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What are the best Vintages in perfect shape to drink now?

Most Vintage Ports enter their prime drinking window from their 20th year on, eventually reaching their peak later. 1977, one of the best Vintages of the second half of the 20th century, is possibly one of the most interesting options that comes to mind and its structure and concentration have been widely regarded as unparalleled. Despite this, you can't go far wrong with any of the 1980s trio: the 1980, 1983 or 1985. In addition, the 1994 Vintage is also an outstanding choice – the year produced monumental wines with rich fruit character and fantastic structure. They are beginning to drink very well now, but will continue to develop and improve for decades. Currently, the youngest 'declared' Vintages falling into that category are the 1997 and the 2000. The 1997s are known for their supreme elegance, floral aromas and seductive, silky palate. The 2000s, which were born in a year of very low yields, are remarkable for their beautiful black fruit flavours with hints of liquorice and kirsch; full, generous and well-rounded ripe fruit helps to create layers of complexity.

How are the 2017 Vintages expected to compare to the 2011s?

Both of those Vintages come from classic declared years. 2017 was much drier and generally hotter than 2011, and this shows in the form of a greater concentration as a result of the heat and the lower yields. The 2011 also has impressive structure, but it is all about elegance and finesse with stunning floral aromatics. Both years have remarkable acidity that shows through in the wines’ freshness and indicates they will both age very well.

What is the best vintage year after 1977?

It is difficult to give a definite answer as much comes down to personal preference. In terms of Vintage Ports that are drinking beautifully now, you can't go far wrong with any of the 1980s trio: the 1980, 1983 or 1985. The 1994 Vintage is also an outstanding choice - the year produced monumental wines with fabulous rich fruit character and fantastic structure. They are beginning to drink very well now but will continue to develop and improve for decades more. From more recent years, 2011 must also be mentioned: it was an extraordinary year and considered by many as one of the best in recent history. Again, you are spoiled for choice because the back-to-back 2016 and 2017 declarations also produced sensationally good Vintage Ports. Moral of story? Don't put all your eggs in the one basket. For drinking now, try the 1980; for drinking at its best in about 5 year's time, get some 1994 and for long term ageing lay down some 2011, 2016 or 2017.

How would you characterise the 1997 Vintage?

In the 1990s there were two general (sometimes called 'classic') Vintage Port declarations: 1994 and 1997. Both were outstanding and are now drinking very well, although both retain considerable further ageing potential. 1997 had a bit of everything weather-wise; parts of the Douro had snow in early winter but then well above average temperatures in February and March. However, a comparatively cool spring and summer delayed growth and led to a late starting vintage. This meant a long growing season that favoured gradual, even ripening, which delivered balanced maturations and very high quality grapes. 1997 Vintage Ports are beautifully balanced wines showing great structure, complexity and elegance. They are a little less muscular and concentrated than the 1994s and are more about understatement and poise.

What is the youngest Vintage you feel has just entered its prime drinking window?

Generally speaking, most Vintage Ports enter their prime drinking window from their 20th year and it is important to stress that this is when they begin to enter their prime — but by no means reach their peak. Most Vintage Ports from classic declarations will remain at their peak for extensive periods and that peak may only be reached when they are between 25 and 30 years old. Currently, the youngest ('declared') Vintages falling into that category are the 1997 and the 2000. If one brings Single Quinta Vintage Ports into this equation then younger wines, such as the 2004, 2006 and 2008 are worthy candidates (Single Quinta Vintages are normally ready to drink sooner than generally declared — 'classic' — Vintage Ports). Enjoy the 1997s for their supreme elegance, floral aromas and seductive, silky palate. The 2000s were born in a year of very low yields so here you will have beautiful black fruit flavours, with hints of liquorice and kirsch — full and generous, albeit well-rounded ripe fruit offering layers of complexity.

2011 VS 2016?

The 2011 was hailed as the finest Vintage Port declaration of the 21st century and deservedly so as the wines are exceptional. Wine critics around the world poured praise on the wines and it's no surprise that they sold out swiftly. A bigger gap than usual then followed until the next general declaration — the 2016, another outstanding Vintage, which is arguably on a par with the 2011. Both years shared the tell-tale climatic pattern which normally signals a Vintage year: wet winters and hot, dry summers — winter rainfall sustaining the vines during the summer. Both 2011 and 2016 are impressive wines with incredible staying power. Wait until they're 20 years old before drinking them or enjoy them just past their first decade in bottle (if you must!).

Taylor's 1985: drink it or keep it?

1985 produced rich, concentrated, and aromatic Ports with great ageing potential. It was a generally 'declared' Vintage year - what is commonly referred to as a Classic Vintage. Most 1985 Vintage Ports are now peaking, but blockbusters such as the Taylor's (and the Dow's, Graham's and Fonseca) will continue to develop for up to another decade or so. Those 33 years in the bottle (following two in wood) have softened the tannins and given a refinement and complexity that only time can bestow. You will be equally rewarded if you open your bottle now or in the next few years.

