The short answer is Yes it is! Climatic conditions were just right to bring all the elements together to make 2017 Vintage Port the first consecutive general declaration since the Nineteenth Century. 2017 is different in profile to the 2016s, but the hallmarks are richness and ripeness supporting the purity of the fruit, with structure and concentration, helping to layer the fruit on the palate. Volumes are down so initial demand will be high. David Kermode was there on the day to pick out the Ports to buy as well as marvel at a joint press conference held by the powerful triumvirate that is Adrian Bridge, Christian Seely and Charles Symington.
Never mind Dynasty, or The Colbys, ‘The Symingtons’ would make a great soap opera, says Kermode.
Vintage Port declarations are like buses. You wait ages, and then two come along back to back.
The first consecutive ‘general declaration’ since the late Nineteenth Century, following a relative famine since the acclaimed 2011 release, also meant a welcome return for the joint press conference, featuring the rival Port barons, an upmarket ‘one-stop shop’ for buyers and journalists alike.
Just as the respective houses reflect an ethereal diversity of distinctive styles, so too do their representatives on earth, which adds a fascinating, fortifying flourish to the launch event.
Sitting alongside each other, Adrian Bridge, chief executive of Fladgate Partnership, Christian Seely, managing director of Quinta do Noval and the new face at the table, Charles Symington, head winemaker for the family firm Symington Family Estates, who, for the press launch at least, was filling the big shoes left by his recently retired cousin, Paul.
Never mind Dynasty, or The Colbys, ‘The Symingtons’ would make a great soap opera. As the leading landowners in the Douro, with a history spanning five generations, the family’s brands encompass Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, Cockburn’s and Quinta do Vesuvio. At lunch, in a room of around 30 people, I counted nine with the name Symington. And I may have missed one. There are heirs, there are spares, and they are all impeccably polite. Never mind the Port, someone should bottle the Symington gene.
Oozing experience and charm, immaculate in his trademark bow tie, Christian Seely is the personification of a Vintage Port himself. As head of the historic Quinta do Noval, which he runs alongside the other jewels in AXA Millésimes’s crown – Château Pichon Baron, Suduiraut and Hungary’s Disznókõ – he also oversees his personal project, Quinta da Romaneira.
Then there’s Adrian Bridge, a former military officer, confident and crisp, with the reassuring air of a man who would find a Port in a storm. Having expanded the Taylor Fonseca group to include Croft, more recently his Fladgate Partnership has also embraced upmarket tourism, with properties including Oporto’s luxurious Yeatman.
Declaring the new vintage, all three spoke as one, insisting that, despite the rare nature of a back-to-back general declaration, the similarities end there, with the 2016 and 2017 “very different years, with entirely different expressions”.
The new vintage was defined by dry conditions throughout the growing and ripening season and an early harvest. After an early bud burst, a searing heatwave in June caused some bunches to burn. Heavy rain in early July cooled things down a bit, with lower-than-average temperatures in August. The early harvest wrecked summer holiday plans, with the 2017 finishing around the same point that the 2016 began. Old vines performed particularly well in the warm conditions, thanks to their more mature root structure.
Bridge spoke of “richness and ripeness” supporting the purity of fruit in his new releases, suggesting “spirit is like a canvas in art. Just as a picture is not about the canvas, a Vintage Port is not about the spirit.”
Announcing that “intensity, structure and concentration are the hallmarks of the 2017 vintage,” Symington predicted it would be “much sought after”, in part due to the smaller volumes produced.
“Incontestably a great year… again,” was Seely’s verdict, “with all the circumstances combining for us to be absolutely certain that it ranks alongside our historic declarations.”
The UK remains the biggest market for Vintage Port, followed by the United States, Portugal and (perhaps surprisingly) Denmark, which has seen a remarkable recent growth spurt. The modern Port business eyes value over volume, with special category releases accounting for around twenty per cent of sales and more than forty per cent of income.
As for the future, could last year’s warm summer bring an historic ‘treble’ for the Douro with yet another back-to-back declaration next year? It’s too early to say, of course, but perhaps Charles Symington was hinting, with his response: “2018 is a very good year.”
Mr Vinosaurus’s tasting Top Ten
Taylor’s 2017 Vintage Port
(RRP £85, from Mentzendorff and Co) offers layers of remarkably fresh black fruit, with delicate violets and sunbaked herbs underpinned by a firm structure that’s rooted in the old vines, some a century old, and a devotion to foot treading in the lagares.
Taylor’s Vargellas Vinha Velha 2017 Vintage Port
(RRP £180, from Mentzendorff and Co) offers dense red fruit character, with cherries and bramble opening into complex liquorice, leather, chocolate and spice, all dancing around a mineral core.
Fonseca 2017 Vintage Port
(RRP £80, from Mentzendorff and Co) comes from one of the most beautiful Quintas in the Duoro. Deep purple, this offers teasing floral notes, brooding fruit and a graphite structure that currently only hints at its future potential.
Croft Roeda Serikos 2017 Vintage Port
(RRP £150, from Mentzendorff and Co) is a new premium product described by Adrian Bridge as “the best of the best” from Croft. ‘Serikos’ apparently means ‘silken’ in ancient Greek, a nod to the plans drawn up to create silk farms in the Douro when phylloxera hit. Elegant and aromatic, with rose petals, honeycomb and dried sage, bright acidity and smooth, succulent tannins, this slips down far too easily.
Graham’s 2017 Vintage Port
(RRP £70, from Fells) felt closest to a ‘classic’ Vintage Port, if such a thing is possible. Dense, concentrated, black plum and morello cherry, with a pot pourri of herbs and a long smooth finish.
Graham’s The Stone Terraces 2017 Vintage Port
(RRP £140, from Fells) is a ‘terroir-based wine’, based on small plots, Burgundy-style. Orange zest and fleshy mango, bergamot and garrigue, lead into a delicious, fresh, balanced Port with a style and opulence all of its own.
Dow’s 2017 Vintage Port
(RRP £70, from Fells) is deep, dark and interesting with ripe black fruit, powerful concentration and a dry, slightly sandy finish that feels very different to the others.
Quinta do Vesuvio 2017 Vintage Port
(RRP £58, from Fells) offers muscular black fruit, black pepper, spearmint and fresh ginger, with a firm tannic structure that suggests it will be enjoyed over many years. Good value, by comparison.
Quinta do Noval 2017 Vintage Port
(RRP £80, from Gonzalez Byass) is an elegant feast of foraged fruit with delicate blackberry, black cherry and Victoria plum, a tight graphite core and an invigorating wildness.
Quinta do Romaneira 2017 Vintage Port
(RRP £45, from Lea and Sandeman) is the ‘drag Queen’ of Vintage Ports, elegantly combining powerful broad shoulders and delicate sweet red fruit. Ripe, fresh and finesse, this is great value for its class.
David Kermode is a wine presenter, writer, broadcaster and judge with his own website vinosaurus.co.uk