Phylloxera is like the Great Flood of winemaking. History is divided into the period before the disease swept through Europe in the late 1800s, wiping out almost all its vineyards, and the period after, when all new European plantings were on disease-resistant American rootstock.
To find a Europe vineyard whose vines survived phylloxera is still possible, though rare.
To find a bottle of wine made before phylloxera is somewhat rare.
To find a bottle of pre-phylloxera wine that is drinkable is extremely rare, limited mainly to well-kept, fortified wines such as Ports and Madeiras.
But to find a wine that lay in the cask for 155 years and is not only drinkable but quite delicious, well – it’s perhaps off the rarities chart.
I tasted that wine in New York this week – the Taylor Fladgate “Scion,” what might be called a vintage tawny that lay in barrel from its harvest in the Douro Valley in 1855 until it was bottled last year.
As Fladgate Partnership CEO Adrian Bridge explained it to a gathering of writers at 11 Madison Park restaurant, until recently most grape growers in the Douro Valley sold raw wines, not grapes, to the big Port houses who would blend them into the final wines. On occasion, the farmers would keep some for themselves, and it would gain in value as it aged in barrels. Bridge says Taylor Fladgate regularly buys such older wines to blend into its 30-year-old and 40-year-old tawnies.
Recently, Taylor Fladgate was approached by the executors of one such estate which had two remaining barrels – or pipes – of Port that was documented to the 1855 vintage. How many originally existed is unknown, but a third barrel was said to have been sold years ago to Winston Churchill.
This Port was not only rare in age, it was rare in quality as well, having much more acidity than normally is found in old wood Ports. Evaporation takes its toll on the volume of wine over decades, and it also concentrates the sweet flavors while wiping out the balancing acidities – hence the need to blend.
Taylor Fladgate decided to bottle the wine left in the two barrels – filling well over 1,000 in all – without blending, making it a vintage tawny which they called “Scion.” One hundred bottles were allocated to the U.S. to be sold through Kobrand at $3,200 a bottle.
The wine, which had been poured into our glasses a least an hour before tasting, was still quite fruity on the nose and palate – lots of dried, concentrated fruits and nuts with a fine acidity racing through the wine until its finish. It remained on the palate and aftertaste for many minutes afterward.
The amazing part about Scion is that its 155 history is far from over. Now that it’s been bottled, further maturation will be slowed to a crawl. Collectors will buy, and a few will drink. But other bottles will be put to auction or handed down through families. In 2055, no doubt, someone will open a bottle of the 200-year-old wine and talk about how well it has kept since it was bottled 45 years ago in 2010 – a time when global warming was still being debated and social media was in its infancy.