A First Look at 2011 Vintage Ports: Part 1

by Chuck Hayward

2011 proved a difficult year for some of the world's best growing regions. Bordeaux, Napa, Burgundy - all suffered harvests that were slightly above average at best. Even the Southern Hemisphere regions of Australia and New Zealand were dealt a difficult hand. But as is often the casein years past, a poor harvest in France often turns out to be a great year for the port houses of the Douro Valley. Indeed, just about all of the major labels have made a vintage declaration for their 2011s.

Rather than visit the region to taste the latest releases as is done with Bordeaux, the top Port lodges take their show on the road,affording the trade an opportunity to taste cask samples of the recently declared vintage (and often times there's an assortment of older vintages to try as well!). Most of the wineries have just completed their cross country tours of the US market. With the newly anointed ports fresh in my memory, it’s a great time to take a detailed look into 2011 and its’ vintage ports.


2011 started off with a cold and wet winter which would later prove fortuitous as the moist soils provided vines with a source of water during the hot summer. Rain continued after budburst with warm temperatures propelling vine growth. Growers had to monitor their vineyards closely to prevent outbreaks of mold or mildew. At the same time, the vines, ripening quickly thanks to the warmth and water, required their natural vigor to be restrained. Those growers who did not work their vines would deal with poor fruit quality come fall.

With all the warm weather and rain, it's no wonder that veraison occurred earlier than normal. The summer broke warm and dry, with only one excessive heat spell, and all indications led winemakers to prepare for an early harvest. However, a couple of rains in late August helped to slow down ripening while refreshing the vines with a drink of water.

It was left to the final approaching ripening period to determine the success for the vintage. In an interview following a tasting of his 2011 cask samples, winemaker Charles Symington declared that "what made the vintage come together was a month of blue skies and moderate temperatures." This allowed the grapes to ripen slowly while maintaining acidity and increasing phenolic complexity. For Symington, the growing season meant that "we got to do what we wanted when we wanted. The vintage proceeded at a leisurely pace. It was one of the easiest vintages I've ever had from a winemaker's perspective."


The 2011 port vintage is important not only because it is the first broadly declared vintage since 2007, but new trends in vintage port are starting to leave an impact. Vintage port remains one of the most traditional wine styles in the world. All it takes is a brief look at how grapes are grown and the wine is made to realize that change comes slowly in the Douro Valley. But where today's labels and brands seem to convey their continued allegiance to traditions of decades and centuries gone by, there is still much change occurring. Nothing is as static as it seems.

Perhaps the most important development in the world of vintage port is the appearance of new single quinta ports. The term "single quinta" port is typically used to describe ports made in years when the quality is not sufficient for a winery to declare the vintage. Made in the same way as a declared vintage port, single quinta ports are traditionally named after a lodge's best vineyard and are usually a step down in quality when compared to a declared vintage.

The new wave of single quintas are actually a step up in quality and represent a vintage port with a more defined scope and style. The first and most famous example of this type of wine is Quinta do Noval's "Nacional" which broke the mold in 1931. That special bottling was based on a plot of vines that was planted on its own roots and survived the phylloxera epidemic that swept thru Europe in the late 19th century.

Now we are seeing ports such as Taylor Fladgate's "Vargellas Vinha Velha" and Grahams' new "Stone Terraces" which are also made from small plots within their best quintas, in these cases selected because of particularly old vines. Made in extremely tiny quantities (usually around 250 cases), these new wines are a window into a new port category that we can expect to see more of in the future. And given that these bottlings come from plots that consistently produce the best fruit from their respective winery's top quintas, we might also expect to see some of these wines released in years that are not declared.

Over the past few decades, wineries in the Douro have embarked on an extensive replanting program. Thanks to a growing labor shortage and a need to keep growing costs in check, vineyards up and down the Douro are being replanted to allow for mechanization. In many cases, the old stone terraces constructed centuries ago are being replanted along contours that follow the curves along the valley's hillsides.

In the past, a variety of different grapes were interplanted among the plots of vines. The grapes were picked all at once despite the fact that most varietals ripened at different times. Accordingly, some grapes were picked too early while others may have been starting to raisin. As wineries replanted their vineyards, most chose to plant plots to just one varietal. This has allowed winemakers to pick each type of grape at optimal ripeness. At the same time, fermenting varietals separately permits winemakers to adopt techniques best suited to the specific needs of each grape.

A side benefit has been that winemakers can now pay more attention to less popular varietals that had been overlooked or planted in miniscule amounts among the field blends of the Douro. The main five grapes that go into port (touriga nacional, touriga franca, tinta cao, tinta roriz and tinta francisca) make up 80% of what is produced in the valley. Almost 40 grapes, however, are allowed to be grown under the Douro regulations and are eligible for inclusion into port wines.

A case in point is the Symington family's more intensive look at grapes like souzao and alicante bouschet. The 2011 vintage saw their properties adding ever-increasing proportions of other grapes into some of their ports. It is thanks to their new plantings that will allow for a more systematic understanding of these overlooked grapes. This closer look at the Douro's unheralded varietals promises to provide winemakers with more options in future port-making endeavors, adding new expressions to the palate off flavors they currently possess.

COMING UP IN PART 2: Tasting notes on 2011 vintage ports along with an indepth look at the vintage.


The 2011 vintage ports are due to arrive this fall. Below are some of our most popular ports available now on pre-arrival.


2011 Grahams Vintage Port

2011 Fonseca Vintage Port

2011 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port

2011 Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port