Vin­tage re­port: Port 2016

Richard Mayson eval­u­ates a year in which quan­ti­ties were small, but the best wines are bal­anced and look set to age for decades

Decanter - - CONTENTS -

A low-vol­ume, high-qual­ity year. Richard Mayson sorts the early-drinkers from the long-term keep­ers

‘WE hAvE bEEN spoilt for choice’. These were the words of Johnny Syming­ton at the launch of the 2016 Port vin­tage in May this year. he was re­flect­ing on the past three har­vests in the Douro val­ley, which have put the Port ship­pers in some­thing of a quandary. The 2015, 2016 and 2017 vin­tages have all been re­mark­able in their own way, and it is a func­tion of the man­ner in which vin­tage Port is ‘de­clared’ that the ship­pers are al­lowed some fore­sight and hind­sight be­fore mak­ing their fi­nal de­ci­sion.

It is worth em­pha­sis­ing that Port vin­tages do not have the reg­u­lar­ity of vin­tages in, say, bordeaux or bur­gundy, which, al­most by def­i­ni­tion, hap­pen ev­ery year. In the Douro, the Port houses only de­clare years (ie, at­tach the name of their house to a vin­tage) when they be­lieve that they have some­thing truly out­stand­ing. As a rule of thumb, these years come about roughly three or four times a decade. In the whole of the 20th cen­tury there were only 20 or so fully de­clared years. So it is quite some­thing when three years, all with vin­tage po­ten­tial, come back to back.

As dec­la­ra­tions take place in the sec­ond spring after the har­vest, this gives Port ship­pers the op­por­tu­nity to take a look at the pre­ced­ing as well as the fol­low­ing year. Even with the knowl­edge that 2016 was look­ing very good, a hand­ful of lead­ing ship­pers de­clared 2015 out­right. For Dirk Niepoort, 2015 was ‘about as good as it gets’. Ramos Pinto, much of whose crop was de­stroyed by

‘The 2016 Ports are brim­ming with colour and full of struc­ture’ Car­los Alves

hail in 2016, opted for the 2015. Cock­burn, a house with deep roots in the Douro Su­pe­rior where 2015 was out­stand­ing, de­cided to de­clare both years, as did sin­gle es­tate Quinta do No­val. But the ma­jor­ity held back from declar­ing a so-called ‘clas­sic’ vin­tage and chose to de­clare ei­ther sin­gle-quinta wines or a vin­tage un­der a sec­ond la­bel (see ‘Vin­tage Re­port: Port 2015’, De­cem­ber 2017).

‘2016 was a year when it was vi­tally im­por­tant to know your vine­yards, which va­ri­eties to pick and when’ Johnny Syming­ton (left)

Weather re­port

When it comes to mark­ing out 2016 as a clas­sic vin­tage, the weather con­di­tions dur­ing the grow­ing sea­son are key. The year be­gan with a warm, wet win­ter. At bud­burst in March ev­ery­thing looked very ad­vanced, but growth was then cur­tailed by a cold, wet spring. A poor flow­er­ing re­duced yields and ul­ti­mately made for greater con­cen­tra­tion in the wines. The sum­mer months were hot and dry, with a heat­wave in Au­gust last­ing into early Septem­ber. The hottest day of the year in Pin­hão was 6 Septem­ber, when a tem­per­a­ture of 43˚C was recorded with just 9% hu­mid­ity.

Sugar read­ings in mid- to late-Au­gust were low due to pho­to­syn­the­sis hav­ing been slowed by the heat and drought, but rain on 25 and 26 Au­gust helped to put things back on track, es­pe­cially in the more arid Douro Su­pe­rior. More wel­come rain came on 12 and 13 Septem­ber and this proved to be the sav­ing grace.

