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Friday, October 30 Front Page >> Random Rants >> A Mini Review of BC Port-Style Wines

Mar 20, 2005, 1:10am

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In the last couple of years, I've become a bit of a Port Connoisseur (read: snob), with a collection of vintage and tawny ports numbering in the dozens now, and my oldest bottles are 1963 and 1967 vintages. A while back, I attended a "tasting" of BC "Port" style fortified wines at Sip Wines in Richmond. I've had the opportunity now to evaluate them all, and I decided to do a mini review here.

As far as I know, there are currently only four "port style" fortified wines in BC. Pictured are three of the four types: Sumac Ridge Vintage Pipe (1999 Vintage); Sonata Desert Wine by Calona Vineyards (2002 Vintage); And Wild Goose Vineyards Tawny Pipe (2002 Vintage). The fourth I've tried is Quail's Gate Vineyards Vintage Foch, (2001 Vintage).

These wines are often difficult to come by and the BC Liquor Stores don't stock them all. But some specialty shops, including Sip Wines in Richmond, BC, do have them.

Here's my thoughts on each of the port style wines. Keep in mind, my evaluation is based on my love for authentic, true Portuguese Port wines, be them vintages, late bottled vintages, or tawnys. So if I'm a bit harsh on some of these dessert wines, that's the main reason why. I've reviewed them in order of preference, from least to most desirable.

Quail's Gate Vintage Foch (2001 Vintage)

This was definitely my least favourite. It's not really made in the traditional port method; instead, they rely on Foch grapes and use a stalling method for fortification. When I tasted this at Sip Wines, the first impact I got was "alcohol", and the second was "medicinal". I tried three glasses from three different bottles, and just didn't like it. It was the only one of the four I didn't buy.

Rating: 2 out of 10.

Sonata Red Dessert Wine, Calona Vineyards, 2002 Vintage

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It will be interesting to revisit this wine in a five or ten years.

I didn't like this one much more than the Vintage Foch, but I bought a bottle anyway. Here's why.

In the tasting, again the first taste I got out of the glass was "alcohol". Mediciny alcohol. But it was much more subtle than the Foch, and I was very curious as to how it would taste slightly chilled. Often "alcoholy" wines or beers taste better or more rounded when they are a bit cooler than room temperature. So I brought a bottle home, and decided to give it a chance chilled. If I had to rate it as a room temperature dessert wine, I'd give it a 3 out of 10.

I don't quite remember the process they used to produce this fortified wine, but I think it is made in the traditional port method of adding spirits (usually brandy which is distilled wine) to halt fermentation and leave the wine sweet. This and my fave pick (Sumac Ridge Vintage Pipe) are made in this fashion.

A note on the colour. It's a ruby glassiness that is crystal clear easy to see through in small volumes. It doesn't have the dullness of a typical red wine - it sparkles in light.

The nose when cold is very muted. I have a glass of about 9C Sonata in front of me right now, and no amount of swirling brings out too many flavours. Probably the strongest nose item is cherry, but it's very muted.

Taste... well, chilling doesn't help it much. Here's the best way I can describe the taste... ever make wine at home with one of those very cheap 28 day kits? Ever taste the fermenting wine before fermentation is done, say 24 hours in? This is kind of like what it tastes like - chemically, alcoholy, but sweet still.

To be fair, I'm going to guess that this wine needs a LOT of years to age and refine itself. I am by no means a wine expert or someone who knows how flavours will mellow, round out or age gracefully, but my guess is this Sonata will taste a helluva lot better 10 years from now.

But for now, it tastes young, chemicals-like, sweet, and still too much alcohol notes. I barely get any fruit or spices or chocolate or any of the other intense and complex flavours I typically get out of a good port wine (port style or authentic).

Rating: 3 out of 10. Buy it and store, and roll the dice that in 10 years it'll kick ass.

Wild Goose Vineyards Tawny Pipe, 2002 Vintage

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Wild Goose
Still too much alcohol taste, but finish is amazing.

I believe this name will change starting with the 2003 or 2004, as a courtesy to Sumac Ridge, who have been using the name "Pipe" for their port-style wines for a decade or longer now.

