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Vintage soars so do prices; Wines: The 1994 ports are outstanding, packed with flavor now and with the promise of improvement in the bottle. Collectors have already snatched up the best.


There's good news, bad news and even worse news for lovers of fine vintage port.

The good news is that the 1994 vintage ports, which began appearing in the market several weeks ago, are exceptional. There is little doubt that 1994 will be remembered as one of the great port vintages of the century, along with such revered years as 1985, 1977, 1963 and 1948.

The bad news is that the price of vintage port has soared. Three years ago, when several port lodges (companies) declared a vintage, the best ports could be bought for $30-$40. Now we're talking $50-$60.

The worse news is that by the time you read this, many of the best 1994s will already have been snatched up by voracious collectors. Retail stores are receiving tiny allocations. Good luck finding Taylor Fladgate, Graham's and Fonseca even if you're willing to pay the price.

Nature gets the credit for the good news. For the bad news, blame cigars.

In 1985, the last time all the major port lodges declared a vintage, cigars were just cigars. But since then, cigars have become trendy -- with the likes of Demi Moore gracing the covers of a magazine called Cigar Aficionado.

Port, as the natural companion of fine cigars, has followed along. So now longtime port lovers have to compete with all these junior Rush Limbaughs -- moneyed conservatives eager to flash their cash (expensive cigars) as they flaunt their political incorrectness.

Oh well, the wine's still magnificent.

Vintage port is the highest expression of the famous dessert wines made in Oporto, Portugal, from grapes grown on the hilly slopes of the Upper Douro Valley. Thick and rich, these wines will improve in the bottle for many decades.

In recent years, the Douro has been on a roll. In 1991, the conditions were good enough that Graham's and Dow declared a vintage. But Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca decided to pass, choosing to wait for 1992 -- a vintage in which Taylor made a small amount of near-perfect wine.

Unlike the precocious 1985s, the 1994s are going to require a lot of patience. They are a bit of a throwback to the brooding 1977s, which have still not fully emerged from their shells. It is unlikely the 1994s will reach the heights of that classic vintage, but they'll come close. My guess is that the top 1994s will begin to show their best about 2020 and will last far longer than most of us.

Some have condemned the premature tasting of such wines as a form of infanticide. So prosecute me. The wines are delicious even at this tender age.

For layer upon layer of sweet fruit, choose the 1994 Graham's ($46). Its meaty, spicy flavors and silky texture make it easy to overlook the iron structure beneath.

For an exotic interplay of deep blackberry, chocolate, herbs and pepper, try the 1994 Fonseca ($58), which comes close to the sweetness of the Graham's.

Taylor ($60), produced by the same company as Fonseca, does not try to compete on a sweetness level but on a level of sheer class. It's a complex, gripping wine whose flavors bring back memories of great Bordeaux.

If the Taylor brings back memories of Mouton-Rothschild, the peppery, blackberry flavors of the 1994 Warre's ($40) remind me of a great Hermitage from the Rhone Valley. Like the Taylor, the Warre's is a tightly knit wine that doesn't overwhelm with its sweetness. It's an excellent consolation prize for consumers who can't locate any Taylor.

The 1994 Dow ($40) is an exceptionally concentrated wine, packed with lush blackberry fruit and flavors of chocolate and coffee. It will appeal to devotees of Fonseca and Graham's.

The 1994 Ramos-Pinto and 1994 Smith Woodhouse (both about $30) are perfectly good wines that lack the pizazz of the best. It's worth spending the extra $10 for a Dow or Warre's. If $30 is your limit, it might be time to explore Australian "ports."

But that's another story.

Catching up with Boordy

For my recent article on Maryland wines, I failed to taste some of the new releases from Boordy Vineyards. That was a serious omission.

The 1995 Boordy Chardonnay is the best yet from the Baltimore County winery, which has struggled with this varietal in the past. The 1995 Boordy Riesling is a lightly sweet, delightfully crisp wine with generous flavors of peach, melon and honey.

The real blockbuster from Boordy is its 1993 Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. According to owner Rob Deford, it was made from the last crop of the old Byrd Vineyard property in Myersville, now lost to development.

The wine has all of the concentrated black cherry, black currant and chocolate flavors of a great Byrd vintage but with less of the harsh tannin that made Byrd's cabernets so fierce in their youth. The result is one of the finest red wines ever made in the Eastern United States.

' Pub Date: 12/22/96

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