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Portugal, Port: The 2015 Vintage – Undeclared and Unashamed

MARK SQUIRES
“Portugal, Port: The 2015 Vintage – Undeclared and Unashamed”

Let’s start with a little pot-stirring. For some years now, I’ve been spewing contemptuous comments about the ossified and obsolete declaration system in Port. That, of course, is ultimately an article with many ins and outs for another day and moment; I promise that we won’t get too diverted here. However, in my view, the current system mostly encourages producers to shoot themselves in the foot. The controversial 2015 vintage is a good example of that. It may also be the year that causes some additional reflection.

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Smiling in Douro is easy: Winemaker David Guimaraens, at Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas

Let’s go back in time for a moment. When I heard the first reports about 2015, after harvest and in the spring of 2016, they were generally along the lines of “great vintage, many declarations expected, probable vintage year.” That, to be sure, was a very early moment. When I actually saw my first ones in bottle in New York in May 2017, the reports were very different. Rupert and Charles Symington, showing off their own 2015s of varying types, indicated relatively few declarations and a controversial vintage. Although I had already begun to hear a strong counterpoint to the first, optimistic reports (“Nah, not really a great vintage, overrated”), I was a little surprised. For one thing, there is sometimes a practical, economic side to this, as Charles noted in conversation (not necessarily relating to Symington). No one wants to admit that, but still. If you didn’t declare 2015, you had to be putting all your eggs in the 2016 basket. And if you didn’t like 2016? The last classic, general vintage was 2011, and that was beginning to seem like a long time ago.

Nonetheless, it evidently wasn’t going to be a general vintage year. There was a “P.S.” to that New York tasting, by the way. When asked if there was a non-declared vintage that, in retrospect, he very much respected and that probably should have been declared, Rupert did mention…2015. Hold that thought.

I left for Portugal not long after. As I dived into producer meetings, there were two principal reasons I heard for not declaring. First, “We like the 2016s better.” Second, “The 2015s lack concentration.” The first reason is laughable, returning to where this article began. The concept that you can’t imagine declaring two back-to-back vintages, even if they are both good, seems willfully stubborn—an indefensible product of ossified traditions. If you want to make sure people don’t make Port a part of their normal lives and buying habits, this is surely a great way to do it. If you would like to sell a lot of good wine at normal prices, it seems remarkably wrong.

Noval, by the way, has declared every vintage since 2007 except 2009 and 2010. Then, Noval declared the 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 in a row. Managing Director Christian Seely called the 2015 “stellar.” If I had to bet, the 2016 will be declared, too. Yes, I’ve heard the counterpoints and why Noval isn’t like everyone else, but hats off to the esteemed Christian Seely, fomenting revolution one vintage at a time.

I asked notable winemaker João Nicolau de Almeida, the former head of Ramos Pinto, about his thoughts on the vintage. (Ramos Pinto did declare, and the 2015 was the last under his reign.) He told me that “the vintage year is declared when the year is exceptional, with intense color, full of fruit, thick tannins with astringency…. It was impossible to drink them on the first six, seven, ten…years. With the new techniques and more knowledge, mainly in the vineyards, the winemakers are making the best…vintages softer (especially the tannins) and drinkable earlier, but also with the same potential for long life. The 2015 vintage in my opinion is the ideal year for the continuous quality improvement to present a great vintage. The 2015 wines are classic not in the old-fashioned way but in [the] modern way. I mean, they have everything for great wines: full color, fine power, fruit, mature tannins, freshness, good balance and a very long finish. Of course, they are not so aggressive as usual, but they have everything to age for a long, long time, showing a fantastic finesse and volume. This classic modern vintage…opens a new era for the greatest vintages, more understandable for the consumer…. [W]e can appreciate as a young wine, and also we can age….” The year 2015 is excellent, not only for Ports, but also for the Douro wines, he concluded. That “more understandable” part especially echoes my thoughts. I think consumers will love these fresh, lively and approachable Ports.

The second reason I heard in Portugal for not declaring 2015 is a bit—just a bit—more substantial, assuming you give any credence to the concept of the declaration system as it currently exists. (Increasingly, I do not. As noted, that’s a longer article and tirade for another day.) The concentration levels are a bit erratic at times in 2015. Some are better than others (and some pointed to Douro Superior as the best region). Some are a bit lighter styled. Many seem quite normal, though. Even when on the lighter side, they are exceptionally appealing for other reasons. Every fine Port does not have to be a massive monster, a concept João Nicolau de Almeida alluded to above.

