Vibrant and fruity, vintage ports are more modern in style compared to 20 years ago – and it’s not just the Americans who think you can drink them young. Richard Woodard dives into the lagar of controversy to find out why there’s no longer any ‘age’ in vintage
You can blame the Americans if you like. They didn’t used to bother much with vintage port, dismissing it as a throwback to English colonialism and eccentricity. A sweet red wine fortified with brandy and undrinkable for a couple of decades? Those crazy limeys!
But then came the 1994 vintage, and the award by Wine Spectator of 100-point scores to Taylor’s and Fonseca, jointly given the title Wines of the Year. Americans might not have been believers in vintage port in the past, but stick a bottle or two on the cover of a magazine and suddenly agnostics were converted, atheists curious.
But wait 20 years? Squirrel the bottles away in a cellar and don’t even touch them until the kids are grown up? Well, the country that invented McDonald’s and the microwave was never likely to swallow that. Instead, they started to swallow vintage port at an age considered, to British and Portuguese tastes, indecently young – replete with all that pungent primary fruit and gum-withering tannin.
What happened now was, depending on your chosen degree of cynicism, pure serendipity, a dumbing-down of wine style to suit the market, or a combination of the two. But as Americans started to embrace vintage, drinking it younger, the wines became mysteriously more approachable.
Winemakers swear blind that classic vintage port – leaving aside single quintas and second-tier products – is still being made to the same standard (if not better) and with the same goal in mind. But they also admit that the wines have changed. ‘I think we’re making the wines better than ever before, because of the work in the vineyards and in the wineries, and due to what we’ve all brought to these wines over the last few years,’ claims Paul Symington, joint managing director of Symington Family Estates, producers of Dow’s, Graham’s and Warre’s, among others.
The in-yer-face fruitiness
has been toned down to a very
‘Vintage port can be appreciated at many stages in its life,’ adds Adrian Bridge, managing director of The Fladgate Partnership, owner of Taylor’s, Croft and Fonseca. ‘It can be approachable young. It’s a style of drink that can be one of the longest-lived wines, but can also be enjoyed at different stages and for different reasons. ‘Consumers might say: “We want to drink it young and fruity.” Who are we to tell them that that’s wrong?’
And now, bringing our story bang up to date, we have the recently declared 2007 vintage, which can trace a direct evolutionary line back to the 1994s – even if it has little in common with them in terms of vintage style.
There’s a convention about the life cycle of vintage port, which over the years has moved from truism to cliché. Fruit bombs when young, at the peak of maturity after 20-plus years. And in between? A lengthy and rather anti-social ‘Kevin the Teenager’ phase.
But 2007 and the last widely declared vintage, 2003, are giving the lie to this. While the 2007s still have all the hallmarks of classic young vintage port – the tannin, fruit, structure and concentration – these are cloaked in an opulent elegance that majors on acidity and an ethereal freshness. And the in-yer-face fruitiness has been toned down to a very youthful finesse.
The character of these wines, even with the usual levels of residual sugar, suggests food, and savoury food at that. Not just chocolate desserts and emphatically not Stilton (to my mind one of the world’s greatest crimes against wine and food matching).
Throw in the 2003s and the idea starts to grow legs. Retaste them now alongside the 2007s and they exhibit a most un-Kevin-like charm and balance, with the emphasis on perfumed fruit and fine-grained tannin. Sure, they’ll gain complexity and depth with time, but the best 2003s are a lovely glass of wine right now.
‘Look at these wines,’ Bridge said at a recent tasting, gesturing at a line-up of prominent 2003s including Taylor’s, Fonseca, Graham’s and Noval. ‘They’re tasting fantastically well now. You could take that bottle of Croft home with you and drink it quite happily with a good steak.’
So I did. And while it wasn’t a 100% perfect match – I could think of one or two wines that would have done a better job – it wasn’t far off. Certainly interesting enough to warrant further investigation with other savoury dishes… Something with spice and pepper perhaps? Earthier, autumnal foods with lots of robust flavours?
But what – if we accept the port trade’s protestations that they haven’t dumbed down for the US consumer – has brought about this change in the character of young vintage port?
Symington points to the increased use of automatic treaders in the winery, replacing the traditional employment of the humble human foot: about two-thirds of the company’s vintage port is now ‘trodden’ in robotic lagares. ‘They make better wine, and for a very simple reason,’ he says. ‘You cannot have 50 people sitting on their arses waiting for the winemaker to say: “I think we’ll tread again now.” The flexibility with these is fantastic.’
Historically, port houses
were purely shippers, now they
own the vineyards
There’s no doubt that shippers in general have sharpened up their act in the winery, with fermentations much more carefully monitored and hygiene a far higher priority. But it’s in the vineyard where the real transformation has occurred.
Where the classic port houses were historically shippers pure and simple, often barely bothering to leave their lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia to schlep upriver to the growers’ vineyards, that position is now fundamentally different. Not least, because, in most cases, they now own the vineyards that are the s
ource of their vintage port.
‘We’re now growers and totally in control of what we do from beginning to end,’ says Symington. ‘We’ve made the move from being négociants to being serious wine-growers.’
‘Vineyard ownership is the key,’ echoes Bridge. ‘People have control over their own product, and that wasn’t the case years ago. Beyond that, we’ve had great improvements in viticultural techniques. Even if you do things better by 4-5%, that makes a big difference with great wines.’
Bridge and Symington are also united in their insistence that the new face of young vintage port has nothing to do with transatlantic tastes. ‘I don’t actually think that – it’s a chicken-and-egg question you’re putting there,’ responds Bridge. ‘I think the real answer is that because the wines have got better and are more appealing, people consume them younger.’
And Symington: ‘The old fogeys in the clubs will say that you’re not making them the way that they used to be and they won’t last as long. I refute that. [Winemaker] Peter Symington retires this summer. He would not want to be associated with making a wine that would not last as well as the 1955, for instance.’
Whatever the reason for this evolution, maybe we should simply concentrate on readjusting our mindset to accommodate this more approachable, food-friendly take on what we all thought young vintage port should be. For that, God bless the viticulturists of the Douro. God bless the winemakers. And God bless America.
2-007: Licensed to thrill
The name’s Port… Vintage Port. Codename 2-007. Smoother than Sean Connery in a 1960s’ tux. Subtler than a twitch of Roger Moore’s eyebrow. Cleverer than one of Q’s pen gadgets that’s really a nuclear warhead. To be drunk shaken, not stirred (Is this right? – Ed). Want to know why? I’ll tell you why…
Waiting for vintage port to mature is a bit like waiting for a bikini-clad Ursula Andress to emerge tantalisingly from the waves. But there’s instant gratification with the 007s, from the fragrant, floral bouquet to the lush, fleshy primary fruit. Blame the Indian summer that ensured perfect ripeness.
The tannins on a young vintage are generally as lethal as the sharpened edge of Oddjob’s spinning bowler hat. They’re hardly shy on the 007s either, but they’re well-integrated and undercut with a food-friendly acidity and uncharacteristic freshness, thanks to an unusually cool growing season.
But beware nasty surprises. (Remember Rosa Klebb’s toecaps in From Russia with Love?) Early tastings suggest that some of these wines need to settle in bottle and, at this stage, nobody really knows how such an idiosyncratic vintage will evolve.
In 25 years’ time, it could well be a Connery vintage – but there’s just a chance it might be a Lazenby…
The suggestion that Richard try vintage port with steak got the team at Imbibe thinking. Take a look at our port and food matching to see whether this really is a brave new world or just Portuguese hot air.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September / October 2009