The Shackles of Fame or The Truth About Port
*The content of this article is based on a sponsored trip to Porto and the Douro valley paid for by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto.*
Portugal’s most famous wine, Port, is the counterpoint to the Douro’s dry reds. It is the baseline for most anyone’s expectations about Portuguese wine. Its brand is so strong that it shines well into the minds of even casual drinkers.
Being the baseline comes with a price. First, consumers expect consistency and quality, particularly since most will interact not with the vintage dated ports and colheitas, but with non vintage rubies and tawnies. Second, expectations align with house style more than site expression. This is the history of Port, a wine traditionally dominated by very large houses that can afford the warehouses needed to store the stuff. Third, with fame comes the assumption by many collectors, geeks and industry types that they already understand Port – it is a known quantity.
This baseline no longer accurately represents Port and its future. But to understand Port’s future you have to understand its past.
Regulating the Douro
Perhaps surprisingly, part of Port’s fame lies in its regulatory history. Often touted as the first demarcated wine region in the world (false – Chianti and Tokaji were demarcated prior), I was told by the president of the IVDP that it is in fact the first demarcated and regulated region in the world (though Chianti might dispute this). The regulation arose in 1752 because of disputes between port shippers (mostly English and located in Gaia, the city across from Porto) and growers (mostly Portuguese and located in the Douro Valley), with the former accusing the latter of adulterating the grapes and the latter accusing the former of paying unfairly low prices.
The Prime Minister decided to resolve this dispute by demarcating the quality vineyards of the Douro using stone landmarks, which each grower had to purchase itself. The system wasn’t perfect – I heard several stories that certain growers in the past would move the stone landmarks to put their vineyards illegally into the demarcated zone – but was a first and crucial step toward ensuring Port wine’s now very high quality and consistency.
Stepping back a couple centuries, the fortified Port wine we know today arose because of war between England and France in the 16th century and associated embargos the English placed on French wine. In search of new sources of bulk wine imports, English merchants found themselves in Portugal, buying grapes from the Douro Valley and fortifying them with brandy for shipment to England from Porto. Initially fermented dry, sugar was introduced to the wines through the fortification process that arrested ferments before they were complete. This introduction of sugar must have revolutionized the perception of wine flavour in England because, for the first time, fruit would have dominated. The fortification and sugar ensured consistent quality far better than the bulk wine shipped from France in barrel that would have oxidized by the time it reached English drinkers’ lips. The English have been in love with Port ever since.
The connection between England and Porto runs deep: I visited an English Merchant’s house in Porto from the 18th century that had remained in the same family ever since – a family that is now definitionally hybrid English-Portuguese. Similarly, while in London I visited an old port Merchant’s shop from the 18th century that had been converted into Sandeman’s London restaurant, complete with cellars that are hundreds of years old converted from the old underground tunnels that the port merchants used to roll the incoming barrels of port wine from the Thames into their warehouses.
Today both dry and fotified wines are regulated by the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (or “IVDP”), which has quite stringent standards. For instance, the institute randomly tests numerous bottles from store shelves to ensure quality and will taste wines submitted for certification blind to ensure they meet the appropriate level of quality (that little white seal you see over the top of a bottle of Port is the seal of the IVDP). The IVDP does rely on the producer to choose what category they are submitting their wine for and evaluates the wine based on colour and flavour only.
The regulations promote quality and brand but stifle innovation and increase the cost of entry. For example, a committee that includes producers and the IVDP will set the amount of port wine that can be produced in a given year. This is then divided amongst the producers focusing both on stock levels and commercialization. The point is to not flood the market and keep prices up. Further, each company can only sell a third of the volume that is declared. This then requires massive storage space for the remaining stocks, something quite difficult for new entries. The plus side is that there are large stocks of old wine available all the time, so houses can release old bottles of vintage Port and can consistently produce tawnies at the requisite age and quality levels. It also helps keep prices up on store shelves by artificially reducing supply.
The Challenges of Blended Tawny
Tawny is one of the most underappreciated dessert wines in North America where critics prefer to rate vintage dated wines. Tawny is also one of the hardest wines in the world to make and yet one of its most consistently brilliant.
Tawnies are made from blending various vintages of barrel aged ports to produce an ‘average age’ that is then bottled to represent a house style at that ‘average age’. Thus a 20 year tawny is a blend of various vintages to produce that house’s style that approximates 20 years of barrel aging. These wines are driven by house style rather than vintage variation and the standard line is that they are bottled to be consumed immediately and will not further develop. My conversations with wine makers in Portugal, however, debunked this myth as all agreed tawny can develop in bottle.
