Host's Guide Summer 2010: Port

  • Photo by Cordero Studios/ www.corderostudios.com
    PORT. Left to right: A Steuben Teardrop decanter ($900) and a Colle Bibulo glass ($690, set of 6) and Broggi tray ($195), both from TableArt, with an array of 2007 vintages. Photo by Cordero Studios/ www.corderostudios.com
  • The Quinta do Cruzeiro vineyard in Portugal, which has been contributing to the Fonseca vintage port blend since 1912.
  • Croft Vintage Porto 2007
  • Taylor Fladgate Vintage Porto 2007
  • Graham's 2007 Vintage Port
  • Warre's 2007 Vintage Port
  • Smith Woodhouse 2007 Vintage Port
  • Cockburn's 2007 Vintage Port
  • Photo by Cordero Studios/ www.corderostudios.com

With an exceptional aroma, an intense flavor, and a deep, almost purple-black color, vintage ports are the most coveted, costly, and collectable of all the fortified wines. Subsequent to being certified by the Port Wine Institute, a vintage port is bottled and aged for two years, and then must be released within the third year, after which it is cellared—sometimes for decades—before reaching its peak of perfection. Small wonder, then, that vintages only constitute 2 percent of Portugal’s total port production.

Any port house can declare a vintage year, assuming its wine meets all the criteria. But elevated to an even more rarefied stratum is the classic vintage port, in which a vintage year has been universally declared by the majority of port houses. During the last century, there were only 25 universally declared classic vintages, averaging one every four years. Thus far into the new millennium (beginning in 2001), there have already been two universally declared vintages, the first being in 2003. But in most cases, the latest vintage, 2007, which started arriving in the United States last fall, is a surprisingly gentle port, yet one which many feel holds tremendous long-term promise. In fact, it was declared by more than 50 port houses.

"The 2007 vintage ports have been impressive from the start, displaying crisp, vibrant fruit and wonderful balance," says Adrian Bridge, managing director of the Fladgate Partnership, which produces Croft, Fonseca, and Taylor Fladgate. "They are incredibly approachable and possess great freshness, but with the acidity and structure to provide stamina and longevity."

A very small harvest resulted in a greatly reduced 2007 vintage, making it much scarcer than the past two classic vintages, 2000 and 2003. The lower yield of the five grape varieties needed to produce vintage port—Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Barroca— was due to a cool yet welcome relief from four previous hot, dry years, coupled with a wet winter.

"The 2007 harvest was notable for an unusually cool summer, resulting in well-balanced wines without any of the raisining that typifies Douro grapes in most years," says Rupert Symington, joint managing director of Symington Family Estates, whose labels include Graham’s, Warre’s, Dow’s, and Smith Woodhouse. "The wines have good acidity, racy tannins, and very floral aromas, while also having plenty of color. Yields were quite low across the Douro and particularly in our own riverside vineyards, resulting in great concentration. Overall, it was a brilliant year. The 2007 is quite unlike the 2003 or even 1994, which were notable for their ripe, voluptuous fruit and soft, almost unnoticeable tannins. The 2007 wines have real grip and much more of a fresh, tart fruit component."

By comparison, the 2000 harvest yielded aromatic characteristics on a par with the delicate 1997 vintage. And while the muscular flavors and accompanying aging potential of the 1994 vintage have made it a serious contender for cellaring, it is the 2007 vintage that some are already comparing to the classic 1945 vintage, which, although it has peaked, is still holding its own, and to the stellar 1963 vintage, in many cases still evolving. Yet some of the wines from the 2007 vintage are so refined in structure that they can be enjoyed now.

The 2007 vintage could very well turn out to be the long-term champion of the 21st century. Only time (or our grandchildren) will tell, but what follows is an overview of some of the best of the 2007 vintage ports.

