Port for the Impatient

Unlike classic vintage Ports, single-quinta versions offer early drinkability and a true sense of terroir.


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Unlike classic vintage Ports, single-quinta versions offer early drinkability and a true sense of terroir.

The steep hillsides of the Douro Valley in northern Portugal, home to Port, were officially delimited in 1756, and the sweet, fortified red wine that we now know as vintage Port was first bottled nearly 200 years ago. Given such long traditions, it's surprising that a relatively new category—single-quinta vintage Port—has exploded in popularity during the last decade. Single-quinta vintage Ports were produced in the 19th century and were occasionally bottled in the 1920s and 1940s, but it's only in the past 10 years or so that these wines have become widely available as the number of labels has increased dramatically.

A single-quinta Port is one that is produced entirely from a single estate, or vineyard. The concept of bottling wine from a single vineyard is fundamental to the chateaus of Bordeaux, the grand crus of Burgundy, and the Tuscan estates that produce Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino. And vineyard-designated Cabernets, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from California and Australia are no longer unusual.

Port, like Champagne, is primarily a blended, nonvintage wine that is comprised of grapes from many vineyards and more than one harvest. Most Ports, whether labeled ruby, tawny or with a proprietary name such as Private Reserve, Bin No. 27, Boardroom or Distinction are aged in wood for some years and ready to drink when released for sale.

Vintage Port, or Port produced entirely from grapes grown in a specific year and labeled as such, represents less than 2 percent of all Port shipments. If that figure seems astonishingly low to Americans, there's a good reason: Although the U.S. accounts for less than 4 percent of total Port sales, we are now the biggest consumers of vintage Port, and, in recent years, have imported as much as 45 percent of all vintage Port shipments. Much of this now consists of single-quinta vintage Ports.

Single-quinta vintage Ports are generally less expensive than classic vintage Ports and mature more quickly, but still provide the rich, opulent fruit and intensity of flavor associated with traditional vintage Ports. As Rupert Symington, whose family owns Dow's, Graham's and Warre's, points out, "Wines from nonclassic years tend to develop faster, so a Graham's 1988 Malvedos is drinking perfectly right now, although a classic, like Graham's 1991, still has far to go."

Those who prefer mature Ports need not wait as long as for the classic bottlings, and those who enjoy vintage Port young will find immediate appeal in single-quinta Ports. Sandeman has addressed this preference even more directly: In 1997 and 1999, the firm bottled a wine labeled Vau Vintage, which is not a single-quinta Port, but one that chairman George Sandeman describes as "a full, lush wine for people who enjoy young vintage Port."

Vintage Ports have traditionally represented the very best wines from the very best years. These wines are kept apart and bottled within two years of the vintage. Unlike rubies and tawnies, which mature and evolve in wood, the lots destined to be vintage Port are aged in giant wooden vats or stainless steel to preserve their color, fruit and intensity of flavor. As one shipper put it, "We want to bottle the whole grape, without any oxidation or wood influence, unfined and unfiltered." Once bottled, vintage Port is meant to be cellared for at least 15 or 20 years before being uncorked.

When Champagne producers decide to set aside a part of the crop to make a vintage-dated wine, they must assemble the cuvée and bottle it within months of the harvest. Port shippers, on the other hand, decide whether or not to "declare" a vintage only in the second spring following the harvest. This enables them to follow the evolution of the wine over 18 months, and also to compare the wines of a promising vintage with those of the following year.

Peter Symington, head of production for Dow's, Graham's and Warre's, says, "The essential of any vintage Port is a deep, rich, almost purple color, and enough tannins and grip to stand the test of time—the wine is meant to be at its best in 20 or 25 years." David Guimaraens, the winemaker at Fonseca and Taylor Fladgate, explains why those firms declared the 1994, rather than the excellent 1995: "It's easy to pick out a big, fat, ripe wine, but a classic vintage Port must have balance, flavor and intensity. The '95s are huge, but the '94s have the structure and complexity that make the difference."

Guimaraens adds, "Not only is a vintage Port the best wine of the vintage, but the firm commits itself to that vintage—you have to live with that decision for the rest of your professional life." As a result of such selectivity, in the 31 vintages from 1960 to 1990, only nine were widely declared by the major shippers, which is one of the reasons single-quinta vintage Ports have emerged as alternatives to classic vintage Ports.

