Port producers have long memories and good records. That’s why they can say with confidence that the last time there were generally declared Vintage Ports in consecutive years was 1872 and 1873. Sixteen producers declared both years.
That is, until 2016 and 2017, when 63 and 71 Vintage Ports were declared, respectively. That’s a big gap. For two successive Vintage Ports to be declared for the first time in 144 years is spectacular.
Quality and longevity are the two criteria for a vintage declaration, according to David Guimaraens, head winemaker at The Fladgate Partnership, which produces Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft Ports.
“Vintage 2016 had extreme elegance and finesse, while in 2017, you get the density and dimension,” he says.
Charles Symington is head winemaker at his family’s Symington Family Estates, which includes W. & J. Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, Cockburn’s and Quinta do Vesúvio among its brands and properties. He says producers “experienced two equally excellent years,” resulting in two very different high-quality vintages.
“Our decision was that 2017 was too good not to declare,” he says. “The 2016s are defined by a wonderful freshness, elegance and balance. The 2017s are more characterized by incredible concentration, intensity and structure.”
What is Vintage Port?
Many Ports have a date on the label. But a generally declared Vintage Port, with a major capital V, is special.
It’s the culmination of a selection of the best grapes from a top vintage, made only in small quantities and destined to last for decades at least, possibly a century or more. For the largest producers, a blend might come from a number of quintas (vineyards). For individual quintas owners, whose increasing number is cause for excitement, it’s a selection from the best parcels.
“We are looking for wines with impeccable concentration, lifted aromas, well-structured tannins, balance, freshness and acidity,” says Symington. “Combined, they imply fantastic aging potential, as well as excellent drinking when young.”
A general Vintage Port declaration is a special event. Normally, it happens only three times on average in a decade. It means that the Port houses get together and agree that the year was so good everywhere in the Douro that they can all make a Vintage Port declaration.
It’s fun to imagine them sitting round a large table in Oporto after a good lunch with a decanter of fine being Port passed around as they discuss. In practice, prosaically, it’s more likely to come from a series of phone calls and texts.
The general declaration is announced in the spring, 18 months after the harvest.
As both Guimaraens and Symington say, weather plays the crucial role in the decision to declare a Vintage Port. There’s some commercial pressure if there’s a large gap between declarations, as between 2011 and 2016. But no major producers want to dilute the quality of Vintage Port.
Why 2016 and 2017?
Bento Amaral, director of technical and certification services at the Port and Douro Wine Institute, sums up the weather differences between the two years.
“In 2016, the year was wet in the winter and spring, while in 2017, the weather was extremely dry from winter onwards and hot, with several heatwaves in spring and early summer,” he says.
The result, he says, was 2016 had freshness because of the reserves of water in the ground, while 2017 had concentration from the small berries after the dry conditions.
“[The] 2016 was not easy for the viticulturalists, but great for winemakers,” says Sottomayor. Water in the soil and strong temperatures in the summer brought a late harvest, “which I like a lot.”
In 2017, “it was somehow the opposite,” he says. “A great year for the vineyard teams, but not so easy for the winemakers.” He says it was difficult to preserve acidity, even if the resulting structure is amazing.
Sottomayor was among a small number of producers that only declared one Vintage, choosing not to declare a Vintage Port for his three houses in 2017.
“In 2016, we found exactly what we prefer for a classic Vintage, whereas in 2017, two of our quintas stood out, so we decided to declare single-quinta Vintages,” says Sottomayor.
“We only consider the quality of the wines,” says Rosas. “We felt that in 2017, our different quintas complemented each other for a declared Vintage in a way they did not in 2016.”
Despite these differences, both winemakers echo a general belief in Vintage declaration among Port producers. The individual quintas that lend themselves to Vintage Ports need to hang together, to be of equal quality.
Each producer will choose from the same vineyards, or the same selection of parcels, to go into the blend. At the moment, none seems inclined to change this.
“Each of our principal quintas have parcels that consistently deliver for our Vintage blend,” says Symington. Sometimes, it’s the same parcels for over 100 years, “since my great-grandfather’s time.”
