Cigar Aficionado

Stunning 2011 Vintage Ports

Port wine and fine cigars, few pairings in the world are their rivals. And when the stars align as they did with the just released 2011 Vintage Ports, the marriage is sublime. The cellar masters of the Port lodges of northern Portugal have produced dozens of stunning wines that are the essence of great Port, powerful and filled with ripe, luscious and sweet dark fruit flavors; rich spice and chocolate notes. The best have the stuffing to age for decades.

Vintage is the pinnacle of quality in the Port world, representing just two percent of production. They are the product of one of the world’s most beautiful, wildest and traditional wine regions: the Douro River Valley. It is home to tens of thousands of acres of terraced vineyards that are rooted in granite and schist. In 2011, a wet winter was followed by a warm, dry summer that kept yields low and the flavors extraordinarily concentrated. To top it off, harvest conditions were ideal.

Vintage Port is not made every year. Only after a house decides its wines have reached a quality level that signifies something special (typically only a few times a decade) will it choose to label Port by the year it was produced, thus signifying a vintage. The key factor is the ability of the wines to age, primed by a mix of powerful fruit flavors and muscular tannins. And all the major Port houses made declarations in 2011. Most of the best are the products of several sites that are themselves planted with a combination of three or more of Portuguese native grapes, led by the likes of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinat Barroca and Sousão.

This is winemaking at its simplest and most direct. Once harvested, the grapes ferment (many after being foot-trodden in large granite basins called lagares) for two or three days—but only to about six or seven percent alcohol. Then, Port truly takes on a life of its own as powerful brandy is added, simultaneously fortifying the wines and halting fermentation, which keeps the fruit pure and sweet. The wine is then aged in large cask for a year, blended and kept in the cellar for another two years of aging before release.

While tempting to open immediately, the 2011s are best cellared for at least 15 years so they can grow into themselves. With time, their alcohol and fruit will mature into silky, seamless and seductive wines that are complex and heady. And while that wait may be long, the prices are some of the most reasonable for great wines today. The highest scoring 2011, Dow’s (99 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale) is just $82 a bottle; it offers concentrated dark fruit, chocolate and spice flavors.

Other great wines from the vintage include: lithe and minerally Fonseca (98, $116); Quinta do Vale Meão (98, $50), very sleek and refined; the velvety Churchill’s (97, $75); the Taylor Fladgate (97, $116), filled with red fruit flavors; and the effusively juicy Croft (97, $93) and Ramos Pinto (96, $80). And for those searching for rarities, there is the famed single-quinta Port, Quinta do Noval Nacional (98, $650), which comes from a single seven-acre plot in the middle of the Douro.

The 2011 vintage for Port is truly a monumental achievement and deserving of your attention.