The Douro Valley in Portugal is source of the grapes for table wines, and for the great Port wines. Houses will make Port wines every year, but single-harvest Vintage Ports are traditionally produced only in exceptional years, a little like Champagne. This region in the north of the country has luxuriated in a string of excellent vintages recently, and for Port, where a decision to bottle a single vintage wine must be made by each house and approved by the Port Wine Instutute, 2015, 2016, 2017 and now 2018 have all been ‘declared’ by some, if not all producers.
That means there is a lot of young Vintage Port hitting, or about to hit, the market. These are serious young wines, bottled after a relatively short time in barrel, that really must be given substantial time to mature before showing their best (unlike late-bottled vintage Ports, which have their maturation ‘speeded up’ by being kept in barrels for much longer). Unlike 2017, there has not been a universal declaration in 2018. With weather conditions favouring the Douro Superior, some houses have not declared a vintage, but will bottle ‘Single Quinta’ vintage Ports, mainly from vineyards in the Douro Superior. These include the Taylor’s group, where Fonseca and Croft did not declare, Neipoort and Symington, which did not declare for Dow, Graham or Warre, and there will only be single quinta wines from both Kopke and Burmester.
However many significant houses have declared 2018 as a Vintage year, including Quinta do Noval, Taylor, Sandeman, Romaneira, Barros, Offley, Ferreira and Cálem. The conditions in 2018 were not uniform across the Valley, with drought preceding the growing season, then heavy rains, then temperatures soaring to over 40C in some parts, including the Douro Superior. The trick appears to have been to pick a little later than usual, a recipe that has produced the declared wines in most cases.
I managed to gather together five declared Ports for this article.
From the Sogrape group, Offley, Sandeman and Ferreira Vintage 2018s, where winemaker Luís Sottomayor says “2018 is one of the best, if not the best, vintage years I have witnessed,” where, “lower yields and a long and steady ripening period during the hot, dry summer resulted in top-quality grapes with great concentration.”
I also tasted Quinta do Noval, and Romaneira, two estates connected through Christian Seely. Seely, Managing Director of Quinta do Noval, says “Like 2017, 2018 was a year of low yields, but for different reasons. 2018 was marked in the first part of the year by heavy rainfall. This meant that potential yields were naturally much reduced by the difficulties of the flowering period. Subsequently however, a long hot dry summer ensued. Water levels in the soil had been replenished, and the result of this excellent ripening period on a low yield is evident in the 2018 Vintage.” Seely is also M.D. of Quinta da Romaneira, where he describes very similar conditions, and says the resultant wine is “magnificently ripe, with profound colour.”
The Noval and Sandeman were my stand-out wines from this small snapshot of the vintage, but I have to say each of these wines was excellent, and with their different styles, represent both fine young Ports to drink now, and wines to lay down. At time of review most are available only by the six-bottle case, in-bond.
(2020) Very deep and opaque in colour, there's a fascinating floral and honeyed note to the aroma, perhaps herbal, but not green, more a slightly exotic touch of pot pourri perhaps. In the mouth this is dense and beautifully sweet and smooth, with a balsamic richness and intense sweet blueberry fruit. Luscious, the firm line of acidity and grippy, spicy tannin kicks in to remind you this is a baby. The wine has richness and weight of sweet fruit concentration, but structure too. It's an approachable and 'pretty' Port this, giving masses of immediate pleasure. Will be shipped October/November 2020.
(2020) Another very dense and dark wine, staining the sides of the glass. Darker, earthier and more leathery than the Offley, brooding is the word, liquorice and tar and dark mulled fruits. In the mouth super sweetness here - sweeter than the Offley in perception at least, with a dusty, chocolate-deep edge to the mulberry and blueberry fruit. Smooth and chocolatey in terms of its tannins too, that sweetness carries through confidently, set against a juiciness of cherry and cherry skins acid, spices too, in a very deeply flavoured and powerhouse Port that will need time. No UK stockists of this listed at time of review, but Hic! wine merchant has the 2016 so an indicative price has been based on that.
(2020) Sandeman is perhaps the most dense, almost black colour of the three Sogrape 2018s tasted here. A lovely sense of kirsch-like ripeness and purity here, maybe even Black Forest gateau, with its density of cherry and depth of chocolate. There's a lovely floral lift too, edged with violet and ashy aromatics. In the mouth it is, in some ways, the marriage of the Offley and Ferreira, with the sweet, opulent fruit and creamy openess of the Offley, but the muscle and brooding depth, and structural elements, of the Ferreira. A sumptuous 2018 this, drinking surprisingly well now but undoubtedly built for the long haul. It is the best Sandeman I have every tasted. No retail listings for the 2018 as yet, so price and stockist quoted is for the 2016, and is indicative only.
(2020) This is a large estate upstream from the town of Pinhão, rehabilitated by Christian Seely and his investors who took over when it had fallen into some disrepair. Dark and opaque, quite a meaty and herbal nose here, less overtly sweet-fruited, an immediate sense of serious concentration. The nose pretty accurately predicts the palate here: there is sweetness and abundant black fruit flesh and ripeness, but as well as that blackcurranty richness of fruit, the ashy herbs, the leather and the meatiness give a more savoury character. Good freshness, though the tannin and acid axis is a little softer than some, making this meaty wine surprisingly approachable in its youth. Indicative price based on the previous vintage.
(2020) Deeply saturated purple/black, there's some similarity to the Romaneira aromatically, with those herbal and ashy nuances to the black fruit, a great sense of concentration and purity too. Just superb in the mouth. The gloss and the weight of the black fruit is fabulous - silk and satin, but the cocoa and damson depth is given additional luminescence by a sweet confture blueberry, before the suede-like, very fine tannins wrap themselves around the finish, the juicy acidity already very well integrated. This is a sensuous and fully-realised young Port, surely with decades ahead of it. Available in-bond, as a six-bottle case, from many fine wine merchants in the UK at time of writing.