This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
I feel rather sorry for the people who make port. No-one, with the possible exception of Roy Hersh of www.fortheloveofport.com, cares more about this lusciously potent drink and yet Oporto where they are all based hardly has the ideal climate to consume it in. The perfect accoutrements for the serious port drinker are near-zero temperatures and a crackling open fire. Less traditional consumers may like to substitute efficient central heating and a widescreen tv for the fire. Either way, those of us living further from the equator than northern Portugal are better placed to squeeze maximum enjoyment out of port than those who provide us with it.
It is also a rather fine time to be a port fanatic as, much to the exasperation of the port trade, prices of even the finest vintage ports have failed to keep pace with those of other fine wines – although vintage port, the best of the best and made in strictly limited quantities, is never cheap. You would have to pay about £100 for a bottle of Dow 1963, at its majestic peak now, rather less for a bottle of Taylor 1977, one of the most famous wines from this often overrated vintage and widely available in the US. Those looking for the real bargain in fully mature vintage port should head straight for Gould Campbell 1977, an insider's secret over-performer, which Peter Wylie of Cullompton in Devon is selling for just over £40 a bottle. Its stablemate, the rather harsher Smith Woodhouse 1977 is well over £50.
Release prices of vintage ports have been rising, in tune with fine wine release prices everywhere, so that one of the best 2003 vintage ports such as Fonseca, Graham, Quinta do Noval Nacional, Quinta do Portal and Smith Woodhouse would cost at least £30 a bottle even for Smith Woodhouse, let alone the prices asked for the first three much more famous names in this list. (Quinta do Portal 2003 is an under-appreciated and under-distributed star although I am assured that these UK merchants all stock it: Averys, Classic Wines ( Northern Ireland), Edward Sheldon, Great Northern Wines, Great Western Wines, John Frazier, John Medlicott Wine, Nickols & Perks, Villeneuve Wines and The Wine Man.)
Vintage port is not a natural product for the mass retailers so bravo Marks & Spencer for offering their own-label version of it
Marks & Spencer Vintage Port 1970 at the decidedly silly price of £54.99 (not £55?). This is the well-received 1970 vintage port from Morgan, then a sister lodge to Croft in the same way that Smith Woodhouse and Gould Campbell are sister operations to Dow, Graham and Warre. This 1970 has a wonderfully mature, haunting nose and a lovely gentle texture – definitely at its peak and perfect for post-prandial sipping this winter.
Much easier to find are single quinta ports, ports from a single harvest just like vintage port but from just one farm, or quinta, in the Douro Valley, typically one of the best-regarded. We are fortunate at the moment that we can still choose from an array of single quinta 1996s for 1996 was an excellent vintage that just missed out on being declared a vintage for the big blends with famous names attached because 1994 and 1997 were chosen instead.
Quinta de Vargellas 1996 from Taylor's home farm is one of the finest and most powerful, beaten only by Quinta do Vesuvio 1996, £35 Berry Bros but nowhere near ready. Although the Vargellas is already glorious in a slightly stern way, there is no hurry whatsoever to drink it either. Rather amazingly, Tesco apparently stock it at just £22.48 in more than 600 of their stores Richard Granger of Newcastle seem to have the best price among independents, £23.33 a bottle, which is excellent considering that it is better than many a minor 'proper' vintage port. Indeed some port producers privately worry that the value offered by good single quinta ports may be dampening demand for vintage port. Majestic, Oddbins and larger Sainsbury's also have stocks of Vargellas 1996, which surprises me somewhat since this top quality wine has now been on sale for well over a year, often for less than the recommended price of £24.99, as we have discussed on the forum.
Graham's Malvedos 1996, the single quinta wine from this stable's top wine farm, is also absolutely delicious, and arguably better for current drinking. Fareham Wine Cellar, Tanners of Shrewsbury and Cambridge Wine Merchants offer it at around £22.50 whiel Sainsbury's have it at £22.99. Also from the Symington group of port houses, Quinta do Bomfim 1996 doesn't quite have the mellowness of the Malvedos or the density of the Vargellas but is certainly very sweet and £21.99 from Tesco, Thresher, Adnams, Tanners and Booths.
All the wines above will have some sediment so are best poured carefully or decanted into a jug or decanter just before serving. They are also best drunk within a day of opening. Vintage port, unlike tawny, should be treated pretty much like a table wine in this respect, and certainly not left around in a decanter for weeks.
Warre's Bottle Matured Late Bottled Vintage 1995, the only really traditional rendition of the popular 'LBV' style offers great value at around £16 from most UK supermarkets. Very fragrant and lifted, it offers great refreshment and vibrancy and is seriously vivacious with the tannins usefully in retreat. Dow's Crusted Port 2000 (£14 Asda, Booths, Waitrose, Oddbins) is another good buy - much more youthful and still chewy but with a lovely scent of liquorice and real succulence too.
Fonseca have a special bottle that looks as though it has a major cellulite problem but if you can handle that, you can choose from two well-priced ports inside it: Fonseca Unfiltered LBV 2000 is £11.99 at Majestic, or £9.99 if two bottles are bought and has a refreshing dry finish while Fonseca Terra Prima Porto (£10.99 Sainsbury's) made exclusively from organically grown grapes (and presumably very similar to the Organic Reserve Port on sale at Marks & Spencer at £10.99) is floral, rather light but very engaging.
Tawny port is altogether mellower in its impact, and much more durable in an opened bottle. Noval 10 year old Tawny (£15.59 Waitrose) is decidedly superior – unfiltered, foot-trodden fruit, obviously rammed full of flavours which include raisins, walnuts - winter in a bottle in fact. This is a wine with great personality, although full marks for packaging go to Graham's The Tawny (£14.99 Tesco, Sainsbury, Thresher, Noel Young Wines and Harvey Nichols) in its clear glass flask with wooden stopper. This is tawny port as an Australian might make it – super-rich, robust and rugby playing.
And lastly a snip, Dow's Finest Reserve Port which is £5.49 at Waitrose (usually £8.99) and a fruity young ruby. This is a pawn in the port pricing game played at Christmas by the big retailers. Profit from it.