The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Vintage Port ~ Saturday, April 14th, 2012
What you need to know: Made only in the best years, vintage port is special. Like claret or champagne, it is the benchmark by which all other fortified wines of similar type are judged. It has always been this way. It will always be this way.
But how did it get this way? Compared to other types of fortified wine, what makes vintage port so special? Logically, the best way to begin is to briefly examine the history of port as a whole, how this remarkable type of wine came to be developed, and how this development eventually resulted in a strict set of standards regarding its production; making vintage port one of the most esteemed fortified wines in the world.
The history of port, vintage or otherwise, dates back to the seventeenth century. During this period, when France and England were constantly at war, thirsty Brits turned to Portugal, a nation with which they had historically been on good terms, for their wine. Their attention quickly turned to the as yet untamed inland area of the Douro, attracted by its powerful wines that seemed an appropriate substitute for their favourite red wine—claret.
However, in order for the wine to survive its Atlantic journey back to England, it was soon discovered that adding brandy to the wine helped stabilize it. This discovery is attributed to a Liverpool wine merchant, who sent his sons to Portugal in 1678 to purchase wine for distribution in England. At the town of Lamego, they came across a wine-producing monastery whose abbot added brandy during fermentation, thus killing off the active yeasts and making for a strong, perceptibly sweeter style of red wine.
Just as important, in 1703 the Methuen Treaty between England and Portugal was signed. Under the terms, Portuguese wines were granted lower duties than those of France or Germany; and it was not before long that port became one of the most widely consumed types of wine throughout England.
Likewise, it was only a matter of time before specific, identifiable levels of quality began to emerge. In 1756, a series of measures were established by Portuguese authorities to regulate the production and sale of port, with specific boundaries drawn up delimitating the area where port vines could be cultivated. At the time, these extended to the Tua tributary of the Douro (now as far east as the Cachão da Valeira), the easternmost portion of the Cima Corgo—the most prestigious subregion in which port is produced. Each vineyard was also eventually graded from a system of A to F, determined by altitude, location, yield, soil, inclination, and orientation; along with the age, density, training, and the types of grapes cultivated on it.
Today, the best vintage port is sourced from the most renowned of these vineyards, from soils composed primarily of schist, a type of slate-like metamorphic rock. In baking hot summer conditions, when temperatures often exceed 35°C, in what can only be viewed as defiance against nature vines seem to thrive. The best of these for port production have been identified as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinto Cão, and Tinta Barroca.
Harvested by hand, grapes are traditionally placed into square woven cane baskets and then brought to the winery. At this point, grapes likely destined for vintage port are then placed into large stone troughs, called lagares, to be treaded by foot. Alternatively, this may be more cheaply accomplished by devices referred to as ‘robotic lagares,’ which imitates the gentle pressing of the human foot and thus prevents the pips from being crushed and releasing bitter-tasting phenolics into the wine. With fermentation already partially underway, the wine is then transferred to another lagar or vat.
When fermentation has reached the halfway mark, neutral grape spirit, called aguardente, is added to the wine, causing the fermentation to cease. Transferred to vat (usually stainless steel), it will remain here until the spring following the harvest, when the wine will be transferred downstream to the port lodges of Oporto, or across the river to those located in Vila Nova de Gaia. Here, a decision will be made whether or not to ‘declare’ a vintage. If the wine is deemed good enough, it will then be blended and aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 22 months (max. 31) and then bottled for release. At its simplest, this is how vintage port is made.
As a general rule, vintage port is only produced in the best years, totalling about three vintages per decade. However, with better cultivation methods, modern technologies, and climate change, the best houses are nowadays declaring with much greater frequency. In the eighties, ’80, ’83, and ’85 were widely declared. In the nineties, these were ’91, ’92, ’94, and ’97. Then, in the twenty-first century a record five vintages were widely declared by the greatest port houses: ’00, ’03, ’05, ’07, and ‘09—each one of impeccable quality and character.
For most connoisseurs, vintage port has no business being drunk young. While such wines are often delectable in youth, many drinkers find them too ‘compact,’ tannic, and drenched in their own youthful flavours for their own good. The aromas and flavours at this stage, however, have become increasingly beguiling with better viticulture and winemaking: brambling black fruits, dark chocolate, mahogany wood, fruitcake, forest floor, walnuts, mint, and sometimes flowers—just to name some of the more common aromas one might possibly pick up.
All the same, a minimum of twenty years’ aging or longer can be much more beneficial. Carefully decanted, aged vintage port represents the epitome of patience recompensed. By this time, the best examples, adequately softened, tend to bask in their own mellowness and richness, their beguiling youthful aromas replaced, if not complimented, by more mature perfumed notes of cedarwood, dried fruits, tobacco, and exotic spices. The best examples can often survive more than a century.
As for food pairings, the classic accompaniment to vintage port is cheese, preferably saltier, crumblier versions like Stilton or Roquefort; while dark chocolate, walnuts, dried figs and apricots, and caramel-coated ice cream all partner terrifically. Usually served after the main course of a meal, vintage port is best enjoyed at temperatures around 16-18°C.
Just remember: when decanting old bottles of port, the cork tends to crumble and disintegrate. When this happens, most people tend to put the wine through a filter to rid the wine of cork sediment. However, the use of port tongs makes this unnecessary. Simply heat the port tongs over an open flame, such as a gas stovetop, until they are as hot as possible. Then attach the tongs around the upper part of the bottle, above the liquid but under the bottom end of the cork, for about a minute. Using a wet rag, grasp the top part of the bottle, which should then cleanly crack away. Your vintage port is now ready for decanting. Like all great wines, a little extra effort goes a long way.