Port Basics


Enjoying Port

Declaring a Vintage

How or why a port is made or declared to be “Vintage” seems to confuse those new to the wine. There are several pieces to what makes a port a Vintage Port:

  • Very simply, a producer decides to declare a Vintage – they feel the wines which were produced in a given harvest year possess the characteristics of a Vintage Port.
  • The wine is produced, aged and bottled according to the regulations which define Vintage Port.
  • The IVDP, the regulating body for the Port trade, assesses a sample of the wine, ratifies the decision, and approves the bottling and sale of the wine as Vintage Port.
  • The Vintage Declaration is formally announced.

The Weather

Avid fans of Vintage Port follow closely the weather in the Douro, and are always keen to know, what weather patterns will promise a Vintage declaration?

Honestly, there are no guarantees. As you read through the annual viticultural notes from our Knowledge Base, you will see that some extraordinary Vintage Ports have been made despite adverse weather, as often as they have been made because of ostensibly “perfect” weather.

Key factors to help the crop develop well in any given year would include:

Adequate water supply for the vines – this is usually from good reserves in the ground after a typically wet winter, or it may come from good luck with periodic rains over the summer after a dryer than usual winter.
Summers in the Douro are typically hot with many days upwards of 30° C and it is not uncommon to have temperatures over 40°, particularly in the Douro Superior. Summers are also usually very dry and we often have no significant rain from May till September. Whilst our grape varieties thrive in these hot dry conditions, too long a stretch of too-hot weather can actually cause the vines to shut down, and slow the maturation of the grapes, which will only resume when temperatures drop again. So a hot sunny summer is good, but only up to a point.
Many Vintage years have benefited from a bit of rain in late August or early September, in the last few weeks before the grapes are ready to harvest. This final dose of rain causes the grapes to swell slightly, the skins to soften and the sugar levels to rise. Nearly all the colour and many of the flavours of Port come from the skins of the grapes, so extraction is easier with slightly softened skins.
Warm but not too hot, and dry conditions during harvest – good for the grapes and the winemaking, and good for the harvest team!

The Wine

The decision to declare a Vintage or not lies with each and every port producer or shipper individually, every year – this is not a joint or trade-wide or regulatory-imposed decision. At Symington Family Estates, we declare a vintage only when we feel we have an extraordinary wine for a given brand, and we may choose to declare for some brands and not others. Historically, most shippers have declared a vintage three or rarely four times a decade, not because of any regulation, but because, quite simply, the conditions for creating wine of classic Vintage quality just doesn’t happen every year (see The Weather above!).

In the 15 months following a harvest, we continuously assess all the wines made from that year’s production. We have to think not just about single lots of wine, but possible blends of lots – which, if any, combination of some number of wines, in some ratio, out of the dozens of lots sourced from the quintas which support a brand, will create the extraordinary product that can be bottled, aged and enjoyed as Vintage Port.

Of course we are looking for marvellous flavours, but we also need to think about how those flavours will age and develop. Equally important are characteristics of structure: if the acidity and tannic structure are not very firm when young, then the wine simply won’t have the potential to age for decades, which is a hallmark of Vintage Port. Only when all of these factors are in balance, and we feel the wine is one which will reward the drinker for years to come over the full trajectory of the wine’s life from release to 50 years or more later, will we declare that wine a classic Vintage Port. Declaring a Vintage is a serious decision with this standard to uphold.

How do we know? That is purely down to the magic, the art, the experience, the gut instinct – whatever word you want to use – of the head wine maker, currently Charles Symington. Vintage quality is not something you can identify and certify by chemical analysis or under a microscope.

Declaration How-to

Once we have decided to declare a Vintage, the timeline for the declaration starts in the second January after harvest and typically runs as follows:

January we submit the sample to the IVDP, which they approve for sale as Vintage Port
In late April or early May the Vintage is publicly declared with cask samples and a launch, and we may begin to sell the wine En Primeur
By end of June we complete the bottling – the IVDP allows bottling up until end July of the third year after harvest, but we choose to bottle before the heat sets in for the second summer after harvest
By regulation, we can only release bottles for sale after the 1st May.

Brand versus Quinta Vintage

So, what happens if we feel the wines from a given year do not have the necessary qualities for a classic declared Vintage Port for that brand? One option is to bottle a Quinta Vintage, blended from wines solely from the flagship quinta whose grapes are always at the heart of the brand’s Vintage wines: Graham’s has Quinta dos Malvedos, Warre’s has Quinta da Cavadinha, and Dow’s actually has two possible Quinta wines, Quinta do Bomfim or Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira.

When you taste the Quinta vintage, you will recognise the character of the trademark wine, but if you taste it side by side with the nearest Vintage of the brand, you will realise, wonderful as is the Quinta port, it doesn’t have quite the same structure. Quinta wines are wonderful and enjoyable, but rarely have the life expectancy of a Vintage which is blended from several quintas.

When we do bottle a Quinta Vintage Port, we do not usually release it to the market straight away. The wine is bottled the second spring after harvest, but we hold the bottles in storage in Gaia until we feel they are ready for drinking, typically around 8 to 10 years of age. As an example, the 1999 Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Port was bottled in 2001, but not released until 2010, whereas Graham’s Vintage 2000 was released in mid 2002.

Occasionally, if the Quinta ports are truly extraordinary, we will release them En Primeur.  Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira is usually sold En Primeur, and the Smith Woodhouse Quinta da Madalena 1995 was also released En Primeur as an exceptional wine.

There is one other variation on the Quinta port concept:  Quinta do Vesuvio is a quinta with such extraordinary terroir that they produce Vintage ports most years, and produce no other style of port, only the Vintage.  In these instances, the wine is routinely offered En Primeur the second spring after harvest.  To learn more about Quinta ports, click the link below to the next article.