VILA NOVA DE GAIA, Portugal - One of the most hedonistic pleasures a wine enthusiast can experience is the glass of properly aged Vintage Port with a savory cheese at the end of a meal. Yet I would be willing to wager that for most of us, including serious collectors, the occasions for such indulgence are few and far between.
It's simple economics. These wines are rare and expensive, and their shelf life once opened is no more than a day or two. Even a confirmed hedonist must think twice before opening a $100 bottle of wine for a few precious sips of perfection, knowing half the bottle or more will likely go to waste - or certainly into serious decline - unless the experience is being shared with a gaggle of friends.
I pondered this as I had stopped off here (en route to the Douro Valley, where Port wine is produced) for a tasting in this bustling port city where Vintage Ports are aged prior to shipping.
What struck me as I worked through a sampling of four Port houses at the Taylor's lodge was the beauty of the so-called 'single quinta' Ports, particularly those from Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca, two of the most respected houses.
A quinta is nothing more than a farm, or estate, that grows grapes for the production of Port wine. Most top Port houses draw grapes from several quintas, and in great years 'declare' a vintage and produce a Vintage Port from a blend of all their top properties.
This doesn't happen as frequently as you might suspect. The years in which a majority of Port houses have declared vintages are truly rare. This decade there was 2003 and 2000. The previous decade the vintages of 1994 and 1997 were universally good. And so it goes. The 'Vintage' declaration is the Holy Grail in Port; therefore it is priced accordingly.
The best-kept secret in Port, however, is the vintage-dated 'single quinta.' I realize this will be very confusing to some, but vintage-dated single-quinta Ports are not considered Vintage Ports, though there are exceptions in the case of houses that have only a single quinta.
Generally speaking, a house only declares a vintage when all of its properties produce spectacular results. But what of the great quintas that perform every year? Wines are made and sold under the quinta name, but typically at half the price of a 'classic' Vintage Port.
So despite the presence of superb 2003 Vintage Ports from Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca, I was most intrigued by the lovely 1998 Quinta de Vargellas from Taylor Fladgate and the spectacular 2005 Quinta do Panascal from Fonseca. Both of these superb Ports would fetch between $40 and $60 per bottle at retail in the United States. Not cheap, but certainly more affordable than they would have been had they been included in a declared vintage.
The 1998 Quinta de Vargelas is especially attractive because it is more ready to drink at nearly ten years old. Vintage Ports require patience many wine collectors don't possess and are consumed well before their peak.
What's more, the 1998 vintage was better than advertised in the Douro Valley. The wines made that year were very good, but most houses chose not to 'declare' because they are typically reluctant to follow a declared vintage with a declared vintage, and 1997 had been declared to rave reviews.
It's an oddity of the Port world that there are very few, if any, back-to-back vintages that have been universally declared. The 'great' vintages in my lifetime have been 1955, 1963, 1966, 1974, 1985, 1994, 1997 and 2000. I'm waiting a bit before I add 2003 to that list.
But that doesn't mean you can only drink wonderful Ports from only a couple of vintages a decade. The single quintas are nearly as rewarding and a tremendous value, though they are considered 'incomplete' by some because they don't have all of the components and therefore the complexity of a declared vintage that sources grapes from multiple estates.
Some other exceptional single quintas to explore in the 'off' vintages include Quinta dos Malvedos (onwed by Graham's), Quinta do Bomfim (Dow's), Quinta dos Canais (Cockburn's) and the single-quinta producers Quinta do Vesuvio and Quinta de Roriz.
Wines made from these properties are invariably satisfying. And they are without a doubt, in my humble opinion, the best buys in Port.
Email Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org.