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Port Stars

Vintage Port's Highest-Rated Wines Come From Fonseca, Graham, Quinta do Noval and Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman Vinnos SA
Posted: December 1, 1994

For many people, vintage Port evokes images of well-dressed gentlemen relaxing in soft, cozy, high-backed leather chairs while smoking the best Havana cigars and sharing a glass or two from their favorite shipper. Such images today are mostly fantasy, but vintage Port still remains one of the best drinks to accompany a fine cigar.

Vintage Port comes from a part of the world that is as rustic and as out of the way as any tobacco plantation in Cuba, the Dominican Republic or Honduras. The Port vineyard area is located in an isolated part of northern Portugal about 50 miles up the Douro River from the industrial town of Oporto. This delimited growing area encompasses about 617,500 acres and is divided into three parts: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior. Traditionally, the best vineyards, where most vintage Port is produced, are located in the Cima Corgo, a short distance from the powerful Douro River.

Very little has changed over the years in producing great Port, which makes it extremely labor intensive. The steep, terraced Douro vineyards are mostly cultivated and harvested by hand. The best grapes are crushed by foot and are fermented in shallow stone vessels called lagars, which resemble a large children's wading pool. As a result, production of the finest-quality Port is an anachronism in our world of high technology and fast communications, but it is this hand-made quality that makes vintage Port even more attractive to drink.

Port fermentation lasts only two or three days compared with a week or two for the average table wine. About halfway through the fermentation, a dose of 144-proof alcohol is added to the partly finished wine, which stabilizes it and leaves a percentage of unfermented grape sugar. It is this process that makes this beautiful fortified wine so sweet and luscious to drink.

Vintage Port usually represents a shipper's best wine and is produced only in small quantities in highly regarded years. In any given year--or as Port shippers call it, "a declared year"--vintage Port may represent only 2 or 3 percent of a house's total production. Port is bottled after two years' maturation in oak casks; most Port firms make 5,000 to 15,000 cases in a declared vintage.

A top-class, young vintage Port should be as dark as ink in color, as aromatic as a highly fragrant perfume and as rich as homemade jam; it should also have what Port producers call "grip"--a toughness in the wine due to a high content of tannins. These attributes assure that a vintage Port will improve with cellaring. Most are drinkable about a decade after the harvest, but another 10 years would be even better.

From tiny estates high in the Cima Corgo to large shippers in the Port town of Vila Nova de Gaia, only about four dozen winemakers produce vintage Port. The leading names include: Cockburn, Croft, Dow's, Fonseca, Graham, Quinta do Noval, Sandeman, Taylor Fladgate and Warre. The very best, however, which are as revered as a first growth of Bordeaux or a great vineyard of California, are Fonseca, Graham, Taylor and Quinta do Noval's Nacional.

Fonseca

Fonseca is the quintessential vintage Port--a black, strapping kind of wine, big and bold in character.

Try a glass of something young like the Fonseca 1985 or 1983, and you will see why such phrases as "take no prisoners" or "rough and tough" have been used to describe the wines of this house. Like any great vintage Port, each has the intensity and structure to improve with age for decades.


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