As a fan of Vintage Port—that rare three percent of Douro’s vast production designed for today’s lucky one percent who can afford to drink it at 40 or 50 years of age—I have long been dismissive of Late Bottled Vintage. The bits that are left behind after selecting a vintage lot are often a plain or dowdy sibling, its tannins tamed through aging in oak vats for four years, while the chic and sophisticated Vintage was bottled two years earlier, built to age for decades.
Last week, Joel Mallin, a collector of ancient Port and modern art in Westchester County, New York, broke out nine Vintage bottles from his cellar, including a 1924 Graham’s, a 1927 Taylor’s and a 1963 Noval Nacional. Whether at a half century or close to a full 100 years of age, these wines were not only delicious, they sustained their personalities and the individual quirks of their vineyards. Graham’s would have included wines from Malvedos, its fruit the heart of the brand even today. Vargellas plays a similar role for Taylor, the quinta farther upriver, where the combination of arid heat and northern exposures produces structured wines with more energy in their schist tannins than most. And Nacional, that quirky, sousal-heavy mixed 1920s planting of 6,000 vines designed to outsmart phylloxera without resorting to foreign (American) rootstock: It’s not just so delicious because it’s so rare. It’s delicious because it is so central to the region, a precise sweet spot, or, as António Agrellos, who tends that spot, once described the wine to me, “a window into the Douro’s past.”
Anyone who’s a fan of Port knows the quality of the 2011 vintage—producing wines that will likely live as long and as well as the 1927s and 1963s. It had been a particularly benevolent year: lots of winter rain, followed by a spring when oidium and mildew reduced yields, as did hail in June. There was not a drop of summer rain until a brief storm came at the end of August, refreshing the vines as they set out to ripen their fruit through September’s clear weather. On release, the 2011 Vintage wines shook me up more than any young Vintage has (see W&S December 2013). But Vintage wines rarely share much with the more commercial selections that typically go into LBV Port. So it surprised me when we held a blind tasting of 2011 LBVs, and I found them as exciting as many young Vintage Ports.
Aside from the benevolent weather, many of the same factors that aligned for the 2011 Vintage wines account for the extraordinary quality and expression of the 2011 LBVs. One primary factor is viticulture. Leading shippers began to dramatically increase their holdings of key vineyards in the 1970s and ’80s. At the time, with Portugal’s entry into the European Union, a lot of money became available for new plantings. In many ways, the learning curve for handling new plantings—and for protecting the best of the old—has been as steep as the Douro canyon itself. As David Guimaraens, winemaker and partner at the Fladgate Partnership, likes to point out, the overall quality of Douro grapes increased, but the top end began to erode. The wines had become more generically fruity, which is how a lot of LBVs have tasted for years.
The best of the 2011 LBVs are not generic, however. Like several of the leading producers I asked about this change, Charles Symington, winemaker at what has become the Douro’s largest grower, Symington Family Estates, considers 2011 a landmark, when a number of important factors aligned. For the Symingtons, who own Graham’s, Dow’s, Cockburn’s, Warre’s and Smith-Woodhouse, 2011 marked the first time they were able to source all the fruit for both their Vintage and LBV wines from their own vineyards. (They now own 2,500 acres of Douro vineyards, as compared to about 1,000 in the 1990s.) So in 2011, Charles Symington selected his Vintage lots from 5,000 pipes (equal to about 2.7 million liters) of estate-grown fruit, with a second selection going to LBVs.
“The characteristics of the wines might be in tune with Vintage Ports because they come from similar locations,” Symington suggests. The family dedicates specific quintas within their holdings to individual brands, so, in 2011, both Dow’s Vintage and LBV would come predominantly from Bomfim in Pinhão and Senhora de Ribeira in the Douro Superior. And while Symington makes the LBV for immediate drinking, fermenting it cool to accentuate the aromas, the 2011 offers its own distinctive take on Dow’s compact tannins, deepening the flavors of the fruit. And, while you might pay $200 or more in the current market for a bottle of 2011 Dow’s, you can buy the LBV for $20.
Warre’s 2011 LBV, on the other hand, is made more in the style of a Vintage: Symington coferments old-vine mixed plantings at Cavadinha for a portion of the blend, bottling it unfiltered and cellaring it in bottle for four years before release. Like a Vintage, it’s finished with a driven cork instead of a stopper cork. When you are buying LBV Ports, the closure is an important clue to the style of wine inside: The wines with stopper corks have typically been cold stabilized and filtered; they will hold their freshness in the fridge for a week to ten days (they are, in fact, designed for restaurants, where they can be opened and served for a week without concern about their losing freshness). LBVs with driven corks tend to have been bottled without fining or filtration and behave more like traditional Vintage Ports, intended for decanting and drinking the night they are opened, lasting only another day or so before oxygen begins to take its toll.
Dirk Niepoort has one of the strongest reputations for traditional LBV. He focuses on ancient mixed plantings for his small lots of Vintage Ports and then makes his LBV from what doesn’t make that cut, bottling it as an unfiltered wine with a driven cork. In 2011, he had more direct competition in this style than usual. You’ll find several exceptional LBVs with driven corks recommended in this issue, including Crasto and Bulas, both from Cima Corgo estates. Recommendations for the Niepoort LBV, as well as for the 2011 Taylor and Fonseca LBVs, will appear in our next issue.
In fact, Taylor Fladgate launched the modern style of LBV with the 1965, released in 1970. As CEO Adrian Bridge points out, “Late Bottled Vintage had existed prior to Taylor’s but it was normally Vintage Port that had been bottled ‘late’—normally in the third year. It was still a Vintage. What Taylor’s did was to age it longer, filter it and use a stopper cork so that it was easy to handle…and had shelf life.” In the last 20 years, winemaker David Guimaraens has implemented a number of changes in how he makes the wines, most significantly in his planting strategies, working to raise the complexity of his wines through planting small blocks of local varieties that once thrived in the Douro’s mixed vineyards. Some of the varieties might be too high in acid, low in color or astringent in skin tannins to make a useful wine on their own. But he values what they add when planted in the right soils, with the right exposures, and co-fermented with other complementary varieties. Since 2001, he has made all of his Vintage wine by co-fermenting varieties, whether old-vine, often mixed plantings or fruit off younger vines planted by variety in small blocks. It’s a strategy that made his 2011 Taylor such a compelling Vintage Port, and his LBVs benefit as well. You won’t find the depth, complexity or longevity of the best of the 2011 Vintage wines in a 2011 LBV. But for a $20 bill, you won’t find many wines on the market as satisfying and grand.