This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
See my tasting notes on more than 30 2011 vintage ports.
Could 2011 be the vintage to put vintage port back on the fine wine map? I do hope so. I have never been as excited by the launch of a clutch of vintage ports. The quality of the best examples, of which there are many, is truly outstanding. There is a real sense of wine producers' having risen to the occasion of a growing season that could have been pretty ordinary but was decidedly extraordinary in the end, and the competition between them to produce the finest examples has never been keener.
The only potential problem is that vintage port is the longest-living style of port of all. Vintage port is the produce of the very best vineyards, carefully blended and, unlike wood-aged ports such as tawnies, put into bottle very young and expected to do all its maturing locked inside a bottle. It's a bit like locking a stroppy teenager in a prison cell. Things won't really calm down until well past middle age. If I had a great port cellar, for instance, I would ideally be drinking wines from the 1960s now. The other day I had a 1924 Ramos Pinto vintage port that was in peak condition and a 1942 Niepoort that was nowhere near it. The star of a collection of Cockburn's ports last September was a 1908.
Anyone who wishes to celebrate the birth of a 2011 baby with a long-lived wine should buy sweet wine, either Sauternes, a top German Riesling or, longest-lived of all, vintage port. But who has the cash, patience and room to lay down wines for six decades or so?
The good thing however is that port in general is better-made today than it has ever been, which means that many of these fine, baby 2011 vintage ports that are currently being shown as cask samples are delicious enough to drink young. This is because there has been so much work refining exactly how each vineyard is managed, and how to ensure that the tannins extracted are not too astringent. They can be almost velvety rather than fiery.
But, like so many great wines designed for ageing, they go through a sulky stage somewhere between 10 and 15 years old (sound familiar?) and sometimes never recover their good humour. The 1977 vintage for example, was the first that I saw launched. It was the same story as with the 1975 red bordeaux. This was the first reasonably successful year since 1970 and so it was probably in hindsight oversold. Since then we have been treated to vintage ports from the majority of producers in 1980, 1983, 1985, 1991, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2007, all of them slowly maturing towards perfection, with the possible exception of 1983 which may not in general have the guts for a glorious future.
The verb associated with launching a vintage port is 'declare'. Shippers have to declared their intentions to the authorities who then have to approve the wine. Late April is the traditional declaration season but Christian Seely who is in charge of AXA's wine interests has been at Château Pichon Longueville and rather preoccupied with the 2012 primeurs campaign in Bordeaux so has not been able to get to the Douro to approve the final blends. He helpfully assured me that Quinta do Noval's 2011 'will be a bit like the others but better if you ⁞need to write something.'
I have so far managed to taste more than 30 different 2011 vintage ports. The reason 2011 has been so widely declared was that the weather was so extraordinary, and the harvest very unlike that in most of the rest of Europe's vineyards where grapes had to be picked exceptionally early because it was such an early growing season and acids were plummeting. One of the keys to 2011 quality in northern Portugal's Douro valley vineyards was a notably wet 2010 autumn that left its schistous subsoils reasonably damp. But then between January and late August there was near-drought: just 250 mm of rain as opposed to an average of 400 mm. Although there had been a brief heat spike in late June that burnt a few vines, especially the early maturing Tinta Barroca, summer 2011 was a little cooler than usual, which has kept a lovely freshness and true fluidity in these 2011 vintage ports, and has left almost all of them without dead, raisiny notes or uncomfortably drying tannins.
But with so little rain by the end of August the vines were suffering. Sugar levels were high but the ripening of tannins and other phenolics lagged behind. What made the quality was a couple of bursts of rain, one described as 'the ace of spades' by Paul Symington of the family responsible for ports such as Dow, Graham, Warre and Cockburn, a massive storm on the night of Sunday 21 August, perhaps prayed for that day. And then at the beginning of September came another heaven-sent burst of rain. These kickstarted the physiological ripening process and brought it back into synch with the sugar levels. Some growers rushed to pick at the end of August but most of the grapes that went into these luscious 2011 vintage ports were picked in perfect conditions during September's dry days and cool nights - although yields were even lower than usual in the Douro thanks to the earlier drought.
The Symingtons, for instance, have produced 28% less 2011 vintage port than of the last vintage declared, 2007, with precisely 2,230 dozen-bottle cases of their flagship Graham's available for the UK market, 1,800 cases for the US, and 650 for Portugal itself where a market for vintage port has been developing along with a middle class with an interest in wine.
Their great rival The Fladgate Partnership has managed to produce its 2011 Taylor, Fonseca and Croft in rather bigger quantities but with no sacrifice of quality - to judge from their two flagship ports anyway. Both Taylor and Fonseca are magnificent, in their usual respective taut and voluptuous styles, and in total volumes of 11,000 and 6,000 cases respectively. These are wines that will be offered in the UK in six-bottle wooden cases at around £60 a bottle, with the main Symington 2011 vintage ports hovering around the £50-a-bottle mark. The port shippers are not slow to point out that these 'first growths' of the Douro Valley are bargains compared with their counterparts in Bordeaux.
But the port shippers have taken a leaf out of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape sales manual. The new trend is to supplement the main vintage port offer with a special cuvée, a very small-volume bottling of wine from a particular vineyard or vines at luxury prices. For the second time, Taylor are offering just 310 cases of their Vargellas Vinha Vela from the oldest vines on the most precious terraces of the home farm, the Quinta de Vargellas. Not to be outdone, the Symingtons have introduced a very limited edition of the perhaps less elegantly named Graham, Stone Terraces 2011 from a blend of two notable vineyards. And are again offering a special Capela bottling from the only single quinta 2011 they will be bottling, from Quinta do Vesuvio.
Quinta do Vesuvio, Capela
Taylor, Vargellas Vinha Velha
Graham, Stone Terraces
Quinta do Vale Meão
Quinta do Vesuvio
Quinta do Noval's 2011 has not yet been declared.