Vintage Port is the last great wine bargain on the planet. Top VPs from Taylor’s, Dow’s, Fonseca, Graham’s, Quinta do Noval, and numerous others, are, quality wise, on par with wines like Latour, Lafite or Grand Cru Burgundy.
While reports of the demise of the category might be exaggerated, to their credit, the Portuguese have never given up. The 2016 vintage might be their reward.
Although 2015 was a fine year and there were many declarations – the lack of interest from the Symington group, other than with Cockburn’s, was the death knell for any hope of it being considered a truly great year – 2016 is the first widely declared and generally acclaimed vintage since 2011. The respective merits of ’11 and ’16 will, no doubt, be debated long and hard by Port lovers for years to come – both stellar, but two very different styles.
If power, concentration and richness are your thing, ’11 is for you. If finesse, purity and elegance is preferred, you will be utterly entranced by ’16, though have no doubt that there is some serious concentration to be found in the better wines.
For those who prefer their VPs young, the ’16s will be an ideal vintage. Young VPs today are more approachable and enjoyable than those encountered in past decades. Try one now if you must, but remember the beauty in the ’16s will not truly reveal itself for many years yet.
Although the conventional wisdom is that Port, especially VP, is struggling, there is evidence the tide has turned. Figures show that since 2010, premium sales across all of the Houses has increased by almost 30 million euros. Though the majority is in the old tawny category, VP is also enjoying a surge of interest.
The ’11 and ’16 were the most successful ever experienced. Auction and resale prices are also on the move. Dow’s ’11, for example, has already tripled. Although prices have increased for the ’16 vintage, expect them to continue this trend.
So, what is vintage Port? The short answer: a fortified wine, made from a blend of red varieties and usually many vineyards. Made in the usual manner of fortified wine, with additional alcohol stopping the fermentation to leave a degree of sweetness in the wine, it will spend two years in barrels before bottling. The magic then happens... over time.
Good examples can last the better part of a century. You don’t have to wait that long, but a decade or two is usually considered de rigueur. It is said the ideal time to judge a VP is after 20 years. Vintages are not made every year – most Houses average around three to four vintages a decade.
VPs are usually considered the pinnacle of Port, but there are other styles. Ruby Port tends to be simple, easy-to-drink. They’ll be blends of vineyards, varieties and vintages, but rarely with any great age; the better grapes finding homes elsewhere.
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) was supposedly started by Noval in the ’50s. The idea is to have a vintage-style Port, basically a ruby from a single vintage, which has experienced a longer time in cask, usually four to eight years. You get the VP style, for a fraction of the cost and far less time.
Tawnies are Ports aged in the barrel, usually large vats, for many years, sometimes decades. If from a single vintage, they are called colheitas.
Naturally, in a large region like the Douro, conditions varied during the 2016 vintage, but in general there was a wet winter which continued into spring. Crops were reduced and veraison was two to three weeks later than usual.
The weather turned hot with days reaching more than 40°C, yet conditions were such that an even ripening was enjoyed. The amount of rain that had previously fallen meant vines could continue to ripen as reserves had been restored, but the heat started to close things down.
The earlier cooler periods left their mark, however, in these more elegant wines. Northeast-facing vineyards had some protection and this allowed for more lifted notes and aromatics to develop.
Some late rain helped the maturing grapes and allowed them to ripen. Those who waited until after the rains found perfect conditions for harvesting; the cooler nights providing well-balanced fermentations, as well as quality tannins.
The end result was an outstanding vintage of finesse, vibrant acidity, elegance, concentration and length. Around 70 vintage Ports were declared by the Houses, one of the largest numbers of all time.
David Guimaraens, a sixth-generation producer who runs both Taylor’s and Fonseca, divides vintages into those which offer freshness, finesse and acidity and those which have more richness, shrivelled fruit, concentration and power.
