Ripeness and tannic structure characterise Port in 2011 which, despite difficult weather conditions, could rank as a legendary vintage in a new era of better winemaking and improved spirit quality. Richard Mayson offers his assessment.

One of the first questions to be asked when a new Port vintage comes along is, how does it compare with previous years? It is a heavily loaded question, far more so than for any other wine region. Port vintages are relatively few and far between, with declarations occurring roughly three times a decade. The recently declared 2011 vintage is only the third mainstream declaration since 2000 (the other two being 2003 and 2007), and the 26th since 1900. The question being asked, even at this early stage, is: could this be another 1908, 1927, 1945 or 1963?

There are no easy answers, partly because so much has changed over the past 50 years. Port shippers are at pains to point out that the vintage Port tradition hasn’t altered, but the wine has – and for the better. A great vintage is not nearly so much in the lap of the gods as it was in the past, when perfectly good grapes were sometimes ruined at the last minute, when things didn’t go according to plan in the adega (winery). But with the introduction of temperature control from the mid-1980s onwards it has been possible to produce Port of potential vintage quality nearly every year, hence the proliferation of single-quinta (estate) vintages over the past two decades.

Port 2011 vintage

Another change that has taken place quietly but steadily since the early 1990s is a marked improvement in the quality of the spirit used to fortify Port. Until 1991, the Port shippers had to use what they were given by the government. This was frequently fairly poor-quality grape spirit and, given that it makes up around a fifth of the finished wine, it clearly has an impact. The word ‘spirity’ is a common tasting term when it comes to vintage Port, and in some of the more attenuated wines from the 1970s and 1980s, the spirit really shows through.

Over the past 20 years, the leading Port shippers have been working in tandem with distillers in France to produce a more neutral, vinous spirit that interferes far less with the fruit in a young vintage Port. This manifested itself particularly in 2007, the last major vintage to be declared, when we were all wowed by the beauty and purity of the fruit. Admittedly, this was a relatively cool year, whereas the growing season in 2011 was far warmer and marked by prolonged drought. In fact, had it not been for heavy rain in the last three months of 2010, 2011 might have been a non-starter.

What the producers say:

‘The 2011s stand out for the purity of fruit and quality of the tannins, which are silky and well integrated but provide plenty of structure’ David Guimaraens, The Fladgate Partnership

‘The wines are voluptuous and structured, more four-square than in 2007… they have already been exceptionally well received, from Taiwan to Latvia’ Johnny Symington, Symington Family Estates

‘I have never witnessed Ports with such depth of colour, complexity of flavour and power’ Luis Sotomayor, winemaker for Sandeman

Challenging weather conditions

It was a challenging year in the vineyard. The spring started with good water reserves deep in the Douro sub-soil and the vines – especially the old vines – weathered the summer drought of 2011 relatively well. But there was unstable weather during flowering that caused an outbreak of fungal disease and reduced yields by around 15%.

This was followed by unusual heat towards the end of June, when some vineyards were scorched. The thin-skinned Tinta Barroca grape fared badly, whereas the heat-resistant Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca did much better. Some well-timed rain on 21 August and again at the start of September was a lifesaver, helping to swell and ripen the grapes. Thereafter, the sun shone non-stop for five weeks and harvest conditions were perfect throughout the region. Temperatures at the start of the vintage were hotter than usual, so cooling the musts proved to be essential. Aromas in the adega were wonderful from the start, and by early October it was already clear that a good, possibly great Port vintage was in the bag.

As António Agrellos, the technical director of Noval, says: ‘We knew at once that we were potentially in the presence of a great year.’

So where does this put the now declared 2011 in the vintage Port hall of fame?

Port 2011 vintage

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos vineyards pickers

Ripeness with structure

Having tasted most of the wines now at least three times, their hallmark is ripeness combined with structure. The ripeness of the fruit extends to the tannins, which, in the best wines, are broad as well as fine grained. Some wines are four-square – much more so than the 2007s, but not aggressive, even at this early stage. And then here is that wonderful purity of fruit. I found myself using the word ‘minerality’ in my tasting notes for the first time for Port, not because it is fashionable but because the schistous terroir of the Douro really is there to see.

João Nicolau de Almeida, of Ramos Pinto, supports this view, commenting that ‘the better aguardente (grape spirit) brings minerality to the wine.’ Adrian Bridge, managing director of the Fladgate Partnership, adds that ‘the better-quality spirit allows the fruit to express itself better’.

Purity, definition and ripeness

Given these noticeable 21st-century improvements, should we be going back to the great vintages of the last century for a comparison? Some regard it is as another 1963; others mention 1994. But I concur with Dirk Niepoort, who likens 2011 to a blend of 2007 and 2009, the purity and definition of the former with the ripeness of the latter – a year also declared by a few shippers.

Now universally declared by all shippers, I have broken down my notes on the 2011s into three categories. There are the ‘classic’ declarations, bottled under the name of the shipper and usually blends of wines from several leading estates in different parts of the Douro. Then there are the single estates (quintas), some of which produce a vintage Port nearly every year. Finally, there is a growing category of site-specific wines, produced from a parcel or parcels of highly prized old vines within an estate. These command a premium price; however, the pricing of the mainstream 2011s at £350 to £500 per dozen in bond looks very fair when it is set against the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Port 2011 vintage

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos vineyards

What the UK merchants say:

‘We have had the most successful campaign ever… it seems that one has to go back to 1994 for wines of such poise and elegance, bypassing several fine vintages
en route’ Simon Field MW, Berry Bros & Rudd

‘The 2011 Ports show great promise with a fresh purity of fruit and tannins that are robust
and ripe. We will offer them in September… this is a vintage offering not to be missed for
the Port aficionado’ Mark Buckenham, The Wine Society

*Richard Mayson is the DWWA Regional Chair for Port & Madeira and author of Port and the Douro