Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s 1881


Oporto, Portugal

Once upon a time, in a vineyard in Oporto, a Portuguese winemaker and their workers harvested their grape vines of Touriga Nacional, gathered field hands to stomp the grapes in their lugares, and eventually, after some time letting the juice age in oak barrels, bottled their tawny port wine. After carefully etching the numbers 1881 on the dark brown bottles to signify the harvest, the wines were shipped off to England, the Americas and beyond.  

This was a year where some of my great grandparents were only infants, not knowing what would become of them and their eventual descendants. A year where, due to assassinations, the United States would have three US Presidents. 1881 saw the establishment of the Oriental Telephone Company, created by Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, two men completely unaware of their impact to modern day society and our global, interconnected world. 

Never could I have imagined that I, a millennial from Long Island, would have the opportunity to travel to Lisbon and taste a vintage port from 1881, to literally taste a sip of this history.  Things like this shouldn’t really happen to average people like me. Wines this old require pomp and circumstance. To taste a wine over 100 years old is an epic event, made for millionaires and their mistresses in private yachts, entertaining their wealthy friends, celebrities, philanthropists, politicians and famous sommeliers. It is not for two tourists from Long Island who just so happened to stumble across a wine shop in Time Out Lisboa, who were honestly only there to buy a bottle of Madeira. 

My husband and I stood for what seemed like an hour, in stunned awe at the twelve foot high racks that housed dozens of vintage ports, madeiras and wines dating back tens, if not hundreds of years. We were like two kids in a candy shop, eyeing each bottle, calling out vintage after vintage, humbled by the history laying before us undisturbed on the wine racks. 

Endless Racks of Madeira

After speaking with the friendly and rather knowledgeable wine shop attendant at the Garrafeira Nacional, our gaze quickly turned to the enomatic machine behind the counter. Displayed behind a single plate of glass, a dozen bottles of wine, brandy and fortified wine longed to be swirled, tasted and imbibed. We weren’t expecting what happened next but there it was: An 1881 vintage Tawny port.

The enomatic machine was developed in Italy in 2002 and is considered a rather new invention in the wine world. It allows wines to be served in measured portions to the consumer, replacing the empty air in the bottle with inert gas. This gas prevents oxidation of the wine, preserving its remaining contents for 3-4 weeks after the bottle has been uncorked. This allows wine shops to open multiple bottles of wines for sampling, without worry of waste or spoilage. In a normal wine tasting situation, I am definitely a traditionalist, preferring the person to person interaction. I feel there is always something lost when getting served by a machine, instead of an actual employee. The earnest exchange between consumer and server is lost by the interference of technology. However in cases where the wines are rare or aged, such as this unique tasting, an enomatic machine certainly comes in handy, as the wine can remain open for weeks without spoilage concerns.

Enomatic Machine in Garrafeira Nacional

Similar inventions, such as the Coravin, have also entered the market, as the wine world has developed new and innovative ways to serve wines to customers. A Coravin works in roughly the same way. A surgical style needle is pierced through the cork and wine is forced into the wine glass, replacing the empty space in the bottle with argon gas. The Coravin costs about $300 and can certainly come in handy when opening expensive or rare bottles. However for the everyday wine consumer, I personally feel the Coravin to be quite an investment. The replacement argon gas cartridges are the true hidden investment, as their shelf life has much to be desired. 

Going back to the port, this is when the cheap, penny pinching side of me made its debut. I’m the kind of person who adds water to the end of the hand soap dispenser, to pump that last little bit out of the plastic bottle. I roll up and squeeze tubes of toothpaste, desperately trying to obtain that last smidgen of Sensodyne. I wear my clothes out until the holes begin to appear, I wash and reuse Ziploc bags, I price shop on bags of rice and lentils. At first, I couldn’t rationalize spending 32 euros on a simple taste of fortified wine. That same 32 euros in Brno can buy us a large portion of our groceries for the week! It can pay for at least 10 entries to the swimming pool! Despite the “once in a lifetime” feelings that had first swept over me in the wine shop, and despite the wine’s age and reverence, it was still 32 euros a taste.

At times like this, I’m glad I have my husband, who doesn’t believe in pinching pennies, especially given this sort of circumstance. After my incessant and self-deprecating back and forth, he just looked at me and said, “Arielle, we will never have this chance again.” I knew he was right, so I hesitantly approached the counter and asked for two pours of the 1881 Tawny port. 

Ready to indulge our tastebuds

1881 Port

In hindsight, how could I have even hesitated? Despite this historic liquid being over 130 years old, it was alive. Some may ask, what does that mean, for a wine to ‘be alive’? Although fortified wines, especially vintage ports, certainly need those years in the bottle to develop tertiary flavors like nuts, spice and dried fruits, some may lose their vibrant acidity, becoming dull and lifeless. This wine, luckily, was absolutely perfect. From the first sip its backbone was firm, with notes of orange peel on the palate. A puckery smirk graced my lips. 

A glass full of history

I spent the first twenty minutes simply smelling it, letting the aromas rise into my nostrils as they made their way through my sinuses and eventually ran their path through my body. Spearmint, toffee, hazelnuts, menthol, mandarine and cocoa were immediately apparent. The wine had a rusty, tawny color, with a bright orange rim, and the silky sweet, viscous liquid easily coated the glass. To taste it was like tasting velvet: mouth coating, rich, soft and full. Yet the port still maintained a level of acidity and brightness on the finish, defying initial expectations. 

I had an idea. I quickly scuttled to the specialty chocolate shop on the other side of the Garrafeira Nacional, to purchase 50 grams of 70% dark chocolate. I wanted to see what the bitter cocoa would do to the port, to taste the juxtaposition of the sweet port to the bitter chocolate. I’m certainly glad I did. The dark black fruits emerged from their cocoon, the luscious tannins peeked out over the acidity, and the nuttiness continued to reveal itself in a counterpoint of flavors.

I laughed, partly at my own stubbornness for almost letting this moment slip through my fingers, and partly at the sheer gravity of this half hour. To all those people like me, who have been raised by penny pinching mothers and grandmothers, don’t let these moments slip by. Sometimes 32 euros is all you need for an unforgettable, once in a lifetime experience.