to drown and, horror-of-horrors, casks of wine to be lost.
The before us wine was decanted, and the first thing that hit me was its angelic amber hue. For the first 20 years after being bottled, it would have been black-purple. Inky and concentrated and fiercely dense. But after two decades, the Port starts to lighten up. Forty years old and, as a bottle of Warre’s 1977 recently showed, it is the colour of darkish rosé. But then the sun rises inside the bottle, the colour changes to a golden hue pretty much reflecting the colour of the Douro at sunset.
On the nose I found hints of turmeric and wild honey, complemented by a slight aroma of cured tobacco leaf. It was all remarkably fresh and lively, dancing in the glass in an almost teasing, flirtatious kind of way. As if to say, “now you’ve found me, Ferreira 1963, what are you going to do with me?”
Sip, that’s what. I gathered a big generous mouthful, and this was something quite remarkable, unlike any Port moment ever to have befallen me.
There was lightness to the liquid. A texture of linen thread and distilled Angel’s sweat and dew drops on the fruit in a Gauguin painting. Flavours were, as could be expected, challenging to nail down so astonishing were their complexity.
It was Port, so obviously there was sweetness. A head dried peach lying on double-boiled apricot preserve. Between that I tasted flowers, dried with the sugary nectar powder lying on the parched petals. The complexity of it all was captivating. For through the confection lay citrusy layers, proving that what had made the 1963 so awesome was the acid retention. It was an ode to life. Some nuttiness gave the wine grip and weight, with every mouthful finishing as gentle yet arresting as a tickle from a male peacock feather.
We were all speechless, looking at the empty bottle with a sense of wonder only eclipsed by the immense gratitude. No rust, no sleep.
- Emile Joubert