Do you think 2020 will be a Vintage year?

What we know for sure is that the 2020 harvest has been one of the most challenging that we can remember. Although there was adequate rainfall in winter and spring, the summer was exceptionally dry and at times very hot indeed, and this resulted in greatly diminished yields. While there is lot less wine, the grapes coming into the wineries, particularly Touriga Nacional, have been of very high quality with wonderful colour, concentration and aromas. It is, nevertheless, premature to say that 2020 will be a Vintage year. School of Port is as curious as you are! Watch this space!

A good Vintage year that is now at its best...?

In terms of Vintage Ports that are drinking beautifully now, as advised by the School of Port team on previous occasions, you can’t go wrong with the 1980s trio: the 1980, ‘83 or ‘85. They are all wonderfully mature wines that have reached the pinnacle of their development. In terms of complexity of flavours, incredible aromas, refinement, silky texture and exquisite balance, the 1980 is highly recommended. Equally good, but noticeably more youthful in profile is the 1994, an outstanding Vintage, drinking beautifully now but with two to three decades of ageing potential ahead of it. Early 21st century (2001, 2004, 2005) single quinta Vintage Ports are also drinking very well now.

I have a few bottles of Quinta do Vesuvio 2000. It felt off. Aren't Vintages meant to last?

Vintage ports are indeed wines with remarkable ageing potential and many enter their prime drinking window from their 20th year, which is the case of your Vesuvio 2000. The wine should now be starting its ideal drinking period. There are some possible explanations of why your wine feels 'off': a tainted cork; bottle not stored lying down (meaning the cork isn't kept moist and can dry up); bottle subject to temperature fluctuations, etc. Wines destined for ageing need to be stored in a relatively dark and cool place (with a reasonably constant temperature) and adequate levels of humidity (not too damp, not too dry). Can you describe what you mean by 'off' and whether this extends to both the smell and the taste?

What is your top vintage year in the 90's? Why?

Looking to the 90's; 1991, 1994 and 1997 are commonly considered the best Vintage years of the decade. 1991 was the first declared Vintage for six years, the longest gap between declarations for decades. It's an excellent, richly coloured and aromatic wine. On the other hand, 1994 produced classic, monumental wines with fabulous rich fruit character and fantastic structure. The last generally declared Vintage Port of the 20th century - 1997 - produced full-bodied and harmonious wines. Although choosing a 'top Vintage year' is always difficult and a matter of personal preference, we would say that 1994 - for its structure, ageing potential and longevity - is probably the unforgettable one of the decade.

How do you know if a wine will make a great vintage? What characteristics do you look for?

The first signs are often in the vineyard, even before the grapes have been picked. The final ripening stage before the harvest is critical and we are looking for balance between sugar levels and acidity in the berries, as well as good phenolic development (colour, tannins, aromas). During the fermentations, deep colour, concentration and fragrant aromas are very positive signs of a great wine in the making. Once the wine is made, the telltale signs of a potentially great vintage are inky black colour, concentration balanced by freshness (the acidity is a hallmark of longevity) and ironclad structure (abundant, polished tannins).

When is the right opportunity to open a bottle of 1970 vintage port?

As mentioned on previous occasions, most Vintage Ports enter their prime drinking window from their 20th year, many eventually reaching their peak decades later. This means, given the specific progression of different Vintages, that the 1970 is now drinking perfectly. It is one of the finest Vintage Ports of the second half of the twentieth century. Some 1970s may be tiring slightly, but the best will be drinking beautifully. You may save it for a special occasion or make the occasion special yourself. As long as you feel it's the right moment, any moment can be perfect to enjoy such an incredible wine. Bear in mind this port has now peaked, so don't wait too much longer. Don't forget to decant your Vintage Port, ideally at least an hour before serving it. Share it with family or friends and make sure you finish the bottle within 2 - 3 days! That shouldn't pose a problem — right?!

What is the best book you recommend to learn about port?

The best introduction to port (and the Douro region), and almost certainly the most widely available is: - PORT AND THE DOURO by Richard Mayson. Other worthy reads on your way to becoming #schoolofportgeeks, are: - 'Rich, Rare and Red', by Ben Howkins - 'The Port Companion', by Godfrey Spence. For Portuguese readers: - História do Douro e do Vinho do Porto  (Gaspar Martins Pereira) - Ilha de Xisto: Guia do Douro e do Vinho do Porto (Manuel Carvalho) - DOURO, Rio, Gente e Vinhp (António Barreto)

School of Port is an educational initiative from Symington Family Estates, premium port producers in the Douro for five generations since 1882.

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