He points out, however, that proportions may vary, and new parcels can sometimes get into the mix. The result is a “house style” for each Vintage Port that comes into focus year after year.
What Happens Next?
Parcel choice has led to a phenomenon among Vintage Ports. That’s the increase in superpremium Vintage, small quantities from some of the finest parcels, released as separate bottlings.
These are special parcels, often old vines, that give, as Symington puts it “individually stunning and fascinating expressions of a single site.”
Whatever the impressive quality of these Ports, do they add to the excitement surrounding Vintage Port? Or do they dilute the general Vintage declaration?
“They are different,” says Guimaraens. The quantities are tiny and “they have much to teach us.”
It’s true that Vintage declarations are Port’s big moments. They grab headlines and attract collectors and wine lovers alike. They’re a reminder that Port is special, from a very special place. To have two Vintages, very different in character, that follow one another is a major moment.
Which is better? Both years will age, a criteria that Symington identifies as essential for a Vintage Port. Both years have made great, memorable Ports.
For me, 2016 wins by a small sip. It’s the freshness, the style and the way these Ports bring out each producer’s and quinta’s individuality that makes them special. Of course, only time will really tell. That’s a good reason to buy both.
Prête à Port 2029 & Beyond
Here’s a sampling of some of the top-rated wines from the historic 2016 and 2017 vintages.
W. & J. Graham’s 2016 The Stone Terraces Vintage Port; $230, 100 points. A superbly intense wine of great concentration, this has a generous structure and abundant ripe-fruit tones. Its tannins are fully intact, promising an immensely long aging period. It’s rich, but also fresh in acidity and juicy black-fruit flavors. Drink from 2029. Premium Port Wines, Inc. Cellar Selection.
Sandeman 2016 Vintage Port; $118, 99 points. This is a ripe and generous wine, with tannins that are well integrated into the powerful black-fruit core. It is rich in a black plum flavor that’s cut by fine acidity. Complex, balanced and full of long-term potential, drink this impressive wine from 2029. Evaton, Inc. Cellar Selection.
Barão de Vilar 2016 Maynard’s Vintage Port; $65, 99 points. A beautifully balanced, rich wine, this has great tannins, a dense, firm texture and luscious blackberry fruits. It shows the structure of the vintage while also bringing a fresher element. Jammy but never cloying, this is an impressive wine for the long term. Drink from 2029. Monsieur Touton Selection Ltd. Editors’ Choice.
Kopke 2016 Vintage Port; $80, 96 points. This is a luscious wine, with tannins that are cushioned by the ripe plum and prune fruits. That doesn’t mean it is likely to develop too quickly, but is ready to take its time, bringing out the opulent character of the wine as well as its structure. Drink from 2028. Wine-in-Motion. Cellar Selection.
Taylor Fladgate 2017 Vargellas Vinhas Velhas Vintage Port; $250, 100 points. This is a magnificent, opulent wine, with rich tannins and equally rich black fruits. While it has plenty of ripeness that gives it a generous character, it never wavers in its firm structure. It will have an immensely long, impressive life. Drink from 2030. Kobrand. Cellar Selection.
Fonseca 2017 Vintage Port; $120, 98 points. The wine’s fine perfumed black plum fruits give a wonderful jammy character while bringing out a fresh edge. These are balanced by the dry core of this beautiful wine with its rich, generous tannins. It will all come together from 2030 in a very fine, integrated wine. Kobrand. Cellar Selection.
Vallegre 2017 Quinta do Valle Longo Vintage Port; $70, 97 points. Finely perfumed while also massively rich, this is going to be a very fine wine. Its acidity as well as the dense, dry tannins will ensure that. They are giving the potential for a superbly structured wine, dark and dense, likely to be ready from 2032. LGL Imports LLC. Editors’ Choice.
Quinta do Vale Meão 2017 Vintage Port; $89, 96 points. Ripe with succulent black fruits, this wine is also immensely structured by a core of solid tannins. Bright acidity gives the essential contrast to this power and contributes to its great aging potential. Enjoy from 2032. Deutsch Family Wines and Spirits. Cellar Selection.