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Location, Location, Location: Port's No Different
By Michael Apstein
Jun 28, 2011
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In all the great wine producing areas of the world it is an article of faith that where the grapes grow determines the style and quality of the wine.  However, when we think of Port, we tend to forget this fundamental notion.  Perhaps this is understandable on grounds that Port is a blended wine made from several grape varieties--and then fortified with brandy.  It is conceivable that blending and fortification would mask the influence of vineyard location on the character of the finished wine.

This might be conceivable, but it isn’t correct according to David Guimaraens, winemaker for the Taylor Fladgate Partnership, the group that includes the houses of Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft.  For him, the origin of the grapes determines the style of the Port.  A beautifully organized and highly instructive tasting in New York recently proved him correct. 

Identical Winemaking

The three houses, Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Croft, showed their four vintage Ports from the 2000 decade: 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2009.  David Guimaraens, the group’s winemaker, made and blended all of the wines, except for the 2000 Croft.  (The Taylor Fladgate Partnership purchased Croft after the 2000 harvest and Guimaraens only blended the wine.)

Tasting the Ports from each of the houses side by side allowed you to see the clear stylistic differences among them.  Guimaraens explained, “Our talent is making wine.  We use the same techniques at each house.  I don’t tell the treaders at Taylors to stomp grapes from left to right and those at Fonseca to move right to left and those at Croft to jump up and down.  We do the same winemaking at each house.  The differences you taste reflect the origin of the grapes.”

A Unique Decade

He explained that this was the first time ever in which they--or anyone--declared a vintage four times in one decade.  He was almost apologetic.  I think he didn’t want to give the impression that Port was going the way of Champagne with a vintage declaration almost every year.  With a broad smile on his face he explained, “After tasting the 2009s, how could we not declare?”  He continued, “I’m not old enough to have tasted the great Ports from the 1940s and 1950s when they were young, but I imagine they must have tasted like the 2009s.”

The Tasting

The tasting had an inauspicious beginning.  Scheduled for early June, amidst what should have been pleasant spring weather, the tasting actually fell during the first day of an unusual June heat wave in New York and the thermometer was predicted to hit the mid-90s.  And it did.  But the room was well air-conditioned and the Ports kept at a perfect temperature.

The tasting was arranged with each house at a separate table pouring the four vintages.  Guimaraens suggested a first round of tasting by vintage--sampling the same vintage from each house, starting with the oldest, the 2000--to get a sense of each vintage and how the houses differed one from another.  Round two would be a return to taste all four vintages sequentially from the same house to get a sense of each house’s style.  It was brilliant advice.

Distinct Styles

The house styles were clear, distinct and consistent through the vintages, although they were most pronounced comparing the younger wines.  Fonseca was the roundest, richest and ripest.  Taylor Fladgate was very floral with firmer tannins, and a more mineraly and elegant signature.  Croft was incredibly silky and succulent.  For example, the 2000 Fonseca, gorgeously opulent, was sensual and rich.  The 2000 Taylor was slightly firmer, a bit more restrained and more elegant.  It was like comparing Chateau Latour and Chateau Lafite.

Guimaraens emphasized that the location of the vineyards accounted for the style of each house.  The heart of Taylor’s blend comes from its Quinta de Vargellas, which is located further up the Douro, where, being further from the sea, it’s usually warmer.  But the vineyards at Vargellas face north and as such, receive less burning sunshine.  This cooler site translates into a firmer more mineraly wine.  In contrast, the backbone of Fonseca’s blend comes from their Quinta do Panascal, located in Pinhão, in the Cima Corgo or middle of the Douro, where it’s warmer.  The riper grapes deliver voluptuous, plumy notes along with characteristically spicy flavors.  Croft’s major vineyard at Quinta de Roêda is considered one of the great sites in Douro, producing wines with a silky patina and engaging plumpness that made them the most approachable.

Distinct Vintages

Comparing the vintages was the next step after house styles had been etched in the brain.  2000 and 2007 were relatively cooler years while 2003 and 2009 were warmer growing seasons, with 2003 being downright torrid. 

The 2009s were explosive and surprisingly easy to taste because they were so ripe and lush.  Despite all their power, they were graceful.

The 2007s were wonderfully floral and elegant.  Maybe it was just the stage they’re at now, but they were very expressive, layered and seductive. 

The 2003s were surprisingly good. Surprisingly, I say, because that was the summer of record-breaking heat throughout Europe.  Most European wines from that vintage are out of balance, showing a slightly baked character and lacking elegance.  But not these Ports.  It’s as though the vines in the Douro are accustomed to heat, and that a little more of it doesn’t trouble them.  The 2003s were powerful, yet balanced.  It was only in comparison to the 2009s, another warm, but not outlandishly hot, year that the tannins were slightly coarser and wines slightly less elegant. 

The 2000s were just starting to lose a little youthful fruitiness and taking on the complexity of bottle age.  To be sure, they were still young, vigorous and a decade or so away from maturity.  The only one out of place was the 2000 Croft, which was more angular and less well integrated than the Taylor and Fonseca. 

Easy Choices

Invariably at a tasting people ask, “What was your favorite?”  Well, the nice thing about vintage Port is there are no bad--or even mediocre--wines.  The Port houses do all the work.  If it’s not there, they don’t declare a vintage.  Hence, vintage Port is among the safest and easiest of all wines to buy.  You find a style you like--the fruitier richer Fonseca or the more elegant firmer and floral Taylor--and you buy it.  I’ve yet to be disappointed by a bottle of vintage Port.

The only downside to vintage Port is waiting to enjoy it because it takes decades for the fiery fruitiness of youth to evolve into a mellow complexity.  Fortunately, mature offerings are still available at the retail level--Zachy’s outside of New York, MacArthur Beverages in Washington, DC, and K&L in San Francisco--just to name a few.  Robin Kelley O’Connor, head of wine for Christie’s America, pointed out another way to obtain mature bottles, “Vintage Port has been included in every sale of every auction house for decades.”
But back to that pesky question.  My favorite was the 2007 Taylor.  However, I’d happily have any of them in my cellar.  Fortunately, I have an excuse to buy the ‘07s since I have a nephew born in that year.  I’ll follow the time honored British tradition of “laying down” a case of Port from a child’s birth year to give to him when he’s 21.  I hope he shares it with me.

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E-mail me your thoughts on Port--vintage or otherwise--at mapastein@winereviewonline.com