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
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)
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.
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