Rich pick­ings

Any­one who picked too hastily was un­likely to get the bal­ance and fresh­ness that came from har­vest­ing evenly ripened grapes. There are a few wines from 2016 that have achieved the near-im­pos­si­ble feat of be­ing both green and raisiny at the same time. Grow­ers who de­layed pick­ing to al­low the rain to soak in and the grapes to swell took a risk as the Septem­ber equinox of­ten brings more bad weather. But when pick­ing re­sumed around 22 Septem­ber the sun was shin­ing and con­tin­ued to shine into Oc­to­ber. Cru­cially the nights were cool. Rain only re­turned on 13 Oc­to­ber, by which time nearly all the grapes had been har­vested.

Ac­cord­ing to Syming­ton, whose fam­ily firm de­clared Cock­burn, Dow, Gra­ham and Warre as well as Smith Wood­house and Quinta do Ve­su­vio: ‘This was a year when it was vi­tally

im­por­tant to know your vine­yards, which va­ri­eties to pick and when.’ It was also the first Port vin­tage in his­tory when the ‘pick and mix’ from old, in­ter-planted vine­yards has largely been sup­planted by va­ri­etal pick­ing and of­ten va­ri­etal fer­men­ta­tions.

The new plant­ing that took place in the 1980s and 1990s is pay­ing huge div­i­dends and, 30 years on, many of these vine­yards are in peak pro­duc­tion. Touriga Franca and Touriga Na­cional are, in that or­der, the lead­ing grapes to the al­most to­tal ex­clu­sion of Tinta Roriz (Tem­pranillo), which is be­ing de­moted by many grow­ers. The 2016 vin­tage was also the first year when Sousão and Ali­cante Bouschet have made a small but sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion – two va­ri­eties that fall out­side the so-called ‘top cinco’ (top five grapes) but are be­ing re­vived by some of the lead­ing Port ship­pers.

‘The new plant­ing that took place in the 1980s and 1990s is pay­ing huge div­i­dends’

An ex­cep­tional year

So at the launch of these wines ear­lier this year no one was re­ally com­par­ing 2016 with pre­vi­ous years. Car­los Alves, wine­maker for Bar­ros, Burmester, Cálem and Kopke, echoes Syming­ton when he says: ‘We had to make pro­found use of the knowl­edge of our grapes, as each va­ri­ety and each plot of vine­yard de­vel­oped at a dif­fer­ent pace. The 2016s are brim­ming with colour and full of struc­ture, with a pro­file that’s more con­cen­trated, ro­bust and in­tense when com­pared to the 2015s.’

Luís Sot­tomayor, of San­de­man, Fer­reira and Of­fley, adds: ‘The de­grees of com­plex­ity, colour and struc­ture make the 2016 wines ab­so­lutely ex­cep­tional.’ David Guimaraens, wine­maker for Tay­lor, Fon­seca and Croft, sums it up when he says: ‘Bal­ance is one of the keynotes of the vin­tage. The wines are solidly struc­tured with firm, well-in­te­grated tan­nins and dis­play very fine fruit qual­ity.’

Some wines are alarm­ingly at­trac­tive al­ready, but have the poise and pres­ence to last. I will haz­ard more than a guess to say that many 2016s will be good to drink rel­a­tively early (per­haps from the mid-2020s) but the best have the bal­ance to keep for decades.

Quan­ti­ties are small – in some cases half that de­clared in 2011 – and ster­ling prices were up by about 20% to 25% on 2011 (which in­cludes a 15% de­val­u­a­tion over the in­terim).

So what of 2017? This was the ear­li­est har­vest in liv­ing mem­ory, with pick­ing all over by the last week of Septem­ber, the same date that the har­vest used to be­gin back in the 1970s. Yields are tiny but there is no doubt that some wines are ex­cep­tional: con­cen­trated, very in­di­vid­ual and with good colour. The ship­pers are al­ways coy at this stage about the prospects of a vin­tage dec­la­ra­tion, but watch this space for news of a more lim­ited dec­la­ra­tion early next year.

Above: har­vest­ing at Quinta do No­val

The at­mo­spheric San­de­man cel­lars

Richard Mayson is DWWA Chair for Port and Madeira, au­thor of Port and the Douro ( fourth edi­tion pub­lished by In­finites Ideas) and writes about Port on www. richard­mayson.com

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