Tawnies are regulated by the IVDP who analyzes them to ensure they meet the colour and flavour requirements deemed indicative of the average age that is being declared. 40-years’, for example, tend to be tinged green at the rim. The IVDP rule that producers must keep back ⅔ of their total production means, for tawny, that new producers without considerable financial backing find it extremely difficult to enter into the market. As such tawnies tend to be dominated by the big houses, though there are a few small producers such as Bullas taking the plunge to produce brilliant wines.
The real story of tawny, however, is in the blend. Blending is the most difficult winemaking art. It requires an incredible, deep knowledge of the structural components of wine, a powerful sensory memory, endless determination and an instinct for the nuances that elevate a wine from very good to stunning.
Ramos Pinto’s Master Blender Ana Rosas, the only women to have this exclusive title, described the challenges of blending a product that is distinct with each vintage and that changes day to day during ageing. Ms. Rosas will taste multiple times over 2-3 weeks making meticulous notes to ensure that the components she wants to blend together are consistent. Often barrels will include colheitas (or single vintage tawnies) dating back 40-100 years. These will be added into the final blend like spices. Tawnies can also be made using already blended wines. Once her tasting notes are consistent, Ms. Rosas knows the wine is ready to bottle. But even then the quality control continues as Ms. Rosas will first bottle samples and taste multiple times to ensure the wine meets her quality and consistency standards before the main bottling begins.
Despite all this work, tawnies remain extremely well priced. 20-year tawnies are arguably the greatest QPR fine wines in the world, being perhaps the greatest expression of tawny port and usually selling for $60CDN ($40 in the US), often 1/2 to 2/3rds the price of vintage port. And you will never have to question the quality of these wines as they are amongst the most consistent in the world.
The Colheita Hype
The biggest new development in tawny port is the increasing attention paid to single vintage tawnies that are very old, also known as Colheitas. Traditionally, only a few houses – Kopke being a prime example – specialized in Colheitas and released them regularly. Now, with the port industry both looking for new ways to excite consumers and with the increasing interest in ‘terroir’ and ‘vintage’ variation, the vintage dated Colheita has become a hot item.
In fact, Colheitas have become so hot that most producers are scrambling to release one. This often involves seeking out and buying old barrels from various farmers or estates that have had a couple in the family cellar for decades. Of course, over time the availability of such ancient scions will dwindle and yet the demand for Colheitas continues to grow. This has led to some producers releasing dubious wines. I tasted one of these suspect Colheitas while in Porto that had been certified by the IVDP but was almost certainly a Late Bottled Vintage Ruby put into a Colheita bottle.
Colheitas are also not necessarily greater than blended tawnies. Because of the single vintage, single vineyard origins, they usually do not have the same level of perfection and finesse as the blends. They make up for this with their unique profiles and variation that expands our perception of what tawny is and keeps the category exciting.
The greatest Colheitas I’ve tasted are amongst the best ports I have ever tasted. For instance, a 1952 Burmester soared in its complexity – coffee, toasted marcona almonds – and its tremendous power and length. It tasted astonishingly fresh. A 1938 Barros was less fresh, but nonetheless a surprising insight into what ancient tawny is like, and just what it adds to the great blended tawnies: a very lifted volatile acidity component with deeply concentrated dried fruit and nuts and a highly viscous texture.
Colheitas matter because they provide perspective and history to the blended tawnies. They are snapshots of eras, both in terms of weather and winemaking. They are the super-spices that make the greatest tawnies what they are. I also think they provide a lesson to port producers that vintage dating is for most consumers and critics easier to understand and get excited about collecting. Because of this incredible interest in Colheitas several producers told me they are considering writing the bottling date prominently on the front of their blended tawnies – something that does not currently happen. This is similar to printing disgorgement dates on blended Champagnes, and will allow consumers to understand how much bottle age a tawny has and will also communicate to consumers that blended tawnies will age and change in bottle and are worth cellaring.
The New Face of Vintage Port
Vintage port is the contemporary face of Port wine. It is perceived by most to be the apex of this great Portuguese wine and it receives the highest scores from critics. The 2011 vintage in particular saw almost all the vintage declared ports receive over 95 points from every major publication, with many even higher. This increased prices and awareness. The 2014 Wine Spectator top 100 also included the Dow’s 2011 as its #1 wine of the year. But vintage Port, while undeniably great wine, has been dominated by the very large producing companies, with single companies such as the Symington Family or the Taylor group owning several major brands. This is beginning to change.
