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BY: Ben Howkins
3rd Journal entry

Ben Howkins and the person
behind the wine

by Ben Howkins

7 March, 2024

Throughout the many years we have had in winemaking, we have come across people who have touched us in different ways. We have decided to use this space to bring out stories that some of these people have to share about wine, the Douro and the culture surrounding wine. After all, for us “wine is people, wine is culture, wine is nature.”

The first person to accept this challenge and to write up a story about Port wine, is our dear friend and business partner, Ben Howkins. Ben is the UK’s foremost expert of both Port and Sherry Wines. He has visited the Douro countless times, and we have been lucky to meet him on several of these occasions. One of the projects we collaborated on was back in 2016 with the release of a very special Very Old Tawny Porto named The Last Drop Centenário Very Old Colheita Tawny Port 1870 & 1970 DUO. Today, Ben is an essential partner for the release of the unique XIXth Century Van Zellers &Co The Rare Port Collection.

As you will be able to read, his stories are endless, and apart from inspiring and educating people on the enjoyment of wine, in particular fortified and dessert wines, with his immense knowledge on the subject, Ben has an incredible sense of humor. His storytelling and view of life and the people he has encountered is as thrilling to read, as is the intensity of a very good glass of Old TawnyPorto.

We hope you like this new journal entry as much as we have enjoyed reading it.

A special thank you again to Ben Howkins for sharing these words.

Ben Howkins

Have you ever wondered what sort of person actually created the wine you have in your glass right now? Was she fragrant and beautiful? Was he robust and giving? Were they husband and wife?

The same with Chefs. A lean chef will more likely offer discerning food for serious diners; a rotund chef will smilingly please the hungry hordes.

The wonderful thing about wines produced by families rather than by corporates, is that there genuinely does seem to be a relationship between the creator and his or her wine.

The classic example is in Bordeaux where the two magnificent Rothschild properties, Chateau Lafite and Chateau MoutonRothschild, although sometimes only a few yards apart, have two entirely different styles. The former has perfect poise or balance, and extreme elegance and may be considered the benchmark of the finest claret. Perfect poise and extreme elegance could well describe Baron Eric de Rothschild, who was the family member responsible for this chateau for forty years. Eric absolutely personifies Lafite, as I am sure that his charming daughter, Saskia will future years.

Chateau Mouton Rothschild’s chatelaine for around the same time was the ex-actress and extrovert Baroness Philippine de Rothschild. Philippine went through life at full throttle. Guess what. Mouton’s wines are clearly more outgoing and fulsome.

At the beginning of the explosion of high alcohol strength Napa cabernet wines in California at the end of the last century, we all wondered why. We knew that Robert Parker liked these highoctane wines, but it was a chicken and egg situation. Did the producers bow to Parker’s points or did Parker encourage this trait amongst the new fraternity of vineyard owners?

A wise PR man in Napa put me right. This new swarm of high-end Napa vineyard owners had mostly made their dosh by selling their computer/construction companies to fund their dream of owning a vineyard. Apart from enjoying a nice warm climate, they also enjoyed strong martinis, luxury whiskies and gins. High strength meant better.

As it was with their wines. They wanted their wines to push through the 14.5% barrier and higher. A noble aspiration, but not for me. Normal service is now being resumed

In the Douro Valley in Northern Portugal, the majestic home of port, multiple characters have abounded for centuries, each shaping the trade and style of wines they loved.

The most recent classic examples surely include the owner of Taylor’s port, the debonair ex Scots guardsman, Alistair Robertson. Taylor’s vintage port is renowned for having ‘backbone’(ramrod backbone ? ) and is indeed elegant, long lasting and giving.

By contrast, its stablemate, Fonseca port, is surely fashioned in the image of its legendary maker, Bruce Guimaraens. Fonseca is robust, hearty, full fruited, a joy to engage with and a bull of a port or is that Bruce ? David, Bruce’s engaging son, happily carries on the family tradition, whilst blending in his own version of fun.

For many years, Croft port, my old company, was the preserve of Robin Reid, whose wife Elsa and their three daughters gave a certain feminine balance to the proceedings. Croft does indeed have flowery overtones in its make up.

Cristiano van Zeller, current custodian of the van Zeller dynasty, has the air of an aristocrat with his full figure and fine beard. He could be equally at home at his English castle or club. His latest release of three nineteenth-century colheita ports from 1888, 1870 and 1860 seem a perfect fit.

Imagine these years in a St James’s Street gentleman’sclub. Dukes arriving from their estates in the Shires; Peers strolling in from the House of Lords and men of affairs being driven in their carriages from the city of London. Dining and gambling with copious quantities of port would have kept them up until the early hours. The conversation would have flowed in equal measures as the bets were placed. This was the world in which these vintages were born. To enjoy them today is indeed a unique and gob-smacking pleasure.

My latest book ‘Adventures in the WineTrade – Diary of a Vintners Scholar’ recently published by the Academie du VinLibrary, describes my first visit to the Douro Valley in that celebrated vintage port year, 1963.  There is something magical, something unending, and something that goes straight to the heart when tasting and enjoying these so-satisfying wines.

There is also a sense of humor, a sense of camaraderie that accompanies most English of non-English wines, as this extract shows.

Photographer – Carolina Pimenta for The Last Drop

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