The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

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JacobH
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The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by JacobH » 20:10 Mon 18 Jan 2021

I subscribe to the Whig view of Port history which holds that, in general terms, we drink better Port today than we did in the past.

(This can be contrasted with the Edmund Burke school of Port history which holds that phylloxera destroyed everything that was good and we will never have anything like that again. They are the inheritors of the tradition of Joseph James Forrester who would have been telling the shippers not to fortify the Waterloo Vintage.)

I also think the overall quality of the Port industry is not revealed as much in the Vintage Ports but in the other wines made. The reason for this is that a Vintage Port is a selection of the best lots from the best vineyards in the best years and so ought to be capable of being very good in any year that it is declared. SQVPs, LBVs, Rubies and the like don’t have quite the same luxury: they might have to be made every year; from second-best grapes; or second-best vineyards.

Recently, I have tried a few 2015s: the Graham, Taylor, Quevedo and Sandeman LBVs and the Quinta de la Rosa and Heritage Vintages. Whilst I prefer some (e.g. the Graham and QdlR) over others (e.g. Sandeman or Heritage) there is no question they are all really serious wines from a “secondary” year. Some, like the Graham and the Taylors are also, presumably, made in astronomical quantities. I also guess there must be quite a lot of QdlR around for Waitrose to have stocked it. Looking back at my notes, when I tried the other 2015s on release, I wasn’t much impressed with the Graham’s Stone Terraces but thought the Cockburn’s, Niepoort and Niepoort Bioma all were excellent.

Taking a step down, I have also tried some rubies recently, such as the BoB by the Symingtons for Marks and Spencer and the Churchill Reserve which came with the Port Club which were all much better than I had previous remembered.

Clearly 2015 was only a partial declaration which was followed by a string of good years. But I don’t remember feeling the same way about similar vintages in the past. Is it unreasonable to think that the quality of winemaking (and therefore the Port) continues to improve? Or was it just that by Spring 2017 it was realised how good 2016 was and so everyone went for that, with further good luck that both 2017 and 2018 were excellent years?
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by uncle tom » 18:39 Wed 20 Jan 2021

My feeling is that the greatest improvements in recent years have been at the mid range of the quality spectrum. The producers have far better weather forecasts than in years past, so when the season's weather is challenging, they are much better informed now when it comes to deciding whether to pick or wait.

On another front, the Symingtons are rather fond these days of pointing out how they got their spraying regimes perfectly timed, which makes me suspect that they are now using something a lot more scientific than the odd rose bush to guide them, but I'm not familiar with the detail.

Whilst the quality of SQs and LBVs seems significantly better today than in the past, whether a classic vintage like 2011 is significantly better than a classic vintage like 1970 is much more debateable however.
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by JacobH » 11:33 Thu 21 Jan 2021

uncle tom wrote:
18:39 Wed 20 Jan 2021
My feeling is that the greatest improvements in recent years have been at the mid range of the quality spectrum. The producers have far better weather forecasts than in years past, so when the season's weather is challenging, they are much better informed now when it comes to deciding whether to pick or wait.

Whilst the quality of SQs and LBVs seems significantly better today than in the past, whether a classic vintage like 2011 is significantly better than a classic vintage like 1970 is much more debateable however.
This is exactly what I was thinking about: the ability of the wine makers to make better mid-range Ports where they do not just have the luxury of choosing from the best of the best (and skipping a year if they don’t think it is declarable).

I wonder when they really started to see the benefit of modern meteorology? It’s presumably been some time in the last 20 years or so?
uncle tom wrote:
18:39 Wed 20 Jan 2021
On another front, the Symingtons are rather fond these days of pointing out how they got their spraying regimes perfectly timed, which makes me suspect that they are now using something a lot more scientific than the odd rose bush to guide them, but I'm not familiar with the detail.
What was the old method? You’d grow some roses and see how many aphids they attracted since they are more sensitive?
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by uncle tom » 11:57 Thu 21 Jan 2021

What was the old method? You’d grow some roses and see how many aphids they attracted since they are more sensitive?
Roses tend to suffer mildew before the vines do, so if a rose bush planted near the entrance to a quinta starts showing mildew, it's time to spray.
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by JacobH » 12:02 Thu 21 Jan 2021

uncle tom wrote:
11:57 Thu 21 Jan 2021
Roses tend to suffer mildew before the vines do, so if a rose bush planted near the entrance to a quinta starts showing mildew, it's time to spray.
Ah. That makes sense. Presumably also makes planting a rose garden tax deductible for a quinta owner, too!
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by Alex Bridgeman » 15:22 Sun 31 Jan 2021

We are seeing Port made today which is, in my opinion, distinctly better than if we had been looking in the late '70s and '80s. There are some very good Ports from the late '70s and '80s but also some real disappointments. Some of those disappointments were down to winemaking and hygiene (Croft 1985, for example) and some outside the immediate control of the winemaker (Gould Campbell 1977 corks, for example).

