A Passion for Port

The limited production of vintage port is keeping frenzied fanatics thirsting for more
| By James Suckling | From Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

The judge had no idea what he gave up. On a lazy summer evening in July, I opened an unlabeled bottle of 1920 vintage Port that I had purchased from a retired judge a few years ago in London. It was ambrosia. Seconds after being poured into a decanter, it filled the room with aromas of crushed berries, raspberries and toffee. A ruby brick-red color, it was still full-bodied, very sweet and as soft as the finest silk. The flavors of ripe fruit, butterscotch and toffee lasted for minutes on my palate. I can still taste the ancient Port when I think back to that glorious evening.

I drank the Port with seven friends who will never forget the experience either, even after drinking two world-class Merlots from Bordeaux the same evening, a 1961 Le Gay in magnum and 1955 L'Evangile. The fact that we were smoking Davidoff Chateau Haut-Brion cigars only enhanced the occasion. "I have to hand it to you," said a wine merchant friend from Hong Kong, looking a bit rough the morning after. "That was one hell of a Port. It outclassed everything we drank last night."

Despite such memorable experiences with vintage Port, it never ceases to amaze me how many people still haven't experienced the great pleasure to be found with this special fortified wine from the terraced hillside vineyards of Portugal's Douro Valley. Perhaps it has something to do with its high alcohol content? Drinking one bottle is like partaking in more than one and a half bottles of California Chardonnay. Or maybe sweet dessert wines such as Port don't quite fit into today's dining style? After savoring California Cabernet Sauvignon with a meal, it's difficult to think about following it with a glass or two of Port. It could even be the old crusty image of the drink: gentlemen in smoking jackets drinking decanters of Port just doesn't seem to belong in our modern lives.

The more people who have these predilections, the better for me and everybody else who love a good glass of Port. There just isn't enough to go around, so we don't need more vintage Port lovers. A British friend in the Port trade in Portugal once said to me that if wine drinkers in America ever acquired the taste for vintage Port, there wouldn't be any left for the British or anybody else in Europe. "God forbid the thought," he said, while drinking a glass of 1963 Croft vintage Port. "We don't need bloody cork sniffers from the Colonies to get on to the stuff," he added, only half-joking.

Believe it or not, Americans are the biggest consumers of vintage Port, even though their consumption probably doesn't amount to more than 60,000 to 65,000 cases a year. That's literally a drop in the vinous bucket when you consider that a wine producer such as Robert Mondavi makes more than 120,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon each year -- and that's just one of about a dozen wines the winery produces. The majority of those tens of thousands of cases of vintage Port come from a handful of producers and from a range of different vintages, from baby Ports such as 1997 and 1994 to granny ones like 1927 and 1935. Most vintage Ports sold in the States are usually very young wines, no more than 10 or 20 years old.

Some Englishmen consider Americans barbarians since we drink our Port much too young. Plenty of people in the States are already drinking 1997s and 1994s. In a perfect "English world" those wines wouldn't be drunk for another 20 years. However, I often point out to the British that their ancestors drank vintage Port only four or five years after it was bottled. In the book Port Wine and Oporto (printed in the 1930s), Ernest Cockburn wrote that gentlemen in some of London's most exclusive men's clubs were drinking vintage Ports just five or six years old. In the 1930s, they were more than happy to be drinking 1920, 1922 and 1924 vintages. In essence, we Americans are simply upholding a long-established British tradition.

Americans drink the most vintage Port, but the British still dominate the trade. They own most of the big name vintage Port houses, including Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Graham, Dow and Warre, among others. If you want to understand what it was like living 100 years ago in a British colony, visit one of the British Port houses. Their empire has never crumbled.

They are all extremely civilized human beings; avidly following cricket, serving tea in the afternoon and sending their children to boarding schools. British Port shippers even have their own club, the Factory House, which is limited to English Port-producing passport holders and, of course, men. A female American wine writer was once mistakenly invited to the Factory House for lunch and a few of the older members were very put out when she arrived in the club's dining room. Many hid behind their chairs. She was immediately shown the door.

Nonetheless, the British know how to make the best vintage Ports. If I had to rank Port producers today, I would put Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca and Dow at the top of my list. Quinta do Noval would also make the list, but it's not British. Portuguese Port houses just do not have the tradition for making great vintage Port.

This said, a serious non-British producer is Niepoort, but the shipper makes so little vintage Port that the owner, Dirk van der Niepoort, a fifth-generation to run the house, drinks most of it with his friends, family and agents.

