A Brief Guide to Vintage Port Wines

Written By Arman Zulhajar on Monday, June 4, 2012 | 10:15 PM

For the wine connoisseur there is something especially attractive in the identification and appreciation of a truly great vintage port wine. As you would expect, vintage ports are made from grapes that are all harvested in the same, generally exceptional, growing year. Overall, vintage ports account for only around 2% of the total port wine production in a given year and so they are rightly cherished.

Vintage port wine is a beverage that has a uniquely idiosyncratic nature. Whilst the overall characteristics of a growing season in the Upper Douro valley will clearly be the same for all producers, there are a surprising multitude of specific local conditions that can greatly affect the overall quality of each individual harvest. The Upper Douro comprises a tortuous system of valleys and ridges that allow for a great deal of local variety, whatever the prevailing conditions of the season may be.

Hence the declaration of a vintage is a matter for each port shipper alone, and only in some exceptional years will there be a general declaration of vintage. But to attain its potential as a truly great vintage port, the wine must be stored and allowed to mature in bottle for several years, and sometimes even decades. This is a requirement that was only discovered by chance.

The Development of Vintage Port

In the early days of port wines, vintage ports were not available. The demand for ports in the mid 18th century was such that no shipper would seriously consider the long term storage of the beverage given the presence of a thirsty market, and the advantages of ageing had not as yet been discovered. Whilst some shippers had discovered the benefits of in-cask ageing and of leaving the wine in-bottle for up to 2 years before release, it is thought that the true potential of vintage port was only discovered by chance due to the cellars of wealthy buyers becoming overstocked and the subsequent years worth of in-bottle ageing that often resulted as the wine languished in the cellar.

Until this time, port wine had been regarded as a moderate quality beverage. The effects of ageing elevated them to the ranks of true excellence, and led to the conscious development of high quality, vintage port wines for the appreciation of the discerning classes. This was aided in no small measure by the legendary vintage of 1820, which produced wines of such quality and ferocity that they set the benchmark for subsequent expectations, and indeed produced wines of such increased alcoholic strength that they resulted in a subsequent increase in the quantities of fortifying brandy used in the preparation process. By the mid 19th century, a requirement for 10 to 15 years of in bottle ageing for high quality vintage ports had become established practice.

At the turn of the century, a run of excellent vintage years in the Upper Douro (1896, 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912) helped to position port wine, correctly stored and aged, as one of the great wines of the world. At the same time, several producers had attained reputations for excellence and quality, so that the identification of a port from a highly regarded vintage and producer was much sought after.

The production of port wines was formalised to some extent by the regulations issued after the Second World war by the Port Wine Institute (IVP), requiring that all ports be bottled in the second year following the grape harvest. This subsequently (in 1974) became a requirement for all ports to be bottled in Portugal, in an attempt to regulate the standard of ports by removing the variability that may be introduced by different port merchants' bottling procedures where bottling abroad took place.

The Production of Vintage Port

As with most things regarding wines, the correct ageing of port is a matter of conjecture and debate. As a general guideline, a vintage port wine can be said to have reached its peak maturity at an age of around 20 years. There are many examples of vintage ports that have proved to be excellent long after this guideline period though, and likewise there are many who appreciate the fruitiness and strength of a vintage port sampled well before the 20 years have elapsed. Vintage ports with reputations for quality well beyond the timescale that might have been expected include the 1927, 1934, and 1945.

When a port wine producer believes that the port from that year's harvest is of a sufficiently high standard, a declaration of vintage will be made. On the average this will happen around 3 times each decade, although some of the less prestigious producers apply a policy of making declarations in all but poor years. Hence a declaration by one producer may not be matched by other producers, and for this reason you will hear the term "general declaration of vintage" for correspondingly good production years, to reflect the fact that not all producers may have declared. Likewise, some years that are not generally declared may yet harbour vintage ports from specific producers. Given the improvements in growing technologies and weather prediction, it is likely that even in the worst years there will be at least one or two port wines that are declared.

Should a vintage have been declared, it is likely that the preceding year provided a cold and wet winter followed by a warm and dry spring. This would have culminated in a hot summer with little significant rainfall, although the truly excellent years will typically have some rainfall in late August or early September, and good weather conditions at harvest time.

After harvest and initial production of the prospective port, it is aged in wooden casks and periodically assessed for quality by sample tastings. If, after around 16 months, it is considered of a sufficient quality the wine will be submitted as a candidate for approval as a Vintage Port Wine. This is granted by a panel of experts appointed by the Port Wine Institute, and if it is received then the producer can declare the vintage port. Subsequent bottling will then take place between July of the second year after the original harvest and the end of June the following year. This limited time spent in barrel contributes to the characteristic retention of a dark ruby colouration and of fresh and fruity flavours in vintage port wines. The bottling process takes place without filtration, and so the solids and suspensions that are naturally present will remain, such that a vintage port should always be allowed to settle and then be decanted prior to serving.

Single Quinta Vintage Ports

Single Quinta vintage ports (where the term "quinta" is referring to the estate where the grapes were grown), are a particular type of vintage port that serves one of two purposes depending upon the motives of the producer. Generally the larger port houses will produce a single quinta port, from their best quinta, for those years in which a declaration of vintage for their main, blended port is not attained. Given the intricate geography of the Upper Douro, the port houses know which quintas are more likely to sustain a single quinta vintage and so will produce this as a fall back in the event of a flagship port vintage being absent. An example would be the 1996 Dow's Quinta do Bomfim.

These single quinta ports are generally excellent value for money, being cheaper than the classic vintage ports but bearing most of the characteristics and qualities of blended quinta vintage ports. These offerings will also typically be ready to drink sooner too. They will be labeled with the name of the port house and of the quinta itself, such as Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos.

Single quinta vintage ports are also produced specifically for the quality wine market, typically by the smaller producers but also increasingly by the larger port houses. These will be routinely produced and are typically identified by the quinta name only. A classic example of this is the Quinta do Vesuvio port which has been declared as a vintage in each year apart from 1993 and 2002.

Port Houses

The companies that produce port wines have each developed their own, closely guarded methods and styles for ports, be they vintage or otherwise. In a future article the characteristics of these 'shippers' will be examined in depth. For now, here is a list of the more notable port shippers that should be tried by any port wine lover:

Calem; Churchill's; Cockburn's; Croft; Delaforce; Ferreira; Fonseca; Niepoort; Offley; Quinta do Noval; Ramos Pinto; Royal Oporto; Sandeman; The Symington Family Estates (including Graham's, Warre's, Dow's, Smith Woodhouse); Taylor, Fladgate and Yeatman (generally known as Taylor's)

Experience is the key, so begin your examination of port wines from a variety of shippers and vintage years, to find that truly exquisite vintage port wine.

Freelance article writer, internet marketer, and big fan of Vintage Wines and Ports

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