For a vintage port, the most rare and coveted of fortified wines, the path to market is fraught with foul weather and red tape. After a cold and rainy winter, a dry spring, and a long, hot summer extending into early fall, the grapevines struggling on the harsh granite slopes along Portugal’s Douro River produce a fruit bursting with juices and natural sugars. Even after such a succession, the resulting port must be certified by the region’s viticultural supervising body, the Douro and Port Wine Institute, to be “declared” a vintage. In the past 100 years, the council, in its various incarnations, has declared only 26 universal vintages.
The most recent universal vintage, the 2000, an intense, deeply hued wine released last year, may eclipse the quality of its finest peers from the 20th century. “The 2000 vintage has great aging potential that will not even start to be realized until 2010 to 2015,” says Miguel Côrte-Real, the commercial and viticultural director at Cockburn’s, whose 2000 bottling is plump with smoky cherries soaked with cassis. Côrte-Real knows something about a port’s aging potential: Cockburn’s 1912, from one of the first notable vintages of the last century, shows only slightly faded color and still possesses tantalizing flavors of burnt citrus, pepper, and dried fruit.
Other benchmark vintages from the 20th century include 1945 and 1963, the latter of which is still maturing. Many vintages from the 1970s and ’80s, on the other hand, are at their best now. “There are still some ports from 1945 that are at their finest,” says Eddie Kerkhofs, owner of the reopened West Hollywood landmark restaurant Le Dôme, where Fonseca 1970 and Warre’s 1970 highlight a constantly evolving wine list. “But we found the two vintages that we are currently serving to be outstanding. A port drinker, if he orders a Fonseca 1970, knows it was a good vintage—and is ready for drinking now.” Indeed, the burnt tannins, plums, and black cherries of Warre’s 1970 and the headier dark chocolate and nutty overtones of a Fonseca 1970 may not survive another decade.
When it first debuted, the 1994 vintage, a full-bodied, tannic wine that is primed for long-term aging, was considered a worthy rival to the 1963. But that was before the arrival of the 2000, a low-production vintage of almost unprecedented quality. “The 2000 is clearly an exceptional year that produced fine vintage ports from all of our houses,” says Adrian Bridge, managing director of the Fladgate Partnership, which comprises Taylor’s, Fonseca, Croft, and Delaforce. “The year started off with rain, which reduced yields, but was followed by excellent summer ripening conditions. The August heat produced thick skins and very high color levels—the analytical data shows the highest color intensity of the last 30 years.”
Peter Symington, winemaker for Symington Family Port Companies, whose portfolio includes Dow’s, Graham’s, and Warre’s, is equally emphatic: “The 2000s not only have tremendous structure, but they’ve got these fabulous floral aromas, very rich, complex, and violety at such an early stage. They sort of jump out of the glass, with a lot of rich, brambly fruit. The 2000, in my mind, will be recognized as a great classic year.”
Perhaps, but the wines are still young. The true measure of a great vintage is how well it ages in the bottle. Still, while we will not know the 2000’s place in history for many years to come, collectors should seize the opportunity to obtain a bottle—or case—of this exceptional vintage.