I’ve tasted a fair number of 2015s now, and there is absolutely no reason this vintage could not be generally declared. Is it the greatest vintage? Probably not. We’ll see what they look like in a decade or so. It is certainly a worthy one, though, a year when the wines have the glorious intensity of flavor that this vintage produced. Plus, the flavor does not come from overripe grapes or jammy fruit. The acidity in this year makes the wines sing. They are remarkably fresh and impossible to dislike. (That’s true with the Tintos and Brancos as well.) The freshness lifts the fruit and defines it, carving out precise images and defining the flavors. They are pretty delicious and fun to drink. If it is not the most traditional year in all respects, it is still a very good one. The only reason not to declare it is the ossified tradition that there should only be a few declared vintages per decade. Yet, the vintage should be very popular with consumers. Does that count? It will win Port many fans. Hopefully, that counts. (But it didn’t…read on.

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Arriving in Portugal with the somewhat false impression that the vintage had imploded, I found a very different story on the ground. Two titans in the industry—the Symington Family houses and the Fladgate Partnership—declared very little collectively even though they made some pretty fine Ports. Sogrape went along with that (although winemaker Luís Sottomayor said that in 2015 they “produced some really beautiful wines, but not in enough quantity for the release of a classic vintage”), and there were also few declarations at the Sogevinus group. That’s a lot of big producers with a lot of winemaking talent, well-earned prestige and volume. That has to give you pause if you’re a little guy, or a consumer. They collectively include names like Dow’s, Graham’s, Taylor’s, Fonseca, Croft, Kopke and Sandeman, among others. There were some exceptions, of course. For instance, Sogevinus declared Cálem, and Symington Family declared Cockburn’s. (Then, there were some super Ports that weren’t classic blends, like the Symington Quinta do Vesúvio, a favorite in the vintage.)

But, the wines were actually looking pretty good as I began my tastings. There were also numerous declarations in many other fine places, including Noval, Niepoort, Ramos Pinto, Poças and a large number of small producers like Quinta do Crasto, Vallado and Wine & Soul. The wines seemed pretty fine, not noticeably off normal marks as a group. Some smaller producers like Vallado, Crasto and Wine & Soul seemed to be making wines that equaled or exceeded their best. The bigger producers listed above were in good form. Overall, they looked great.

It was still hard to see how this vintage would be generally declared, given the size and weight of the producers who did not declare much, but it suddenly seemed unusually intriguing. The ultimate decision on a general declaration of a classic vintage year comes from the Port Wine Brotherhood’s Board. If you’re not familiar with the Brotherhood, its self-description is as follows: “The Confraria do Vinho do Porto (Port Wine Brotherhood) is a not for profit association established in 1982 with the purpose of communicating, promoting and reinforcing the worldwide reputation of Port Wine…The Confraria has a general assembly (Chapter) and is managed by an elected Board (Chancelaria).” According to a July 2017 press release from the Port Brotherhood, the Board proceeds to make a general declaration in “years when a great majority of shippers and producers make and declare Vintage Port…”

When the final tally came out, it certainly made it sound like a classic vintage declaration was still possible. The final tally, said Jorge Rosas of Ramos Pinto, also the Treasurer of the Chancelaria, was that “48 companies have declared Vintage in 2015. The record was 49 (with the 2011 and 2003 vintages).” There may be some twists and turns in that, but it is a lot of declarations nonetheless.

(For the record, and to avoid any confusion, I was inducted into the Brotherhood in 2014; but as is typical with journalists and the like, mine is a status of “Honorary Confrade.” I am not an “active brother” and, obviously, am not in the Port trade. Nor, of course, am I any part of the Board [Chancelaria] that is ultimately responsible for making these decisions.)

Just as this article was being finalized, I was advised that the Board had “convened the Chapter to hear the views and opinions of the Confrades,” the active brothers, that is. Jorge Rosas told me that, to his knowledge, this had never happened before. This had, in short, become a very interesting vintage. There was a very strong split in the Port community and a fair bit of controversy.

