Taylor’s Trio Of New Vintage Ports: There Will Be Comparative Tastings For Decades To Come
by Ken Gargett
A confession. For me, Vintage Port is one of the truly great wines on this planet. Sadly, recent decades have seen somewhat of a fall from grace. The good news is that it remains the greatest bargain of all fine wines (champagne a close second). As an aside, the Douro Valley is one of the best wine regions on the planet to visit. It should be on every wine lover’s bucket list.
This fall from grace is thanks to time.
In recent decades, the drinking-and-driving regulations around the world have become far more severe, meaning that Port’s once-ubiquitous role as the conclusion for any good lunch or dinner has suffered, but more importantly Vintage Port is a wine that demands time, not just to mature, but on the day: a lengthy decanting is often necessary.
Vintage Port is a wine needing time for contemplation. No one has a quick lunch and then scoffs a glass of VP. It is the perfect wine to conclude the leisurely repast or special dinner. But these days, such is the pace of life that these pleasures are almost superfluous. Such a shame. There is no lunch or dinner that cannot be improved by finishing with a glass of fine Vintage Port.
As well as the great traditional houses like Taylor’s, Fonseca, Warre’s, Graham’s, Dow’s, Quinta do Noval and more, we have seen many new names – some are old Portuguese producers now emerging to show what they can do, while others are more recent institutions.
Vintage Port is traditionally only declared around three times a decade. A declaration is up to each producer, depending on whether or not it believes the grapes can make a wine of sufficient quality for the house style. Declarations tend to be nearly universal, but not always.
This means if one house declares, most do. Unlike champagne where we see more and more houses declaring vintage after vintage (there was a time when champagne also saw around three “vintage champagnes” a decade), the Port houses have kept things to around three per decade. There are always exceptions. And sometimes there will be what could be called split declarations, where some houses declare a year and others the subsequent vintage – 1991 and 1992 are an example.
The numerous styles of Port
Port is a fortified wine, meaning that spirit is added to stop the fermentation, leaving a degree of sweetness, but at a higher level of alcohol, of course, thanks to that spirit.
The grapes are usually picked later than those for table wines, so there is already a higher degree of sweetness (and potential alcohol) than for table wines. If we are to get specific about the addition of spirit, it gets added early so the yeast has taken less of the sugars in the grape, meaning a slightly sweeter style. Graham’s is usually considered to be a good example of this.
Add it a little later and the result will be a slightly drier style. Dow’s is considered the epitome of this style. Worth noting that the quality of the spirit used today is far superior to that of years past.
Most Port is aged in barrels for many years, sometimes even 30 or 40, and then blended across varying ages to provide the popular tawny Ports. A tawny Port from barrels of the same vintage is known as a Colheita.
Vintage Port is aged in the barrel to begin, but only for around two years. It is then bottled (always from the same vintage). Shortly after, it will be available for purchase, but that does not necessarily mean that you should be drinking it immediately. Vintage Port undoubtedly benefits from a very long stay in the cellar (this is another reason it is perhaps not as popular as it deserves to be – only the obsessed or very patient among us are prepared to do that).
There is a halfway house: the LBV, Late-Bottled Vintage Port. These wines are bottled after four to six years in barrel and are then bottled (again, as a vintage, not blended). So, as an example, all the 2014 LBV that producers may have in barrel has to be bottled by December 31 this year and registered with the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (IVDP). In 2021 producers can only sell 2014 LBVs that were previously bottled before the last day of 2020, and they cannot bottle any more. Late-Bottled Vintage Ports have some of the qualities of both styles and the advantage of being approachable when much more youthful.
The king of Port is undoubtedly Vintage Port. Anyone wanting to delve into this style of wine more deeply should beg, steal, or borrow a copy of J.D.A. Wiseman’s Port Vintages, an extraordinary work going back to the very beginning of this wine.
Personally, I would happily drink a decent vintage of any of those houses mentioned above and many more. If asked for favorites, I’d probably opt for Taylor’s and Warre’s. Taylor’s is likely to be on any Port lover’s list; Warre’s because the first case of Port I ever purchased was its 1977, so it holds a special place (as does the entire 1977 vintage).
A closer look at Taylor’s
Today, we are looking at Taylor’s and something brand new.
Before that, if you doubt me about the number of vintages that are declared, take Taylor’s as an example. Turning to Wiseman’s wonderful book, we can see that we have to go back to the 1800s to find any occasion when that house declared consecutive years, which sounds incredible.
