A Brief Guide to Vintage Port Wines

For the wine connoisseur there is something especially attractive in the identification and appreciation of a truly great vintage port wine. As you would expect, vintage ports are made from grapes that are all harvested in the same, generally exceptional, growing year. Overall, vintage ports account for only around 2% of the total port wine production in a given year and so they are rightly cherished.

Vintage port wine is a beverage that has a uniquely idiosyncratic nature. Whilst the overall characteristics of a growing season in the Upper Douro valley will clearly be the same for all producers, there are a surprising multitude of specific local conditions that can greatly affect the overall quality of each individual harvest. The Upper Douro comprises a tortuous system of valleys and ridges that allow for a great deal of local variety, whatever the prevailing conditions of the season may be.

Hence the declaration of a vintage is a matter for each port shipper alone, and only in some exceptional years will there be a general declaration of vintage. But to attain its potential as a truly great vintage port, the wine must be stored and allowed to mature in bottle for several years, and sometimes even decades. This is a requirement that was only discovered by chance.

The Development of Vintage Port

In the early days of port wines, vintage ports were not available. The demand for ports in the mid 18th century was such that no shipper would seriously consider the long term storage of the beverage given the presence of a thirsty market, and the advantages of ageing had not as yet been discovered. Whilst some shippers had discovered the benefits of in-cask ageing and of leaving the wine in-bottle for up to 2 years before release, it is thought that the true potential of vintage port was only discovered by chance due to the cellars of wealthy buyers becoming overstocked and the subsequent years worth of in-bottle ageing that often resulted as the wine languished in the cellar.

Until this time, port wine had been regarded as a moderate quality beverage. The effects of ageing elevated them to the ranks of true excellence, and led to the conscious development of high quality, vintage port wines for the appreciation of the discerning classes. This was aided in no small measure by the legendary vintage of 1820, which produced wines of such quality and ferocity that they set the benchmark for subsequent expectations, and indeed produced wines of such increased alcoholic strength that they resulted in a subsequent increase in the quantities of fortifying brandy used in the preparation process. By the mid 19th century, a requirement for 10 to 15 years of in bottle ageing for high quality vintage ports had become established practice.

At the turn of the century, a run of excellent vintage years in the Upper Douro (1896, 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912) helped to position port wine, correctly stored and aged, as one of the great wines of the world. At the same time, several producers had attained reputations for excellence and quality, so that the identification of a port from a highly regarded vintage and producer was much sought after.

The production of port wines was formalised to some extent by the regulations issued after the Second World war by the Port Wine Institute (IVP), requiring that all ports be bottled in the second year following the grape harvest. This subsequently (in 1974) became a requirement for all ports to be bottled in Portugal, in an attempt to regulate the standard of ports by removing the variability that may be introduced by different port merchants’ bottling procedures where bottling abroad took place.

The Production of Vintage Port

As with most things regarding wines, the correct ageing of port is a matter of conjecture and debate. As a general guideline, a vintage port wine can be said to have reached its peak maturity at an age of around 20 years. There are many examples of vintage ports that have proved to be excellent long after this guideline period though, and likewise there are many who appreciate the fruitiness and strength of a vintage port sampled well before https://samuelssonsrapport.se the 20 years have elapsed. Vintage ports with reputations for quality well beyond the timescale that might have been expected include the 1927, 1934, and 1945.

When a port wine producer believes that the port from that year’s harvest is of a sufficiently high standard, a declaration of vintage will be made. On the average this will happen around 3 times each decade, although some of the less prestigious producers apply a policy of making declarations in all but poor years. Hence a declaration by one producer may not be matched by other producers, and for this reason you will hear the term “general declaration of vintage” for correspondingly good production years, to reflect the fact that not all producers may have declared. Likewise, some years that are not generally declared may yet harbour vintage ports from specific producers. Given the improvements in growing technologies and weather prediction, it is likely that even in the worst years there will be at least one or two port wines that are declared.

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