Vindicating Vintage Port

Vindicating Vintage Port

Post by Chuck Hayward | July 22nd, 2011

Whatever the excuse, be it warm weather or too much wine during dinner, many of us ignore port. Since it can be hard to amass a serious understanding of a wine unless you drink it, I welcomed the opportunity to acquaint myself with some recently declared 2009s and the rare chance to look at how the previous three vintages are shaping up.

In the world of vintage port, the qualities of a specific wine are tied to the nature of the vintage as interpreted through the lens of each port house.  Therefore, it is as important to know what the vintage brings to the table (err, glass) as it is to know the style of the brand. Over the centuries, each house has developed a unique flavor profile. For me, the ability of a port house to make a wine that is true to their style is of utmost importance, as a customer should know what kind of wine to expect when they purchase a bottle of Grahams or Taylor Fladgate port.

Geoff Labitzke, MW (l) and Robert Bower (c) deep in Port

With winemaker David Guimaraens there to detail the vintage variations and sales manager Robert Bower— representing the 8th generation of his family’s involvement in winemaking in the Douro Valley—along to discuss his port lodges, it was the perfect occasion to summarize the vintages we tasted and provide a preview to the upcoming 2009s.

Hopefully, I’ll be drinking more port with friends in the near future and not have to wait until the winemakers of the Douro declare another vintage to keep up with what is happening in this special region.

THE HOUSES:

CROFT

With a history that dates back to 1588, Croft was purchased by The Fladgate Partnership eleven years ago. The recent transaction has lead to major investments in both the vineyard and the cellar. Looking at the wines produced in the “oughts”, it is clear that Croft has defined its style as a soft, medium-bodied and approachable port. Here, you will find moderate fruit intensity along with an elegant profile and very soft tannins that can provide for perfect near-term drinking.

2009 Croft Vintage Port

Purple/black color. Moderately intense aromas of violet mingle with graphite and charcoal elements that later open up to show creamy dark fruit. Not spirit-y at all, the medium-weighted fruit is not richly textured but is elegant and focused on the palate and presented purely with enticing flavors of spicy crème de cassis. The whole experience ends with spicy, peppery tannins that are firmly structured. Approachable now, this will deliver earlier satisfaction down the road. 93 points

FONSECA

To me, the Fonseca style has always been about fruit, showing a purity that makes them very easy to understand for those just learning about port. Yet they also provide an innate sense of excitement when drunk young because they are so approachable—full bodied yet maintaining an inherent balance that avoids overly broad textures or super ripe flavors. The typically long finish of a Fonseca port is centered on round, fruit flavors with very fine tannins lying underneath.  The core of vibrant fruit that is so noticeable in its youth continues on as the wine ages and remains its most identifiable characteristic for decades.

2009 Fonseca Vintage Port

Dark purple black in color, the bouquet is unusually open and broad revealing aromas of ripe dark fruit. The overall impression is one of soft textures with round and mouth-filling plum flavors that are medium to medium-full bodied. The finish is also supple and lingering with silky textures, thanks to fine and subtle tannins. Not as concentrated as past vintages at this point in its cycle, nonetheless, there is a comforting and familiar quality about it that accurately represents the Fonseca style. Will be best in 15 years. 94 points

TAYLOR FLADGATE

The style of Taylor Fladgate’s vintage port is so unique that it is often the easiest to pick out in a flight. Generally considered more masculine in style, it is akin to Bollinger or Latour in that it offers up intense power and concentration backed up by a firm backpalate. The hallmark of a Taylor port is a structured, tannic finish that is never overbearing while maintaining a quiet presence throughout its life. In no way delicate, these are robust ports, showing a great capability to age, and the favorite of those who appreciate power over elegance.

2009 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port

Possessing the deepest and most opaque color of the portfolio, one can sense the intense structure of this wine on the nose as a mélange of spice and fruit swirls about the bowl. The bouquet opens slowly to reveal intense blackberry syrup notes along with crème de cassis. Beautifully balanced, the medium-weighted fruit piles concentration on the backpalate, which bodes well for cellaring. So does the long lingering finish, which has notes of graphite minerals mingling with fine tannins. A classic example of what a Taylor port should be, this vintage can go 40 years, no problem. 96 points

2009 Taylor Fladgate “Vargellas Vinha Velha” Vintage Port

From a plot of the oldest vines on Talyor’s “Quinta de Vargellas” estate, many of which are over 100 years old. Opaque purple/black color that possesses a broader garnet rim than the classic Taylor port. The bouquet is quite distinctive, possessing more of a savory component than overt fruity qualities. Subtle aromas of sausage, grilled meat and wild spices lay atop blackberry notes. More elegant than powerful, the palate affords up medium-weighted flavors that show pure yet subtle fruit expressions of intense berry, framed by dark chocolate. 94 points

THE VINTAGES:

2000

This vintage is just beginning to show the benefit of time in the cellar. While still retaining a core of sweet, primary fruit flavors, the wines are beginning to shed the focus and definition that young ports usually possess. The fruit textures are beginning to soften, revealing raspberry and strawberry flavors, while secondary characteristics of caramel, nutmeg and cinnamon are starting to appear. Nevertheless, there is still some intense fruit at the core of these wines. A few more years and the 2000s will be entering a perfect phase for those who want a softer style of vintage port.

2003

The 2003s currently occupy a qualitative space between the 2000 and 2007 vintages. They lack the intense fruit concentration that is the hallmark of the 2007 vintage while the 2000s are starting to enter a new stage in their development. The ’03 wines seem to be opening up a little more quickly than might be expected given their youth. Given how these examples are today, this vintage is a shade below its brethren but could also offer good value.

2007

The 2007s presented show much more power and character and are more uniform across the board at this point. Clearly looking like the best wines of the decade, they offer great richness of fruit with concentrated and intense flavors. Still youthful, it will be some time before the ’07s start to soften up and show some broader textures. Based on these examples, this vintage seems to possess everything needed to go a long distance. Savvy collectors should snap these up as prices for many of the top wines are still quite reasonable.

2009

Based on what was poured, there is no doubt that 2009 will produce some vintage ports that have the potential to become classics among the other wines made in the first decade of the 21st century. From these three examples, however, I sense more variation than similarities. In great vintages, vintage ports show more uniformity of style across the board. As of now, I do not see the power and intensity that the 2007s currently exhibit so perhaps this will be an early developer. Tasting a few more examples will help provide a clearer picture of the vintage.

Stay tuned…

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