Is 2017 Port the Richest Vintage Since 1945?

“You may be confused why we are sitting here for the second year in a row, says Rupert Symington, as he introduces the tasting of the 2017 Port vintage in New York.” There was a general declaration for 2017, as there was a year earlier for 2016. “A general declaration is a rare event, and according to our records, a general declaration in two successive years hasn’t happened since 1873. We had no qualms in saying we would break with tradition, because when we looked at 2017 and 2016 we had two outstanding but very different vintages.”

David Guimaraens explains the difference. “2016 was a cooler growth season with rain that gave good growth. 2017 was much drier; the season was hot and dry with an early growing cycle right from the start. There were five days over 40 degrees in June, which causes quite a bit of burn, with loss of grapes reducing yield.” 2017 was such a dry year that the source of the Douro—800 miles away—dried up. Charles Symington notes that Grahams had the earliest picking even, August 28 at one vineyard, where harvest finished on September 15, a few days before they would usually start.

António Agrellos, Christian Seely, Dominique Symington, Rupert Symington, Charles Symington, Adrian Bridges, and David Guimaraens presented the wines.

The 2016 vintage, tasted at the same point last year, showed a remarkable uniformity of fruit purity, giving the wines a sense of linearity and precision. The 2017 vintage is richer and broader, with a velvety first impression that hides the underlying structure. Although it is very rich, the sweetness is subservient to an overall sense of texture, and is rarely obtrusive or dominant, especially as many of the wines have a tang of freshness at the end. The vintage is amazingly approachable because the sheer intensity of fruit carries everything before it. There is certainly structure, but the tannins are supple, and the main impression at this stage is the smoothness of the vintage. If 2016 is a cerebral vintage, 2017 is sensual.

“It is no secret that vintage port was made to age, but we have to remember that most people now want to drink the wine much sooner,” Rupert Symington observes. Well, for the second year in a row, those who want to do so can start their Vintage Ports almost immediately.You could drink most 2017s now, at the point of release.

The approach in Port has always been different from other regions. “Unlike other areas, our top wines are blends from several estates, and our second wines come from single estates,” Charles Symington notes. Yet one novel feature this year was that the sixteen wines at the tasting included three new single-vineyard wines, something of a break from the approach of releasing single vineyards only in secondary years. More like other regions, each of them showed an increase in finesse compared with the house brand. Looking at the major brands, among the Big Three, Fonseca is broad and deep, Taylor is the most reserved, and Graham is the most elegant.

With no precedent for more than a century for two general declarations in a row, there may be some nervousness in Porto as to whether the market can absorb the wine. Back to back vintages in Bordeaux or Burgundy don’t seem to encounter any special difficulty, although sometimes the second vintage gets relatively overlooked. (One advantage of the en primeur system for châteaux may be that consumers are forced to make a decision before they know the character of the next vintage.) Port 2016 and 2017 are so different that I suspect most people will have a clear preference for one or the other.

Tasting notes (in order of wines tasted):

Cockburn’s

Quite fragrant perfumed nose is almost floral. Sweet, ripe, raisiny on the finish, giving the impression of very hot conditions. A little spirity at the end. Cassis on nose and palate melds into spice and pepper on the finish. Richness is more obvious than sugar, emphasizing the sense of power.

Croft Port

Smooth, silky, rich on palate with hint of raisins, not quite overwhelming. Lovely elegance shows on palate, which is a touch lighter than most vintage ports this year.

Croft, Roeda Serikons

Smooth and silky, a very fine impression where the silkiness of the tannins is evident on the finish, which has just a touch of raisins.There’s an impressive sense of the finesse of the texture on the palate. Like Croft, the style is (relatively) lighter than most.

Dow’s Port

Complex varied nose makes a floral impression. Palate shows black plums, with those floral notes turning clearly to violets in the glass. Great sense of finesse emphasized by fact that Dow, as always, is not quite as sweet as other vintage Ports, and there is a good sense of freshness on the finish.

Fonseca

Smooth palate with breadth of black fruit flavors cut by faint sense of minerality. Intense sense of berries hides the tannins. A touch spirity on finish, with raisiny notes coming out a bit more in the glass. Reminds me of the 1963.

Graham’s

Typical smoothness and elegance of the house giving sense of precision of black fruits, quit lifted aromatics or plums and blackcurrants, concentrated but elegant, with faint touch of raisins at end, but cut by tang of freshness.

Graham’s, Stone Terraces

Lifted aromatics with savory intimations adding to exotic impressions. Deep and opulent but with good sense of precision. Overall impression is finer rather than broader relative to Graham’s.

Wiese & Krohn

I would not go so far as to call this austere, but there is a mineral impression to the nose that takes the edge of the obvious richness. Reflecting the vintage, the palate seems is relatively soft and aromatic. Only 1,400 cases made.

Quinta do Noval

Elegant nose suggests both richness and finesse. Full, rich, and concentrated on palate, but with tang of freshness, even perhaps a hint of mint, on finish. Very fine representation of vintage. Only 2,500 cases made.

Quinta do Noval, Nacional

More concentrated and tighter than Noval, leading to an almost dry impression on finish. Fine and precise on palate, with that (deceptive) sense of dryness cutting the richness. Seamless layers of flavor disguise the powerful tannins, which give a brooding impression. Only 200 cases made.

Quinta da Romaneira

Very rich impression with tannins evident only by some dryness at very end, but powerful and concentrated, with sense of iron in the soil cutting the ripe softness. The strong finish makes it evident how powerful the structure is. Only 1,100 cases made.

Taylor Fladgate

Rich impression is cut by that sense of iron in the soil, already you can see how grip and structure counter the rich fruits. Faint hints of raisins and slightly spirity impression at end, A classic expression of the Rolls Royce character of Taylor.

Taylor Fladgate, Vargellas Vinha Velha

A finer, more precise impression than Taylor itself, but again with that sense of grip to the palate. Not so overtly voluptuous, greater sense of iron and structure, very firm, very concentrated, with a sense of restraint as it waits to develop layers of flavor.

Quinta do Vesuvio

Fragrant nose with some savory hints cutting the ripe fruits. Very rich on palate, spicy with aromatics moving towards blueberries, and just a touch of raisins at end, but cut by tang of freshness at end to offset the voluptous character.

Quinta do Vesuvio, Capela do Vesuvio

More fragrant than Vesuvio with orange blossom impressions to nose, very fine palate with quite perfumed lifted aromatics. Precise impression, tannins showing notes of black tea on finish, tang of freshness at end.

Warre’s

Fragrant nose leads into sweet palate making very fine impression. You might describe the palate of very fine, precise black fruits as elegant and feminine, with notes of tea leaves at the end adding to the impression of delicacy.

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