A Decade of Distinction

The vintages of the 1990s spawned a bounty of stellar vintage ports.


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The 1990s were kind to Port producers, who turned out a bevy of stellar Ports.

Whatever else they were, the 1990s were a great decade for vintage Port. There were four classic vintage declarations—above the average for a decade. Two other years came very close to classic vintage status, and certainly some fine wines emerged. Six years out of ten: that's not a bad haul.

Two vintages—1997 and 1994—are generally agreed to be comparable to the best of the century and were declared by most of the major Port shippers. Two other years—1991 and 1992—were split between the major Port players and can be bracketed together as traditional, ageworthy vintages.

The almost-rans—1995 and 1998— showed that single-quinta Ports, the alternative to classic vintage Port, are able to offer fine, faster maturing alternatives. The Port lodges have two years to decide whether they will declare a vintage, so we won't know for certain where '99 falls until later this year; whether it is declared or not, expect some fine wines to emerge from the final year of the '90s.

The difference between types of vintage Port can seem complex, and the Port producers haven't made it any easier. They sometimes seem to use the term vintage to describe any Port that is matured in bottle rather than cask. However, there are some straightforward distinctions that make life easier for vintage Port lovers.

Classic vintage Port, declared (the word that is always used) only in the best years, is normally a blend of the finest wines from a number of vineyards. Famous vintage Ports, such as Taylor Fladgate, Graham and Cockburn, are blended wines; Taylor Fladgate, for instance, uses grapes from Quinta de Vargellas, Quinta da Terra Feita and a few other quintas in its vintage Port blend.

Single-quinta vintage Ports are, on the face of it, a simple contrast to classic vintage. They are vintage Ports from a single vineyard that are produced in the years when the Port producer decides that the wines blended from several vineyards are not good enough for a classic declaration, but that some of the quinta plots are worthy of being called vintage. The vineyards, or quintas, are of course the same ones that would, in the finest years, supply the wine for the classic vintage blends. So you have examples like Taylor Fladgate's Quinta de Vargellas, Graham's Malvedos, and Dow's Quinta do Bomfim.

However, that still leaves an area of confusion. What about such Ports as Quinta do Noval, Quinta do Vesuvio, or Quinta de la Rosa? These are always single-quinta Ports—there are no other vineyards involved, whether the year is a classic vintage year or not.

Definitions aside, vintage Port as a wine style is increasingly popular and sought-after in the United States. Today, Americans buy more vintage Port than any other country, including the perennially robust market of the United Kingdom.

Not only do Americans buy it in larger quantities than enthusiasts in other countries; they also tend to drink their vintage Port differently. Brought up to consume wines straight off the liquor store shelf or direct from the winery, without any need for aging, Americans enjoy their vintage Port younger than most Europeans would ever dream of. Many U.S. vintage Port lovers will already have broached their 1994s, and will certainly be in the process of drinking any 1991s and 1992s they have purchased.

There is a definite attraction to drinking young vintage Port—the huge fruit and the strong tannins will appeal to any lover of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. But it's also worth remembering that, of all wines, vintage Port can age the longest—50 to 60 years or more. Vintage Ports from the turn of the 20th century—I recently tasted a 1904 Dow's—are still remarkably fruity and drinkable.

The question that many vintage Port lovers are now asking, however, is whether Port producers are changing the style of their favorite wine to take into account this desire to drink it younger. Certainly, young vintage Port today is fruitier than it was 20 years ago. While the tannins are still there, the sweet fruit is now dominant. Port producers claim this is a result of changed winemaking and improved viticultural techniques yielding greater extraction of color and fruit, rather than a deliberate change in style.

Whatever the reason, it is now possible to drink vintage Port younger than ever before. This makes the arcane discussion of when to open the bottles less important than it was years ago, when it was the norm to wait 20 years before starting a case.

Still, it would be a shame to open any bottle of Port before it has had a chance to at least come together somewhat in the bottle. Of the Ports of the 1990s, the wines of 1992 are likely to be drinkable before those of 1991. The 1994s are greater wines than either 1991 or 1992 and should really be kept, but could be drunk now.

The 1997s are definitely not for drinking yet—the tannins are too dominant even for California Cabernet lovers—and these are wines that shouldn't really be touched until at least 2005. Wines from the interim years, and single-quinta wines in general, need less aging, and it is possible to drink 1995s already, while the 1998s are exhibiting fruit rather than tannins.

