In the Spirit of the Season: Charity and Vintage Port

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With Christmas less than a week away, this post brings together two topics I associate with this time of year: charity, and the delicious, complex, fortified wine called Port.

It just so happens that a Chicago couple, Linda and Jamie Garard, found a way to bring these two things together for a memorable tasting that raised significant funds to support vital medical services for Chicago's homeless.

Jamie is a major wine collector. Linda knows the key players at all of Chi-town's major restaurants. The two of them believe in supporting worthy causes, and have found that providing great wines from their cellar for tasting events at Chicago's top culinary destinations can lead to generous contributions toward the couples' favorite charities.

As it happens, Linda, Jamie and I all share a birth year--1955. That year proved to be not only a decent one for people, it also produced excellent, long-lived wines in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Portugal's Douro region--the source of Port.

Port is the name for fortified wines produced from a variety of grapes grown on the hot, steep, terraced hillsides of the Douro Valley. Port is made in a variety of styles, including white Port, ruby Port and tawny Port.

Vintage Port--made from top vineyard sites in the best vintages, as declared by one or more producers, are made up exclusively of wine from a single vintage, aged in cask for two years and then bottled. They represent only 1% of Port production. These wines, like other Ports, are fermented to about 6 to 8% alcohol before fermentation is arrested by the addition of a flavorless grape-distilled spirit that is 77% alcohol called aguardente.

Vintage Ports from great years like 1955 can take decades to mature, and then last for many decades more. The result is rich, spicy, often chocolatey, warming wines that are ideally enjoyed on cold winter evenings. Port is especially popular around Christmas time in England, and makes for a wonderful end to a holiday evening spent with friends and loved ones.

Early this year, Jamie asked Roy Hersh, editor/publisher of the For the Love of Port newsletter and this country's foremost expert on Port, to attend and speak at a horizontal tasting of 1955 vintage Ports Jamie had collected. Roy agreed.

Jamie Garard, RJ and Roy Hersh

Jamie, who knew me through my CellarTracker reviews and blog, reached out to me through Facebook, which indicates my birth year, to see if I'd be interested in attending. Since I'm a big fan of Roy's, love Chicago, and found the opportunity to taste through a horizontal of birth year Ports irresistible, I quickly said yes.

Linda arranged for a wonderful, large space for the tasting and dinner that followed at Chicago's culinary academy, Kendall College.

Roy introduced the tasting by giving us some perspective on the 1955 vintage and what was going on in the world, and Chicago, when the grapes for these wines were harvested, foot trodden and put into cask. Chicago's Mayor Daley won his first election that year. Disneyland also opened in '55, and Rosa Parks was famously arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus in December that year.

A couple of the wines did not show as well as expected. Most of them, however, were glorious--perfect exemplars of how deep, flavorful, complex and delicious mature vintage Ports can be.

The Quinto do Noval Nacional bottling was extraordinary, and I rank it as one of my three top wines of the year--out of the more than 7,000 wines I tasted in 2013. I rated it 99 points.

Noval's position as a top Port producer owes a lot to the tiny production (usually only a few hundred cases) of vintage Port from the ungrafted, 2.5 hectare parcel lying right next to the winery.

There is so little of this wine made and its reputation is so high that it sells for the highest prices of any vintage Port. The current vintage, 2011, is selling for an average of $745 a bottle in the U.S.

Other 1955s I ranked highly at this tasting included the surprisingly delicate and delicious Fonseca, an elegant and structured Taylor, the unctuous Cockburn, and a characteristically sweet and rounded Graham.

Our three-hour tasting was followed by a delightful dinner prepared by Kendall staff and students, and more special wines. Among the highlights in that lineup was a 1955 d'Yquem and a Port dating back to 1853 that was bottled in 2001 from casks discovered by one of the former principals of Quinto do Noval. My tasting notes on those and the other fabulous wines from the two-day event can be found in the complete account on my blog here.

Our dinner also featured brief remarks by Dr. Maria Brown, the doctor who founded Pilsen Homeless Health Services in 1994 and who is one of its four current staffers, aided by a small army of volunteers from Rush Medical College, where Dr. Brown is associate professor of family medicine.

Pilsen Homeless Health Services' Dr. Maria Brown

During the course of the evening, my dining companion Linda explained that she and Jamie got their start in leveraging wine and food for good causes in 2002 when they worked with the late Charlie Trotter and Dick Grace of Grace Family Vineyards on a fundraising dinner for an educational nonprofit.

The Garards began organizing other wine events under the name Grapes for Great Causes. The Garards absorb the events' administrative costs so that the full amount of participants' contributions go to the designated charity. Counting this 1955 Port event, the couple have now raised over $875,000 for Chicago area charities.

This holiday season, I'm raising my glass to the Garards and Dr. Browns of the world. They represent the true spirit of giving and caring that should be part of our lives all year long, but which deserves to be especially honored and celebrated at this time of year.