For centuries, port wine has been regarded as one of the most civilized and sociable of wines, not to mention one of the wine world’s oldest and most interesting pleasures. Ranking high among connoisseurs and with over 250 years of history, one should expect these wines to be beguiling, making any occasion feel special.
Few dessert wines combine natural sweetness, vibrant acidity, and so much versatility. If you’re a dessert wine fan, there’s almost certainly a type of port out there for your tastes.
By far the most expensive and coveted port is vintage, because it is made only from grapes grown in a particularly excellent year (a year is only declared a vintage through consensus from all port houses). Not every year is declared worthy of a vintage port, as vintage years are rare and it’s generally thought that a vintage port needs to age anywhere from 10 to 40 years in the bottle before it is ready for drinking. However, this makes it a great gift for a collector.
Other ports are blends of many different vintages, and at certain times, port houses will produce rare bottlings of these aged ports that have been left behind in barrel for 20, 40 and even 50 years.
Through extensive research, and some tastings of my own, I’ve outlined below some of port wine’s most consistent, collector-worthy bottlings and their producers, in no particular order. Consider these selections as “blue chip” bottles – a sure bet if you’re a collector, but also bound to be excellent should you decide to forgo the long-term cellaring in order to experience now.
Graham’s Vintage Port
Graham’s has a reputation as a producer of outstanding vintage port for well over a century. These wines are renowned for their remarkable richness, concentration and firm tannic structure: a combination which yields impressive longevity. Graham’s vintage ports consistently attain the highest ratings in tastings and invariably attract very high bids at fine wine auctions. Upon visiting the Douro Valley in Portugal in 2018, I was afforded the opportunity to sample the 2016 vintage port and couldn’t resist the opportunity to bring a bottle back home with me.
Croft Vintage Port
One of the original founding port houses, Croft traces its origins to 1588 when the company was established in England. The reputation of Croft as a vintage port producer derives to a large extent from its ownership of Quinta da Roêda, one of the finest estates in the Douro Valley, and from such legendary wines as the Croft 1945, recognized as one of the finest of that landmark year. The character of Croft vintage ports is one of the most individual of all. Scented, exotic and crammed with luscious opulent fruit flavour, they develop great richness and complexity with age.
Taylor Fladgate 40 Year-old Tawny Port
This is a very rare old tawny blend, produced in limited quantities from selected red ports produced in the eastern areas of the Douro Valley. Matured in seasoned oak casks, the 40 years of ageing in wood have concentrated this wine almost to an essence, producing intense and complex nutty and spicy aromas and a dense and concentrated palate full of rich mellow flavour. NOTE: It is a port that I once enjoyed while at a dinner in New York City, and with immediate thought, considered it to be the greatest, most enjoyable wine I had ever had.
Dow’s Vintage Port
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Dow’s vintage ports have been landmark wines in virtually every great year, consistently setting the standards amongst all port houses. Vintage ports such as the remarkable Dow 1896, the 1927, 1945, 1955, 1963, 1966, 1970, 1980 and the Dow 1994 are all legends in the history of this great wine. These ports are said to still be magnificent today, even when 50 or over 100 years old. Few wines can claim this quality and this pedigree.
Cockburn’s Vintage Port
After a period in the doldrums the formal acquisition of the company by the Symington Family Estates in 2010 (who made the wines from 2006) has led to the revival of the brand. The Symington’s have worked hard to rebuild this historic brand by focusing on producing high quality port again. The recent vintages such as the 2015 and 2016 are near the top of the form.
Quinta do Noval ‘Nacional’ Vintage Port
Quinta do Noval is probably the most famous port producer in the Douro. It occupies a particularly prominent site, stacked up over the Pinhão valley, and its immaculate painted terraces very visible from a number of other estates. The Quinta do Noval Nacional is a legendary port made from a six acre parcel of ungrafted vines. When declared, only 200-300 cases of Nacional are made, and instantly become the most sought after port in the world. Many vintages of Nacional are considered as the finest ports, and some of the finest wines, ever made. This drive for excellence was reinforced by a program of huge investment and improvements started back in 1994, which is now evident by the quality of it ports throughout its range.
Sandeman Very Old Tawny ‘Cask 33’
This 50 year old blend of aged Tawny, laid down in the early 1960s and including wines of up to 70 years of age, was meticulously crafted by head winemaker Luís Sottomayor with the expertise handed down by the five generations of master blenders since the 1850’s. The art of creating such a wine is in the selection of perfectly matured Tawnies of distinct ages, from the vibrant 30 and 40 year-olds to the rich and complex 60 and 70 year-olds to create a blend. Packed in elegant bottles that have initials of George Sandeman engraved on the bottom, just 685 bottles were released in 2015.
Warre’s Vintage Port
Warre’s vintage wines combine elegance, length and balance whilst still retaining the underlying rich opulence of great vintage port, sometimes peerless in their expression of poise and elegance. Made up of the finest parcels from Warre’s three Douro vineyards, Cavadinha, Retiro and Telhada, and the privately (family) owned Alvito and Netas properties. The combination of old field blend vines and very low yields gives the Warre’s vintage ports extraordinary complexity and subtlety, alongside concentration and power.