It happened a few times back then: 1833 and 1834; 1846 and 1847; 1872 and 1873; and finally, 1880 and 1881. Since 1881, it had not happened again, so when the glorious 2016 vintage was followed by the stunning 2017s, it was a very big deal (of course, Taylor’s was far from the only house to declare both – most did). As they say in the classics: but wait, there is more. Along came 2018 and for the first time in this company’s 328-year history (it was founded in 1692), we had the trifecta. Three consecutive vintages.
Chatting to some friends at Taylor’s, I mentioned that it must be thrilling to line the three up and compare, even at this early stage. I was, of course, getting embarrassingly ahead of myself as the 2018 has not hit the shelves yet (or at least not at that time).
No matter: the wonderful folk at Taylor’s were quickly on to it and sent me samples of the trio so I could compare for myself. In this COVID-ravaged year, what a wonderful surprise. Christmas had come early. We will get to the trio shortly, but first a little on Taylor’s.
I am taking parts of this from something I did quite a few years ago (things don’t change that much in the world of Port) after an amazing tasting in Brisbane. I had a bottle of the 1948 Taylor’s that I had been saving for the right occasion. Mentioned it to some mates and next thing we had people popping up everywhere with their own treasures.
In the end, we had a tasting: 1924, 1935, 1948, the “believed to be” 1955 (which we thought was a Taylor’s but the cork revealed it to be a Croft 1960), 1963, 1966, 1970, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1985, 1994, 2000, 2003, 2007, and the extraordinary 2007 Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha. Not a bad day.
There were a few vintages, especially the 1992, we would have liked to include, but failed to locate; 1992 Taylor’s remains my white whale. Seems I am destined to be absent any time a bottle is opened, but that probably falls within the category of first-world problems.
Taylor’s, or perhaps more properly Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman, was founded in 1692 by Job Bearsley, who had been trading salt cod in the region for the previous 20 years. Taylor’s is not the oldest house; Warre’s, established in 1670, pre-dates it.
Originally, the business was broadly focused, not limited to wine. The “4XX” brand, which still adorns their bottles and branding, was actually an old wool mark. Bearsley’s son, Peter, was the first British trader to head upriver to chase the best wines, while in 1744 Peter’s brother, Bartholomew, purchased Lugar das Lages, the first Douro estate sold to an Englishman. Taylor’s has made Port there every year since except for a short break when the Duke of Wellington took over to use it as a field hospital for Lord Beresford’s troops.
The Bearsley family left the company in 1806. Others came and went before Joseph Taylor joined as a partner in 1816. Within ten years, he had sole control. In 1836, London wine merchant John Fladgate joined Taylor, who died the following year. Morgan Yeatman joined Fladgate in 1838 or 1844, depending on which authority one prefers, the later date seeming to garner more support. When the company decided on a name in 1844, it retained “Taylor” as part of it. They are commonly just dubbed “Taylor’s” these days.
Since that time, the operation has been very much the family affair. The Yeatman family held the rudder for many years with Frank, known to all as “Smiler,” the key figure of the early years of the twentieth century. When his brother Harry died in 1919, Frank had sole control but was soon joined by his son, Dick, the first Port maker to study viticulture at Montpelier in France.
Dick was joined by his cousin, Stanley Yeatman. Smiler retired in 1949 after 50 vintages. Together with Dick and Stanley, he had revolutionized the industry, notwithstanding the difficult times it faced. In the 1920s, at the Vargellas vineyard, they brought in the concept of separating varietals in different blocks and carried this through to separate fermentations.
There were also single-variety plantings in the Polverinho vineyard, which forms part of the Vinha Velha section of Vargellas. They extended plantings and in the mid-1930s released the first dry white Port (Taylor’s Chip Dry). In 1949 (or possibly 1948 – again, authorities vary), they purchased Fonseca. The move to single Quinta ports began with Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas and the 1958 vintage. They also led the Aged Tawny market, introducing the first ten- and twenty-year-old wines.
Stanley passed away in 1960 and Dick purchased his share, taking full control. He soon offered partnerships to Bruce Guimaraens of Fonseca, a descendant of the Fladgates, and to Huyshe Bower from the Yeatman family. After Dick’s death in 1966, his widow, Beryl, brought in her nephew, Alistair Robertson. Innovation must run in the family as credit for Late Bottled Vintage Ports (LBV) falls to Alistair with the first release unveiled in 1970. The drinking public of the day was after a “Vintage Port” that it didn’t have to age for decades, that didn’t break the bank, and that it could drink without decanting. LBV ticked all the boxes.
