1997 Vintage Ports

Many early reports on the 1997 vintage ports have described the year as outstanding. My tastings of more than 40 examples left me unconvinced. With the exception of a handful of top estates, the wines lack the structure and grip of a great, ageworthy port vintage. Many will be approachable relatively soon. They are for the most part attractive, fresh, fruit-driven wines without the austerity and spine that characterize the "collectible" vintages—i.e., years in which the top wines need a full two decades or more to reach full maturity. Some '97s show signs of incomplete or irregular ripeness, while others are pleasant enough but lack density. Based on my tastings, 1997 appears to be an average to slightly above average year. And prices are high.

The growing season. By all accounts, the 1997 growing season in Portugal's Douro region was atypical. Following a sharp cold snap in January, which featured some rare snow, February and March were unusually warm and dry. The flowering took place early under favorable conditions, although there was some coulure at the higher elevations. From the start, though, the crop level was lower than in 1994. Late spring and most of the summer were rather temperate, with some rainy spells but little of the baking heat common in the Douro. Thunderstorms and scattered hail in June caused damage in some vineyards. Mildew was widespread and required strict control. Botrytis, rare in the summer in the port region, caused significant damage in some higher-elevation vines. Many estates also reported attacks by insects, and problems with leaf roll virus, also rare for the region.

The growing season was unusually long, as the end of the maturation occurred at a time when the foliage was rapidly deteriorating and thus producing very little photosynthesis. The result was uneven ripening. Despite the early flowering, the harvest took place during the usual period, under warm, dry conditions. Even the Port Wine Institute's own description of the growing season and harvest predicted that wine quality would vary considerably. And yet virtually every major house declared the vintage.

The wines and their prices. Never before have I encountered such a gap in quality between the best producers and the rest in a widely declared vintage. It is clear from the best examples that favored vineyard sites produced raw materials of outstanding quality, but how many shippers have limited production to only their finest fruit? Middling producers may simply have gone along for the ride. And who could blame them? The highly successful '94s had largely sold out, and prices for these wines in export markets were soaring. The port region was finally beginning to capitalize on the worldwide surge in prices for collectible wines.

The declaration of a port vintage is always based to some degree on current economic conditions, and certainly the world market was primed to accept another crop of vintage ports. Port sales had reached record levels in '98, although sales of vintage port declined somewhat that year as most of the '94s had been sold in '96 and '97. Besides, it was already clear by the time the port houses needed to decide whether to declare their '97s (this process takes place during the second year after the harvest) that '98, a harvest marred by heavy rains, would not make the grade. Not surprisingly, prices for the '97s opened a good 30% to 40% higher than had the '94s three years earlier. As a result, there are now many unexciting '97 ports in the retail marketplace at record prices—shades of '97 Bordeaux and '98 California.

Many port producers describe the '97 vintage as classic, by which I believe they mean that the wines are less fleshy than the '94s. But the '94s also have more structure under their voluptuous fruit. In comparison to the '94s, relatively few '97s have the density, backbone and sheer grip for long-term aging. While the handful of top '97s are superb, and worth buying, discriminating port lovers might do better to lay in stocks of the best '92s and '91s, whose prices have not yet risen to '97 levels, or even the '85s, some of which can still be found at favorable prices.

Worthy of specific mention in '97 is the lofty quality of Quinta do Noval, now firmly in the top tier of port producers after years of inconsistent performance. This shipper was purchased in 1993 by French insurance giant AXA, which installed Englishman Christian Seely as managing director. Seely, who lives on the Noval estate, immediately cut the house's production of vintage port and has quickly elevated the quality of both its regular bottling and the estate's rare Nacional, which issues from a small plot of low-yielding, pre-phylloxera vines. In '97, these two bottlings have the concentration, length and grip that too many ports from this vintage lack.