On a recent trip to Oporto I tasted a broad selection of Ports from the '90s. Here are some of the highlights I found from each vintage.

1998

Vintage Rating: 87
Rain at harvest time spoiled what could otherwise have been an excellent vintage. A few properties—Noval among them—picked late and its second label, Silval, shows good promise. In general, this is a year for single-quinta wines.

90 Taylor Fladgate Quinta de Vargellas
A powerful, solid wine, packed with luscious fruit. The perfumes and the ripeness of the fruit are currently covered with a firm tannin layer, but this should develop well as a medium-term wine.

90 Quinta do Vesuvio
This wine has the dark fruit typical of this quinta, but this year shows more elegance than usual, with dusty tannins and concentrated, sweet fruit.

88 Silval
Rich, sweet soft fruit with some good firm dusty tannins underneath. A young, juicy modern style, likely to be drinkable in five years.

1997

Vintage Rating: 93
A warm spring gave way to a cool early summer followed by a hot August and September, lengthening the ripening season and giving firm, tannic berries, provided the growers left the grapes to hang as long as possible. In the best wines, this is a classic, structured year. The 1997s do not have the opulent fruit of the previous, generally declared vintage
of 1994. That suggests that they need more time—10 years at least—before drinking. Prices are already high, making this a drinker's vintage, not one for investment.

96 Fonseca
Classically sweet, opulent fruit, with fine concentration of sweet black-fruit flavors and chocolate. The typical Fonseca iron fist in a velvet glove.

95 Quinta do Noval Nacional
A firmly structured wine, with dry tannins alongside black, dark, brooding fruit. A blend of elegance and power; the richness and tannins last forever in the mouth. This wine has improved dramatically since our first evaluation of it back in 1999, when we found it somewhat impenetrable.

95 Taylor Fladgate
Elegant wine, but with a fine, firm structure that promises good long-term aging. Dense fruit hints at the power of the wine, but it also has fine balance.

93 Graham's
An intense, complex wine, bringing together tannins, concentrated fruits and surprisingly delicate perfumes. The wine has considerable potential—keep for 10-15 years at least.

92 Quinta do Noval
Big, rich, smoky wine with concentrated, powerful fruit. Structure underneath ripeness, and dry tannins along with lovely, jammy fruit flavors.

91 Sandeman Vau
Solid, structured wine, with ripe, plummy fruit along with firm tannins. This should develop well with its serious, rich fruit.

91 Quinta do Vesuvio
A big, dark, powerful wine, full of concentrated fruits and sweetness. Black, rich fruit flavors, with depth and opulence.

90 Martinez
Delicious, perfumed, fruity wine. Sweet, soft and ripe, with full-flavored fruit. The tannins underlie the fruit, giving a firm backbone to the wine, but are always dense rather than firm. Delicious soon and for mid-term aging.

90 Quinta do Portal
Perfumed, streamlined wine with ripeness, forward fruit and structured tannins underneath a modern, rich wine. Attractive now, but also has potential to age.

90 J. W. Burmester & Cia, Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo
Powerful, structured wine; well made, with ripe tannins and dominant dense fruit. Spice and ripeness.

1996

Vintage Rating: 85
High yields, wet weather and low sugars were the recipe for a decidedly inferior year. There were no classic declared vintages, but some single-quinta wines are attractive and forward for early drinking. One or two wines—most prominently Quinta do Noval Nacional—are for the longer term.

94 Quinta do Noval Nacional
An extraordinary wine from a lesser year. Smoky, sweet, rich fruits with concentrated soft tannins. Powerful, rich and heady. Approachable for its sweetness, but with huge tannins to give it an extensive life.

89 Quinta de la Rosa
Perfumed wine, structured and sophisticated. The dusty tannins sit comfortably with the ripe fruit and elegance. Good for the medium term.

88 Cálem Quinta da Foz
Perfumed, elegant wine, with ripe fruit, balanced with acidity. Spice and herbs along with delicious sweet fruit flavors.

1995

Vintage rating: 91
A hot end of the season resulted in some powerful, raisin-like wines. Jammy, soft, fleshy fruit is another characteristic of this vintage. Coming after 1994, it is a second-best year, but there are a few declared vintage Ports and a number of single-quinta wines, all of which are softly attractive. These are for drinking after five years, rather than the 10 years of a more classic vintage.