Classic vintage Ports have traditionally been a blend of the best wines produced from several quintas, including one or two core quintas associated with each shipper (see sidebar). The use of several sources provides balance and complexity, and the use of the same core quintas provides continuity of style. This also explains why not all firms declare a particular vintage.

The quality of wines from each firm's core quintas will vary somewhat even in an excellent vintage. In the spring of 1993, for example, most shippers declared 1991 as a vintage, but Fonseca, Taylor Fladgate and Delaforce decided to declare their 1992s and bottled single-quinta Ports in 1991. Again, although most firms declared 1997, a vintage year, Delaforce and Croft bottled single-quinta Ports. "We did not believe the year as a whole had the all-round quality to make a classic vintage," says Nick Delaforce, the winemaker for these two firms, "but the single-quinta wines from Roeda and Corte had the quality we required."

Some firms have owned their core quintas for some time—Delaforce acquired Roeda in 1875, Taylor Fladgate assembled Vargellas in the 1890s—but it is only relatively recently that the shippers began to bottle single-quinta wines for commercial release. Vargellas was the first, in 1958; Roeda was bottled in 1967 and in 1978; Bomfim, Cavadinha and Corte were first bottled in 1978; and then, throughout the 1980s, small quantities of single-quinta vintage Ports were bottled in years not declared as classic vintages.

Single-quinta Ports may be bottled in years that are good but the constituent wines lack the concentration and longevity of a classic vintage Port, or in excellent years when the production of top wines is not large enough, in the view of a particular shipper, to declare a vintage. (The quantity of a classic vintage Port produced by one of the major houses may vary from 8,000 to 15,000 cases whereas bottlings of single-quinta Ports usually vary from 2,500 to 6,000 cases; smaller firms may produce only half those quantities.) No classic vintage Ports were produced between 1985 and 1991, and, in response to an increased demand for vintage Ports, especially in the United States, many single-quinta Ports were bottled in the five intervening years.

Leading Port Quintas

In addition to those listed below, several well-known quintas are not associated with specific shippers' brands, including Quinta do Noval, Quinta do Vesuvio, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta de Roriz, Quinta de la Rosa, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria and Quinta do Infantado. Fonseca Guimaraens is the second label of Fonseca, Silval is the second label of Quinta do Noval.

Calem Quinta da Foz Martinez Quinta da Eira Velha
Churchill Quinta da Agua Alta Niepoort Quinta do Passadouro
Cockburn Quinta dos Canais Ramos Pinto Quinta da Ervamoira
Croft Quinta da Roeda Sandeman Quinta do Vau
Delaforce Quinta da Corte Smith Woodhouse Quinta da Maddalena
Dow's Quinta do Bomfim
Quinta Senhora de Ribeira
Taylor Fladgate Quinta de Vargellas
Quinta de Terra Feita
Fonseca Quinta do Panascal Warre's Quinta da Cavadinha
Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos

Another key factor in the increased production of single-quinta Ports was that many shippers purchased the quintas from producers with whom they had had long-term contracts, to assure continuity of supply and greater control of quality. As James Symington points out, "Bottling single-quinta wines becomes much more interesting when you own the quinta." New quintas on the market, and the first vintage in which each was bottled, include Vau, 1988; Vesuvio, 1989; Canais, 1991; Passadouro, 1992; Ervamoira, 1994; and Senhora da Ribeira, 1998.

But if a number of single-quinta Ports were first bottled more than 20 years ago, why have they only recently become more visible? The reason is that, in the past, the shippers released these wines only after 10 or 15 years of bottle age, when they were deemed ready to drink. Thus the wines from the early and mid-1980s were not seen here until the mid-1990s, and there are still single-quinta Ports from the late 1980s that have not been released. This tradition ended with the 1991 and 1992 vintages.

"Our decision to declare 1992 was controversial," recalls Alistair Robertson, director of Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca, "so we decided to release the 1991 single-quinta wines when they were bottled, rather than a dozen years later, so that consumers could compare the 1991s and 1992s for themselves." The other firms then released their 1992 single-quinta Ports when they were bottled. As a result, a great many young single quintas came on the market at once, and have now been joined by the 1995s, 1997s and 1998s, all jostling for space next to the late-released 1984s, 1986s, 1987s and 1988s.

