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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
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 3)

Some of the wine used for Graham vintage Port is produced at the Symington winery at Quinta do Bonfim located on the outskirts of the dusty town of Pinaho in the heart of the Cima Corgo. The rest of the Port comes from small producers in the Rio Torto area including Quinta das Lajes. Graham's own estate, Quinta dos Malvedos, has always been too small to produce much wine for its vintage Ports, but extensive new plantings are expected to come on line in the late 1990s. Graham normally produces from 10,000 to 15,000 cases in a given vintage.

It's difficult to say which mature vintages of Graham are the best, but you certainly can't go wrong with 1927, 1935, 1945, 1948, 1955 and 1963. All these Ports are outstanding and perfect to drink now with a bounty of sweet plum character and silky smooth tannins. The 1966, 1970 and 1977 may be easier to find and slightly less expensive than older vintages and they are equally superb. Recent vintages to look for include 1991, 1985 and 1983. All three are great, strapping, young vintage Ports and need proper cellaring to mellow. If you have to make a choice, go for the '85. It is the most concentrated of the trio and shows marvelous ripe, fleshy, fruit character supported with a firm backbone of tannin.

With so many great bottles to choose from, it's no wonder why many vintage Port aficionados continue to buy only Graham. Seldom does this well-known firm ever make a less-than-outstanding vintage Port.

Quinta do Noval Nacional

Quinta do Noval Nacional is the most famous yet least drunk vintage Port. With a mere 200 to 250 cases produced in a given vintage, a bottle of Nacional is nearly impossible to find. Most of its production is either consumed by the owners of Noval or given as gifts to valuable customers.

However, this hasn't stopped a few bottles from surfacing in the marketplace. Nacional holds all price records for vintage Port: in 1988, a bottle of the 1931 Nacional sold for $5,900 to a pair of diners at the Graycliff Restaurant in the Bahamas. In 1991, another bottle of the same wine sold at a Wine Spectator charity auction in New York for $3,800.

What makes Nacional so special is that it is produced from ungrafted vines. When the root louse phylloxera destroyed most of the European vineyards during the past century, growers were forced to plant American root, onto which they grafted their traditional varieties. The American vines proved resistant to the pest. For some unknown reason, the owner of Quinta do Noval at the time decided to leave a small section of his vineyard ungrafted. This tradition has continued at Noval ever since, and the 6,000 Nacional estate vines at the estate (an additional 1,000 should come into production by 1997) have produced some of the region's most gloriously concentrated vintage Ports.

Quinta do Noval is one of the finest wine estates in the Douro region. Located in the Pinaho Valley in the Cima Corgo, Noval's whitewashed terraced vineyards dominate one hillside of the valley. All of Noval's vintage Ports are produced from its vineyards at the estate, although its other Ports are blends of wines from other properties. The French insurance group, AXA, bought the brand and estate in 1993. AXA is well known in the wine world, mostly due to its vast holdings in Bordeaux, including Château-Pichon-Longueville-Lalande and Château Cantenac-Brown.

Although it is made in the same time-honored manner--hand- picked and foot-crushed--Nacional has very little to do with Quinta do Noval's other vintage Ports. Nacional vintage Ports have more color, aroma, flavor and structure than a standard vintage from Noval. Production is also tiny in comparison: between 8,000 and 12,000 cases of Noval's normal vintage Port may be produced in a given year. The most recent vintages of Nacional include 1991, 1989, 1987, 1985, 1982 and 1980.

But be warned: recent vintages of Nacional--and Noval's normal vintage Port--have not hit the mark. With the exception of the 1987, a great vintage of Nacional has not been produced since 1970. Recent vintages are still highly collectible due to Nacional's rarity, but the quality does not justify the premium prices.

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