2003 Vintage Ports

It is clear from my early tastings that 2003 will take its place among the outstanding port vintages of recent decades, along with such stellar years as 2000, 1997, 1994, 1977, 1970, 1966 and 1963. Just where 2003 will ultimately rank is a question that will require years to answer—particularly as these wines are enrobed in so much baby fat that it can be difficult to assess their underlying backbone.

The growing season of 2003 was highly favorable for producing outstanding vintage wines. A very wet autumn and early winter allowed the vineyards to begin with good reserves of water. The flowering took place under excellent conditions during the second half of May. The summer of 2003 in the Douro Valley, as elsewhere in Europe, was unseasonably hot, but less extreme in the context of this normally hot section of inland northern Portugal than it was across much of France. Still, until early August, the vines did not suffer any undue stress, owing to some well-timed rains in April, June and July. The worst of the heat occurred during the first half of August, and in many areas the vines shut down as afternoon temperatures were between 105o and 110o through much of this period, with nighttime readings barely descending to 85o.

Moderating temperatures toward the end of the month and some refreshing rainfall on August 27 and 28 resuscitated the vines, and grape sugars began to climb again. The harvest began in early September, but most of the top properties started picking on about September 15—still very early by traditional standards. There was no rain during the harvest, which finished in early October. Lower-than-average yields, high skin-to-juice ratios and strict selection ultimately resulted in production down as much as 30% from the level of 2000.

The young 2003s have in common very deep ruby colors, impressively dense black fruit flavors, and excellent breadth and structure. I tasted several jammy or even roasted wines, but fewer than I expected to find; it is remarkable how many 2003 ports belie the heat of the vintage. Some of the lesser examples actually showed some underripe green notes, most likely from fruit harvested too early. Some early reports described the 2003s as ferociously tannic, but in my tastings the tannins in the better examples were thoroughly ripe and did not get in the way of tasting the wines. In fact, two port producers told me that their 2003s are not enormously tannic. But clearly the wines possess the breadth, concentration and structure to age very well. In style and density they seem quite classic and built to age. While I am not yet convinced that the 2003s are better than the 2000s at the level of the top wines, very few of the wines I tasted were disappointing. Virtually every important shipper, by the way, declared the 2003 vintage.

The richness of these wines makes a number of them almost too easy to taste today, but the 2003s have the size and material to be long-lived. I would expect the best wines to gain in shape and complexity with up to a full 20 to 25 years of bottle aging, while the relatively early-maturing examples should still enjoy at least 10 to 15 years of development in bottle. While the ferociously tannic ports of a generation or two ago may no longer be made, the 2003 vintage does not lack for tannic structure.

One final note: All the wines featured below were tasted in their finished form—in bottles carrying the Garantia Vinho do Porto on the white seal over the neck. At the time I did my tastings in December, all previous reports on these wines in print publications—according to the Portuguese Trade Commission—were based partly or entirely on cask samples.