Control at Taylor’s now rests with David Guimaraens, who studied in Australia, and Robertson’s son-in-law, Adrian Bridge.
If I may, a little on the vineyards. Two estates, Quinta de Vargellas and Quinta Terra Feita, have provided top-quality fruit for the Taylor’s Vintage Ports for decades, with Vargellas the backbone. Junco also contributes.
There is evidence that single-quinta Port from that part of the Vargellas estate owned at the time by the Carvalhos family was available in London as far back as the late 1820s – it is considered by many that the seriously reduced yields, subsequent to phylloxera, resulted in the combining of estates – a move away from producers persisting with single-vineyard wines.
The various individual parts of the Vargellas vineyard were amalgamated and finally purchased by Taylor’s in 1890, rather courageous given that this was the time that phylloxera was raging through the country. Vargellas is considered responsible for the alluring fragrances, sinewy tannins, and delightful elegance found in Taylor’s VPs.
Vargellas, a 164-hectare estate located in the far distant parts of the Douro, is key. It is a north-facing amphitheater situated well above the Douro River; 68 hectares are producing. These terraces have been classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Plantings at Vargellas are devoted to approximately one-quarter each of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca, and Tinta Roriz with the rest a mix, especially Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao and Tinta Amarela, along with some 30 other permitted varieties. In years that don’t quite make vintage quality, a single-quinta Vintage Port is often produced.
In what Taylor’s considers to be the very finest years for the Vargellas vineyard, it makes a few hundred cases of Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha Vintage Port. The 2007 followed on from 2004, 2000, 1997, and 1995; 2009 was the sixth release. It was followed by a 2011 and there is also a 2017. Only a tenth of the estate qualifies as Vinha Velha and this consists of five parcels, though only the oldest parts, with vines ranging between 80 to 120 years, are used in the Vinha Velha VP. For those concerned about the effect releasing such a port will have on the Taylor’s VP, production is less than one percent of that wine. In 1999, Taylor’s purchased the 46-hectare adjoining property, Quinta de Sao Xisto.
Terra Feita, 116 hectares, is set in an amphitheater back in the Pinhao Valley. It has 62 hectares producing fruit. Although only purchased around 45 years ago, in 1974, it has provided Taylor’s with quality fruit for a very long time. The 1757 classification of Douro estates rated this at the very highest level. Here is where the power, richness, depth, fullness, and concentration of berry flavors found in the VPs is sourced. Vines are mostly Touriga Francesca and Tinta Roriz, with some Touriga Nacional.
Quinta do Junco, located not far from Terra Feita, was purchased in 1998. The entire property consists of 82 hectares; 15 hectares are very old vines. It was awarded “feitoria” status as far back as 1761, the highest classification for vineyards at that time. Fruit from here is described as “massive in scale” and adds to the power and structure of the wines. The vineyard is dominated by Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca, and Tinta Roriz. This vineyard differs from most of those in the region by including some vertical rows with the traditional terraces.
The great years
From our tasting, 1924 must have been something sensational, but the 1935 was even better, as great as any VP could be (the only VP I have ever had that matched or bettered it was the 1931 Quinta do Noval). The 1948 is a famous Port (obviously, there are several great years we did not have, the 1945 a prime example), but while very good on the day, was considered not to be the greatest bottle ever opened. The 1960 was still drinking very well; 1963 is deservedly a legendary year, as is 1977; 1970 is one of those vintages that snuck under the radar for many years but was finally recognized as a wonderful VP, and the Taylor’s is rarely bettered.
The 1980 overdelivered; 1983 less so; 1985 has long been a favorite and performed magnificently; 1994 is one of the legendary vintages; 1992 and 1997 are highly regarded but were not with us on the day; 2000 was a star; 2003 a little less impressive; the 2007 has everything going for it for a very long life. The 2007 Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha was something truly special.
And now: the Taylor’s Trio
The most obvious thing to note with these three Taylor’s releases is that they will be linked together forever. For decades to come, there will be comparative tastings and their progress will be carefully monitored.
The conditions providing these harvests in the Douro are critical, but my experience is that when one starts discussing such climatic matters the wine geeks among us become seriously obsessed, while others glaze over in horror. If one you are interested there is endless material on the internet.