The French are also now in the game in a serious way after buying Quinta do Noval in 1993. AXA, the insurance giant, bought the well-respected Port house as a long-term investment, and it has already tripled or quadrupled its investment due to a huge leap in the quality of its vintage Port. Most of this growth results from the guidance of its manager, Christian Seely -- a Briton, of course. He has made some of the greatest young Ports ever, the 1994 and 1997 Quinta do Noval as well as the tiny production Noval Nacional from both vintages. Nacional is the rarest and most expensive of vintage Ports. Only about 250 cases are made in a vintage. It is produced from a few plots of vineyards at the Quinta do Noval estate in the Douro Valley. The vines have not been grafted onto American rootstock like the rest of the Douro Valley, and most of the world for that matter. I once personally bought the entire Puerto Rican allocation of this wine -- three bottles of the 1994.

Vintage Port is not made every year. On average, Port houses make, or "declare," three vintages a decade. For instance, in the 1990s, they declared 1991 (Taylor and Fonseca, however, preferred 1992), 1994 and 1997. Declaring a vintage is a very personal decision for a Port house. I have heard the process likened to the Vatican choosing a pope. In any case, it all relies on whether a house believes it has enough Port of outstanding quality in a given vintage. Production for the big names is usually between 5,000 and 10,000 cases of vintage Port per declaration. Although Noval and Niepoort usually make about 1,500 to 2,000 cases a piece in a declared year, vintage Port usually represents only about 1 to 3 percent of a shipper's entire annual production.

A nice point about vintage Port is that the classic vintages are few in number; so it's not difficult remembering the very best. Some people may debate which should be included in a list of the very best, but here's mine: 1917, 1927, 1931, 1945, 1948, 1963, 1977 and 1994. Some might say 1908, 1934 or 1935 or even 1955, 1966 or 1970 should be included in such a list as well as the most recent 1997. But let's keep it simple. If you drink any reputed vintage Port from any of the eight vintages on my list, I promise you a great wine experience.

Looking at specific wines, a list of the greatest Ports ever produced would include: Fonseca 1994, Taylor Fladgate 1994, Quinta do Noval Nacional 1994, Fonseca 1977, Quinta do Noval Nacional 1963, Fonseca 1948, Quinta do Noval Nacional 1931 and Fonseca 1927. I scored all these wines 100 points when I last tasted them in Wine Spectator magazine. I would add another four Ports to a "must-have, must-drink" list: Quinta do Noval Nacional 1997, Taylor Fladgate 1948, Croft 1945, and Quinta do Noval Nacional 1931. I scored them all 99 points in Wine Spectator.

Prices for these best-of-the-best Ports are not cheap, but they are still reasonable considering how expensive some trophy wines of California and France now go for. What sounds like the better bargain: a bottle of 1996 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley for about $1,300, or a bottle of 1948 Taylor for about $500?

"Vintage Port remains one of the last great values in fine wine," says Paul Symington, whose family controls such names as Graham, Dow, Warre and Quinta do Vesúvio. "Look at what you would have to pay for a top 1970 or 1961 Claret compared to a 1963 Port. There's no comparison."

Indeed, a 1970 Latour or a 1961 Margaux sells for about $350 to $500 a bottle while a 1963 Taylor or Fonseca sells for about $150 to $200 a bottle. Outstanding young Ports such as 1994 Fonseca or 1994 Taylor now sell for about $120 a bottle. Lesser but extremely good Ports from the 1994 vintage, or the almost as outstanding 1997, are nearly half the price. Three great young vintage Ports that are still reasonably priced and generally available are the 1997 Niepoort (98 points), the 1997 Quinta do Noval (97) and the 1994 Dow (97). They should sell for about $50 to $70 a bottle.

The only drawback with buying such young vintage Ports is that you really should wait eight or 10 years before drinking them. And it's not easy being so patient. Traditionally, any good British parent or godparent would buy a newborn a barrel of Port -- called a pipe in the trade. It's a lot of Port, about 55 cases, or 660 bottles. The idea is that when the child reaches drinking age, he or she receives the Port. Apparently very few of these lucky children have held on to their Port and drank it. "Most of the children I know who have received pipes of Port sold them when they were 21 years old and bought a motorcycle," says Rolf van der Niepoort, Dirk's father and the scion of the Port house bearing his family name. "I am sure that's not what those generous parents had in mind."

It was Frank "Smiler" Yeatman, a partner in Taylor Fladgate from 1897 to 1950 and the first Englishman to make 50 vintages in the Douro Valley, who claimed to drink a pipe of Port a year, which works out to just under two bottles a day. That may sound like a lot, but he once told a doctor it was the only reason he stayed so fit through his life. He lived to a ripe old age of 81.

"I don't know if this is completely true, but my uncle certainly loved his Port," says Taylor Fladgate chairman and managing director Alistair Robertson. It's a sentiment any Port lover can appreciate.