92 Quinta do Vesuvio
Packed with rich, dark fruits, this is a wine that appeals to the senses. Deep, rich and concentrated, this is a huge blockbuster of a wine. It would repay cellaring, but is ready to drink now.

91 Taylor Quinta da Vargellas
All perfume and elegance, with violets and exotic spices. A restrained wine, showing its dark fruit by degrees and suggesting power rather than revealing it.

90 Fonseca Guimaraens
Delicious, perfumed wine with exotic flavors of dark plums, violets and cinammon. The fruit is firmly bedded in solid tannins, and it looks as though the potential is there for medium-term aging, say from 10-15 years.

90 Quinta do Noval
Firm, tannic wine, suggesting good aging potential. But there is also a layer of sumptuous, smooth, rich fruit giving it as much roundness as structure. Hold for around 10 years.

90 Quinta do Portal
A dry, firm, solid wine with dusty tannins. A much denser, structured wine than many from this vintage and one with some good potential. Keep for at least seven years.

87 Cockburn
Soft, ripe wine, jammy and rich. Good soft, easy tannins and a streak of dryness give this some good structure. The end reveals good acidity. Well-balanced.

87 Osborne
Soft, ripe fruit, with sufficient tannin to shore up the rich, dense, chocolate and coffee flavors. The main attraction is the velvety black fruit.

86 Ferreira
Quite young for the vintage. The wine still shows signs of the spirit element, but there's sufficient rich fruit. Good richness and softness at the end.

86 Rozes
Soft-centered wine, with pleasant soft, ripe fruit balanced with enough acidity and tannin to give it shape. A medium-weight wine, with an enticing perfume.

1994

Vintage Rating: 96
From the moment the grapes were picked, this was going to be a classic vintage year, and in fact it was the first general vintage declaration since 1985 (1991 and 1992 were split declarations). The wines were perhaps the first to be made with an eye to modern ideas of how wines should be fruity as well as structured. They started with piles of sweet, fleshy fruit. Gradually, though, among the stars of the vintage, the tannins are asserting themselves, and these now appear to be long-lived wines.

98 Fonseca
The star of the vintage, with its dark, luscious fruit flavors and accompanying power. This wine is intensely sweet, yet never jammy, its opulent fruit balanced by acidity and a complex tannin structure. Might age indefinitely.

96 Quinta do Noval Nacional
A stunning velvet wine with intense ripe, soft fruits. It oozes black fruits and dusty tannins; the result is concentrated, rich and intense. Expect this to have an immensely long life.

95 Taylor Fladgate
Classic Taylor, with its scents of violets and herbs. It is developing slowly and carefully, just beginning to let its huge structure open out with some ripe fruit and flavors of vanilla and chocolate. A wine for the long term.

94 Warre's
A firm, structured wine with spices and powerful, dry fruits. Black fruits dominate along with the tannins, giving the impression of a wine with still leashed-up power.

94 Quarles Harris
Full, fat wine, with a very comfortable cushioned feel to it. Broad, ripe flavors are given an edge with lively fruits, but the richness and shape of this wine are already extremely satisfying, even at this tender age.

93 Graham's
This is still relatively closed, and looks young. But everything is in place for a complex wine, with vibrant plummy fruit and ripe, but not sweet, flavors. Spices and fresh fruits are just beginning to come through.

92 Quinta de la Rosa
A firm, structured wine, still young, with big, rich, but dry fruits. Solid and elegant, this is an intellectual, complex wine which looks set for a long life—don't drink for another five years at least.

91 Quinta do Noval
Huge, ripe, sweet fruit on the nose, with cigar box aromas. Sweet fruit on the palate, with ripe tannins. There's a lovely, juicy-sweet character to the finish. The wine is developing well, very sweet and jammy.

91 Quinta da Sagrado
From one of the quintas since sold by the Cálem family, this wine is almost black in color—big, powerful and dense. At present it is firm and closed, but it obviously has huge long-term potential. Keep for at least another 7-10 years.

91 Kopke
Rich, ripe and fat, with great power and the sweetness of chocolate and ripe, jammy fruit. An immediately attractive wine, already ready to drink, offering huge fruit flavors.

90 Martinez
A delicious wine, but one with good aging potential. Ripe, rich, structured fruit and seductive perfumes, plus a firm, dry backbone and a finish of raisins and spice.

90 Ramos Pinto
A firm, closed wine, with dry tannins and solid fruit. This is certainly a dry style of vintage Port, with power and chunkiness balancing the sweet jammy elements underneath.

