I’ve tasted 19th-century table wines on a few occasions-half a dozen bottles, perhaps. In most cases, the experience was rather like viewing saints’ relics in obscure Sicilian churches. These were strange objects locked in glass whose gift to venerators was principally an imaginative one, since they now bore no resemblance to the living things they had once been.

An exception? There was one: the 1865 Clos Vougeot fished out by Joseph Henriot from the stash he found at the Château de Beaune when he moved in in 1995. There was a little flesh on the bones; there was a bloom of fruit on the cheeks; the cellar had not yet become a catacomb. The Montrachet of the same vintage alongside it, by contrast, was mummified, sunken, and sallow; time and oxygen had stretched its skin into grotesque contortions. Set aside our respect for venerability, and in truth even the Clos Vougeot was unexceptional old wine made exceptional by the fact that it was very, very old. I feel honored to have swallowed the fermented juice of grapes harvested three months after the premiere of Tristan and Isolde, but as a drink, I would have preferred the 1999.

None of the above is true of fortified wines. The greatest 19th-century wines I have tried have all been fortified- mostly vintage Madeiras, but not all. They need no apologies, no excuses; there is nothing reliquary about them at all. They can carry the weight of scaffolders, married to the intensity of poets and the rigor of emeritus professors of logic. They are, indeed, the best of the best. It's hard to guard casks and bottles for that long in our disorderly world. Keeping them out of the jaws of time means great expense. We would surely otherwise drink fine 19th-century fortified wines on a regular basis.

Sackfuls of scent and flavor

I was reminded of this on a dark, wet night last winter, sitting in Rui Paula's waterfront restaurant in Folgosa do Douro with Paul and Jane Symington while the rain drummed down on the roof. "I've got something I want you to try," said Paul, once the main course was over, and he ran out to the car. He conferred with the staff; they assented without demur. New glasses were brought, and into them was poured an unctuous black wine with green glints.

What did it smell of? What didn't it smell of? You simply can't create complexity of this order in under a century or so, I suspect. Caramel, treacle, hessian, straw, lavender, camphor, coffee, chicory, crushed acorns, salted bacon hock... I stopped there, but the game could have gone on for another half-hour. There was a cleanliness and a precision about the wine, though, that was testament to 130 years of exemplary stewardship.

It sat in the glass like an aroma mill, idling out scents that began to perfume the air around us. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks, but I seem to remember diners at nearby tables turning toward us, sniffing, incongruously aware of a new sensual presence in the room...

I was prepared by now for a palate explosion, and I got one: The wine was salty, deep, profoundly aromatic, sweet and acidic, too. Despite its prodigious wealth of flavor, it was seamlessly harmonious, thick yet almost silky, its spirit smoothed into the wine to the point of invisibility. Apples and cinders, burned raisins, thyme and pomegranate, creosote and apricot skins, licorice and treacle, chocolate and toasted almond. Off it went again, ceaselessly murmuring a secular rosary of sensual reasons as to why staying alive might be a good idea. It was almost as if the wine had been out and about for all of this time, wandering the hills and the plains and the entrepôts, gathering sackfuls of scent and flavor as it traveled.

It was, in fact, the Symington family's oldest colheita wine, dating from 1882. The family believes it had originally been purchased by the first Symington to work in the Port trade, Andrew James, sometime in the 1920s. He would have bought it because it bore the date of his Portuguese arrival. As a Scot, of course, sentiment alone would have been inadequate: He would have tasted its qualities, wished to see them secured for the company, and driven a fair bargain. Whose farm?

No one knows. After perhaps 40 years in the alternating heat and cool of the Douro, the three casks moved down to Vila Nova de Gaia, where they have stayed ever since (nowadays housed in the Warre lodges). The wine has, it would seem, seldom if ever been refreshed, so its aging process is in fact closer to that of a Madeira than a typical colheita. A single bottle has only left Portugal once (to be sampled chez Robinson); none has been sold, either. I admire the family's restraint in not wolfing the lot back in 1982.

I don't know what its eventual destiny will be or whether it will ever trickle on to the open market. If it does, it would appear under the Graham's label, used by the family for occasional bottlings of venerable Tawnies. Should you ever be in a position to ambush a bottle, don't hesitate. This is no mummy, no museum piece, no doubtful fingernail in a dusty glass case, but a synopsis of life and time in the finest fettle.