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First Love
By Robert Whitley
May 13, 2014
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VILA NOVA DE GAIA, Portugal – The walk to the Croft Port lodge from The Yeatman, easily the finest hotel in the Porto area and perhaps one of the finest in the world, is all of ten minutes, but it is steep and somewhat treacherous on the slippery cobblestone street that winds its way down to the Douro river.

Not far from the bottom the path to Croft demands a hard left toward the neighboring Sandeman lodge.

As I walked up the rugged stone steps to the Croft entrance, remarkably for the first time, it brought back a memory that still lingers of the 1963 Croft Vintage Port, a legendary wine from a legendary vintage.

It suddenly occurred to me that my journey had, in reality, started more than 30 years ago when I ordered my first bottle of vintage Port at the late, great Top of the Cove in La Jolla, California.

It would ordinarily be unusual for a lone diner to order an entire bottle of expensive dessert wine, but Top of the Cove’s wine service was well ahead of its time. The sommelier, Thomas Curry, now the proprietor of Temecula Olive Oil Company near San Diego and a good friend ever since my earliest days in La Jolla, noticed I was drooling over the Port section of the Cove’s massive wine list.

The 1963 Croft seemed to be calling my name. Thomas offered an interesting proposition: I could order the wine, open it and have a glass, and the restaurant would then write my name on the bottle, mark the fill-level after one glass had been poured off, and save the open bottle for my next visit, thereby assuring I would return soon.

The year was 1984, about seven years before I launched a career as a wine journalist at The San Diego Union-Tribune. The ’63 Croft was dazzling, as you might imagine, and I made it a point to add several bottles to my growing wine cellar.

Those ’63 Crofts had long been consumed when I made a chance visit to the Croft quinta in the Douro Valley during the 2000 harvest. The purpose of my trip was to visit the two great Port houses, Taylor’s and Fonseca. It so happened that the Taylor-Fonseca group had just purchased Croft, so an impromptu visit was easily arranged.

On the one hand, my heart sank as I saw that Croft had slipped from its once towering pedestal. The lagares had been removed and the condition of the winery was suspect. The infusion of Taylor-Fonseca capital meant both problems would be addressed.

The importance of the lagares, shallow concrete tanks where foot-treading is used to crush the grapes at harvest, was of particular concern to chief winemaker David Guimaraens. At Croft the lagares had been replaced by mechanical treaders. This is common in the industry, but most top Port houses continue to utilize foot-treading for their vintage Ports.

“The difference,” Guimaraens explained at the time, “is the human foot can’t crush the seeds of the grape. So with foot-treading, we don’t extract any of the bitterness or harsh tannin from the seeds.”

In the intervening years I have visited many Port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto. Not until recently, however, had I visited the lodge of my first true love in Port, Croft.

I am happy to report it has prospered under the stewardship of the Taylor-Fonseca group. The lagares were rebuilt and the vintage Ports have regained much of their diminished shine. The current release, the 2011, was superb. The 10-year-old tawny was brilliant, and the 20-year-old tawny a warm, delicious spice bomb.

I even enjoyed the somewhat exotic “Pink” Port, a rose Port that is served chilled, over ice as a cocktail, or even frozen.

The renaissance at Croft also brought a new openness.

“Croft used to be very private,” said Daniel Oliveira, who greeted me on my recent visit. “If you came to the door and knocked, maybe we would answer, maybe we wouldn’t. Maybe we would let you in for a taste, maybe not.

“That all changed with the takeover. The tasting room was built and now we received on average about 90,000 visitors a year.”

With that, I had been reduced to a number. I couldn’t have been more pleased.