Vintage Port – The 2016 Declaration


“My name is Neal Martin...and I love Vintage Port.”

There. I needed to get that out of the way. The first alcoholic beverage that I ever drank was not beer, cider or a sneaky ill-advised sip of Uncle Fred’s whisky stashed away at the back of the drinks cabinet. It was not even wine. 

It was Port.

Banish thoughts of a young N.M. sipping a 1927 Taylor’s and passing the antique crystal decanter to the left in some oak-paneled room in his salubrious country pile. Rather, it was a glass of Ruby Port mixed with lemonade at Lorna’s 18th birthday party down the Hadleigh Suite in Leigh-on-Sea, probably with “Come On Eileen” blaring in the background. You might laugh. However, that momentous glass was the conduit through which I exited a teetotal childhood into a bibulous world that welcomed alcohol. From that first sip, I nurtured a penchant for Port. Since I began attaching words to wine, Port has been close to my heart. 

Of course, one of the highlights of any year is the rare instance in which the major Port houses come together in unison around St. George’s Day to declare. Unlike Bordeaux, where you have barely recovered from the last primeur when the next one arrives, general Port declarations tend to arise approximately three times per decade, thereby avoiding fatigue. So, whilst the dazzling 2011 Vintage Ports remain fresh in my mind, the 2016s arrive at a time when I am ready for more.

The Dom Luís Bridge that spans the Douro, linking Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia where many of the Port Houses originally clustered.

When I joined Vinous I made my own declaration. I wanted to get serious about Port. So, you can understand my disappointment to find that the 2016 Vintage Port tasting in London clashed with my week in Chablis. Thankfully, the major Port houses sent samples and I was able to taste them in the peaceful surroundings of my home over a leisurely 48 hours or more. I am aware there are a few wines missing from this report, such as Sandeman and Niepoort. I will endeavor to taste those as soon as possible.

Long gone are the days when tasting young Port would buckle your teeth if you cracked one open with less than 20 years on the odometer. Similar to improved tannin management in Bordeaux, nowadays Vintage Port is far more approachable and pleasurable in its youth. Tannins are infinitely finer and the neutral spirit added during fermentation so much purer and higher in quality, sutured perfectly into the wine. 

A trip to the Douro Valley is unforgettable, especially the miles of terraces that step down hundreds of metres to the riverbanks.

Interestingly, the 2015 season was excellent and tempted some shippers to declare. Cockburn’s did exactly that. But most decided to hold back and see what the following vintage bestowed. The general consensus is that it was even better. The 2016 growing season was ideal in the Douro: that perfect combination of heat with rain that arrived precisely when needed. Two thousand sixteen was actually a little wetter than average, though given the drought conditions in recent years one can treat that as a positive. According to Taylor Fladgate, April and May saw almost three times the amount of rainfall against the ten-year average. The damp conditions in May interrupted flowering, which reduced the potential crop, but then July through to September was very warm. August witnessed two heat spikes when temperatures exceeded 40° Celsius but this was counterbalanced by much-needed rain on 25 and 26 August. In September the highest temperature ever recorded at Quinta da Bomfim returned with vengeance at 43° Celsius. With rain forecast in mid-September, a decision had to be made whether to take the risk and delay picking. Charles Symington chose to commence harvest on 19 September after indeed, the heavens opened on 12 and 13 September, so that much of the Touriga Franca was not picked until the beginning of October. It is this period of picking that forms that foundation of the 2016 Ports. Chief winemaker, David Guimaraens at Taylor Fladgate describes that conditions as “perfect” during harvest, with cool nights that enabled longer and complete extractions. Symington ended up with around 20% less production than previous declarations. Where available I have included productions within tasting notes. 

I snapped this shot many years ago when I visited during the harvest. Treading by foot is still practiced in some places; indeed, I have had a go myself. This is one of Taylor Fladgate’s quintas.

The resulting Vintage Ports are fabulous. I remember tasting the 2011s and speculating whether any vintage would equal them. The answer is: “Yes...the 2016 vintage.” I often forget the joy of tasting young Port. Any trepidation vanished with the first sample: the succulent and ebullient black fruit with veins of blueberry and cassis, those cashmere tannins and, crucially in 2016, the silver bead of acidity that lends them so much freshness and eliminates any heaviness in the mouth. 

The general quality across the board is high and, from the selection I tasted, there is not really a weak link in the pack. The focus on quality is paramount in the Douro. Given that declarations only come around once every three or four years on average, you can bet that there is no cutting corners. So, let us focus on the standouts. Firstly, the 2016 Dow’s is perhaps the finest that I have ever encountered. I don’t know why, but there is something enigmatic about Dow’s, perhaps because I have less experience with older vintages. Yet there is no doubting the scintillating quality founded upon the later-ripening Touriga Franca, which flourished after that splash of rain in September and subsequent heat that last until mid-October. My advice: stock up. Secondly is the 2016 Taylor’s. What I like here is the freshness and sharpness, the aristocratic flair that I often seek. Taylor’s is less approachable than its peers but, it will repay cellaring and mature into a magnificent Vintage Port with age. Thirdly, the 2016 Cockburn’s... Maybe like me, when you think of the name you envisage bottles lining supermarket aisles and consequently attach less cachet to the brand. Don’t. There has been a real upswing in quality since the Symington family took it under their wing in 2010. Again, the Touriga Franca really comes into its own here and elevates Cockburn’s to a much higher level than just a decade ago. 

The 2016 Quinta do Noval Naçional, pictured in my kitchen, arrived just in time for this report.

Last but certainly not least, the 2016 Quinta do Noval Naçional. It is always fascinating to juxtapose this with the regular Noval. Is there a difference between the un-grafted and grafted vines? As Christian Seely has often said, the Naçional often marches to a different beat of the drum. This year, I feel there is conspicuous difference, the Naçional more introverted, the tannins much finer and with a depth on the finish quite profound. Noval is just a blast on the nose, perhaps the Port for those with less patience, but the Naçional is the long-term bet. 

There is no doubting the quality of these nascent 2016s. I am aware that the market can be resistant since the noble tradition of finishing dinner with a wee snifter of Vintage Port has faded in recent years. Then again, in terms of quality to price ratio it beats their equivalents Bordeaux or Burgundy hands down. Why not treat yourself to a case or two? Not only is Port more pleasurable in its youth, but these fortifieds possess in-built longevity and will give three or four decades of drinking pleasure.

Before I go, readers will note a cluster additional tasting notes apropos Ports recently tasted at the resurrected Big Fortified Tasting in London, including a run through of Taylor Fladgate’s 10, 20, 30 and 40-Year Old Tawnies. Ben Campbell-Johnston did an exemplary job running this annual event that does much to promote Port and Madeira in the UK. Over the years I learned a lot from these tastings and welcome its return after Ben’s sad passing.

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