This port style wine is made using a continual sugar-addition fermentation method - the vintner continually adds a sugar source to the wine as it ferments, to boost up the alcohol content and sweetness. When I first heard this, my hopes weren't too high on how it would taste. I also heard they use Foch grapes as well, which further dashed my hopes... but we'll soon see!

The colour is luscious ruby red (almost tinges of purple) see-thru colour that glistens. The nose on it is plums, slight apricots and cherry, slight oakiness, and an alcoholy smell (here we go again... maybe it's the Foch grapes).

I mainly tasted this at room temperature (normally I drink Tawnys at about 10C). These tasting notes reflect this. My first hit with this dessert wine is plum, which is awesome. Second hit is a bit of alcohol, then a spicy tang that shows it is young. But it's not an offensive young (like the Sonata or the Quail's Gate). As the taste lingers in the mouth, cherry notes become apparent, and any alcohol taste diminishes. The aftertaste is this drink's killer feature - it gets sweeter and tangy-er as you go on. I'm about five minutes away from my last taste of it as I type this, and the aftertaste is absolutely luscious.

The body is fairly light, but I'm guessing a bit of aging will settle that down and make it more rich.

Rating: 5 out of 10. I'd give it higher, except for the "alcohol" notes. In a couple of years, I'm betting this is going to be a 7 or 7.5.

Sumac Ridge Vintage Pipe, 1999 Vintage

Word folks: buy this and stock up. It's kick ass.

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Sumac Ridge Pipe
This is one of the better "port style" wines I've tried, outside of the real thing.

I've been a fan of this port style wine for almost a year now, but let me give you the skinny on it. They follow the port method fairly closely with this wine. First partially fermented in steel, then arrested with brandy addition, then aged for a minimum of 2 years in oak casks before bottled. That's the same formula the famous Port houses follow. I wonder if Sumac actually stomp their grapes by feet, like the folks in the Douro Valley do.

I've had this wine both chilled (about 10C) and at room temperature. My evaluation below is on a chilled bottle.

Colour is very reminiscent of a young Vintage Port from Portugal. The fact that this wine is now six years old helps. It's got that deep ruby colour that's just starting to show some mellowing (golden-ning) of the colour. Visually, it is the "deepest" colour of the four port style wines evaluated here.

Nose is amazing. First thing I get is chocolate (but chocolate produced by a variety of other flavours), closely followed by plum, slight orange zest, then amazingly enough, cedar in the aroma. It's complex, folks. No alcohol smell at all (the only one that doesn't have this "feature").

Taste. Wowsa. Big ass body, which is exactly what I expect from a port wine. Chocolate disappears in the taste, but still hits you in the aroma. First tastes are probably prune and plum, but the sweetest prunes and plums you've ever had. I get a citrus zest, a nice tang (acidic hit), and a total velvety texture that reeks of complexity.

The finish is my favourite part. This wine leaves your mouth with a thank you note. And that thank you is "here's some extra flavour". Aftertaste is amazing, and let me tell you - have this wine with a great herb gouda cheese, or with some plain white cheesecake, and it's a food pairing made in heaven.

This fortified wine also handles storage well. I drank two samples tonight - a just-opened and chilled bottle, and the last four ounces in a bottle that's been in my fridge for two weeks (with a wine saver cap on top). The just opened bottle was more intense in flavours and aromas, but the two week old bottle held its own and still scored higher than the newly-opened Sonata and Wild Goose.

If I were to rate this against some of my favourite authentic ports, it would get a very worthy 6.5 to 7 out of 10. But I am rating this against the other dessert wines from BC, and in that light, this is a 9 out of 10. I'm betting in another five years with more aging, it will be a 10. Stock up folks. I have a case myself. ;)

Well there you have it. BC's very small, and in some cases, very young port-style wine offerings. Overall, I'm a bit saddened that two of the four fall badly, and the third  one only ranks a 5 for me. But I am jazzed that the "grand daddy" of the port game in BC (Sumac Ridge) is doing awesome stuff with their Vintage Pipe. Rock on, Sumac Ridge!

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