BROADBENT
If the name seems familiar, it is because Bartholomew Broadbent, CEO of Broadbent Selections, is the son of Michael Broadbent, master of wine and noted port auctioneer and author. A recipient of his father’s expertise and a leading port expert in his own right, Bartholomew Broadbent launched his label by importing the stellar 1994 vintage. This is Broadbent’s fifth declared vintage and, in his words, "the best since 2000." It is rich in peppery blueberries and underlying floral accents, and, notes winemaker Dirk van der Niepoort, "a smooth, velvety texture takes over, contrasting perfectly with a delicious and rustic finish." The Broadbent vintage should cellar well for 20 to 30 years, and only 5,000 bottles will be produced. ($70)

CHURCHILL’S
This respected port house was founded in 1981 by winemaker Johnny Graham and his wife, Caroline Churchill. The warm 2007 summer and a late harvest resulted in richer-than-usual grapes and a blend that was enhanced for the first time by full-bodied wines from the Douro Superior region. This vintage emanates fruit-forward burnt blueberries and cedar, making it perfect for cigar pairing. Smoked chocolate-covered cherries emerge even at this early date, although its heady grasp will mellow with 30 to 40 years of cellaring. ($105)

SANDEMAN
Thick, sweet plums and raspberries with just a touch of vanilla linger in a long, dry, fruity finish that is filled with youthful tannins. "A lot of the charm of the 2007 vintage is coming through from the fruit, but it’s got wonderfully massive tannins in the back of the flavors," says George Sandeman, a seventh generation member of the founding family. "During the next six months to a year, the fruits will dumb down and the tannins will come out. But only after maybe five or six years will the tannins start to soften, and the fruits will come forward again. This is a long-aging vintage that can easily go 50 years, and very possibly beyond." ($75)

CROFT
"The character of Croft vintage ports is one of the most distinctive and individual of all our ports," says Fladgate’s Adrian Bridge. "Crammed with luscious, plump, jammy fruit in their youth, they develop great richness and complexity with age." The light yet powerful fruit found in the 2007 vintage is among the most delicate of the new offerings. This is only the second classic vintage (the first was 2003) to be released since the label has returned to family ownership, and it marks the re-institution of traditional foot-treading of the grapes in stone lagars. ($85)

FONSECA
This is one of the most revered classic vintage ports, and the 2007 offering maintains that legacy. Its inky color and fruity bouquet portend great things to come, with aromas of chocolate, coffee, black cherries, and a hint of mint. It is muscular yet sophisticated, albeit not as immediately drinkable as a few of the others. "Fonseca produces one of the most exotic and aromatically powerful of all vintage ports," says Bridge. "As would be expected of Fonseca, the nose is dominated by a massively potent and concentrated fruitiness. The heady opulence of a mature Fonseca vintage is almost intoxicating in its power and complexity." Indeed, even with 9,300 cases made, the 2007 Fonseca may soon disappear from shelves. ($96)

TAYLOR FLADGATE
Legendary winemaker David Guimaraens notes that all five of the classic grape varieties used in the 2007 Taylor Fladgate matured in tandem to produce this wonderfully balanced wine, which draws from three geographically divergent properties, or quintas: Vargellas, Terra Feita, and Junco. The wine’s opaque purple hue, floral notes, and herbal undertones suggest that its present delicacy will mature into strength over the years. "Taylor Fladgate vintages are recognized for their understated elegance and austerity in youth, and for their inner strength and vigor, which makes them among the most long-lasting wines," says Bridge. "A hallmark of the house style is the distinctive scented quality derived from the wines of Quinta de Vargellas." ($95)

GRAHAM’S
One of the more ethereal-tasting ports in the Symington Family Estates portfolio, even this early in its development, the 2007 vintage lives up to its reputation. "Graham’s is showing its classic soft, sweet blackberry and black-cherry fruit with aromas of eucalyptus," says Rupert Symington. "Its Malvedos component shines through in a multilayered, extraordinarily well-balanced wine." The full-flavored grapes from Graham’s flagship Quinta dos Malvedos vineyard were harvested 10 days later than normal, owing to the cooler weather, which enabled the classic ?floral characteristics of these grapes to become even more pronounced. It should mature by 2030 but may have the fortitude to go far beyond that date. ($90)

