In recent years the traditional fortified Port wines of Portugal’s Douro Valley have seen some ups, but plenty of downs. All the significant Port houses havey diverted some of their vineyards and production into table wines as stricter drink driving laws, health consciousness and fewer of us hosting formal dinner parties mean that for most, finishing a meal with a glass of Port has become confined to a Christmas Day tradition.
There are occasional (and perhaps sustained) surges, like a renewal of interest in age-dated tawnies and Colheita Ports (aged tawnies of a single vintage), and apparently a bit of a hipster interest in Port to mirror that seen in Sherry, but still Port is surely struggling, despite plenty of invention in the sector, from pink Ports, to Ports designed to be served over ice.
One category of Port that can still cause real excitement and generate interest from collectors and drinkers, are the Vintage Ports. Vintage Ports are produced only in years of exceptional quality, normally from the very best of the crop, and are wines that are bottled relatively young, but with the promise of a great life ahead of them. Each of the Port houses decides whether or not it will declare a vintage in a particular year, a decision largely down to the success of their specific harvest (and which needs to be approved after tasting and analysis by the Port Wine Institute).
There are years when nobody declares a vintage, and others when only one or two houses will declare but most do not consider that they have the quality: 2014 was such a year, with only a handful of houses declaring. Other years are of such excellent overall quality that practically every house, large or small, can declare a vintage. 2016 is the latest of these, the first generally declared vintage since 2011.
What makes 2016 so special? Well that is basically down to growing conditions with a mild, wet winter followed by a cold, wet spring that kept yields in check. The summer was hot and dry – very hot in fact, which meant that the heat-stressed vines really benefitted from some late rains to kick-start ripening. The harvest took place in ideal autumn conditions that were dry and warm, but with cool nights that resulted in fully ripe, but balanced and concentrated fruit for the majority of growers.
The Ports of 2016 will spend at least a couple of years maturing in the Port lodges before being released, so expect them to physically hit retail shelves at the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019. But meanwhile I have managed to taste a handful of declared wines as bottled or late-stage cask samples. Four of the wines below come from the Sogevinus group, which comprises Cálem, Kopke, Burmester and Barros, sent to me directly from Portugal in August 2018 as cask samples (though the wines will be bottled around now). The other wine in the tasting comes from the French-owned house of Noval, a bottled sample. Price-wise, the Sogevinus wines will probabaly sell for somewhere around £50, whilst Noval might be closer to £70-£75.
In the 1990s Robert Parker’s praise for Vintage Port led a whole new generation or two of drinkers, especially in the USA, to buy, open, and consume newly-released wines and enjoy ther tannic structure and bursting sweetness. That was very much a break with tradition, as Vintage Port was always regarded as one of the most cellar-worthy wines as they matured, softened and generally improved over decades. The latter is still true for all of these wines, some already drinking rather nicely whilst others are relatively ‘closed’ at this stage, but their intensity and balance gives high hopes that they will blossom further with time. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
My scores are based on wines that are all but bottled and finished, but because these are pre-release samples I have perhaps been slightly more cautious with my scores than I might be, so there’s every chance these may improve by a point or two over time. These wines will be shipping over coming months. Keep an eye on wine-searcher for stockists and prices for these and many more Ports of the 2016 vintage that will appear.