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Vintage Port: A Rich Tradition

Richard MaysonWine writer, winemaker and former colleague Richard Mayson tells us more about the history of this noble wine

The declaration of a new port vintage brings out the historian in me. It is just over 200 years since the first vintage ports were produced, setting a pattern of vintage declarations from the best harvests roughly three times a decade.

Old port bottles from Taylor’s archivesThe emergence of vintage port at the end of the 18th century had as much to do with the science of the bottle as the quality of the wine. Until this time, bottles were short and squat in shape and used merely as vessels to convey wine from cask to table. Port wine was frequently advertised as 'new' implying that it had been recently shipped and less likely to have succumbed to spoilage. But towards the end of the 18th century bottles became more elongated in shape until by the 1770s a bottle could be cellared on its side.The cylindrical bottle was available for the successful 1775 harvest and so it seems likely that this was the first great vintage port in history. However the first mention of a vintage port appeared in a Christie's auction catalogue two years earlier when a wine from 1765 was sold. Both years were highly regarded for Vila Real magistrate Bernado José de Sousa Guerra who wrote that the wines of 1775 were 'strong, rich and full, similar to those of the year 1765, whose great and memorable goodness has met with the general approval of intelligent people'.

The first port shipper's name, Croft appears

Quinta dos Malvedos, harvesting in the traditional wayBy the beginning of the 19th century, the Douro could boast a number of fine vintages. Sandeman claim to have produced their first vintage port in 1790. George Sandeman, dining with the Duke of Wellington at Torres Vedras in 1809, declared the 1797 to be 'the finest year within my experience'. But it was not until 1810 that the first shipper's name, Croft, appeared in a Christie's catalogue.

These first vintage ports were not like today's wines, being much lighter in style and almost certainly aged for rather longer in cask before being bottled and shipped, perhaps more akin to colheita(dated tawny). According to T.G. Shaw, a wine merchant in Leith, Scotland who wrote the Wine, the Cellar and the Vine in 1863, it was common for the wines to be fined and racked a number of times before bottling, a process that would have stripped the young port of much of its body and character. Today's vintage ports are of course bottled unfined and unfiltered.

The 'Waterloo Vintage'

The first port vintage about which there is any real certainty is the so-called 'Waterloo Vintage' of 1815 and by 1820 vintage port was being eagerly sought by the British wine trade. Contemporary advertisements from Christie's indicate that the 1820s were bottled between three and five years after the vintage (compared to around 18 months today) and T.G. Shaw describes the wines as having 'plenty of crust and colour'.

During the 19th century the practice of 'declaring' wines from exceptional years gained momentum with 1847, 1851, 1858, 1863 and 1868 all proving to be fine port vintages. These wines came to be appreciated, less for their youthful vigour and more for the character and complexity that they gained with age in bottle. Once again, Christie's provide the evidence in an auction catalogue dated 3rd December 1860 which lists 120 dozen of 'Rare 1820 Port Wine' from Burmester.

How much spirit should be added?

D.Luís I bridge and traditional rabelo boats, OportoOne of the finest old ports I have tasted recently is an 1851 (from an unknown shipper), which was still remarkably deep in colour, fine and focused with bittersweet cherry fruit. It was noticeably drier in style than today's vintage port. A debate ragedaround this time about how much aguardente or grape spirit should be added to port. Joseph James Forrester,a leading English port shipper in his day, madethe distinction between 'pure' and 'impure wine' (the latter being fortified with brandy during fermentation). His opposition to the rich, sweet style of port that we know (and love) today was outspoken:

'…they [The port shippers] state as an axiom that 'the richest wine requires the greatest quantity of brandy' - a statement very far from being correct. In fact rich wine requires little or no brandy, except for the purpose of preserving it from the ill effects of the agitation on board ship during the voyage to England, and with the change of climate; and an admixture of a large quantity of brandy with such wine is highly injurious, many years being necessary for the complete incorporation of the spirit with it, so the real vinous qualities may appear again.'