But I have the impression that since the 1992 harvest, the quality of the ruby Port we are seeing in the shops is getting better and better. Vintage, Late Bottled Vintage, Crusted and Ruby Reserve quality is delightful. Names like Cockburn Special Reserve have had a revamp, Sandeman LBV is worthy of a couple of decades in the cellar, Niepoort Crusted Ports are criyng out to be left alone for half a lifetime before being drunk. Some people are not convinced that Vintage Ports made in the last 25-30 years will be as good as those made in the past - but I believe they will. The 1994 Vintage today reminds me so much of the 1963 Vintage when I first drank it at the age of 21. The 2011 wines have such fabulous structure and balance. The 2017 Ports have stood out for me head and shoulders at a couple of vertical tastings I did last year fo '15, '16, '17 and '18 Ports. There is a lot of variation between vintages - but so there is between 1970, 1972, 1975, 1977 and 1978. I don't think anyone would be surprised that 1972 Ports are unlikely to make such good drinking in 50 years as the 1970 Vintage.

Where I am a little more worried is with the Tawny Ports. The demand for these has shot up and producers must be needing to keep back a lot more of their harvest in order to build up stocks for future TWIoA blends. As stocks are built up and as demand continues to grow, this must put pressure on the reserves. We have seen some small producers change their blends with the newer bottlings being very nice, fresh and full of flavour but lacking some of the depth and intensity of the older blends.

But I'll finish on a positive note. The White Port scene today is just fabulous. When I first started writing notes the White Port I was tasting was Taylor Chip Dry, Sandeman Aptiv, Cokburn Fine White or Fonseca Siroco. All were pleasant enough in a Port 'n' Tonic although I preferred some over others. Then came the Dalva Golden White range, a Krohn White Colheita 1964 and 10 Year Old Whites from Dalva and São Leonardo. Today the range of White Port is wonderful. A full range of White with indication of age, colheitas going back to the 1800s, at least one (ilegal) white Vintage Port and a very, very decent range of Reserve White Ports, such as the Kopke Fine White or Churchill's White Dry Aperitiv (which is basically a 10YO White).

On balance, I think I'm much happier drinking Port today than I would have been if I was drinking in 1921. Today I can drink very well drinking mid-price point Port; or I can drink great mature Vintage Port from 1922, 1924, 1927, 1931, 1934, 1935, 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1955, 1960, 1963, 166, 1967, 1970, 1977, 1980, 1985, 1992 or 1994. Port Vintages (the book) suggests the range available to me if I was drinking in 1921 might not be as good - although there are some years I would have loved to have had the chance try when they were less than a century old!
Top Ports in 2019: Niepoort VV (1960s bottling) and Quinta do Noval Nacional 2017
Top Ports in 2020 (so far): Croft 1945 and Niepoort VV (1960s bottling)

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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by JacobH » 16:42 Sun 31 Jan 2021

Alex Bridgeman wrote:
15:22 Sun 31 Jan 2021
Where I am a little more worried is with the Tawny Ports. The demand for these has shot up and producers must be needing to keep back a lot more of their harvest in order to build up stocks for future TWIoA blends. As stocks are built up and as demand continues to grow, this must put pressure on the reserves. We have seen some small producers change their blends with the newer bottlings being very nice, fresh and full of flavour but lacking some of the depth and intensity of the older blends.
I think a lot of small players were massively under-selling their TWaIoA by making much older blends than that might which would be required in order to get past the IVDP. I think that is why many small producer’s tawnies taste much older than the large ones. It is probably inevitable that a correction will be made. This will, not doubt, result in fewer of those 10-year-olds that taste like a 20- or 30-year-old being available. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing, although prices will, no doubt increase.

The broader issue which you raise seems to be whether it is possible to step up production of tawny Port without harming quality. This is an interesting one, and not something I know anything about. Clearly, there is the lag problem (i.e. if you want to triple your production of 10-year-old tawny in 2021 you, ideally, would have started laying down extra stocks in 2011). But beyond this I don’t really know the dynamics of what makes a good tawny Port.