Vintages like 1966, 1970, 2003 and 2011 fit the latter style, while 1963, 1977, 2007 and 2016 represent the former. For me ’16 most closely resembled 1977, but with all the improvements in the vineyards and wineries, we are seeing potentially even better wines.
Guimaraens included 1963 in that and added that a great VP needs to be able to go for at least 80 years. In other words, ’16 sits with some of the greatest vintages the region has ever seen.
Of course, a great vintage is not the end of it. As well as a top vintage, it has to be a vintage which suits the House, otherwise there is little point in declaring.
If you have not visited the Douro, move it to the very top of your bucket list immediately. Food and accommodation in the region have taken a quantum leap. And the vineyards are some of the most spectacular in the world; steep slopes leading down to the magnificent Douro River.
I managed to see about 60 of the 70 or so vintage Ports that were declared, some several times. Notable omissions were Quinta do Noval Nacional, Smith Woodhouse and Niepoort. Some of these will not come to Australia, others in tiny quantities. Prices will sit from $100 to $200, depending on the wine.
➼ Churchill’s Vintage Port An opaque purple, this is so young. Nose of dark berries, cassis, bottled spices and florals. This is dense but dances. The purity and the pristine fruit, surely the hallmark of the 2016 vintage, shine here. Soft, mouth-coating tannins. Great length. A wonderful young Port and one that obviously has many years of providing pleasure ahead of it. 96+ points.
➼ Cockburn’s Vintage Port This is a fabulous effort, pure yet dense. It is one of the most wonderfully aromatic 2016 VPs. Black fruits dominate and it really packs in the flavour. Good acidity, spirit and, together with some slightly crunchy tannins, all the components needed for the future. This is well balanced. And like all the good 2016 VPs, amazing length. Years ahead of it. 95 or 96 points.
➼ Dow’s Vintage Port How does it compare with Dow’s’ legendary 2011? For me, different but equally exciting, though one could argue that the more powerful vintage in ’11 was more suited to the style of Dow’s than the elegance we find in ’16. That said, it seems to have made little difference.
Dark fruits here, blueberry, some warm earth, grapeseed and chocolate. The wine exhibits the House’s austerity and power, matched with richness of flavour and incredible length, and yet remains seamless throughout. The ultimate iron fist in a velvet glove. 5,480 cases. 98–99 points.
➼ Ferreira Vintage Port Ferreira, Offley and Sandeman – all famous names and all producers involved in making Ports since the 1700s and early 1800s. All are now part of the Sogrape empire. This effort might sit neatly between the Offley and Sandeman in style.
Purple/black colour. There is complexity here. Seamless with fine balance and ideally suited to the more elegant style of the 2016 vintage. Lingers beautifully with those pristine fruit flavours to the fore. Good spirit and fine tannins, all well balanced. 96 points.
➼ Fonseca Vintage Port Intense deep purple. Has a profound depth of flavour. Black fruits, florals, cloves, black olives, but the most dominant flavour at the moment is plums; juicy ripe, messy, chin-staining plums. Serious concentration here.
It seems to have a slightly more austere character than the Taylor’s. It has that intriguing note of grapeseed. The texture is so supple, so velvety. Everything is already in balance and there are fine, very long tannins and extraordinary length. A VP with a huge future. Just a baby. 99 points.
➼ Graham’s Vintage Port Near perfect and very nearly the wine of the vintage. Purply black. This has the exciting ‘purity and pristine fruit’ (the trademark of the 2016 vintage) in spades. Impeccably balanced. Great length.
Densely flavoured with blueberry and dark fruits, spices, kid leather, chocolate. The merest hint of sweetness, but balance is such that it is almost difficult to pull out such an individual component. Cashmere-like tannins. This has decades ahead of it. 6,325 cases. 99+ points.
➼ Pintas Vintage Port If there is a producer of Port which is a must-follow, this is it. There are some 3,000 bottles of this excellent VP for this vintage, dominated by old vine material.
