Modern vintage ports can no doubt be enjoyed younger than in the past.
David Baverstock looks into just what has changed.
There is no doubt in my mind that vintage port is the king of ports and that drinking an aged vintage port with 30 or more years in the bottle is one of life’s extreme luxuries. Aged tawnys or wood ports are extremely good with their nutty, intense flavours but lack the complexity of a great aged vintage port.
Recently there has been some debate about the nature of vintage ports made over the last 20-odd years and whether there has been a change in winemaking and viticulture in the Douro to produce a more commercial and approachable style. In order to try and understand the changes in the making of recent vintages, I enlisted the help of David Guimaraens, technical director of Taylor Fladgate who is at the forefront of modern viticulture and winemaking in the Douro.
As he puts it, “no winemaker sets out to make a vintage port that intentionally lives less time in the bottle in order to favour its drinkability when young”, but that “significant changes have occurred in viticulture and winemaking over the last 30 years and they have affected the drinkability of vintage port when they are young”.
Looking firstly at viticultural changes: probably the main thing has been the introduction of batch-planted vineyards giving rise to vintage ports based on blending wines made from a few individual grape varieties. Some of these varieties show more upfront fruit, particularly in the case of Touriga Nacional. Pre-1970s vineyards were planted with a random mix of between 15 to 20 varieties, so they were field blends producing very complex ports, but lacking in obvious youthful appeal.
Secondly, winemaking changes. These have to do with the fermentation process, which traditionally was done using foot-treading in granite lagares, but more recently, stainless steel fermenters normally associated with piston plungers have been introduced. Again, the traditional granite lagares produce more complex ports with distinctive tannins which are more typical of vintage ports of the past. Ports produced in stainless steel tend to be very full bodied, however the tannin profile is less firm, being smoother and more approachable when young.
Thirdly, and very significantly, the quality of the fortifying spirit has changed. Up until 1991, port shippers had no choice but to use the spirit that was supplied by the state and the quality was average at best, needing many years to soften and integrate. Since being free to source their own spirit, the port producers have discovered a new world of quality brandy spirits which are cleaner and softer. The result of these spirits is that the fruit expresses itself much more when the vintage ports are young, making them more attractive and approachable than we were traditionally used to.
This can be seen as a tendency, although it does depend on the philosophy of individual port shippers, some of whom still manage to continue a house style by maintaining a more traditional approach such as planting numerous grape varieties in a given vineyard and co-fermenting them in granite lagares with foot treading. The jury is still out on the more recently produced softer, modern styles. There is no doubt that they are high quality and worthy vintage ports that will mature well for up to 20 years in the bottle, but whether they will have the tannin structure to go on and become classics after 30 to 40 years remains to be seen.
David Baverstock is a renowned Australian oenologist at Herdade do Esporão.