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Fine 2015s: Winemaker Ana Rosas of Ramos Pinto; Noval

On Monday, July 24, 2017, the Port Brotherhood issued a press release declining to make 2015 a classic vintage year like 2007 or 2011. (Of course, that does not mean individual producers cannot declare for their own houses. Those remain individual decisions.) The press release stated:

“Confraria do Vinho do Porto celebrates the Vintage Ports of 2015 as an excellent example of the highest quality. After listening to the views and opinions of the Chapter, the Chancelaria of the Confraria do Vinho do Porto has opted not to make a 2015 Confraria Vintage Port, a decision not taken lightly considering the high-quality examples of Vintages and Single Quinta Vintages which have been made and released. While the approval of a Port as Vintage is given by the independent tasting panel of the IVDP – Port Wine Institute, the declaration of a Vintage Port is the sole responsibility of the producer. In years when a great majority of shippers and producers make and declare Vintage Port, it has become custom for the Confraria do Vinho do Porto to make the Solemn Declaration the Confraria Vintage Port, indicating that the year is recognized for its exceptional quality and the Vintage Port is Classic. The Confraria is sensitive to the fact that the 2015 Vintage produced many great Vintage Ports which illustrate the unique style and quality of the vineyards on which the grapes were grown, an indication of the changing paradigm of the tradition of Vintage Port, and will be reviewing its Usanças (Rules) for the future.”

That comment on “an indication of the changing paradigm of the tradition of Vintage Port, and will be reviewing its Usanças (Rules) for the future” could be interesting going forward, and there might actually be some light at the end of this tunnel. The emphasis on terroir in the whole quote seemed to be a reference to giving more weight to single quinta and single block Ports. Certainly, for instance, the Symington output looks different if you include Stone Terraces and Vesúvio to go with Cockburn’s, instead of just focusing on the lack of a declaration for Dow’s and Graham’s. However, Chancellor George Sandeman clarified that passage at my request and said that the “reference is to a wider change than just Single Quinta Vintage Port; it is more about the fact that the ‘old rule’ of ‘three vintages a decade’ has evolved, and people are able to produce Vintage Port quality wines in many years of the decade. Of course, included in this is the ability to produce higher quality single vineyard expressions, and even single block expressions.”

So, happily, there is some recognition of the changing world, with perhaps fewer controversies like 2015 in the future.

In the meanwhile, granting that not everyone has the same terroir, or the same results, I side with the declarers on 2015. On the whole, this is a vintage I recommend. As noted, I won’t guarantee that this is the greatest ever vintage, but it does many things very well. It still has upside potential in the cellar; there are a lot of super Ports, and there is no shortage of producers who declared. To recap: The wines are elegant and fresh. The acidity lifts the delicious fruit. The wines have intensity of flavor, but never in a sloppy fashion. Their freshness and elegance make them really, really hard to dislike. They are really, really easy to love, though. Did I mention that they are pretty delicious? Most will be approachable relatively early, which is not to say they won’t age. The combination of freshness and tannins will preserve them. People often underestimate the aging ability of lighter, fresher wines.

Finally, per my normal practice, this report contains many wines other than 2015s. There are some nice Colheitas, other vintage years and fine LBVs. Contrary to my normal practice, there are more tank samples here. As I looked at the release date on a lot of these wines, including some not yet bottled when tasted, I concluded that it would be a shame to waste tasting notes on so many interesting wines and squander the opportunity I had this year to gain early access to them. If I waited until, say, the February issue to get these out (when they may have settled down after both bottling and shipment to the U.S.), some of the wines would have been largely picked over. Vintage Ports are often available in very small quantities, and many are set for release right around the date this article appears. Getting these wines in the U.S. much earlier and trying to publish in October, after international shipment and not too long after bottling, still wouldn’t be a perfect solution, even apart from the extra delay. Often, I find the wines initially show better in Porto or Douro, before the deadly combination of bottle and travel shock kicks in. Then, they really need several months to come back fully. I maintained some conservatism, which I find to be a good idea in general for young Ports. I also do have a protocol: the wines must be: A) the final blend, B) out of barrel and in tank, and C) awaiting bottling set for the near future—anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

Take this as a preview. I do believe it is a useful one, if not exactly the last word. For one thing, there are many more wines to be reviewed and additional shoes to drop, if you’re not yet tired of that phrase. I’ll be interested to see how this vintage does in the marketplace. I suspect it’s going to be a big success if, of course, producers have not shot themselves and the vintage in the foot.