Thursday, May 9, 2013

Vintage Declaration for 2011 Port Wines - Top Wines Reviewed

For Port producers, a vintage declaration is something like the Olympics. They happen about 1 out of 4 years on average, and they're generally accompanied by a certain amount of pomp and fanfare. This generally includes a world tour to show the wines for major producers like Symington Family Estates (Graham's, Warre's, Dow's, Quinta do Vesuvio and Cockburn's) and The Fladgate Partnership (Taylor FladgateFonsecaCroft) and the latter group generally brings the fine Quinta do Noval along for the ride.

In a declared vintage, a select amount of wine for each brand that is deemed to be of superior quality and supremely age-worthy will be bottled at a young age of a little less than 2 years old, when it is still deep purple, a bit grapey and tannic. These bottles will be the time capsules of exceptional harvests, intended to age for a good while, even for many decades. These are the bottles of Port that you gift, or pass on to your children and grandchildren. Many age gracefully for up to 100 years because of their intense structure and high alcohol levels (all Port is fortified with a clear brandy spirit and usually is around 18-19% alcohol. In fact, according to winemaker Charles Symington, that raw grape spirit accounts for about 20% of what is in your glass, the rest being wine and residual sugar).

If spending $100 on a bottle of wine is a daunting prospect, and I know for many it is, I think that these kinds of wines merit the expense, not only for their longevity, but also for their extremely high quality, their innate uniqueness and rarity. Ask your local wine shop to order you a bottle now, and it should arrive in the fall of 2013.

Declaring a Vintage

In deciding whether to declare a vintage, the winery usually observes the wines for around 18 months from harvest to vinification, through the early stages of maturation just up to the time where the wines would have to be blended to be bottled, to see if the wines are of sufficient quality to endure this kind of extended maturation in bottle. (Interestingly, Port wines are much older than the cylindrical bottles we know and love. This whole concept of Vintage Port only started with the popular advent of utilitarian cork-finished glass bottles in the 1850's or so.)

It's worth noting that critics don't see the wines during this evaluation stage. Wineries evaluate the wines themselves, and stake their reputations on their vintage declarations on a brand-by-brand basis. These reviews reflect some of the earliest evaluations of these wines.

The 2011 Vintage

The 2011 vintage has been described as being precocious and early in terms of budbreak, flowering and verasion. Early warm, humid conditions encouraged early development, but also encouraged fungal conditions that would ultimately result in a short, concentrated crop. Mid-summer temperatures were cooler, and then came some magical rain in late August and September 1st, slowing development, nourishing the vines, and allowing the grapes to mature at a slower rate into October under blue skies. The Symingtons noted that it was a special vintage for the late-ripening Touriga Franca component that lends pretty floral aromas and acidity to the blends. I think that was apparent in these wines.

I was a bit surprised at the softness of the tannin of some of these wines, but the acidity and underlying minerality of the wines was impressive. In most cases, I'm sure they will age quite gracefully, and in a lot of cases, they seem to have a brilliant combination of ripeness / richness and floral, mineral precision.  As accessible as they are now, a number of these wines have great acidity and stately tannins. Fladgate winemaker David Guimarens describes the vintage as combining the elegance of the 2007s and the opulence of the 2005s.

I've only been drinking vintage Port wines for the last 15 years, and I can't claim to have any great insight as to how these new releases differ from new releases 25 or 50 years ago. I sometimes wonder if the same wines 50 years ago would have been far harder to appreciate upon release, and I wonder if that may have been a key to their longevity. In my recent memory, the tannins seem to be a bit less abrasive upon release, but if the wines were ever hard to appreciate, they certainly would have been hard to sell, and I think these wines may have always been appreciable upon release. However differently they may have been constructed, I suspect that the the quality of Douro Valley Port wines has never been better, and I have no doubt that these wines will be brilliant in 50 or 60 years.

The companies leading the charge are some of the best wine companies in the whole wide world of wine, and I hope that they continue to improve the quality of these wines, and that the world continues to appreciate them.

The Wines

Here are my notes on some of the 2011 new releases that I was graciously invited to taste in May and June, 2013 in San Francisco.