For example: how important is the quality of the grapes to the resulting wine? Do you have to start with Vintage Port quality grapes or could you make it from any reasonable base wine? Equally, how unpredictable is the maturation process? Do the shippers end up with a lot of tawny port they can’t use or can you be confident that if you lay down three times as much then, in 15 years’ time, you’ll be able to make three times as much 10-year-old tawny?
Alex Bridgeman wrote:
15:22 Sun 31 Jan 2021
But I'll finish on a positive note. The White Port scene today is just fabulous. When I first started writing notes the White Port I was tasting was Taylor Chip Dry, Sandeman Aptiv, Cokburn Fine White or Fonseca Siroco. All were pleasant enough in a Port 'n' Tonic although I preferred some over others. Then came the Dalva Golden White range, a Krohn White Colheita 1964 and 10 Year Old Whites from Dalva and São Leonardo. Today the range of White Port is wonderful. A full range of White with indication of age, colheitas going back to the 1800s, at least one (ilegal) white Vintage Port and a very, very decent range of Reserve White Ports, such as the Kopke Fine White or Churchill's White Dry Aperitiv (which is basically a 10YO White).
Absolutely. And I think it will continue to get better as more and more white port is laid down for aging. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m pretty sure the boom in 10-year-olds being available is that we are a decade-or-so into it being legal and in another decade the 20-year-olds will start to be produced. Of course, the corollary of this is that I don’t think the availability of white ports made from private reserves and white grapes that were aimed for tawny blends will continue indefinitely.

PS: is it possible to acquire the “white vintage port” anywhere?
Alex Bridgeman wrote:
15:22 Sun 31 Jan 2021
On balance, I think I'm much happier drinking Port today than I would have been if I was drinking in 1921. Today I can drink very well drinking mid-price point Port; or I can drink great mature Vintage Port from 1922, 1924, 1927, 1931, 1934, 1935, 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1955, 1960, 1963, 166, 1967, 1970, 1977, 1980, 1985, 1992 or 1994. Port Vintages (the book) suggests the range available to me if I was drinking in 1921 might not be as good - although there are some years I would have loved to have had the chance try when they were less than a century old!
Of course, if you were drinking in 1921, you would be chasing around for the final bottles of the pre-phylloxera Ports and we would be debating whether anything would ever be as good again, whether anyone would ever replant the two Vargellas vineyards* etc. etc.!

[* I can’t actually remember when the two Vargellases were merged so may be out on this by 50 or 100 years!]
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by Alex Bridgeman » 21:59 Sun 31 Jan 2021

Phylloxera struck in 1878. I'd be looking at chasing wines which were 40+ years old. I guess I would be after the (modern day equivalent in brackets) 1878 (1980), 1873 (1970), 1868 (1966), 1863 (1963), 1858 (1955), 1847 (1948), 1834 (1935) and 1827 (1927). That would have been so much fun - were they all as good as Noval Nacional is today?
Top Ports in 2019: Niepoort VV (1960s bottling) and Quinta do Noval Nacional 2017
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by akzy » 22:17 Sun 31 Jan 2021

JacobH wrote:
16:42 Sun 31 Jan 2021

PS: is it possible to acquire the “white vintage port” anywhere?
This question was asked during the Quevedo white port tasting. Oscar seemed to suggest that he was considering it.

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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by Doggett » 23:08 Sun 31 Jan 2021

There have definitely been advances in the knowledge and technical know how as well as equipment, that has led to a better consistency of quality through the vintages of the last few decades. I wonder though if that may have led to a loss of ‘magic’ on occasion and that although made to a fantastic standard that we may miss out on some accidental brilliance. Just a thought...

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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by JacobH » 19:03 Mon 01 Feb 2021

Alex Bridgeman wrote:
21:59 Sun 31 Jan 2021
Phylloxera struck in 1878. I'd be looking at chasing wines which were 40+ years old. I guess I would be after the (modern day equivalent in brackets) 1878 (1980), 1873 (1970), 1868 (1966), 1863 (1963), 1858 (1955), 1847 (1948), 1834 (1935) and 1827 (1927). That would have been so much fun - were they all as good as Noval Nacional is today?
I had a look at André Simon’s “Vintagewise” last night and it is striking that when he is describing the Ports produced towards the end of the 19th Century, there is no pre-/post-phylloxera watershed. It doesn’t even get mentioned. That said, I am sure I have read some critics describing the pre-phylloxera wines as being much better but I am afraid I cannot remember where.

Your other question about Noval Nacional makes me also wonder: where was the last pre-phylloxera vineyard in the Douro? I presume some survived since there was continuous (if limited) production until grafting was developed. Also, are there any other ungrafted vineyards beyond the Nacional?
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by Glenn E. » 20:30 Mon 01 Feb 2021

JacobH wrote:
16:42 Sun 31 Jan 2021
But beyond this I don’t really know the dynamics of what makes a good tawny Port.

