Looking for a Port in the Storm

by Chuck Hayward

Looking for a Port in the Storm

Post by Chuck Hayward | July 12th, 2011

Vintage port is one of the more unique segments of the wine industry, yet many people regularly overlook it at the dinner table and even those of us who attend countless trade tastings don’t get to try it that often. Yet when port houses declare a vintage, it provides the opportunity to sample a range of excellent wines, across vintages, as well as the chance to talk shop with some of the most interesting personalities in the wine world.

Vintage Port on tour, groupies not included

The latest declaration has been quite controversial since, in the past, the port industry has never declared more than three vintages in a decade. By producing a 2009, the three houses that comprise the Fladgate Partnership (Fonseca, Croft and Taylor Fladgate) will have released four vintage ports (2000, 2003, 2007, 2009). Another twist is that many of the estates owned by the Symington family (Graham's, Dow's and Cockburns among them) chose not make vintage port in 2009. Both of these factors are sure to be topics of debate for the next century, especially since port can often hang around that long.

With a historical legacy composed of techniques and traditions that have lasted through the ages, it seems as though port—and how it is made—never changes. But like the old adage “still waters run deep” (which can also apply to the Douro River at the spine of the port region), much occurs in this small sphere, a great deal of it running through the passionate mind of David Guimaraens, the sixth generation of his family to work in the port industry. I got the chance to speak with him and gain new insight into his world.

David Guimaraens, photo from Fonseca website

"There are many things happening today in the world of port and it is imperative that we act as agents of change," said David. "We have turned our back on empirical knowledge, and at the same time there is a danger that we are going to make nothing but fruit bombs. We are forgetting about complexity, nuance, balance and fruit."

Among his recent accomplishments, he has begun to work with 11 different grapes, much more than the traditional five varieties used by most port houses. He has also devised a machine that mimics foot treading, a method of crushing fruit that David still thinks is essential for making vintage port. And like many other winemakers, his move towards organic viticulture has been underway for some time, which resulted in the first-ever organic port being made at Fonseca.

However, David believes "the single biggest revolution in Port" was the changes he made in the spirit that is added to stop fermentation. Since the 1990s, when port houses were no longer required to purchase their spirit from the Portuguese monopoly, David has turned to producers in France that make a superior product. Because the spirit makes up such significant portion of the final wine, the quality of the spirit is essential. "I want a spirit that is clean and neutral but still maintains a sense of vinosity. It is important that the spirit does not mask the fruit." He has discovered that the improved quality of grape spirit has allowed younger vintage ports to be drinkable at an earlier point in their lives. "When young, it makes a perfect ruby port," declared David.

A plethora of Port

The tables spilled over with examples of the decade's four vintages, and our conversation naturally turned towards the vintages to be tasted. "There are two types of vintage ports," explained David. "Cool years like 2000 or 2007 create a fresher style of port. They are much prettier wines, and there is a greater sense of purity. The other type of port comes from warmer years like 2003 and 2009. They are much more powerful with firm tannins and take longer to come around."

With that, I attacked the wines and David was off to do the introductory speeches...

Stay tuned for the next blog post, which will look at the styles of the four harvests as well as tasting notes for the soon-to-be-released 2009s.