One of the most exciting developments in Port today is the increasing number of small or medium sized family growers making their own single quinta vintage ports using fruit they used to sell to the larger producers. These ports can be absolutely stunning, but more importantly they help better demonstrate one of vintage Port’s biggest secrets: terroir.
The great diversity of climate and vineyard characteristics in the Douro has tremendous capacity for diversity and site expression in vintage Port. The particular qualities of certain field blends from unique ancient vineyards can be quite distinct: dark berry fruits from one vineyard, spice-forward from another, power from one and finesse from another. The diversity is exciting. Because most of these family ports come from more discrete estates, they foreground the unique qualities of their particular quinta. This has helped highlight the terroir of some of the greatest Ports from the big houses as well. Two of my favourite small family Ports are from Pocas (a drier, spicy style) and Quinta do Vale Meao (a silky, younger drinking blueberry and chocolate cherry style), both of which made truly memorable 2011s.
One of the top examples from the big houses is Fonseca’s Quinta do Panascal, founded in the early 19th century (and purchased by Fonseca in 1978) and one of the very top vineyards in the Douro for making vintage Port. It is of course graded “A” by the IVDP, but more importantly is its unique setting, lying in a narrow valley carved by the Tavora river that pushes deep into the hills along the side of the main river valley in the Cima Corgo. The vineyard faces west and southwest and runs down a steep slope that allows considerable variation from top to bottom – with elegance coming from the upper rows that are cooled by wind and power and richness from the lower rows that see greater warmth retention. The resulting juice is fermented in traditional stone legares, aged in old oak and used both in the Fonseca branded vintage Port and the specially labelled single quinta Panascal, for which the greatest quality grapes are reserved. The Panascal is a stunning wine and one of the very best vintage Ports available.
Brandy is part of the story too. Fonseca purchases its brandy from Cognac rather than locally ever since the EU market broke the monopoly of local producers. Brandy is a key aspect to terroir since it is essential that the wine be as neutral as possible so as not to add anything or take anything away. It is there for fortification pure and simple.
Other examples of great terroir driven ports from top houses include Quinta dos Malvedos from Graham’s. Quinta do Seixo from Sandeman (100 year old vineyard planted with numerous varieties) and Quinta do Vesuvio owned by Symington. Of course then there is the legendary Nacional from Quinta do Noval, considered by most to be one of the greatest wines in the world and made from very old vines from a small plot owned by Noval.
In sum, Port is entering a new revolution: small producers, terroir, colheitas, tawnies labelled with the bottling date, and a general sense of excitement amongst producers about the new possibilities. In my view, Port is primed for a resurgence, particularly in North America where interest has dwindled since the 2008 market crash. There is much to discover and the exploration is supported by the tremendous consistency found amongst most producers. The 2011 vintage has also helped, as it has produced some of the greatest ports of the last century. So have improved winemaking techniques that allow vintage Port – something you traditionally age for 30-40 years – to drink much better young, with finer tannin and suppler fruit.
This resurgence is a lesson about fame. The expectations it creates can hold you back, but moving forward still demands respect for what made Port famous in the first place. This respect for the tradition of blending, for the old vines and unique sites that were discovered over the decades, and for the character and voice found in old Colheitas has reinvigorated the Port industry and primed it for the next stage of its development. It is our fortune that we can participate in this energy and see what can happen when the shackles are cast off.
A Selection of Wines
Fonseca Bin 27 Ruby Port (Very Good+)
Ramos Pinto 20 year Tawny (Excellent)
Graham’s 20 year Tawny (Excellent)
Bullas 20 year Tawny (Excellent)
Calem 30 Year Tawny (Excellent)
Fonseca 40 year Tawny (Excellent)
Ramos Pinto 1983 Vintage Port (Excellent)
Fonseca Quinta do Panascal 2001 (Excellent)
Fonseca 2009 Vintage Port (Excellent)
Pocas 2011 Vintage Port (Excellent to Excellent+)
Quinta do Vale Meao 2011 Vintage Port (Excellent to Excellent+)
Kopke 1981 Colheita (Excellent)
Barros 1974 Colheita (Very Good+)
Burmester 1952 Colheita (Excellent+)
Barros 1938 Colheita (Excellent to Excellent+)
Kopke 1935 Colheita (Excellent)