I have had the opportunity to see the 2016 from Taylor’s on several occasions and every time it has been an incredibly impressive young Port. As good as one could hope. For me, it has always come in at 99 or 100, for those who look to score. I’ve seen most of the Vintage Ports declared from 2016 and, granted very early days, I think it is a thrilling vintage. One of the greats. Taylor’s is one of the very best.
This was the first time I have tasted either the 2017 or, of course, the 2018. I have tasted very few other Vintage Ports from either vintage so any general statement on either vintage must be taken with some caution.
For me 2016 is a complete vintage, an exhilarating and entrancing combination of power and elegance. A year of finesse. It reminds me of the 1977 vintage, but even more approachable while young and with the same long-term potential. The wines will benefit from as much time as you can give them, but there will still be a great deal to enjoy in their youth.
A richer, bigger year, 2017 strikes me as having more concentration, more power. A little more foreboding in its youth and I would not be touching them for many years. They will be a little less friendly until they have had that time. For me, this vintage resembles the best from 2011, the previous generally declared vintage before 2016. If 2017 is a top-of-the-line Range Rover, 2016 is a Ferrari California.
Yes, we are talking an extremely small sample, but 2018 is the most approachable of the trio. Plush and cuddly, softly textured, these will certainly age very well for many years, but I suspect may not have the legs of the other two vintages.
Two thousand eighteen is a year in which a lot of the houses released single-quinta Vintage Ports, rather than a Vintage Port under the house name. This would suggest a year that was not absolutely elite, but the Douro is a large region and conditions vary. Some houses will have fared better than others. The one thing of which we can be certain is that those houses having released a 2018 would have done so only because they are convinced that they have the material to make one. They would not risk their reputations on anything less than the very finest they could offer. Far better not to declare. And it was not as though those houses who did so were desperate for a declaration, given the previous two years.
Taylor’s Vintage Port 2016 – Vibrant purples and inky blacks here. Bruised plum edges. This is ripe and generous, plush. The amazing purity and pristine fruit of the 2016s is all too evident here. Christmas cake and plum pudding. Cloves, blackberries, lovely soft kid leather, tobacco leaf, and quality dark chocolate. Exuberance but all in balance, this is seamless with micro-fine tannins, which are almost invisible. Still so young.
There is good spirit, again in balance. Nothing is so much as an eyelash out of place. Elegance, purity, and incredible length with the intensity maintained throughout this ever-so-long finish. It has the length of a great Rutherglen Muscat. Timeless. Tasted several times, and each time it just blew me away. After earlier tastings my thoughts were, “If young Vintage Port can be better than this, I can’t imagine how. It has some serious competition, but it is my wine of the vintage.” No reason to feel any differently now. 100.
Taylor’s Vintage Port 2017 – This is even darker than the 2016. Opaque with a hint of deep purple on the very edge of the rim. Seriously tight, even more so than the ’16. More concentrated. Black fruits, cassis, earth notes, spices, and leather. It desperately needs time in a decanter (and a glass) and then you’ll see some early signs of plums and dark chocolate. This port is seamless, powerful, exhibits a pleasant flick of acidity and some serious grip. It is simply far too young at the moment, but it offers such amazing potential. This is a Port that will live 50 or more years, standing on its head. It should outlive even the wonderful 2016, though how many of us will be around to enjoy either at that stage is a question perhaps best not pondered upon. Preference will come down to each individual. 99.
Taylor’s Vintage Port 2018 – A mix of opaque blacks and vibrant purples. Amazingly for such a young Port it is surprisingly approachable, more so than either of the preceding years. A lovely soft, plush Vintage Port and undoubtedly worthy of declaration. The dominant flavors here are various incarnations of great chocolate. Molten chocolate, black forest gateaux, chocolate mud cake. Dates, coffee beans, and plums as well. There is a hint of spirit apparent at this early stage but it is surrounded by delicious fruit. Very fine tannins. It has serious length though not that of either the ’16 or ’17. A Port with a good 30 years ahead of it and there is room to improve. 96.
I have said this before and I do believe it. There are critics who claim that Taylor’s is the “Latour of Vintage Port.” I believe they have that backwards. Surely, Latour is the “Taylor’s of Bordeaux.”
For more information, please visit www.taylor.pt/en/port-wine/vintage-port/vintage-port-years.