Vintage Port for the Ages

The powerful 2011 Vintage Ports Approach Perfection

Excerpted from the Feb. 28, 2014, issue

Overall, more than 20 wines rated a classic 95 points or higher on Wine Spectator‘s 100-point scale, including the refined and luscious Dow, which leads the list at 99 points ($82). This young Port offers a surplus of dark fruit, spice and chocolate flavors, with plenty of tannic grip, boding well for aging. Four 2011 Ports clock in just a notch below, at 98 points: the massive Fonseca ($116); the rare Quinta do Noval Nacional ($650); the plush and rich Quinta do Vesuvio ($62); and the Quinta do Vale Meão ($50), a relative newcomer on the Port scene.

Tasting these Vintage Ports is revelatory. Their intense fruitiness is seductive, and the alcohol added to fortify the wine makes them heady and expressive. Many are enticing to enjoy now for their youthful vibrancy and fruitiness, but they will offer more elegance, integration and refinement as they age. Like all of the highest quality Vintage Ports, these will require at least 15 to 20 years in the cellar for the alcohol and fruit flavors to mellow, beginning the long road to becoming fully mature Port. Some may drink well into the latter part of the century.

Vintage Port is made only in those years that vintners deem the highest quality, with the potential for long aging. Historically, this was one out of every four years, yet the pace of declarations has accelerated in the past decade, with 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2009 designated by most. Yet 2011 stands apart. “It’s like God chose the best of the last 10 years,” says Vale Meão winemaker Francisco “Xito” Olazabal. “2011 is powerful, but not as jammy as 2009. It’s elegant and powerful, which is rare.”

“A thrilling vintage,” says Christian Seely, managing director of Quinta do Noval, in describing 2011. “One of the greatest vintages we’ve ever had. It represents a significant buying opportunity.”

Indeed, Vintage Port is one of the greatest bargains in the world of fine wine. (There are some exceptions, such as the Noval Nacional and a few other single quintas, wines that come from only one estate, or quinta.) It’s now rare to find classic-rated wines anywhere else in the world for less than $100. In addition to the Dow and Vale Meão, other great buys include the Croft (97 points, $93), Cockburn (97, $75), Quinta do Vesuvio (97, $77), Sandeman (97, $80), Smith Woodhouse (96, $58) and Quinta do Crasto (95, $70).

It is a matter of heated debate whether the quality vanguard of Port is represented by the blends made from multiple vineyard sources—such as the Dow, Croft, Cockburn and Sandeman bottlings—or by the single quintas, which also include classic-scorers such as the Graham Stone Terrace (96, $200), Taylor Fladgate Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha (96, $268) and Symington Family Quinta de Roriz (95, $58).

The success of 2011 is rooted in a combination of natural and man-made factors. Most important were the climatic conditions. A wet winter recharged the groundwater supplies, after a preceding period of drought. From the beginning of May to the end of August, there was little or no rain. After a heat wave at the end of June that spurred ripening, July and August were warm but not too hot, and conditions at harvest were warm as well. This provided a perfect climax to the growing season, according to David Guimaraens of the Taylor Fladgate group, which includes Croft and Fonseca.

Port is the product of a singular growing environment and winemaking regime. All Port comes from the Douro River Valley, in north central Portugal. Terraced vineyards there are filled with a variety of native Portuguese grapes that thrive in the nutrient-poor soils of schist and granite. This host of grape types is led by Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Sousão, among others.

Port winemaking involves the most straightforward and sometimes primitive of techniques. After the grapes are picked, many producers still prefer foot-trodding in open stone basins, called lagares, to extract juice and begin fermentation.

The nascent Port is then placed in oak casks. After about 18 months, the wines from various casks are blended before bottling. This is when the skill and experience of the winemakers are critical in assessing the proper balance of the finished wine. Two years after the harvest, Vintage Port can be offered for sale. For Guimaraens, 2011’s quality was the product of “high sugars, long fermentations and silky tannins.”

“The 2011 declaration is the culmination of a lot of hard work in the vineyard and the cellar,” says Charles Symington of the Symington group, which makes Dow and Vesuvio, among others.