Forget Red Bordeaux: Grab Sensational 2011 Vintage Ports

Collectors whining about Bordeaux prices have an excellent alternative this year: the 2011 vintage ports.

I’m a cynic when it comes to wine hype, but these rich, sweet, fortified reds are so sensational they justify it.

Last month, beaming port producers were showing off barrel samples at VinExpo in Bordeaux, where I tasted two dozen examples of this classic wine from northern Portugal’s Douro Valley.

Futures of the 2011s are now on sale at shops; the bottled wines arrive this fall. My advice? Buy.

The best 2011s show such luscious purity of fruit and silky textures they seem drinkable now, though the point of vintage port is that it improves for decades.

A vintage is “declared” about three times a decade when producers decide the wines are outstanding and have long-term aging potential. The most recent was 2007. The Confraria do Vinho do Porto made the official 2011 proclamation late last month.

If the 2007s are ripe and show-offy, the 2011s are classical, with a balance and minerality that will last 50 years.

At Quinta do Noval, managing director Christian Seely knew he had something special right after the foot treading of the grapes in the large traditional square stone containers called lagares. He considers human feet essential in making great vintage port.

Purple Feet

Walking back and forth thigh-deep in grapes and juice is exhausting -- I’ve done it -- but it paid off for Noval ports.

Powerful Quinta do Noval ($100) is concentrated and delicious, though not as fabulous as floral-scented, smooth and sexy Quinta do Noval Nacional ($650). This rare wine from a tiny 2.5-hectare (6.2-acre) vineyard is the best 2011 I tasted, though hardly a bargain.

At the Fladgate Partnership stand, chief executive officer Adrian Bridge grabbed bottles and glasses, explaining the weather’s contribution to quality as he filled my glass. The Partnership owns port houses Taylor’s, Fonseca, and Croft.

The roller-coaster year included heat waves, several months with no rain, sunburned grapes, late summer thunderstorms and, finally, a sunny warm harvest. Water reserves created by the rainy winter were key to the year’s success.

Limited Production

The vintage ports -- all foot trodden -- were stunning. I gave top marks to the subtle, incredibly complex Taylor’s Vargellas Vinha Velha ($225, 310 cases), a cuvee made from plots of 80 to 120-year-old vines. It tastes of cassis, blackberries and licorice and the finish reminds me of chocolate-covered figs.

The better values are lavender-and violet-scented Taylor’s ($90-$100), dense and structured yet filled with energy. Equally fine, in an opulent, seductively fruity, chocolate-y style Fonseca ($90). Exotic, velvety-textured Croft ($70) is only a slight step down.

After a quick lunch break, I head to Symington Family Estates, which has seven port brands and accounts for a third of the premium port market. The round wooden tables at their large stand are packed with buyers.

Tobacco Aroma

Dominic Symington walks me through a lineup of eight ports All are excellent, each with a distinct personality, but my favorites are the generous cocoa-and-black cherries Graham’s ($90), with spice and tobacco aromas, and the floral and cassis scented Dow’s ($80), with layered flavors of chocolate, fruit and crushed nuts.

The Symingtons use both foot treading and robotic machines whose movements replicate the squishing action of feet. I’m not sure how much difference that makes. What may have mattered more for the 2011 quality was rigorous selection. For Graham’s, winemaker Charles Symington used only nine percent of the vineyards’ grapes.

Among the many fine ports I tasted from other producers, Niepoort ($85) stands out for its earthy iron tang and long finish.

One current trend is the growing number of special cuvees made in tiny quantities that seem designed to be the ultimate collectibles. While delicious, they’re not worth double the price of a brand’s regular bottling.

Organic Port

Niepoort introduced Bioma Vinha Velha, a single-vineyard port from 80-year-old organic vines in 2008, while the Symingtons’ brilliant, intense Capela da Quinta do Vesuvio debuted in 2007; there are only 200 cases of 2011 ($130).

Its distinctive taste comes partly from spicy grape sousao. In 2011 they brought out the silky, mineral Graham’s The Stone Terraces ($200, 250 cases), made from vines growing in 18th century terraced vineyards.

Can the stellar 2011s make vintage port fashionable again?

Fladgate’s Bridge is bullish. “The 2007s launched right after the stock market hit its lowest point,” he says. “The 2011s are coming out in a different market. People with money are spending it.”

Dominic Symington, is betting on the Russians. “They’ve gone crazy for vintage port in the last five years,” he says. “The middle class has disposable income, so it’s not just one or two oligarchs with a sweet tooth.”

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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