It’s a great year to sail into a vintage port

Date:28-05-2013 07:58:07 read:4

It’s a great year to sail into a vintage port

There’s a buzz about the latest vintage declarations and, with lower prices than most fine wines, it’s time to stock up

A young vineyard volunteer in  Portugal’s Douro Valley picks grapes that will become port
Mother’s little helper: a young vineyard volunteer in Portugal’s Douro Valley picks grapes that will become port Photo: Alamy

It does not happen often, but vintage port is having a moment. Make that a big moment: the declaration of the 2011 vintage is causing quite a rumpus.

If you are already a port fan then my advice is simple: pile in. If you have ever thought that maybe one day you will buy some to shove under the stairs and bring out in a decade or two, now is the time (though I recommend opening it on a Saturday afternoon when it can take centre stage, rather than at the end of one of those dinners when everyone gets a dangerous second wind at about midnight and you become a suddenly incredibly generous host). And if you have children or godchildren who were born in 2011 – well, what are you waiting for? (Here I should apologise to mine, whose port money I have spent on a rotten ceiling joist. Sorry.)

2011 was a breathtakingly good year for port. A vintage is traditionally “declared” about 18 months after the grapes are picked – this simply means that the producers decide their wine has been good enough to bottle as a single vintage rather than a blend of vintages; and once this decision has been ratified by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto, they can proceed to declare it to the world. The declarations for 2011 have been rolling in since St George’s Day.

“It’s the first time since 2007 that everyone’s declared,” says Adrian Bridge of Taylor’s. “So there’s a great buzz.”

It’s not just that it’s a universal declaration; the quality of the best is startling. Not all the wines are good, mind: they never are. But tasting 38 of them before elevenses the other day was a rare treat. They were so silky, and had such a soar of pleasure I wanted to drink them on the spot. Yet these are wines that “have the potential for such longevity we will still be drinking them a century from now,” says Christian Seely of Quinta do Noval. Well, we will if there are any left.

I realise that to some people the words “vintage port” have an exhausting ring of old-fashioned London clubs, passing the decanter to the left and knowingly being asked if you know the Bishop of Norwich (a bon viveur who famously, allegedly, hogged the decanter, and therefore code for: “Can you get it moving in this direction please?”).

But really it’s time to get over all that. Port to me is one of the most easily appreciated fine wines: deep, swarthy, opulent like crimson velvet, its sweetness hiding glimmers of the wildness of the steep, craggy terraces on which the grapes are grown. It caresses like a dark night with a warm breeze, and it’s as rich as a sack full of dried figs, dates and walnuts. It is also, remarkably, affordable; far better value than most fine wine. As a combination of immense price inflation and a couple of ordinary vintages have kept buyers away from Bordeaux for the past couple of years, this is also an opportune moment for port to have something special to offer, not just to investors wondering where to put their cash but drinkers considering stocking their cellars.

“This may be the last year a vintage port declaration is this cheap,” says Bridge. “In my view, there are plenty of people who can afford it.”

Thanks to a summer drought 2011, while high in quality, was a relatively low crop; Taylor’s made just 11,000 cases of vintage port — they might normally expect to have 14,000 or 15,000. Bridge says he isn’t even thinking about sales of the 2011. “It will sell out. All my wines always do. We made 310 cases of the Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha vintage and it’s sold already. I have 300 new best friends.”

Instead he is looking ahead, asking whether the strength of this vintage will prove a one-hit wonder or whether it will kindle a wider enthusiasm for this somewhat unfashionable drink. “I’m more interested to know what’s happening in the aftermarket, for older vintages. Will people start looking around and say, 'I could buy an ’85 aged tawny for that?’”

Perhaps I am a romantic but I like the idea of buying a half case of 2011, putting it away somewhere, and pulling out a bottle to share with goodness knows who, one rainy afternoon in 2033. These drinks are artefacts of a place and of a time; that’s part of the joy. I particularly loved Quinta do Noval and Dow’s, and thought that Graham’s (both the standard vintage and the Stone Terrace bottling) were superb, a cut above their usual – gloriously granitic but with an English demeanour, like a good-looking man in M & S cashmere. Niepoort, Fonseca and Quinta do Vesuvio were also excellent.

If you want a more savage taste of the Douro slopes then Romaneira, made with 80 per cent touriga nacional, perfumed, reminiscent of black tulips, wild and as dense as a red dwarf, is your bottle.

The Sandeman was the best I’ve tasted by them since – well, possibly ever. But not quite as good as the top set above, and not much cheaper – for a slightly cheaper but still good port, try the upright stance of Smith Woodhouse.

Now, I’m off to check my overdraft limit.

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