WARRE’S
Established in 1670, Warre’s has the distinction of being the first British-owned port house, although William Warre did not lend his name to the company until 1729. Today Warre’s ports are made by a combination of mechanical and traditional human treading to crush the grapes, and, for the first time, the 2007 bottling reflects the first Warre’s vintage made entirely from grapes sourced from their own vineyards, with more than half of the fruit coming from vines that are more than 50 years old. Too tight and delicate to open now, this vibrant port should be ready in about 15 to 20 years, by which time it will have fully developed its trademark characteristics of floral aromas wrapped around a solid tannic core. ($73)

DOW’S
This is one of the heavyweights in flavor among the reigning 2007 vintage champions. Big, bold, and almost brash in its youth, it comes thundering out of the bottle with plump cherries, plums, dark chocolate, healthy tannins, and a dry spice. It can easily go 20 to 30 years, but given its muscle, one would expect it to reach the half-century mark—and possibly beyond. And yet it has enough body to be enjoyed after about five to 10 years of cellaring, although it would be a shame not to let it reach its full potential. This vintage derives its strength from two Symington-owned vineyards, Quinta do Bomfim and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira. "Bomfim gives the wine solid backbone, while Senhora da Ribeira provides its violet aromas," notes Rupert Symington. ($76)

SMITH WOODHOUSE
Among the gentlest of all the 2007 vintages, the Smith Woodhouse is slightly tart, with cedar and sweet cherries on the finish. The tannins are tight and spicy, with a surprising sweetness. Past vintages were made exclusively from one harvest in the Rio Torto vineyards, but the 2007 vintage also included grapes from the Quinta do Vale Coelho, a property formerly owned by Cockburn’s that contains a number of older vines, which give this newest vintage a slightly firmer grip. ($56)

COCKBURN’S
Another one of the soft and gentle 2007 vintages, this wine will easily age for 20 years or more, but it can certainly be enjoyed sooner than that. Interestingly, most of the grapes used in the 2007 vintage come from Cockburn’s most recent purchase, Quinta dos Canais, so the style may tip slightly toward a more robust nature. Nonetheless, a typically dry and elegant personality dominates. ($65)

POURING PORT
Normally vintage port should be decanted to filter out sediment. But because some 2007 vintages are so fruit-forward, they can be enjoyed now; decanting at this early stage is unnecessary. Even after three to four years, there has not been enough time for sediment to form in the bottle. “It’s not worth it to decant these young vintages,” notes George Sandeman. “And I don’t think you’d get much more aroma than you’re getting.”

STORING PORT
Air is the enemy of vintage port, and once a bottle is opened it will start losing flavor, texture, and body within 24 hours. Pumping air out of the bottle with a device such as VacuVin Vacuum Wine Saver (www.vacuvin.com) is one method for storage of up to 48 hours. But an even better method is filling the opened bottle with a harmless, tasteless argon/nitrogen gas sold for this purpose by Private Preserve (www.privatepreserve.com). Then keep the tightly corked bottle in the refrigerator until ready to open it again.

“We’ve been able to store an opened bottle of vintage port for up to two weeks using nitrogen and argon gas,” notes Rob Bigelow, master sommelier and director of wine at Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. “It won’t have the same vitality it originally had, but it will last a lot longer than a still wine.”

A TIME TO STORE, A TIME TO POUR
‘‘Vintage ports usually reach their initial drinkability at around 20 to 25 years of age,” says Rob Bigelow, master sommelier and director of wine at Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. “For instance, I bought, for my own personal consumption, a case of Warre’s ’94. At the 10-year mark [I opened] a bottle and it was not ready at all. It was not integrated and was still much too hot [with alcohol] and too sweet. At the 15-year mark, I broke out a second bottle. There was a marked difference. This time it was nitrated, had started to knit together, and although it was not completely nuanced yet, the potential was clear.

“Right now at Aria, the vintage port I’m selling is the 1985. In fact, the ’85 Warre’s is tasting great right now. I don’t have the luxury of storing cellar wines for 20 years here at the hotel, so considering my return on investment, it does not make sense for me to stock the 2007 vintages, even though it may be one of the greatest vintages ever. It doesn’t even make fiscal sense for me to buy the 2003 or even the 1994 vintages. I just let others age it, and buy it when it’s ready. And the ’85s are great right now, so that’s what I’m pouring.”

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