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Ports for the Ages

A spectacular vintage and intriguing cellared releases make this a rare moment for collectors of Portugal’s native fortified wine.

Like any dutiful port collector, I check my cellared bottles religiously. So it was with a sense of muted horror that I recently noticed some sticky sweet drops directly beneath a bottle of 1945 Dow’s—one of the greatest vintages of the 20th century. The wax-sealed cork was similarly wet and sticky. Obviously it was leaking. But for how long? With the Dow’s darkened glass bottle, it was impossible to tell. Even worse, air might have gotten inside and tainted the taste of the port itself. I soon rationalized that the only sensible thing to do was open the bottle, decant the port, and drink it.

I carefully withdrew the oh-so-brittle, amber-stained cork and braced for the worst. It took a moment for the delicate bouquet inside the bottle to stir, like awakening an elderly soul from a deep sleep. But slowly the pale garnet port—once a deep blue-black in its youth—became alive with ethereal but still-vibrant essences of apples, cinnamon, almonds, and oak, all of which intertwined with an exceptionally long finish. This 69-year-old classic, far from being ruined, might have endured for another decade.

Perhaps more than any other type of wine, port is a form of time travel, bottled and corked, destined to be enjoyed generations later. Unlike many wines that are meant to be consumed upon purchase, vintage ports are designed not only to be aged, but to age extremely well as the decades roll on, increasing in depth and complexity and consequently—and to many collectors, just as importantly—in value.

Still, bought upon release, vintage port is one of the least expensive fine wines to collect, with prices averaging $55 to $105 for top-tier bottles of the current vintage. And this is a particularly opportune time for collectors, or anyone who wants to start a portfolio of vintage port. There have been recent intriguing releases, such as the millennial vintages from Graham’s and Dow’s, but more significantly: The most recent vintage, the 2011, is the most heralded vintage port of this century and is destined to become one of the best, already drawing comparisons to the best vintages of the past 100 years. Released last fall, the 2011 is a rare universally declared vintage, the result of a perfect growing season in Portugal’s Douro Valley, with Mother Nature providing just the right combination of temperature and moisture for a small but perfect harvest.

Bartholomew Broadbent, CEO of Broadbent Selections, does not mince words: “Our winemaker, Dirk Niepoort, reports that it is one of the best vintages in his memory,” he says. “He and I discussed whether to declare [for the Broadbent label] and it was a no-brainer. If we didn’t make a great port in 2011, well, we might as well give up!”

For a vintage to be declared, the grapes must be harvested in an exceptional year, as with other great wines and Grand Cru Champagnes. While any port house can theoretically declare a vintage, to be ranked as universally declared the year must be acknowledged by a majority of the Douro Valley’s port producers. In addition, of the more than 200 grape varietals grown in Portugal, usually the top five—Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Barroca—traditionally are used for vintage blends. Consequently, the grapes must all be of exceptional quality, possessing intense aromas and deep flavors and exhibiting rich purple-black colors. The wines from these grapes must then be meticulously blended to achieve a specific port house style.

It does not end there. After a few days of resting in stainless-steel vats, further fermentation of the wine is halted by the addition of a government-approved neutral brandy selected by the port producer, albeit one that bears little resemblance to the distilled spirit typically sipped from a snifter. This version has no color and quite a bit of alcoholic bite—it boosts the alcohol content of the wine to approximately 20 percent. Once fortified, the wines must be approved by the government’s Port and Douro Wines Institute, which meticulously assesses color, aroma, structure, and taste. Think of it as a liquid dissection.

After the fortified wines pass this rigorous test, they are aged for two years in neutral oak or stainless-steel casks, which act merely as holding vessels. Two to three years later, the wines are bottled unfiltered and their true test of greatness begins: How well they age will determine their greatness, usually judged by future generations. Needless to say, these declared vintages, which make up about 2 percent of all port production, are among the most coveted and collected wines in the world. During the last century, only 25 vintages have been universally declared. The 2011 was only the fourth since the start of the new millennium.

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For those who appreciate Portugal’s native fortified wine, aged bottles will most likely come from their own cellars or be sourced from other collectors, specialty liquor stores, or auctions. Restaurants rarely have vintage ports on their lists; for example, even Spago Beverly Hills, with ts acclaimed 30,000-bottle cellar, features only seven vintage port selections.

