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Vintage Port 2003

the year of living dangerously

by Richard Mayson, 12/05

Richard Mayson is the award winning author of Port and the Douro and The Wines and Vineyards of Portugal, both published by Mitchell Beazley. He is currently preparing a book on the Wines of Madeira.

There's a palpable air of excitement in the Douro valley as each new harvest draws near. The vineyard terraces, silent for much of the year, suddenly come to life as the growers begin to discuss the state of the grapes and the right time to pick. Then comes the 'green light' and eager gangs of pickers descend on the Douro from outlying villages. Strains of music and gossip ricochet across the narrow valleys as picking gets underway.

In some years (like 2002) all this excitement comes to nothing when the skies cloud over, the heavens open and all prospects of a fine vintage are dashed at the last minute. In other years the air of anticipation and speculation continues far beyond the harvest as the Port shippers taste and re-taste their wines wondering whether or not to 'declare' their wine.

Under the rules laid out by the governing Douro and Port Wine Institute (IVDP), the shippers have up to two years to decide whether or not to declare a 'vintage'. (right, vineyards of the Douro valley)

As most of the major Port shippers work close to each other in cramped premises in the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, there is inevitably a certain amount of discussion about the merits of the harvest. But contrary to received opinion, a vintage declaration is an independent decision taken by the individual shipper and it isn't taken lightly.
 

Only when there is a sufficient quantity of really top quality wine will a shipper decide on a vintage declaration. More often than not there is a natural consensus, but there are plenty of examples of so-called 'split declarations' where some leading shippers decided on one year and others have gone for another, 1991 and 1992 being the most recent examples. 2003 is an example of unanimity when all the major Port shippers have opted for a vintage declaration. Following on from the year 2000, it is the second such declaration this century and only the 22nd since 1900.

2003, the heatwave vintage



The weather in the Douro valley has always been the key factor in the making of a great vintage Port. Despite the atypical heat that affected much of Europe, in 2003 the region enjoyed a textbook growing season. Heavy rain fell during the winter months, amounting to over double the ten-year average. Spring was mild, budburst was early, and the flowering took place in mid-May in near perfect conditions. Mid-June was abnormally hot, but the heavy rain fell that fell at the end of the month, and again in mid-July, proved hugely beneficial. The Douro was not immune from the famous heat wave that hit London and Paris during August 2003, and temperatures rose well above 40°C. But the vines, like the inhabitants of the Douro, are accustomed to extreme heat and coped by shutting up shop.


Above: robotic lagars at Warre.
   As photosynthesis slowed, grape maturation came to a complete standstill. Fortunately the thermometer fell back to the 30s in the second part of August as a little rain fell. This was a godsend: sugar levels in the grapes, which still looked quite low at the start of September, rose sharply. A few growers in the easternmost and hottest part of the Douro region were forced into picking too early, but for the majority who waited until the middle of the month, the grapes had reached perfect ripeness.

The fine, warm weather continued until the end of September when the first autumn depression swept in from the Atlantic. By this time the finest Ports, made in very small quantities, were already in the bag. By the early summer of 2005, all the major shippers had declared the 2003 vintage.

With the hot summer producing extremely low yields, the 2003 vintage Ports are naturally very rich, powerful and concentrated. Tannin seems to be the hallmark of the vintage, making some of the most promising wines really tough and impenetrable at this stage. These wines demand a certain gift of clairvoyance to work out their future development. Rather akin to the seven ages of man, most vintage Ports enjoy a short, fragrant bloom of youth before the wines close down and endure 10, 15 or even 20 years of surly adolescence. Then the wines slowly begin to emerge as fully-fledged adults gaining gravitas and stature, peaking at 20 or 30 years of age. For the finest vintage Ports this peak becomes a long plateau and old age may not be reached for 80 years or more.

