"If we do not get people to change the way they see vintage port, without alienating our traditional customers, we will be stuck with an ever-ageing customer profile. I think the wines we make deserve more than this!" This is the cri de coeur of Paul Symington as he launches a brand new vintage port from Dow, Graham, Warre, Smith Woodhouse, Quarles Harris, Gould Campbell, Quinta do Roriz and Quinta do Vesuvio on the wine drinking world.
The new vintage just declared in Oporto is - no prizes for guessing - 2003. This is the last general wine release from Europe's extraordinary heatwave summer and it was clear even before the first grapes were picked that this would be one of those years, declared roughly three times every decade, when some vintage port, port at its densest and longest-living, would be made.
Vintage port blends are assembled from the finest grapes grown in the Douro Valley in northern Portugal and are never made in any great quantity. The Symingtons have designated just 700 cases Quinta do Vesuvio 2003, and only 8,000 cases for the entire world of the much more established multi-quinta blend Graham, the jewel in the Symington crown.
Such quantities should be a doddle to sell to the world's increasing ranks of wine lovers – especially since prices are not that much higher than those of the previous vintage for port, 2000. Adrian Bridge of The Fladgate Partnership expects to see the 2003 jewels in his crown, Taylor and Fonseca, on British shelves for around £44, as opposed to £41 for the 2000s.
The problem is not that the wines are unthinkably expensive compared to other fine wines made with infinite care, especially when one remembers that yields in the Douro Valley are about half those on a top Bordeaux estate. The problem is vintage port's exceptionally long life cycle. The wines have always been made on the assumption that they start to come into their own from about 20 years old. Traditional wine drinkers regard vintage port as the one wine they can stash at the very back of the cellar (as I write I am conscious of the inaccessibility of my 1977s) and so many of the world's port lovers tend to have good stocks of this slow-maturing wine already. The price of older vintages of port have been slow to rise over the last two decades, so newcomers to the style have been able to furnish their cellars with relatively mature wines bought in the saleroom. Oxbridge college cellars, for long the repository of a substantial proportion of vintage port ever produced, are notoriously well stocked with it.
All of this leaves less incentive than there might be to fight over allocations of the latest vintage port, and the likes of Paul Symington are all too aware of it. "The Brits are really very tied to the traditions of vintage port. Many will not countenance opening a bottle until it is 20 years old. But we need to get them to be more adventurous. A lot of people sneer at the Americans for serving vintage port young, but why not?"
Symington would dearly love to convince the fine wine investors of the world that his precious vintage port firmly belongs to the same category as, say, dense Chateauneuf-du-Pape, late harvest Zinfandel, super-ripe California Cabernet and old-vine Barossa Valley Shiraz. As Christian Seely who oversees Quinta do Noval for AXA's wine division puts it, "The point about New World wines is that they give a huge sensation. With them you're not necessarily looking for the subtlety of mature wine. On that basis, wines like these 2003 ports can give that sort of excitement."
But there is the undeniable fact that vintage port, while being impressively concentrated, extremely alcoholic, pretty tannic and deeply coloured like all the aforementioned popular wines, is very sweet. I just cannot imagine glugging a bottle of port with any main course in my culinary vocabulary and, as has been outlined before on these pages, the modern wine drinker seems to have a strange aversion to opening a bottle of something grand and sweet at the end of a meal.
Fortunately, the quantities on offer are sufficiently small to be an easy sell to traditional port merchants such as Berry Bros & Rudd, Corney & Barrow and Justerini & Brooks. And if ever a vintage port style were made to be drunk earlier than usual it is 2003.
The characteristics of the vintage
After 2002's disastrously rainy harvest, 2003 was a doddle for port producers. A rainy winter recharged the water table. Flowering took place in ideal conditions. There was a little more rain in June and July – some very hot weather in the summer but not so exceptionally hot in the Douro as it was, say, in Paris and London. The vines shut down for a while in August and all was set for what could have been a dangerously early harvest without sufficient build-up of tannins, colour and flavour, when showers at the end of August revived the ripening process and some port farms such as Quinta do Noval were picking as late as mid October. The Fladgate Partnership picked about a month earlier, starting between 12 and 22 sep while the Symington group's start dates at their seven different wineries varied from to 15 sep to 03 oct. Sugar levels were extremely high, acidities if anything on the low side and some wines seem so opulent that it can be difficult to find the life-preserving tannins at all even at this early stage.
I was lucky enough to taste 35 of these baby vintage ports blind last week, thanks to the magazine The World of Fine Wine. While I was impressed by such copper bottomed names as Quinta do Noval, Fonseca and Graham, I also thought a number of much less famous houses had made good wines. An obvious example was Quinta de Portal which is currently undergoing transformation, ditto the family firm of Pocas, and even Barros which is hardly a name associated with fine vintage port. The Fladgate Partnership took over Croft and Delaforce so recently that 2003 is the first vintage from these houses in the new regime – and both showed well.
My memory of tasting the 2000 vintage ports at this very early stage is that perhaps they had a little more inherent vivacity, but it was clear from these purple essences that vine-growing and wine-making skills are increasing every year in port country.
Some favourite 2003 ports
Fonseca 2003 find this wine
Quinta do Portal 2003
Quinta do Noval Nacional 2003 find this wine
Quinta do Portal II 2003
Smith Woodhouse 2003 find this wine
Barros 2003 find this wine
Graham 2003 find this wine
Poças Junior 2003 find this wine
Quinta do Noval 2003 find this wine
Croft 2003 find this wine
Delaforce 2003 find this wine
Dow 2003 find this wine
Poças 2003 find this wine
Quinta do Noval Silval 2003 find this wine
Quinta do Roriz 2003 find this wine
Skeffington 2003 find this wine
See purple pages for full tasting notes on nearly 40 2003 vintage ports.