Forrester's attitude clearly went against the prevailing taste for full, sweet ports that he dates back to the extraordinarily ripe 1820 vintage. His call for dry port went unheeded for, as Oswald Crawford, British Consul in Oporto summed up in Oporto Old and New (published in 1880):

'The true point at issue has always seemed to me to be, not whether Port can be made without the addition of distilled wine, but whether wine so made is worth drinking. Such wine is an unmarketable product, and I think deservedly so. It isastrong, rough and comparatively flavourless liquor. If a man were to add six drops of ink to a glass of very common red burgundy he would get something exceedingly like unfortified port. Every Oporto wine merchant has tried the experiment of unfortified Port wine. It is a pity they cannot sell it for they would quickly make their fortunes; but the plain truth is that it is an abominable drink'.

Forrester met his death on the river Douro in 1861 and the argument was settled in favour of fortified port until the emergence of unfortified Douro wine in the 1970s. By this time, improved technology and handling meant that the wines could reach their destination in drinkable condition and over recent years Douro wines have emerged successfully as a separate category in their own right.

The emergence of blended wines

Until the 1870s most vintage ports were sourced by shippers from individual estates orquintas and bottled bearing the name of the merchant who sold the wine. But when the twin plagues of oidium and phylloxera reduced yields to unsustainable levels, shippers were forced into blending wines from a number of properties. Until this time few port shippers owned land in the Douro but, with the local economy in ruins, the shippers began buying up their own vineyards at rock bottom prices.

In 1880 W&J Graham acquired Quinta dos Malvedos, Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatmen bought Quinta de Vargellasin 1893 and Robertson Bros. bought Quinta do Roncão. One of the leading entrepreneurs of the era was George Acheson Warrewho was then in charge of Silva & Cosens (Dow's). Between 1887 and 1896 he bought three prime estates, starting with Quinta do Zimbro at Tua.

Warre began replanting on American rootstock and monitored the results. In 1896 he wrote 'this year's wines I consider to be better than any since 1878 and will, I hope and believe, start a new era in the Port trade'. Warre's most astute purchase was Quinta do Bomfim at Pinhão, which had its own railway siding to transport wine downstream to the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. Bomfim is still the mainstay of Dow's vintage port and the acquisition of vineyards set a house style for some of the most famous vintage ports, the core of which would come from the shipper's own estate augmented by wines from trusted growers nearby.

Single estate ports

The one notable exception to this was Quinta do Noval which retained its independence. The Vasconcelos family, owners from 1894 until the 1960s, built up Noval's reputation as a magnificent single estate. By doing so theykept the word 'quinta' in the vintage port lexicon,successfully targeting their UK sales on Oxbridge colleges and private clubs. Noval has been followed in recent years by properties like Quinta do Vesúvio, Quinta de Roriz, Quinta de la Rosa and Quinta do Crasto all of which produce single estate vintage port independently of other the shipping firms.

With the vineyards back on track, the Douro enjoyed a string of fine port vintages in the early years of the twentieth century, all from fairly young vines. The widely declared 1900, 1908, 1912, 1924 and 1927 vintages were all well received and produced some stupendous wines, many of them still drinking well a century or more later.

Boom & bust & the emergence of two grades of port

After World War I port enjoyed a boom in sales and the demarcated region, first set out in 1756, was enlarged eastwards to take in what is now called the Douro Superior. But with growth of cocktails, the fashion for port waned. Coinciding with the worldwide depression,1931 is almost certainly the finest year never to have been declared.

Following the Second World War, the port shippers fully expected another post-war boom but it never materialised. In the all-important UK market a wartime quota system devised by Lord Woolton continued until 1949. Port was divided into two grades: grade one for every day, inexpensive ports and grade two for 'superior' wines like vintage port and aged tawny. A trio of fine vintages (1945, 1947 and 1948) stimulated little interest in the trade who continued selling their 1927s at pre-war prices. Most British merchants were not interested in using up their valuable import quotas with vintage port so the shippers bottled the 1945s themselves and held the wine until the good times returned. In 1945 superior grade ports amounted to just five per cent of annual shipments to the UK (this compares to over 50% accounted for by the so-called 'special categories' today).

Throughout the 1950s port shipments remained static.Port shippers either merged, foundered or were taken over by multi-national companies: of the eighty-three registered shippers in existence at the end of the war, there were around fifty remaining in 1970. Wyndham Fletcher of Cockburn's records 'there was no new business…we spent our time examining stock; in other words tasting through our old vintage Ports'. Michael Broadbent, former head of Christie's Wine Department, who visited Oporto for the first time in 1953 recalls the all-pervading gloom:

'….most shippers were on their last legs, some on the point of bankruptcy; also staying at the [British] Club was a management consultant who was as glum as his clients across the river. The feeling we all had was that the Port trade was on the verge of extinction.'