“In recent years there have been a number of very fine vintage ports made,” says Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate Partnership, which is responsible for Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, and Croft ports, among others. “In the decade of ’00 we had 2000, which was very stylish; the 2003, which was big, with great depth and power; the 2007—complex, layered, and sophisticated; the 2009, a multilayered and multifaceted old-style vintage port; and the most recent 2011 vintage, which is powerful, elegant, and a truly exceptional wine. The 2007 and 2009 vintages were launched during the recession, when people had other priorities, so they are still presenting exceptional value.”

As with wine collecting in general, it is imperative to know which port vintages are desirable and which are not. For example, during the last century, some of the greatest port vintages were 1945, 1955, 1963, 1970, 1977, 1985, 1994, 1997, and 2000. But in case you missed that 1912 Cockburn’s—still possessing a peppery dried-fruit and burnt-citrus essence after all these years—there is still hope. Some of these vintages, especially from the 1970s on, can still be found at specialty retailers and at auction. And another general caveat of wine collecting also applies to port: The older classics are riskier. For example, some of the 1963s are starting to peak.

There are also some vintages to avoid. “There have been some disappointing bottlings from [non-universally declared] years such as 1967 and 1987,” notes Rupert Symington, a fourth-generation owner of Symington Family Estates, whose brands include Graham’s, Warre’s, Dow’s, and Cockburn’s. “That said, vintage port outpaced the fine-wine market in the 1970s and 1980s but stagnated a little in the 1990s and 2000s, when Bordeaux in particular, but also top Californian wines, enjoyed a massive boom in price. Nevertheless, vintage ports such as the 1994s have tripled in value in the 20 years since they were released; the current price is $135, versus its release price of $45 per bottle.”

According to Bridge, a good rule of thumb for collectors is that a more recent vintage is likely to be less of a risk than an older one, “given the advances in viticulture, vinification, and the growing interest in vintage ports in recent years.”

The 2011 is decidedly different from the other three vintages produced so far in this century. It is full bodied and muscular, with enough complexity for many brands to be drinkable now. Yet its tannins are thick and silky enough to more than hint at potential for extremely long aging—as much as 90 to 100 years by some winemakers’ estimations.

As a result, the unique qualities of this vintage have led to comparisons to two other legendary but vastly different vintage ports: the now-peaking 1963, in terms of its potential for long-term aging and relative body and structure, and the bold and robust 1994, which is just starting to come into its own and also shows great promise for aging. In fact, even though the 2011 was only universally declared last year, it already possesses many of the attributes of the 1994 vintage.

“I think all of the basic characteristics of the 1994 and the 2011 are the same,” Symington says. “The minerality is the same, and there are a lot of other parallels to be drawn between the two vintages. Obviously all our vintage ports are not the same, so some of the 2011s will be more like the ’94 than others. But on the whole I think that’s the best comparison to draw.”

To be sure, the 1994 Graham’s, upon its initial release, was extremely intense and packed with rich red berries. Similarly, the 2011 Graham’s is muscular, slightly more linear, but equally as rich with candied fruit–soaked tannins. It is ready to be enjoyed now, although this wine easily has the potential for aging at least 20 years.

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Ramos Pinto, which characteristically produces more delicately structured vintage ports, exhibited a racy blend of ripe fruit held together by thick, heavy tannins in its 1994 vintage, while the 2011 Ramos Pinto, coming in at 19.5 percent alcohol (compared to 20 percent for most port houses), is notable for its hint of cherries and traces of black olives. It definitely deserves a minimum of 10 years to bring out its full potential. Similarly, the 2011 Churchill’s should be cellared for at least a decade, but potentially, according to founder Johnny Graham, as long as 50 years.

The chewy flavors of the 2011 Fonseca, the medium-bodied spice of the 2011 Ferreira, the milk chocolate and dried figs of the 2011 Croft, and the sweet cherried almonds of the 2011 Sandeman are all elements that make them drinkable now, although the Sandeman should be decanted and allowed to aerate for at least an hour. And of course, they all have the potential to age for decades.

“One of the great things about vintage port is that it characterizes the year in which it was brought out,” says David Guimaraens, chief winemaker for the Fladgate Partnership, responsible for Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, and Croft ports, among others. “And the 2011 ports stand out not only for their intensity but also for their incredible purity. The tannins have great definition but are quite silky at the same time. But a pleasant surprise was how these big brutes ended up as polished as they are today.”