2003 hits and misses



In my early tastings of the 2003s there were plenty of wines in their first bloom of youth, with great purity of fruit expressed both on the nose and in the mouth. But there are others, especially Fonseca and Niepoort that seem to have shut down already and are dense, brooding hulks destined, so it seems, for a very long life indeed. A few wines convey the heat of the vintage with rather coarse, jammy aromas and flavours, and there are one or two that have a hard, green edge - probably from grapes that were picked just a bit too early and before they were fully ripe.

Having tasted most of the 2003s on three separate occasions earlier this year, I have selected those wines that I think show the best characteristics of the vintage. They are, I will admit, a fairly disparate bunch with wines for drinking over the medium-term (15-20 years) set alongside those set for long-term (in some cases 30 years plus). But with the North American market tending to drink vintage Port earlier than the traditional British Port consumer, I believe that with the proviso that the wine is well balanced and well made, there is room for all.

By no means will every Port shipper divulge the size of their vintage declaration, but with low yields and strict selection, the 2003 vintage amounts to about 30 per cent less than 2000. Prices have been increased by a modest two or three per cent (much less than inflation in Portugal) and range from about £375.00 per case in bond for the top names, down to around £200 for wines from some of the lesser known shippers. For anyone considering laying down wine for a child's birth year, it is worth emphasizing that 2003 vintage Ports are much more realistically priced than the top 2003 clarets, which were the subject of a wave of speculation when they were released last year. Quantities are but a tiny fraction of Classed Growth Bordeaux, and with nearly all the wines now allocated to merchants, demand for the 2003 Vintage Ports is sure to be strong.

Richard Mayson's best 2003s





In alphabetical order

Cockburn 2003
vibrant, raw fruit on the nose; big, ripe and opulent with solid tannic super-structure. The best Cockburn for many a year. Drink from 2020.

Cockburn's Quinta dos Canais
dense and impenetrable at this stage with a great deal to give. Rich, sweet and fleshy with massive tannins to back up the fruit. Very impressive for a single estate vintage Port. Like Cockburn's (above) drink from 2020.

Croft
beautifully fragrant and floral (violets), with great purity of fruit and fine sinewy tannins. Not the biggest wine of the vintage but a lovely, elegant wine for the medium-to-long term. From 2015

Dow
deep, rich and powerful, fleshy fruit with real depth and concentration; broad, ripe tannins and a big finish. Powerful wine for the long term. 2025 onwards

Fonseca
tight-knit, sullen and closed; rich, ripe and opulent with massive tannic super-structure and a peacock's tail finish. As so often for me, the wine of the vintage. Outstanding for the long term. 2025 onwards

Graham
surprisingly open and fragrant at this stage but with plenty underlying; fine, focused pure fruit, not quite as big as some (Dow or Fonseca for example) but combines depth and finesse. Powerful length. Very fine indeed. From 2020

Quinta do Noval
lovely peppery-spicy fruit, big and complete with a fantastic peacock's tail finish. Noval has been back on top form since 1994 and this is no exception.

Quinta do Noval Nacional
dense, brooding wine, very full, sweet and voluptuous in the mouth initially with a powerful tannic kick coming from behind. Big, muscular wine for the long, long term. Only 240 cases made!

Niepoort
currently giving very little away on the nose; seemingly quite dry, dense with massive, foursquare tannins. Very difficult to appreciate now but should be outstanding in thirty years.

Poças
ripe, plummy aromas and supple, fleshy fruit checked by big dusty-peppery tannins. Impressive mid-to-long distance wine from a small family shipper now making a name with their fine vintage Port.

Sandeman
the warmth of the vintage is evident here with ripe, slightly singed fruit and a hint of bitter chocolate concentration. A good middle-distance wine to drink from 2015.

Smith Woodhouse
tight-knit and impenetrable at this stage with dense, bitter chocolate concentration of flavour. Explosive finish. Amazingly powerful wine from this 'second string' house. Likely to be very good value. From 2020.

Warre
closed, dense with plenty to give; very fine, pure berry fruit backed by strong, sinewy tannins. Great poise and a lovely wine for the medium-to-long term. From 2018.