It took until 1970 for total shipments toreach pre-war levels but the recovery in vintage port came earlier when the outstanding 1963 vintage (shipped in 1965) was well received by the trade. The late Michael Symington recorded 'we began to realise that things were picking up when we sold more 1963 vintage Port than the 1896, making it the most successful declaration for over sixty years'. Declarations in 1966 and 1970 were similarly well received, the latter being the last to be bottled outside Portugal. In 1973 it became obligatory for all vintage port to be bottled at source.

The impact of the revolution

The revolution of 1974/1975 nearly brought the recovery to a halt. Many of the leading Portuguese families were forced to flee the country abandoning their properties in the Douro. In the summer of 1975 it was rumoured that the entire port trade was about to be nationalised but the dismissal ofthe pro-Communist Prime Minister, General Vasco Gonçalves, prevented the papers from being signed. Others say that the British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, intervened. There can be little doubt that but for the strong foreign presence in Oporto, the port trade would have been nationalised and much of the tradition would have been lost.

With hindsight it is probably fair to say that the socio-economic upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s affected the quality and character of vintage port. With the labour shortages caused by rural emigration, many shippers were forced to abandon the time-honoured foot treading of grapes in traditional stone lagares. Many of the other methods devised to extract colour and flavour from the grapes were a poor substitute and so from 1975 the early 1990s there has been a high incidence of lightweight, relatively early maturing wines.

A new era

Foot-treading now confined to the finest winesDuring the 1980s and 1990s, worldwide shipments of port grew strongly, peaking in 2000 and stabilising over the ensuing decade. Sales of the so-called 'special categories' of premium port which include aged tawnies, colheitas, LBVs and vintage ports continue to grow steadily. This has presented the shippers with the challenge to develop new methods of making port whilst maintaining house style and improving quality. The port shippers have been buying up ever more vineyard, taking greater control from the grape to the bottle.

Home-grown grapes and a return to tradional methods

Since 1992 Taylor and Fonseca vintage ports have been made entirely from home-grown grapes followed by Croft in 2003. In 2011 Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Smith Woodhouse and Warre are made entirely from the Symington's own vineyards for the first time. Foot treading has been revived for the finest wines (Croft's 2003 vintage port was the first to be foot trodden in lagar since 1963 - and it shows!). Automated substitutes, including the development of robotic treading, simulate the best of tradition whilst taking much of the uncertainty out of winemaking. The quality of the fortifying spirit (which makes up 20% of the blend) has improved markedly and this allows the fruit in a young vintage port to express itself to the full.

Vintage port has never been better

But despite these changes the philosophy of vintage port remains the same: a vintage is only declared when the shipper believes they have sufficient quantity of truly exceptional wine. But improvements in the vineyard and the adega (winery)mean that good wines can be produced in most years leading to the release of earlier maturing single quinta wines made in interim years. The 2011vintage is only the fourth to be widely declared this century and the 26th since 1900. Most of the leading port shipping firms are back under family control and with thecare and attention they have vested in the Douro region in recent years,I think it is fair to saythat vintage port has never been better.

Richard Mayson’s book Port and the DouroBook Offer Richard Mayson’s book Port and the Douro includes an appraisal of port vintages from 2011 back to 1844. It is an essential guide for anyone thinking of visiting Oporto and the Douro. Signed and individually dedicated copies are available to members at a special price of £22 plus p&p (rrp £30) by going to portandmadeirapages.com or richardmayson.com

Richard’s assessment of the 2011 vintage

At this early stage in their development, the 2011s show wonderful purity of fruit combined with ripeness and structure. The ripeness extends to the tannins that are broad as well as fine-grained in the best wines. There are very few wines that I would term ‘raisiny’ or ‘pruney’, characteristic of an over-ripe vintage. In the context of more recent years, 2011 has the purity of 2007 with much of the ripeness of 2009 (a year declared outright by a few shippers). These wines are a joy to taste now but anyone born in 2011 probably has a wine for life!

We have a new Exhibition 1983 Vintage Port at £49 a bottle

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