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updated: 11/22/2011 2:58 PM

Savoring a taste of history in this centuries-old port

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"We purchased our flagship vineyard -- Vargellas -- before phylloxera," said Robert Bower of Taylor's Port at a tasting of his 2009 vintage sponsored by Northbrook's Pantheon Wine Shoppe.

My fellow guests and I exchanged glances, trying to reconcile Europe's 19th century vineyard plague with this dapper 30-something.

Bower laughed, "By 'we', of course, I mean our family."

Wine has been a family affair at Taylor's Port for three centuries and counting.

Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman was established in the Portuguese city of Oporto in 1692. Acquisitions of Fonseca Guimaraens (in 1948) and Croft (2001) expanded acreage and talent, but protected the familial legacy. To this day, descendants of the Yeatmans, Guimaraens and Croft clans manage day-to-day activities including international marketing, maintaining cellars of more than 500,00 casks, and foot treading the grapes.

"It's crazy not to switch to machine pressing," laughs Bower. "Foot treading is more costly, but it is gentler, thoroughly oxygenates the new wine and extracts maximum color." Tourists are discouraged, but Bower jumps in a lagar (the traditional open-fermenting vat) each year for camaraderie. "In 2009, my feet were black for weeks!"

This inky color -- a calling card of muscular tannin -- along with fine acidity and complex fruit, are the reasons Taylor's declared its 2009 vintage. (Had it not been declared, a process that needs approval from the Port Wine Institute, the wine could have been blended to make other styles of port.)

"Our ancestors created wine for our reputation and we do the same. By agreement, we only declare a vintage that will fortify the reputation of our children and grandchildren."

The 2009 Croft ($79.97 per bottle) is a "succulent charmer," as described by Johnson Ho, Pantheon proprietor. Fonseca's 2009 ($99.97) is a sumptuous "stud muffin." These and the accompanying Ross' Choice make valuable additions to any cellar, for a remarkable drinking experience or a gift to commemorate births, weddings and other celebrations.

One family outing was not met with general agreement, but its result made history. In 2009, winemaker David Guimaraens learned of two casks of Taylor's Port, aging in a Portuguese family cellar since 1874, now for sale; he gathered his family to investigate.

"We were quite unhappy making this trip," recounts Bower. "We were certain the wine would be undrinkable."

To the wonderment of all, after 15 decades of undisturbed cask aging in perfect conditions, not only did the wine drink perfectly; it was sublime. Taylor's purchased the casks and named the wine Scion.

At our dinner, anticipation quieted the most garrulous guests as Bower distributed our own taste.

Indeed, this palate found Scion to be revivifying, with bold acid and complexity of dried fruits and exotic spice that swelled into an endless finish.

Scion may be the last surviving Port of pre-phylloxera era. With only 90 bottles released, Pantheon is one of a few retailers able to offer Scion, at $3,420 per bottle.

But Scion is one Port you don't save for your descendants. This taste of history is for you.

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