Travel Guide to Portugal

Celebrating the 2011 Vintage: A Rare Port Wine of Exceptional Quality

By Ryan Opaz

2011At 9am on a cool Friday morning in Foz, with a stunning view of the Atlantic ocean, I joined a room full of international Port wine experts to taste 56+ 2011 Vintage Port wines.  These wines, in their youth, have an uncanny ability to strip enamel and burn tastebuds. And while you suffer the strength of these monsters, you are participating in an exercise of divination with only a cloudy, purple, crystal ball to guide you. It demands the taster make grand pronouncements as to the future of a beverage wound tight in tannins, acidity and fruit. Will it age into an elegant treasure to share with future generation? Not the easiest judgement to make, but one worth the adventure no matter the dental costs.

The 2011 Port Vintage is being heralded as the greatest vintage of the last 100 years or more. Dirk Niepoort, an iconic winemaker in the Douro, along with Charles Symington of Symington Estates,  and Bento Amaral of the Port Wine Institute, stood before the room full of journalist to explain what made the perfect conditions for the 2011 vintage: cool spring, hot summer and just enough rain before the grapes were harvested, so as to plump them up and prevent the overripe dried raisin-y character that is so indicative of hotter years to come through. Clearly the cliff notes version, but to see these three people, whose combined knowledge of Port wine spans decades, agree that this year has no equal was both memorable and dramatic.

The moment of truth finally arrived, and it was time to see whether I actually agreed with their grand pronouncement. Several flights of 9 wines were poured before us, inky in color and full of flavor. Sticking my nose in the first glass, and taking a sniff, I was assaulted with flavors and aromas, a tight package of intensity. My method for tasting was simple, consisting of short impressions and a 3 pt scale: -, +, ++. A loose translation would be “Not showing well”, “Like”, “Love”. Nothing more. These wines are newborns into the world and while the DNA and look was something to behold, how they will grow and change is not an exact science. “Great vintages” have failed to live up to their promise, and “off years” continue to surprise. On this particular day, my only goal was to look for the balance that any wine needs to age and become great.

The results? Impressive! In truth, I am not a Port wine “expert”. Yes, I’ve tasted more Port wine than most, and I do drink it everyday, but I am not one who can name every great vintage without a bit of thought. Disclaimer aside, I highly suggest that you BUY, BUY, BUY! Gather up all the 2011 Ports you can. I don’t even care if you like Port wine. If you see a bottle on the shelf, grab it and place it in your cellar, closet, shoe box, whatever you deem appropriate to not look at this creature for many years to come. You won’t regret it.

grapescrushedPlease disregard most of the early tasting notes you are finding online. I’ve seen people publish notes from the tasting in Foz, and I was even considering doing it myself, but this wouldn’t have been fair. This particular tasting was only a glimpse and is easily prone to oversight. Since the tasting, I have revisited many of these wines, and they continued to surprise me. One particular wine from a famous port house showed so poorly at the first tasting that I tasted it three more times that same day without fully concluding if it was just “off” or faulty. Fast forward 2 weeks and I was hesitantly revisiting that very same wine, but this time, it was an altogether different experience. I was floored with the elegance and beauty. Could it have been a different bottling? Or is it a clear cut case of bottle shock as these young wines try to adjust to their longterm lodging arrangements.

As we speak, these little time capsules are slowly making their way around the world to shops far and wide. And like the Douro, which took centuries of erosion to create what we now know as of the world’s most beautiful wine regions, these flavor explosions will take time to come alive and share their secrets with the world.

A brief aside, as many of you know, we will become parents next month, and a well accepted tradition is to lay down cases of Port wines from your child’s birth year, but this has placed us in a quandary. Logically, we have requested to the Port Gods that this year to be of equal, if not better quality, than previous years so that our son can benefit. However, Vintage port is bottled from barrel 2 years after the Vintage; hence it’s quite logical to buy up a few cases of the 2011 vintage seeing that he will be born in the year of the greatest Port vintages ‘bottling’. “Honey, I maxed out the credit card, but it was only for our child’s future welfare.”  Maybe not the most convincing argument, but definitely worth a try!


Ryan Opaz

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