Travel Guide to Portugal

Wanted: Vintage Port Wine

By Gabriella Opaz

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Unlike entry-level port wines, vintage port wines cannot be summed up in a few adjectives. These are wines that can drank anywhere from a few months to over a century in bottle. Over a century! What else can you possibly consume that has not been sealed in an air tight container a century after it has been elaborated? Not even a Twinkie can make it that long. Consequently, you can imagine the range of colors, aromas, flavors and textures you’ll encounter depending on the vintage of the port. A wine is very much like a human being, able to grow, evolve, devolve and deteriorate over time, but few wines have the ability to acquire layers upon layers of complex aromas and flavors like those of a vintage port wine. A younger vintage port may be a very deep ruby-garnet color, showing complex and intense aromas of cassis, anise and ripe blueberry and plum. It may be very powerful in the mouth with bright black fruit flavors and a well-defined mineral undertone. Now, try this same wine twenty years later and suddenly, what was once intense has mellowed and softened. Vibrant garnet becomes a deep tawny brown and bright red fruit flavors are now showing more raisin, plum, charcoal and spice notes. What was once expressing tight and firm tannins has dissolved to express a smoother more silky mouthfeel. If we look at this style as a whole, it is not one that can be easily placed into a perfectly square container. It requires something more malleable, flexible, and able to change and grow over time.

Place of Birth: The Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal.

Comprised of:
Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cao, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Francesca are the most popular black-skinned grapes, among 80 other authorized grape varietals. With the exception of recently planted vineyards, most port growers have a mixture of 20 to 30 different grape varietals intermixed in the same vineyard plot.

When the word ‘port’ falls from your lips, you most likely are referring to an entry level ruby or tawny port, wines that are both more readily available and reasonably priced. But for the few who have the passion and the resources to appreciate Portugal’s flagship wine, you’ll immediately conjure up the sweet and spicy vintage port wine.

Vintage Port is a blend of wines from a single year which have been bottled, without filtration, after spending between two to three years aged in wood. Simple enough. So what makes a vintage style port so attractive and expensive? In part, it’s allusive nature revolves around its unavailability, accounting for approximately two percent of all port sold. For sushi lovers like myself, a vintage port wine is very much like tasting a buttery and slightly sweet piece of Toro, the fatty part of tuna. Toro is considered the most prized and expensive part of tuna, a treat I reserve for myself on very special occasions.

The other enticing aspect is that only grapes grown in the highest quality vineyards, picked at the ideal level of maturity, after a spectacular summer can be used in a vintage port. Unlike Ruby and Tawny port wines, vintage port cannot ‘declare’ a vintage without the authorization of the Port Regulatory Board, Instituto do Vinho Porto(IVP). To declare a vintage port, a shipper must wait until at least a year after the harvest when shippers have had a chance to consider both the characteristics of the wine and the market. If after several tastings, the shipper decides that he/she not only has a fantastic, high-quality product on hand, but also sufficient amounts in stock to ‘declare’ a vintage, he/she may send it up river to the IVP in the second year after the harvest with a full dossier as to the amount he/she intends to release. If the IVP gives the go ahead, only then may the shipper ‘declare’ a vintage port wine.

What’s interesting about vintage port is that a ‘declared’ vintage is very much like playing a game of roulette, where reputations can be earned and lost in the blink of an eye. Although the ideal situation is that a vintage port is made at the very best quintas, during the best years, with a sufficient amount of outstanding wine and a market able to support said vintage, this is not always the case. Because a vintage port is an investment, during periods of war or economic recession, potential ‘declarations’ have been pushed under the carpet purely out of economic hardship. Other quintas may choose to declare every year, except for the absolute worst, trusting in the market’s stability to uphold back to back vintages. But on average, you will find vintages declared approximately two to three times a decade.

Now comes the consumer’s part, and one of the main reasons why this style of port is so unique. Once you have a bottle of vintage port in your hands, it is up to you nurture and care for it over the next 15, 30, 40 or 100 years depending on your patience and when you feel the wine has reached its pinnacle of maturity. For some, what is enticing is the powerful and vibrant fruit flavors of young vintage port, while others have both the patience and curiosity keep their bottle cellared until the death comes knocking at the door. Granted, we would hope you wouldn’t wait that long, but you could, because although many vintage ports begin to deteriorate over time, many can still deliver an absolutely incredible wine. To give you an idea of how well a vintage port can age, allow me share with you Ryan’s tasting note of when we tried a 1879 Quinta do Noval port while visiting the city of Oporto in 2003:

The 20 year old Taylor Fladgate was good, but let me tell you about the 1879 port we just tried! Golden in color with a nice soft alcohol. The bouquet was low in fragrance with slight mineral notes and a touch of sweetness. I’ve never felt so speechless in my life!

Talk about aging gracefully! I fear by the time I reach 80, I’ll be lucky to find my way out of a paper bag.

Single Quinta Vintage Port
A single-quinta vintage port is produced from a specific vineyard and occasionally from a lesser “undeclared” vintage. And although a single-quinta port is elaborated in a very similar manner as a vintage port wine, same maturing period in wood and bottled without filtration, there are several factors that differentiate a single-quinta vintage from a declared vintage port wine. The primary difference is that single-quinta ports are typically made during years when vintage ports are not declared, as these are generally the years when they will not be used in the lots used for making the vintage blend. Additionally, many shippers will not release their single-quinta vintage port until it is ready for consumption, potentially a decade after bottling. Therefore, what makes these wines so unique and so interesting is that you can not only find a fantastic vintage port during off vintage years, but you will also be saving yourself a few extra dollars in the process.

Serving Vintage and Single-Quinta Ports
Vintage port should be store horizontally in cool humid conditions and will continue to mature over the next 10 to 100 years depending on the quality of the wine. On most vintage ports, you will also notice a little splash of white paint that should always be facing upwards. This handy little symbol allows you to keep the crust, or deposit, that accumulates with age consistently placed to one side of the bottle. However, when the magic day comes that you decide to open it, we suggest that you place the bottle in a vertical position no less than a day, preferably two, before you intend on drinking it. This time allows the sediment to gently ease its way to the bottom of the bottle, and out of your glass.

Decanting and pulling a vintage cork takes a bit of patience and skill, considering that it has been sitting in your cellar for approximately a quarter of a century. A simple twist and pull of the cork may not only lead to tiny little cork remnants floating haphazardly in your perfectly aged vintage port, but it will also make the decanting process a touch more complicated. So rather than reinvent the wheel, we’d like to send you over to Roy Hersh’s site, For the Love of Port, where he has not only written on whys, hows and whens of using a port tong – a special tool used for opening old bottles, but also on his “Hersh Method” of decanting.


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Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula
looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula looking for the very best food and wine experiences.

Catavino is the best place to learn about travel, food
and wine in Portugal and Spain.

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