Although 2011 was a spectacular vintage, the harsh growing conditions, coupled with vines struggling to sink their roots as deep as 40 feet into the steep granite slopes that line the Douro River, has resulted in an extremely small yield. Graham’s and Dow’s, for example, were able to produce half the cases of previous vintage years. “Symington is known for holding back some of our vintages and releasing them later on, as aged bottlings,” Symington says. “In most vintages we sell about two-thirds of what we produce and hold back one-third. But the 2011 is the first vintage in which we’ve held back almost nothing, because we’ve produced so little and have already gotten so much demand for it.”

If ever there was any doubt about part of the rationale behind collecting vintage port, it was dispelled on May 20, 2014, when Symington announced it was rereleasing its celebrated “millennial” 2000 vintage Graham’s and Dow’s ports, which were first put on the market in 2003. After a decade and a half of cellaring, they are substantially deeper and richer in color and flavor. The current prices are $110 for the 2000 Graham’s and $99 for the 2000 Dow’s. When they were originally released, they sold for $75 and $65, respectively. Thus, continuously escalating value and quality are the rewards for waiting. And for those impatient buyers, Symington will do the waiting for you.

A few years ago, Symington released some of its remaining bottles of Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos 1998 single-estate vintage to great acclaim, with those who remembered the youthful complexity of this port upon original release marveling at its thicker, tannin-laden and dried-fig flavors. The fact that vintage ports continue to age in the bottle is another allure of port collecting. There is an undeniable feeling of accomplishment in pulling out a bottle of the legendary 1945 Dow’s, whether to share at a dinner party, deliver to the auction block, or, on a particularly memorable afternoon, discover that an old friend you had feared gone is more alive than ever.

Uncommon Characters

When it comes to vintage port, perhaps the least known and most misunderstood style is the single quinta. Made with grapes from a single farm (quinta in Portuguese), the single quinta is like a single-estate wine, with all the grapes coming from just one area.

Unlike a vintage port, which is blended from a combination of quintas and can only be declared when an overall harvest is exceptional, a single-quinta vintage can be declared any year the port house feels a particular microclimate has produced a spectacular wine. Thus, single-quinta vintage years do not necessarily coincide with declared vintage years. But with the 2011 vintage, the growing season in the Douro Valley produced such outstanding wines that almost every port house producing a single-quinta port did so with this benchmark vintage.

Like vintage ports, a single-quinta vintage is blended and must be barrel-aged for two years, then bottled unfiltered and released during the third year. However, unlike vintage ports, which are often aged for decades, many single quintas are at their peak within five to 10 years, and some can be enjoyed immediately, although, like vintage ports, once opened they should be consumed within 24 hours. Here are some of our top picks from the 2011 vintage. Coincidently, all of them use grapes that have been foot-trodden in lagares.

2011 Quinta do Vesuvio

Thick and powerful, a classic example of a single quinta, full of violets and licorice resting on a thick carpet of tannins. It is ready to drink now, but can easily be aged for 20 years or more. ($89)

2011 Capela da Quinta do Vesuvio

Laced with light candied marzipan, this is only the second vintage (the first was 2007) for this extremely limited example of Symington port-making at its best. “I would love to produce more vintages like this,” says Rupert Symington, “but there is so very little of it.” Only 2,400 bottles were produced. ($125)

2011 Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha

The queen of the Taylor Fladgate properties, this quinta is composed of some of their oldest vines, with well-established root structures. It takes the grapes of four vines to produce one bottle of this enchanting port, which is layered with blackberries and dark chocolate and lingers with a slightly smoky finish. ($268)

2011 Quinta do Noval Vintage Nacional

Quinta do Noval only sources grapes for its vintage ports from its namesake vineyard. Thus, all of its vintages are single quintas. But within the heart of this 358-acre property is a 5-acre parcel known as Nacional, with ungrafted vines that have never been touched by phylloxera and which give its vintages a distinctive quality. While the 2011 Quinta do Noval is delicate and balanced, the 2011 Nacional is bigger, bolder, and deeper in complexity. It is also the first Nacional declared since 2004. ($1,050)

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