Dark purple. This is a bigger, fuller Port than many, richly flavoured. Chocolate and liquorice. Slightly austere, there are very fine tannins, excellent length and the power and concentration normally found in the top wines. This will look very special in time. 95 points.
➼ Quinta das Carvalhas Vintage Port Lashings of fruit and flavour dominate this still-so-young wine. Purple colours. A nose of soft black fruits. Good concentration and serious and obvious grip. Good length and real intensity.
At the moment, it feels like the concentration here is sucking the sweetness out. Some of the ’16s could, if you must, be enjoyed now for what they are. For me, this is not one of them. It really does need time. 94 points.
➼ Quinta de Roriz Vintage Port Acquired (jointly with the Prats family) by the Symingtons in 2009, 2016 sees just 350 cases from this famous old estate. This is a highly desirable site and the Symingtons are making the most of it.
This is a cracker. It has good aromatics and ripeness. It’s slightly less fleshy, more focused than some, but lifts on the palate. Excellent balance, very fine tannins and really lovely persistence. A great future. 97 points.
➼ Quinta do Crasto Vintage Port I’ll confess, a personal favourite when it comes to Port producers, so it was fingers crossed this stood up as one would wish. No need to worry. A star of the vintage. The finesse and purity, evident in the best of the vintage, are all too apparent here, backed up by some serious power.
We have florals, a gentle sweetness that does not intrude, and a dedicated focus. The class and the pristine fruit of this stellar vintage is on show here. 97 points.
➼ Quinta do Noval Vintage Port My ultimate score was 95, which by any standards is more than decent, but given the House’s reputation and the vintage, I expected better.
No question, very good, but it did not have the excitement level that transcends the very best of the vintage.
The colour appeared slightly redder than most of the opaque samples I saw. There were lovely fragrances of florals and red fruits, leather and spices. It was certainly more elegant than many, and nothing wrong with that, and it will surely age well for a long time. It just did not flick the switch in the way others did. All that said, it was still a really good young VP. 95 points.
➼ Quinta Vale Dona Maria Vintage Port The von Zellers sold Quinta do Noval in 1993 and Cristiano quickly established his future, purchasing vineyards from his wife’s family, a quinta which dated back many decades and was very highly regarded. The first VP was 1997, bottled by Niepoort, but the rest are all Cristiano.
Spice, aniseed, dry herbs, dried fruits, liquorice. Tight and focused. Silky tannins. They have taken full advantage of the purity offered by the ’16 vintage. 95 points.
➼ Rozès Vintage Port This VP is sourced from all across the Douro, whereas Rozès’ Sao Pedro is a blend from five specific quintas. This is the more floral with blueberry and darker fruits included. Good focus, fine tannins, lingers nicely. The more approachable of the pair. Good ripeness; an exciting future. 94 points.
➼ Taylor’s Vintage Port Vibrant purple, this is ripe, generous and plush. The amazing purity and pristine fruit of the ’16s is evident here. Clove, blackberry, lovely soft kid leather and quality dark chocolate.
Exuberance but all in balance, this is seamless with micro-fine tannins. There is good spirit, again in balance. Nothing is so much as an eyelash out of place. Elegance, purity and incredible length, with the intensity maintained throughout this ever-so-long finish. Timeless. 100 points.
➼ Warre’s Vintage Port One of the famous names of the region, though one which sometimes seems to sit a notch behind the superstars. Not so here. Warre’s is one of
the more elegant VPs. The slightly higher elevation of the Warre’s vineyard leans towards wines of purity and elegance. This example also exhibits exquisite balance and length.
Wonderfully fragrant and moves through to such finely crafted tannins. Dark berries, mulberry, plum and tobacco leaf notes. This might not offer the power of some big names, but this is the greatest Warre’s I have ever seen, perhaps the finest they have ever made. Will age brilliantly over several decades. 4,250 cases. 98 points.