If Vintage Port is known for one thing, it's the stringent way in which its producers choose to declare a vintage. Port houses typically only produce Vintage Port two or three times a decade. There were more than a few raised eyebrows when back-to-back general declarations (years in which essentially all the Port houses produce a Vintage Port) were made in 2016 and 2017. Now with a handful of houses declaring in 2018, history is being made.
"This is the first time in 328 years we've done that with Taylor's," said Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Taylor Fladgate Partnership, which includes the Port houses of Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Croft and Wiese & Krohn. "And the reason for the 2018 Taylor's is the quality of the wine."
The 2018 declaration isn't a general one, however, as quality varied in Portugal’s Douro Valley. The Douro Superior, located at the eastern end of the valley and where Taylor’s vineyards are located, seems to have been the favored spot in a vintage that started late but then raced to ripening with a very warm, dry summer. The central Cima Corgo and western Baixo Corgo were less consistent. Yields were down as well, averaging about 10 percent lower than normal.
"It was a roller-coaster growing season, with a prolonged winter drought, a deluge in spring, and heat waves through the final ripening period," said Rupert Symington, managing director of Symington Family Estates, which includes the Port houses of Graham, Dow, Warre, Cockburn and Quinta do Vesuvio. "Despite the challenges, the 2018 wines are characterized by a well-defined acidity and marked freshness, reflecting the characteristics of specific parcels of vineyard within each estate. The star [grape] of the year was the late-maturing Touriga Franca, which excelled in the warm harvest."
Symington Family Estates, which owns 26 quintas covering 2,650 acres of vines in the Douro, plans to release a 2018 Vintage Port from Quinta do Vesuvio, located in the Douro Superior. In a sign of the vintage's low yields and the strict selection Port producers usually adhere to, only 965 cases will be released, just 3 percent of the estate's production.
Symington Family Estates' other properties will release 2018s as single quinta bottlings. Single quinta Ports are vinified and aged in the same manner as Vintage Ports, but rely on just a single vineyard, typically a house's best property, rather than drawing on a full blend of vineyards to make a master blend for a true Vintage Port. Graham's, for example, located in the Cima Corgo, will release a Quinta do Malvedos bottling from 2018.
For some estates, a single quinta declaration doesn't carry any sense of lower quality. "Quinta do Noval occupies a slightly unique position, because we're only ever a single quinta. So I don't distinguish between a single quinta and general declaration," said Christian Seely, Noval's managing director. The winery has declared a Port in every year since 2011. "If a vintage came along that wasn't up to vintage quality, we wouldn't do it," said Seely. "In 2018 there isn't a shadow of a doubt. We've produced 1,600 cases, which is just 7 percent of the quinta's production, but a bit more than usual for a declared Noval vintage production."
Some small independent growers are also deciding to declare in 2018, weighing the quality of the year against the fear of crowding the market with too much Vintage Port.
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"We will be producing very little declared vintage 2018 … the year was very good, but it is much harder for us to sell our young Vintage Ports," said Sophia Bergqvist, owner of Quinta de la Rosa. "For us, 2018 was a better year than 2016, but not as good as 2017. The 2018s have the freshness of the 2016s and the concentration of fruit from the 2017s. A very interesting, attractive year, and it would be a shame to pass it by."
"In '16 and '17, everybody declared rather small amounts compared to the past. And there was quite strong demand for those two vintages," said Seely. "I'm pretty confident there will be interest and the amount of wine available won't clog up the market."