See also The best 2011 reds made anywhere.
Perhaps it's not great timing that traditionally vintage port has been declared on St George's Day, 23 April. This year anyway the launch of the 2011 vintage ports has come slap bang in the middle of the 2012 bordeaux primeurs season. But anyone with an interest in superbly made top-quality red wine worth ageing for decades should arguably turn their backs on Bordeaux 2012 and look instead at Port 2011.
There is little doubt that 2011 produced some stunning vintage ports, into which more effort and skill has gone than any other previous vintage in the Douro. And I find it impossible to think of any other wine region, anywhere in the world, that produced better wines. (Funnily enough the only other wines I would also recommend for laying down for a baby born in 2011 are also sweet: Sauternes and botrytised wines from Germany.)
The two big exporting shippers, the Symington group and The Fladgate Partnership, really pulled out the stops to produce the finest wines they possibly could in 2011. (See more about the growing season and its exceptional qualities in The best 2011 reds anywhere.) There is a doctrinal difference between these two rivals. Foot treading is still widely used by TFP and is seen as a crucial ingredient in their top wines – Taylor and Fonseca. Foot treading is also part of the creed at Quinta do Noval, whose final blends for 2011 were made only yesterday because director Christian Seely has been so busy with AXA Millésimes' other properties in Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Meanwhile this is Paul Symington's response to a question about this expensive traditional technique when he presented the 2011s at a tasting in London last week: 'For the first time in 2011 all our wines were made in lagares [the shallow fermentation vats that are characteristic of the Douro] but by a mixture of foot treading and some robotic lagares which we have had since 98. We don't make any distinction between those two techniques. I can tell you that having 40 people treading in a lagar every night for five weeks is not a proposition unless you're Bill Gates. This is the first vintage since 1963 that we've gone back to 100% lagares and used no autovinification.'
I don't know whether foot treading was the key, or winemaker David Guimaerens' skill, or the natural superiority of the vineyards in question, but I was blown away by the quality of the top three wines from The Fladgate Partnership. The limited edition Taylor, Vargellas Vinha Velha is particularly stunning – almost more like a hugely complex table wine than a port – but only 310 cases of 12 bottles were filled. On the other hand, quantities produced of the regular Taylor vintage port and Fonseca are relatively generous: 11,000 and 6,000 respectively. (A typical Bordeaux first growth will produce at least 10 times this amount of their grand vin.)
The Symingtons have been more cautious in the quantity of vintage port they declared in 2011: a total of only 4,780 12-bottle cases of Graham 2011 were made. In practice, the wines, many of them currently being bottled, are likely to be offered in six-bottle cases. We have given recommended retail prices per bottle as supplied by TFP and the Symingtons (who did not mention their minor label Quarles Harris, which has presumably been pensioned off).
The current trend is to develop special cuvées of the top names. With the last vintage declared, 2007, the Symingtons introduced a special Capela bottling from their Quinta do Vesuvio. In 2011 only 200 cases were made and, for the first time, a little Alicante Bouschet was included in a vintage port as well as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and the Symingtons' beloved Sousão. It's a gorgeous wine – but is priced at a premium over the also delicious Quinta do Vesuvio, the only single-quinta vintage port that the Syms are producing in 2011 – and probably the best value vintage port of all.
This is nothing, however, next to the premium demanded for Taylor, Vargellas Vinha Velha, which will be selling at a cool £150 a bottle. If this is what it takes to have the fine-wine market take notice of how great vintage port can be, and is in 2011, so be it.
The following 31 vintage port 2011s were tasted as cask samples in London, most of them at the admirable Big Fortified Tasting. Its fourth edition last week was better attended than ever – and was delightfully convenient for Southwark Crown Court and its jurors. Wines are listed in alphabetical order by producer and should be available from a wide range of traditional wine merchants.