Warre's 2011 Vintage Port ($85)
This house was the first acquired by this fine family, and the day of the tasting, this was my favorite. A tall, lean Port redolent of violets and dried roses, blackberries and Chambord liqueur with a keenly-focused middle, great acidity and moderately stiff tannins. It's not the biggest or most opulent of the wines that I tasted, but it has a sparkle in its eye. I kept coming back to it, and I think this one has a fine future. (98)

Taylor Fladgate 2011 Vintage Port ($110) Structure and complexity are the hallmarks of Taylor Fladgate, and the 2011 does not dissapoint - it's full of twists and turns. The nose is pretty and floral with red cherry and huckleberry notes. In the mouth, it opens with sweetness, slightly raisiny with deep black currant and dried herb notes turning to bittersweet chocolate with grippy, black tea-like tannins. A wine of great dimension, and it should age gracefully for many decades. (97-98)

Fonseca 2011 Vintage Port ($110) Sometimes Fonseca's vintage Ports are bit too jammy and sweet for my personal preference, but they are always excellent wines. This vintage is a bit of an exception, and one of my favorites of the lot. It shows exotic coriander, clove and cumin spice aromas and has flavors of white pepper, fruitcake, plum, boysenberry and red currant. A dramatic wine with great layers and ample structure. (97)

Graham's Stone Terraces 2011 Vintage Port ($200)
Another small production wine from choice plots, it has high cheekbones and ample structure, with high-toned mint, cumin, black cherry, plum, blackberry and licorice flavors, all infused with a penetrating minerality. Great acidity, great structure and tons of flavor. Another delicious, very small production wine. (97)

Graham's 2011 Vintage Port ($115)
Built around 5 key vineyards, Graham's wines are opulent, but always exquisitely balanced, making it the flagship brand of Symington Wine Estates. It's hard to find fault with this brand's wines, EVER. The 2011 Graham's is bright and juicy, with a beautiful nose of roses, raspberries, black pepper with lavish cherry, black raspberry fruit. Ultra-smooth and well-blended with great acidity and a harmonious degree of sweetness. (96)
Quinto do Vesuvio Capela do Vesuvio 2011 Vintage Port ($127)
The "Chapel of Vesuvio" is made from two small patches of the estate, one early-ripening, the other late. Each of these batches is co-fermented, and then later blended prior to bottling. Taut pomegranate, cranberry, violet, blackberry, blueberry and geranium aromas with fruit that's still grapey and hard to read, but all signs point to an uber-stylish wine with an enigmatic co-fermented character. Needs time, but I'm optimistic, and it may show even better with time. This is a VERY small production wine that will probably be next-to-impossible to find except online. Don't drive yourself crazy looking for it. (95-97)

Croft 2011 Vintage Port ($85) The Fladgate Partership's CEO, Adrian Bridge, says this is the best Croft they've made since acquiring the brand, and I'm inclined to agree. It's also one of the best values of the vintage. It's a young, compact Port with inky color and a nose of black pepper, star anise, mineral and blackberry syrup with cassis, blackberry and tar notes in the mouth, finishing with grippy, minerally tannins. A structured wine that should impress in the coming decades. (95-96)

Quinto do Vesuvio 2011 Vintage Port ($92)
This is a truly special estate, one which produces a vintage wine in most years. I've been there, and it's a magical place, one of the most memorable estates I've ever visited. It might not have been my favorite today, but I love the wine this Upper Douro estate produces, and often consider it one of my top wines. Touriga Franca takes the lead, with ripe huckleberry, violet, graham cracker, black cherry and cinnamon aromas, velvety raspberry syrup flavors with plenty of glycerin, good acidity and moderate tannin. Great stuff, and time may prove this wine even better. (95)

Quinta do Noval Nacional 2011 Vintage Port ($??) This old vine vineyard makes one of the most coveted Ports in the world. The wines are always great, and tend to be concentrated, syrupy beasts, and this one is no exception. Inky-dark with intense stone, baked plum and black cherry aromas, marion berry and red currant flavors through the viscous, slightly sappy finish. If you love richness and sweetness, you'll like it even better than I did. (94)

Quinta do Noval 2011 Vintage Port ($??) The 'regular' Noval bottling is something of a different animal than the Nacional vineyard bottling. It has a lovely deep crimson-purple color, but is less syrupy, with compact cherry, rhubarb pie and cinnamon flavors with great acidity and moderate tannins. Next to the Nacional, it's downright elegant, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. (93)

Dow's 2011 Vintage Port ($96)
A good vintage for Touriga Franca gives it a pretty nose of violets-in-syrup, cassis, blackberries, dark chocolate with terrific minerality. Dow's is a bit dryer in house style, so the muscular tannins stick out a bit more, giving it a lower center of gravity, finishes with a slightly raisined note. (93)

Cockburn's 2011 Vintage Port ($88)
Mulberry, fruit cake and geranium notes on the nose, with a sleek, expansive center of sweet black raspberry fruit with great minerality and ripeness. (93)

Taylor Fladgate Vargellas Vinha Velha 2011 Vintage Port ($200) This single estate Port made from the oldest section of the Quinta de Vargellas vineyard, one of the key estates of Taylor Fladgate, didn't particularly blow me away at first taste. It has a very pretty nose or red currant and plum with some charming, gravelly, mineral notes. In the mouth, it shows smart black cherry pie flavors, and plenty of other sweet, juicy red fruit flavors with a hint of chocolate on the finish. Don't get me wrong - this is a brilliant wine by any standard, but not my favorite of the vintage. (91)

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