2000 Vintage Ports

I approached the 2000 vintage ports with some skepticism, figuring that the millennium vintage would be widely declared even if it was a good rather than outstanding year for Portugal's Douro region. After all, port is one of the world's great long-aging collectible wines, and winos everywhere could be expected to snap up and sock away wines with 2000 on the label. As it turned out, my worries were unfounded. The 2000s are deeply colored, aromatic, opulent ports with compelling sweetness - stuffed with dark fruit flavors and generally kept fresh by ripe, harmonious acidity. Tannins are substantial but lush and fine, in many cases hidden by the sheer chocolatey richness of the wines. Even normally weak producers have bottled wines with concentration and palate presence. Based on my early tastings of the finished wines, the vintage appears to be stronger than the '97s and close in quality to the excellent '94s. And at the level of the second and third tier of producers, the 2000s are perhaps port's most consistently successful vintage to date, thanks to widespread improvements in vineyard work, winemaking and elevage. (Four wines not noted below all merited scores of 85 or 86 and are recommended: Barros, Martinez Gassiot, Quinta do Estanho and Quinta do Portal.)

The 2000 growing season and harvest. Warm and dry weather in February and March led to early vine growth, but wet, cool conditions from mid-April to the end of May delayed the flowering and resulted in a poor fruit set, setting the stage for a small crop. The weather then remained dryer than normal, with very few days of extreme heat, until mid-September. The period of peak ripening was warm and mostly dry, concentrating the ratio of skins to juice. The harvest was early; even in the Lower Douro and Cima Corgo, most producers started picking in mid-September. Ultimately, production levels were down a good one-third from the average of the past ten years, and more than 40% from 1999. The fruit was healthy and the musts showed very deep colors from the outset.

As much as I like the young 2000s for their lush textures and superb fruit, I can't help lamenting that the forbiddingly austere, brutally backward port vintages of a generation ago are history. It's hard to believe that in a wine world suspicious of bottles that don't yield immediate gratification, there will ever again be a widely declared vintage that is mouthrattlingly tough on release. Commercial considerations are no less a factor for the Douro's shippers than they are in Bordeaux, the Piedmont, Spain and elsewhere. Today's ports are less forbidding in their youth due to a combination of factors, chief among them widespread destemming, which reduces the incidence of hard, green tannins coming from the stalks. Better work in the vineyards also brings more even ripening, which means that vintage blends contain less underripe acidity than previously. And of course global warming is encouraging earlier ripening of the fruit.

Modern-day vintage ports probably have higher tannin indices than ever before, but the tannins are riper and smoother, and far less likely to make the young wines impossible to taste. While it's likely that the best wines from an excellent vintage like 2000 won't develop in bottle for 40 to 60 years, as the classic vintages from the '40s, '50s and '60s have done, there's no reason to believe that they won't go on for 25 or 30 years, or even longer. But very few of these wines threaten to injure your mouth if you pop a cork today. And many of the lesser wines are already approachable and would seem best suited for drinking over the next 10 to 15 years.