89 Burmester
Ripe wine, but with dry, structured tannins and attractive perfumed fruits. Still young, this has shape and firmness along with dark, intense fruit flavors.

1993

Vintage Rating: Not Rated
There are virtually no vintage or single-quinta Ports from what turned out to be a miserable year in the Douro.

1992

Vintage Rating: 92
This was the second of the two vintage declarations of the early 1990s. Those shippers who had not declared in 1991 mostly declared in 1992. The weather in August and September provided good, juicy, but also concentrated, grapes. Some impressive wines were made by the leading houses, along with some good single-quinta Ports. Whether the vintage will finally prove better than 1991 is still a matter for debate.

95 Taylor Fladgate
Figs and damsons along with spice and violets: a wonderful mix of hedonistic flavors opening out into a wine that is developing a smooth, velvet mouthfeel.

94 Fonseca
A surprisingly youthful wine, exuding power and rich, juicy fruit. There's tannic structure still, as well as huge fruit. A concentrated wine that promises many years of life.

93 Quinta do Vesuvio
Sweet, powerful concentrated fruit, full of rich, dark, brooding flavors. The wine is developing well, and is certainly ready to drink, but looks to have many more years of life ahead of it.

92 Kopke
Well balanced, almost mature wine. Ripe, sweet fruit and soft, generous tannins. There's an attractive element of dried fruits along with richness and an elegantly spicy perfume.

91 Delaforce
A firm, concentrated wine with big tannins and solid fruit. Powerful, ripe and perfumed, with a layer of spirit.

90 Cockburn Quinta dos Canais
Delicious, sweet fruit with an edge of leathery maturity, but there's still a dry, firm backbone to the sweetness. Drink now, or keep for the next few years.

89 Cálem Quinta da Foz
Deep, rich red color; still seems young. The fruit is dry, perfumed, firm and concentrated. Not a powerful wine, but one which seems to have a good future.

88 Gilberts
A brand of Burmester, Gilberts makes sweet, fruity vintage Ports, of which this is typical. Attractively balanced, it is not concentrated, but eminently drinkable and rounded. Definitely mature now.

88 Churchill Quinta da Agua Alta
Dry, firm tannins with good solid, chunky fruits. A dry style of Port, opening up in the mouth with warm, earthy tastes and flavors of black-currant jelly.

1991

Vintage Rating: 92
This was the first year in which the U.S. purchased more vintage Port than the traditional number one market, the U.K. Perfect harvest conditions led to firm, solid, structured wines, with considerable power. They do not necessarily have the fruit of the 1992s, but may well last longer. This was a split declaration, for while the majority of Port shippers declared in 1991, a few, led by Taylor and Fonseca, declared instead in 1992.

94 Graham's
An impressive wine, with chocolate, dried fruits and spice on the nose. The palate is intense—packed with flavors of plums and figs along with ripe, developed tannins. Ready to drink, but will keep well over the next five years or more.

94 Warre's
Dry, concentrated wine, with cooked-fruit and fruitcake aromas. Rich, plummy and deep, this wine is less developed than the Graham's. Give this another five years before maturity.

93 Dow's
A huge, powerful, brooding wine that is developing slowly—with plenty of tannins as well as concentrated fruit. Although the wine has developed sufficiently for it to be drinkable, try to hold it a bit longer.

91 Croft
When it was released, this was the best Croft vintage for a long time. It has considerable concentration, but is already developing well and is now almost mature. A fine, classic wine, with ripe serious fruit and a delicious flavor of chocolate.

91 Churchill's
A dry, firm wine, with solid tannins and strong, chunky fruit. At first, the fruit is concentrated and powerful, but at the end, it opens out to give a rich aftertaste.

90 Gilberts
Ripe fruit, sweet flavors and lovely balanced fruit. This is an attractive, soft, generous wine that is now fully mature. Enjoy.

89 Burmester
A softly attractive wine, well developed, with chocolate and licorice flavors. Sound acidity and soft, generous tannins support the sweet fruit. Ready to drink now.

89 Ramos Pinto
Still a young wine, with firm tannins and dried-fruit flavors. There's a strong, solid backbone to the wine, but it's balanced by the fruit. It should develop well over the next five years.

88 Krohn
A lovely, easy wine, not a great vintage Port, but now that it is fully mature, it is deliciously drinkable. The youthful intensity of fruit has now developed into fruitcake and raisin flavors.

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