The Good Life

Port Stars

Vintage Port's Highest-Rated Wines Come From Fonseca, Graham, Quinta do Noval and Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman Vinnos SA
| By James Suckling | From George Burns, Winter 94/95

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 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.

It's also astounding how Fonseca vintage Ports remain hefty in style even after three or four decades of bottle age. For example, glasses of 1963, 1955, 1948 and 1934 are all full bodied and rich although the rough edges of youth have been slightly polished away.

Bruce Guimaraens, the man who makes Fonseca Ports, is rather dismissive of the purple prose that Port aficionados lay on his wine. "It's just big, bloody good vintage Port," he says. "That's the way I like them." This is not surprising, considering Guimaraens' stature. He stands about six-feet-three-inches tall and weighs 280 pounds. He is not a fellow who favors delicate Ports or anything else with a similar description.

Fonseca's vintage Port comes primarily from two quintas, or properties: Quinta do Cruziero and Quinta do Santo Antonio. They are located in the heart of the Cima Corgo, the best vineyard area in the Douro Valley for vintage Port. Depending upon the vintage, quality wines are purchased from a few nearby farmers as well. All the Port made at these estates is trodden or produced in lagars. Production of a given vintage averages between 8,000 and 14,000 cases. Fonseca has been under the same ownership as Taylor Fladgate since 1948.

Current vintages to buy and lay away in your cellar include '92, '85 and '83. Especially impressive is Fonseca '92, although the wine has not yet been bottled. Potentially as great as the legendary 1977 Fonseca, it shows masses of color, fruit and tannins at this early stage. It is currently being sold in the United States on a prearrival basis for about $435 a case.

The '77 Fonseca is still a "current" vintage; it should not be consumed until the next millennium to allow it to mellow a bit. The finest bottle of Fonseca produced since '48, it may become the shipper's greatest wine. It currently sells for about $65 a bottle. Recommended vintages of Fonseca to drink now include 1970, 1966, 1963 and 1955. These adult Ports have all lost their rambunctious youthfulness and are now smooth in style. They range in price from about $75 to $200 a bottle. Other readily available and drinkable vintages of Fonseca are 1980, 1975 and 1960, although I believe all three are fading and not worth the money.

If luck leads you to a bottle of '48 or '27--two perfect, mature examples of vintage Port--buy them. Drinking a glass of either vintage illustrates why Fonseca is the quintessential Port.


The name Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman, or simply Taylor, is synonymous with superlative vintage Port. No other readily available vintage Port attracts higher praise or commands higher prices.

Great bottles of Port like the 1927 or 1948 Taylor have set the standard for many serious vintage Port aficionados. They are breathtaking wines to this day with layers of fruit character ranging from coffee and cocoa to dusky violets and berries.

Taylor vintage Ports always have an understated raciness. What they lack in power and richness, they make up for in finesse and pure elegance.

It is this inherent style that makes Taylor vintage Ports so popular, according to Alistair Robertson, the chairman of Taylor as well as its sister Port house Fonseca. The tall, slender Briton remains surprisingly reserved about his wines. He doesn't know why Taylor vintage Ports are so famous, he says, but he is sure that his wines have always given people the maximum drinking pleasure regardless of the vintage. "If the decanter is finished at the end of the meal, then it couldn't have been all bad," he says, usually after a few glasses of his Port.

The main reason for Taylor's refined style is that most of the wine used for its vintage Ports comes from a property high in the northern part of the Douro Valley, Quinta de Vargellas. It has been the backbone of Taylor Ports since the nineteenth century and produces some of the most perfumed, finely boned wines in the region. Although Vargellas has a large modern winery, the best grapes are still trodden in stone lagars to extract as much character as possible during the short fermentation period. In fact, it is a long-established tradition at Taylor for inebriated dinner guests to change into their swimsuits and join in the treading after the decanter has made its rounds. Annual production averages about 8,000 to 16,000 cases in a given vintage.

If you take all of the vintages Taylor produced this century, you would be hard pressed to find a poor one in the group. The 1927 is the classic among Port aficionados. It made the reputation of the house decades ago and continues to be an outstanding bottle of port. However, the greatest bottle of Taylor remains the 1948. It epitomizes what a great vintage of Taylor is all about with its plethora of ripe, exotic, fruit aromas and flavors and surprising youthfulness. The superb 1963 Taylor is easier to find and it's just a tiny notch below the '48's quality. It is also about $150 a bottle, compared with the '48's $400. An even better bargain is the Taylor '70, which sells for about $75. Although still slightly young for some Port lovers, it shows fabulous amounts of fruit and silky tannins.

If you are interested in laying something away in your cellar in hopes of having a terrific, mature vintage Port in a decade or two, look for the 1977 or 1992. Both are classics. The '77 is becoming more difficult to find on the market, but the '92 is still not released, although it can be purchased on a prearrival basis for about $35 a bottle. The Port should arrive on the market next year.

The '92 vintage marks Taylor's 300th anniversary and its outstanding quality is a tribute to a long line of superlative vintage Ports by this well-known house. Taylor vintages have been satisfying Port lovers for centuries.


The vintage Ports of W. & J. Graham have long been the choice of the cognoscenti. Taylor and Fonseca may have greater reputations and Quinta do Noval a much heftier price, but fans of Graham continue to buy its vintage Ports year in and year out.

Part of this fidelity to Graham is due to its style. It is neither big and powerful nor racy and agile. Instead it reaches a happy balance between its sweet, ripe, fruit concentration and ironlike tannins, which enables graceful aging. They usually need at least 10 to 15 years of bottle age to shed some youthful, rough edges. For instance, although you could easily enjoy drinking a glass of the decadently sweet and rich 1977 or 1983 Graham, both are still slightly severe. Wait until the millennium to open a bottle of either.

Graham is part of an impressive stable of top names in Port including Dow, Warre, Smith-Woodhouse, Gould Campbell and Quarles Harris as well as the highly fashionable single-estate Port, Quinta do Vesuvio. The ubiquitous Symington family owns all of them. With eight members of the family working for the 1.1 million case-a-year company, the Port trade often jokes that there is seldom a moment when one family member isn't in some part of the world selling a Symington wine.

Until 1970 when the Symingtons bought it, W. & J. Graham remained under the control of the Graham family. The Grahams were established traders in textiles who started a profitable business with Portugal in 1808. The family's destiny as a Port shipper began on a whim. In 1820, the Grahams accepted a few dozen casks of Port in exchange for an outstanding debt from a Portuguese client; they have since continued trading in it.

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.

This said, however, older vintages are worth every penny. Nacionals such as the 1970, 1967 and 1966 are wonderfully concentrated and show a kaleidoscope of aromas and flavors. They will continue to improve with cellaring for decades to come. The 1963 is a benchmark for vintage Port and still tastes like a five- or six-year-old Port today. It's a perfect wine.

At a recent tasting of Nacional vintage Ports in London, Christian Seely, the managing director of Noval, sat speechless minutes after tasting the '63. "It's still hard to believe that this wine is over 30 years old," he said. "It is an amazing wine." He also said that the company may begin releasing a few vintages of Nacional in the market, mostly through wine auctions in London. More people may soon have the opportunity to experience the pleasures of this fine vintage Port.

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