Another factor that contributed to the increase in single-quinta wines was a law enacted in 1986 that permitted quinta owners in the Douro to export their wines directly to foreign customers. Until then, all exports had to pass through the hands of the shippers in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Oporto. As a result of the 1986 ruling, quintas whose wines could only be sold on the domestic market began to ship their wines abroad, and others who had traditionally sold their grapes to shippers now began to bottle their own wines. As one leading shipper puts it, "The word 'quinta' on the label has become a passport for smaller producers to obtain recognition for the quality of their wine and to find a distributor in the U.S."

A number of these newly visible, self-contained quintas produce ruby and tawny Ports, as well as vintage Ports, and others also make red table wines. Thus, Quinta do Crasto is known for its red wines as well as for its vintage Port; Quinta de la Rosa produces red wine, vintage Port and wood-aged tawnies; and Ramos Pinto also bottles Quinta do Bom Retiro as a 20-year-old tawny. Other estates whose wines are finding their way here include Quinta do Vale Dona Maria, Quinta do Infantado, Quinta de Roriz and Quinta da Romaneira.

Single-quinta Ports are produced in the same way, and with the same rigorous selection, as classic vintage Ports, but they are generally less austere and ready to drink sooner. "A classic vintage Port includes a wider range of wines drawn from several properties, with a better possibility of achieving a more complex and complete wine, one that is meant to develop for 20 years or more," says Peter Symington. "A single-quinta Port is likely to be at its best after a dozen years."

A classic vintage Port displays the character of the year and the firm that makes it, as in Champagne. A single-quinta vintage Port reveals the character of the year and that of a particular vineyard, as in Bordeaux and elsewhere. "With a classic vintage Port," says Robertson of Taylor Fladgate, "we are looking for the elegance and balance that will carry the wine through many decades of aging in the cellar. With a single-quinta wine, we are encouraging the wine to express the personality of the vineyard, the unique character of the terroir, which makes the wine fascinating when still quite young."

Some well-known vintage Ports have always been, in fact, single-quinta wines, notably Quinta do Noval and Offley Boa Vista, but they produced vintage Ports only in top years. The newer stand-alone quintas (that is, those not associated with a shipper's brand) are bottling vintage Ports more often than not. Quinta do Vesuvio, for example, using the chateaus of Bordeaux as a model, has bottled a vintage Port in every year since 1989 except 1993.

There are, in fact, some interesting comparisons to be made between the Médoc and the Douro in that both regions contain hundreds of individual estates, but are dominated by the largest ones. In the Douro, Vesuvio has 270 acres in vines; Canais has 740 acres; Malvedos, 170; Ervamoira, 250; and Noval, 185. But whereas the Médoc is flat, the Douro Valley is one of the most rugged wine regions in the world. The major quintas have hillside vineyards at altitudes from 200 to 900 feet—with varied soils and multiple exposures—and are planted with more than a dozen grape varieties.

As a result, each quinta produces a number of distinct wines, which are kept separate during the harvest, and from which each producer makes a careful selection. Of Vesuvio's total production of approximately 30,000 cases of Port, only 3,000 or so are bottled as Quinta do Vesuvio; fewer than 3,000 cases go to market as Quinta dos Canais; and at Quinta do Noval (which also produces a full range of wood-aged Ports, labeled Noval), perhaps 3,000 cases are selected to be bottled as vintage Port. By comparison, a 200-acre estate in the Médoc might produce 45,000 cases and bottle 80 percent of that under the chateau's name.

Both classic vintage Ports and single-quinta Ports are among the most dependable of all wines, and the longest-lived. It is the impatience of many American consumers, and their preference for rich, fruity, appealing Ports, that is addressed by the single-quinta wines. For example, a comparison of classic vintage 1994s with 1995 single-quinta Ports reveals the differences between the two styles: The 1994s are richer and more concentrated but also more tannic and austere; the 1995 single-quinta Ports, while also rich, display more fruit and provide more immediate appeal.

Examples of intense, peppery, well-structured single-quinta Ports include Quinta da Foz '96 and Quinta do Bomfim '95. Quinta da Roeda '97 is a plush, opulent wine, as are Quinta de la Rosa '96 and Quinta da Corte '95. Fonseca Guimaraens '95 is a richly-textured, well-balanced wine, as is Quinta do Vesuvio '96. Most recent vintages of single quintas cost $35 to $50, with the notable exceptions of the more expensive Quinta do Noval and Quinta do Vesuvio.