For example: how important is the quality of the grapes to the resulting wine? Do you have to start with Vintage Port quality grapes or could you make it from any reasonable base wine?
We asked Dirk Niepoort this question straight up, and he said that the types of grapes you need to make a great ruby Port and a great tawny Port are different. You might be able to use one to make the other, but it would not be using the grapes to reach their best potential.

His answer was long and complex, but at some basic level the main difference seems to be that ruby Ports need color and tannins, while tawny Ports need acidity and sugar.

So if a producer tells you that they always use "their best grapes" for one or the other, they're either a) lying or fudging their answer, b) not a top-tier winemaker (read: don't know the difference), or c) only make or specialize in that type of Port. Because "the best grapes" for tawny and ruby are not the same grapes.
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by Andy Velebil » 05:39 Tue 02 Feb 2021

akzy wrote:
JacobH wrote:
16:42 Sun 31 Jan 2021

PS: is it possible to acquire the “white vintage port” anywhere?
This question was asked during the Quevedo white port tasting. Oscar seemed to suggest that he was considering it.
Under current regulations (last I was told), not possible as there is no such authorization for a white VP.

That said, I have had a very old (late 1940’s) white “VP”, once, it was amazingly good. Of course it was not approved and was only an experiment but still amazingly good and showed that one could make a very good VP from white grapes.

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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by Glenn E. » 20:56 Tue 02 Feb 2021

Andy Velebil wrote:
05:39 Tue 02 Feb 2021
akzy wrote:
JacobH wrote:
16:42 Sun 31 Jan 2021

PS: is it possible to acquire the “white vintage port” anywhere?
This question was asked during the Quevedo white port tasting. Oscar seemed to suggest that he was considering it.
Under current regulations (last I was told), not possible as there is no such authorization for a white VP.

That said, I have had a very old (late 1940’s) white “VP”, once, it was amazingly good. Of course it was not approved and was only an experiment but still amazingly good and showed that one could make a very good VP from white grapes.
I think this is actually a case of "it doesn't say you can't" which means that you probably could if you really wanted to. I've scoured the regulations looking for anything that talks about White VP, or anything that specifically prohibits it, and I can't find anything.

There are regulations that talk about which grapes are authorized. Those are segregated out into "red grapes" and "white grapes" but those regulations say nothing about how those grapes are to be used. They simply list which varieties of red and white grapes are authorized to be used in the production of Port.

Then there are regulations that talk about the different styles of Port, but I don't recall seeing anything in those regulations that says anything about which grapes from the list of authorized grapes can be used to make those styles. They simply talk about how the style is made - i.e. wood aged or not, etc.

As near as I can tell, making any kind of Port out of white grapes has always been legal. It's just that no one has bothered aside from a few Colheita Brancos and some blending of white grapes into TWAIOA.

Note, however, that just because something is technically legal doesn't necessarily mean that you can get it approved. This is Portugal, after all. :lol:
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by uncle tom » 10:09 Wed 03 Feb 2021

I think this is actually a case of "it doesn't say you can't" which means that you probably could if you really wanted to. I've scoured the regulations looking for anything that talks about White VP, or anything that specifically prohibits it, and I can't find anything.
I'm not 100% sure about Portugal, but most of continental europe has laws framed around the concept that everything is prohibited except that which is allowed, whereas the UK legal framework takes the opposite stance.
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by JacobH » 10:33 Wed 03 Feb 2021

Glenn E. wrote:
20:56 Tue 02 Feb 2021
Then there are regulations that talk about the different styles of Port, but I don't recall seeing anything in those regulations that says anything about which grapes from the list of authorized grapes can be used to make those styles. They simply talk about how the style is made - i.e. wood aged or not, etc.

As near as I can tell, making any kind of Port out of white grapes has always been legal. It's just that no one has bothered aside from a few Colheita Brancos and some blending of white grapes into TWAIOA.
Isn’t the other difficulty that all of the definitions, apart from the basic ruby / tawny ones include a subjective element (i.e. they have to have the character of a VP etc.) which is assessed by the IVDP? I can’t see how a white vintage port would ever get over this hurdle, although I have wondered if that’s how Dalva could sell its white colheitas as colheitas rather than a “special reserve” since very old white ones are not that stylistically dis-similar to red ones.

