2011 Vintage Ports

The 2011 vintage ports, the first widely declared port vintage since 2007, arrived in the market with great fanfare.  Are they as good as advertised?  Two words:  Oh yes.  The better wines have it all:  concentration, finesse, aromatic purity and complexity, flavor intensity, vibrancy and grip.  Most of the wines I tasted avoid obvious signs of overripe fruit and spirity unabsorbed alcohol.  Best of all, they possess substantial ripe tannins and the power and balance to support graceful evolution in bottle.  For those looking to commemorate the birth of a child or some other momentous event in 2011, this set of wines is a no-brainer.  And, in the modern style, they won't hurt your teeth in the early going.

By most accounts, the 2011 growing season was as close to ideal as the weather gets in the Douro Valley.  Heavy rains that fell during late fall and early winter provided enough water reserves in the soil to get the vines through a long, dry summer, which is exactly how it turned out, as January through much of August (especially from early May onward) brought near-drought conditions, with precipitation down close to 40% from the average.

But with the exception of a short heat spike in late June, the dry summer did not see extreme temperatures, and a clement August allowed for strong and steady build-up of grape sugars and good retention of acidity in the grapes.  Due to the very dry conditions, phenolic maturity trailed sugar maturity by the second half of August and many growers were concerned about the ripeness and quality of the tannins.  But two substantial rain storms, on August 21 and September 1, were perfectly timed to get the vines in sync.  Most growers then waited a week or more to harvest, bringing in their crops mostly by the end of September, taking advantage of dry days and cool nights.

Yields were lower than average owing to the extended drought during the spring and summer.  Interestingly, the Symington Group (Graham, Dow, Warre et al.) bottled significantly less wine in 2011 than they did in 2007, while the Fladgate Partnership group (Taylor, Fonseca, Croft) [ reported more typical production.  Thanks to the consistent weather conditions, shippers had greater than normal flexibility in making their flagship blends.  Most of their quintas (estates) ripened their fruit successfully, and in some instances they were able to make more complex wines by using grape varieties that rarely ripen ideally, either to add acid backbone to their wines or to fill in their middle palates.  A number of shippers made limited quantities of high-end bottlings, in many cases from their top quintas.  In the end, virtually everyone declared the 2011 vintage.

Christian Seely describes the 2011 vintage as "probably the best I have known in my 20 years at Quinta do Noval."  He's convinced that the best 2011s have decades of development ahead of them, owing to "their balance, harmony, intense fruit and great tannic structure."  He went on:  "It's true that they are more attractive now than vintage ports used to be, but I have never accepted the idea that a wine has to be hard to like in its youth in order to be destined for future greatness--or the contrary idea that if a wine is seductive while young it must necessarily lack staying power.  I think these wines have it all."

Strong demand for these wines has given the port region a shot in the arm, even though production of vintage port remains a tiny percentage of the area's overall production.  Those who want to have the 2011s in their cellar should snap them up now before the wines become harder to find and prices move up further.  These are some of the wine world's most reliable agers, and they are now underpriced compared to most other collectible red wines (especially when you venture beyond a handful of scarce and pricier single-quinta wines) in an outstanding vintage like 2011.