Those who prefer mature Ports, which display less vigor and intensity but more aromatic complexity and subtlety of taste, can choose among vintages from the 1980s. What's more, in many cases the older wines are no more expensive than the recent bottlings: The 1995 and 1986 bottlings of Quinta de Vargellas both can be found for about $50. Quinta do Bomfim's '95, '86 and '84 are all $45 or so.

While traditionalists wait another 10 or 20 years until the classic vintage Ports of 1991, 1994 and 1997 acquire polish and maturity—and shell out big bucks for the privilege—the rest of us can take advantage of the accessibility provided by single-quinta Ports.

TASTING VARGELLAS

The Vargellas vineyard is located in one of the more remote areas of the Douro Valley. It has always been considered a jewel of the Port region. It was acquired by Taylor Fladgate in sections between 1893 and 1896, and was extensively replanted over the next 10 years. Vargellas is one of two vineyards that is the backbone of Taylor's great vintage Ports (the other being Quinta de Terra Feita ).

The only year Taylor declared both a vintage Port and made a single Quinta was 1970, when a tiny quantity of Vargellas from a section of the vineyard that flooded when the Douro River was dammed was bottled as a "remembrance." Curious to compare the two, I brought my own bottle of 1970 classic vintage Port to the tasting for a side-by-side comparison.

One other unusual wine was included in the tasting, the superb old-vine 1995 Vargellas. The old-vine Vargellas shows the ultimate expression of terroir, and bears comparison with top vintage Ports, but the economics of selecting the fruit from the tiny yields of older vines makes this even more expensive to produce than the vintage Ports. This first vintage of old-vine Vargellas is unavailable in the United States, but retails in Europe for around $200.

The Vargellas wines mature early (around 12 years as opposed to the 18 to 20 years that a good vintage Port requires). They tend to be soft and easy, complex and quite fine. What is remarkable is how well the wines showed, even if, by definition, single-quinta Port is not made in great years.

1967 Frail. The texture is delicate, and the flavors that of an old lady's posy; dried lavender, roses and a persistent edge of licorice. Nearing the end and needs to be drunk soon. 86

1970 Coming from a low altitude and facing the extreme heat of a Douro summer, the wine is soft and fragrant, with strong butterscotch and caramel flavors, and little fruit left. Low acid and little structure. Pleasant rather than profound. 87

1970 Vintage Port. A great showing for this wine. Lush, heavy, still chunky and very youthful. Massive fruit, licorice and smoked meat flavors, married to a powerful but integrated structure and fine multilayered finish. 97

1978 Very extracted, with expansive strawberry and butterscotch flavors. Alcohol separating a little, but the wine finishes well and will drink well for the rest of the decade. 90

1984 Displaying the Vargellas flavors of licorice and violets, the 1984 is a delicious, soft wine, easy to drink and still quite young and fresh. 89

1986 Less seductive than 1984, and showing its structure rather than its fruit. Earthy, brown sugar and some floral notes. 85

1987 Dark luscious wine, showing complex mocha, black fruit and licorice. Long finish. Stylish. Needs time, but will be superb five years from now. 92

1988 Powerful, linear, with some plummy fruit and smoked meat flavors. Despite its extraction, seems a little dour at the moment. 84

1991 A massive wine, showing black fruit, damson jam and the floral and licorice components of the top Vargellas wines. An extremely good wine that still needs 10 years. 93

1995 Vinha Velha. From 100-year-old vines. Only 200 cases of this, the greatest Vargellas to date. A wine that really exploits what can be done with single-quinta Port, as it captures the essence of the vineyard. Dark and heavy textured, the flavors are bright and fresh: blackberry, smoked meat, licorice and lavender. It finishes long,with layers of flavors. A wine that shows well today, but will be as long lived as the best of Taylor's vintage Ports. 98

1995 A very solid Vargellas; big, bursting with fruit and well structured. Suffered in side-by-side comparison with the old-vine version, but this was still one of the top Vargellas of the tasting. 92

1996 Showing signs of closing down, but displays interesting flavors of black fruit, anise and a touch of wintergreen mint. Very promising. 90

1998 The wine shows signs of the dilution that came with the harvest rains. But on the plus side, it will be early maturing and delicious to drink early. Good restaurant wine. 86

—Mark Golodetz

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