One also reads of white Port being added to tawny blends. I’ve heard on lodge tours it suggested that some shippers’ young tawnies are artificially aged by the process, although who knows whether that is true. I can see why you might want to add some old stocks to a blend, though, and wonder whether that is why so much of the aged white Port which is now being sold as white colheitas or white tawnies was being registered with the IVDP at a time when it couldn’t be lawfully sold as such.
Glenn E. wrote:
20:30 Mon 01 Feb 2021
We asked Dirk Niepoort this question straight up, and he said that the types of grapes you need to make a great ruby Port and a great tawny Port are different. You might be able to use one to make the other, but it would not be using the grapes to reach their best potential.

His answer was long and complex, but at some basic level the main difference seems to be that ruby Ports need color and tannins, while tawny Ports need acidity and sugar.
This is interesting. It makes me wonder if different blends are better for tawny Ports. And perhaps different vineyards too?
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by Alex Bridgeman » 20:22 Wed 03 Feb 2021

I have been told on several occasions by different people that vineyards which traditionally give great grapes for Vintage Port rarely, if ever, give great grapes for colheita Port and vice versa.

As Glenn says, you need different characteristics in your grapes depending on whether you want the wine to mature in bottle or in wood. (Or a combination of the two.)

If you’re prepared to sacrifice a little quality and want to make good wine rather than great wine, you can play around with picking dates and pick your grapes with a little more acidity or a little over-ripe if you’re harvesting in a year where you are under commercial pressure to produce more of one style than normal, but generally you get to know where your Vintage grapes grow and where your tawny grapes grow and where the vineyards are which might flip between the two under different weather.
Top Ports in 2019: Niepoort VV (1960s bottling) and Quinta do Noval Nacional 2017
Top Ports in 2020 (so far): Croft 1945 and Niepoort VV (1960s bottling)

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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by Glenn E. » 23:26 Wed 03 Feb 2021

uncle tom wrote:
10:09 Wed 03 Feb 2021
I think this is actually a case of "it doesn't say you can't" which means that you probably could if you really wanted to. I've scoured the regulations looking for anything that talks about White VP, or anything that specifically prohibits it, and I can't find anything.
I'm not 100% sure about Portugal, but most of continental europe has laws framed around the concept that everything is prohibited except that which is allowed, whereas the UK legal framework takes the opposite stance.
In this case, the regulations don't talk about the color of the grapes at all. So if the above were to imply that white grapes cannot be used to make Vintage Port, the exact same argument could be made to say that red grapes cannot be used to make Vintage Port because the pertinent regulations to not specifically allow either. The references to grape color are found in the section that authorizes grapes for Port production, but that section says nothing about the style(s) of Port that they can be used in.

Jacob's argument holds more weight, which is that the resulting wine must have the character of what's trying to be made. One could easily argue that a VP made from white grapes does not have the character of a VP if one starts with the assumption that VP must be made from red grapes.
JacobH wrote: One also reads of white Port being added to tawny blends. I’ve heard on lodge tours it suggested that some shippers’ young tawnies are artificially aged by the process, although who knows whether that is true.
I've tasted tawny blends that 100% contain white grapes because the producer told us that they contain white grapes. These pre-blended, very old stocks are used to add character to various other blends such as 30- and 40-YO tawnies.

I've no proof that it is done with young tawnies as well, but would be very surprised if it is not. I've tasted many standard tawnies and tawny reserves that cannot possibly taste the way they taste based solely on the aging and blending of red grapes. The blends contain white grapes. It's the only way to get that flavor profile at that young of an age.

Simply consider the difference between an LBV (4-6 years in wood while trying to make a Ruby) and a very young Colheita (minimum of 7 years in wood while trying to make a Tawny). If you're trying to make a tawny Port and it's still as red and fruit-driven as a 10-year old Colheita, there's no way that a younger Port made from red grapes is going to taste more tawny. You have to blend in white grapes to get a basic Tawny or Tawny Reserve.
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Re: The last 5 years: good luck or an improvement?

Post by Andy Velebil » 07:24 Thu 04 Feb 2021

To be clear. It is not prohibited to mix white grapes and red grapes to make Port. Matter of fact, this is done often before the grapes are trodden (by foot or mechanically) depending on what those grapes are being used for. Which is usually a tawny of some sort. The white grapes add needed elements that can't be achieved by red grapes alone.

It is also quite easy to "artificially" age a Port (and any wine for that matter) and turn a young ruby into a tawny profile rather quickly. What one blends, what the "minimum" age law is and what gets approved by the IVDP aren't always congruent.

In the end, if it makes a good product, does it really matter? I'd argue it doesn't.

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