Vintage Report: Port 2003

Structure and fruit mark this must-buy vintage.



Port's 2003 vintage has just arrived in the U.S. It is, at least in terms of the number of wines, the largest ever declaration of vintage Ports. With more than 80 wines coming to the market, there are many new names in vintage Port, from single quintas, or estates, to shippers who do not normally declare.

It is a great year. The 2003 vintage has both the charm of 2000 and the structure of the vintages of the early 1990s, or of 1997. The quality level is high, as winemaking improvements show through in the pure fruit of many wines, as well as in the tannins. This makes 2003 wines more tannic and harder to drink when young than either the 2000 or 1994 vintages have been. However, the newest vintage will age for many years, maybe as long as the legendary 1963 vintage.

Prices, too, are reasonable. Compared with those Bordeaux chateaus that sell en primeur, Port producers really do understand the necessity of looking at a market over the long term. Consequently, prices for 2003 Ports are a very modest two to three percent above those of the last declared vintage, the 2000.

One downside of 2003 is that quantities are small. Adrian Bridge, managing director of The Fladgate Partnership (which owns Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Croft and Delaforce), says that, in general, "quantities are 30 percent down compared with 2000." At Quinta do Noval, director Christian Seely says that there are only 4,000 cases of Quinta do Noval, and just 240 cases of the legendary Naçional.

This reduction in quantity has much to do with stricter selection in the vineyards, according to Paul Symington of the Symington Group. But it is also has a lot to do with the dry summer of 2003. While Portugal did not experience the same unusually high temperatures found in the rest of Western Europe (except for a spike in early August), less rain fell than usual. Because of the wet 2002- 03 winter, this did not cause serious problems with the vines themselves, but did lead to less fruit on the vines.

Another strange thing about the 2003 vintage was that there was not the normal considerable difference between nighttime and daytime temperatures in the Douro during the final few weeks of the growing cycle. Grapes were ripe, yes, but growers had a brief window of opportunity in which to pick them before they became overripe.

Harvesting began early—in the first week of September in the Douro Superior, the hot region close to the Spanish frontier. In the heartland of the great Port vineyards, the Cima Corgo, harvesting began a week later, with the top quintas picking during the middle days of the month. Because of the heat, producers in some of the smaller quintas without good temperature control had problems managing the fermentation, but for the major players color extraction was easy, and fruit quality was sensational.

I tasted 64 Vintage 2003 Ports in Oporto this summer. I was accompanied by Bento Amaral, who heads up the technical section of the Port and Douro Wine Institute, the regulatory body for the Port trade.

"These are some of the best-made vintage Ports ever," Amaral said. "They have fantastic color because of the maceration of the grapes, and the new technique of adding small quantities of the brandy during fermentation rather than adding it all at the end. It has led to better integration of the brandy, and better quality wines at the end of the day."

Both Amaral and I found quality uniformly high—not just that of the big names, but also that of some of the single quintas, and that of Port houses that are less well known for the quality of their vintage bottlings.

Graham, Dow's, Taylor, Fonseca, and Niepoort all performed well. But then so did Quinta do Portal, Quinta das Baldias, Quinta da Pacheca, Poças and Ramos-Pinto. For investment the top names are the ones to buy, but for drinking there is a huge choice of great wines available from 2003.

These wines will certainly age. Bridge says "with a classic vintage like 2003, if you want a wine that is mature, then you should wait 20 years. But," he adds, "there is no prescription. If you want to drink them younger [as is common among American consumers], then it is your choice. And we certainly have not changed our winemaking to satisfy a need to drink vintage earlier, it is just that we are making the wine better."

For Port lovers, Vintage 2003 is a must-have. These are classic wines, produced at the top of the current quality curve among Port makers, with all the intensity, power and fruit that make great vintage Port.

Top 10 2003 Vintage Ports

Fonseca Fonseca Vintage Ports are always among the most attractive, and among the most long-lived. This 2003 conforms magnificently to that model. It is structured, but also so rich, powerful and opulent. There are cassis and black fig flavors, as well as sweet tannins. It is delicious already, and will remain delicious throughout its long life. 97

Graham's This is a great Port. It is packed with solid, structured, rich and intense fruit flavors. Its tannins show considerable aging potential; its huge scale and its ripeness are balanced by a long, lingering, dark aftertaste. 96

Taylor Fladgate  Hugely ripe fruit dominates this wine. But, as so often with a Taylor Fladgate Port, this fruit is balanced out with beautiful perfumes, elegant tannins and a series of complex layers of dryness, sweetness and acidity. This is a great wine, but maybe not as long-lived as other vintage Taylor Fladgates. 95

Quinta do Portal  Potentially one of the top wines of the vintage, Portal's Port is an extraordinary performance from a producer not known much for its quality vintage Ports. The wine, a special selection that, at this stage, has no name, has great, ripe fruit and huge tannins. It's a dense, intense wine, dark, brooding and rich. Has great aging potential, too. 95

Niepoort A great wine from master winemaker Dirk van Niepoort. It is big, solid, chunky and packed with ripe fruit flavors. It also has a fine, elegant dry element, which focuses the acidity and the layer of wood. To finish, there are nice bitter-chocolate flavors. 95

Ramos-Pinto  A gorgeous Port. The wine is big, full, opulent, superripe. But the tannins are also there, giving a dark, brooding edge, which comes through powerfully to finish. This is the best vintage yet from this Roederer-owned house. 94

Quinta do Portal This Port is a great success for Portal, which is better known for its table wines. It is dark, dry and very firmly tannic. There is a powerhouse of fruit, but at this stage, and for several years, that fruit is going to be buried. A great wine for maturing. 94

Quinta de la Rosa  Owned by the Bergqvist family, this stunning quinta, on the banks of the Douro near Pinhão, produces both Port and table wines. This 2003 vintage is a fine, firmly tannic wine, which also manages to push through with sweet fruit. The structure and the aging potential are both excellent. 94

Niepoort Secundum  This may be called "Secundum"—second wine—but this is as fine a vintage Port as many so-called first wines. The tannins are huge, dense, dry and designed for the long haul. The Port is packed with ripe fruit, cassis flavors and an herbal layer. The style is big and opulent, backed up with tannins. 93

Quinta do Vesúvio  The Symingtons' showpiece vineyard in the upper Douro continues to make great vintage Port. This 2003 shows the estate's potential for big, luscious wines, with power as well as tannic strength. It is opulent and generous, with the potential for long-term aging. 93

Quinta das Baldias  The Vizeu family have been grape growers for three generations, with 50 acres of vines, and have been bottling their own fruit since the 1980s. This is a dense, deep, powerful Port, with firm tannins. It is sweet, structured and impressive. 93  

 

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