The 1994 vintage represents a generational change for Port. It wasn’t so much the people in charge that changed as the wines themselves. For a number of leading shippers the 1960s represented the end of an era when founding families were replaced by multinational owners. The standard of Vintage Port slipped as automation took the place of time honoured foot treading. Some vineyards were milked for yield and in the 1980s a number of shippers had a wake up call with wines that became seriously unstable in bottle. By the early-to-mid 1990s most shippers were back on track and in 1994 along came a magnificent growing season that combined with a healthy market to give the shippers a chance to show the world that they could still declare a top quality vintage.
I recall tasting these wines at the time of the declaration (in 1996). At the time the hallmark of the vintage was the somewhat beguiling super-ripe fleshy fruit, which tended to cover up the structure underneath. At a Decanter magazine tasting in the same year one member of the panel expressed the view that the wines were too soft and no better than LBVs. But this was to miss the point that once that initial puppy fat fell away the wines would express their structure and depth and 1994 would turn out to be a vintage for the long haul.
It is now nearly twenty years since the 1994s were first made and, with twenty- first birthdays in mind, it is an opportune time to see how the wines have developed.
I am grateful to Michael Schuster for putting this tasting together. My modest contribution included Quinta do Crasto, Ramos Pinto and the two wines from Martinez. The wines are listed in the order that I tasted them as follows:
Quinta do Crasto ***
Mid-deep youthful colour, just turning on the rim, open, rich, and plummy in style, very sweet, almost to the point of being unctuous in its richness, verging on hot, backed by broad ripe tannins, mid palate, soft, sweet and fleshy on the finish. Rather one dimensional but good middle distance wine, ready to drink. 15
Smith Woodhouse ***/****
Slightly deeper in colour, still closed and sullen on the nose, not giving much away; firm cherry-berry fruit, backed by quite dry tannic grip, not especially big but sweet and nicely focused, needs a year or two more to show itself. Drink from 2016 onwards. 16.5
Gould Campbell ***/****
Deep garnet, just turning on the rim; a touch more open than the SW some restrained berry fruit emerging, lovely pure cherry stone fruit backed by firm tannins, seemingly quite skinny for the vintage, perhaps compact is a better word, but nicely balanced nonetheless with lovely pure berry fruit on the finish. Very enjoyable now. 16.5
Ramos Pinto ***
Very deep opaque colour, purple rim; open, ripe and opulent on the nose, rich and plummy, promises more on the nose than it delivers on the palate, the fruit is rich, a touch raisiny and backed by ripe tannins with a full finish. May just need a bit more time to come together. Now (just). 16
Martinez Quinta da Eira Velha ****
Mid-deep youthful colour, pink-purple rim; attractive strawberry, blackberry and damson aromas, open, with some depth evident; lovely mid-weight fresh pure damson fruit, not especially big but quite elegant with firm, slightly boney tannins right the way through to the finish. A model of a single quinta wine: lovely now and over the next fifteen years but not for the long-term. 17
Looking a bit more mature than the Eira Velha, slightly burnt on the nose, touch of liquorice with nothing like the elegance of the EV, a very different wine, rather more clumsy; richer on the palate, focused with firm tight knit tannins, even a touch of dark chocolate here and a full finish. 16
Mid-deep colour, just turning on the rim; badly volatile on the nose and getting worse in the glass, (oh dear, so is the 1997!), some sweet berry fruit on the palate but this is very varnishy, acid and rather thin. Faulty. 8
Quinta do Noval *** +?
Mid-deep colour, just turning on the rim; hot roasted nose, baked fruit and a touch of liquorice, lumpy and not very attractive in this context but this may just be a phase (or a poor sample); rich and pruney on the palate, full and well-structured with a big bold finish. Makes up in size for what it lacks, at this stage, in finesse. Try again in five years but it worries me that this wine is rather coarse for Noval. (This wine showed much better at a tasting in London on 16th September last year - see entry for Recent Vintages of Noval) 16+?
Quinta do Vesuvio ****
Deep youthful colour; ripe but withdrawn on the nose, suggesting this has more to give, touch of liquorice and a hint of dark chocolate; big, full and fleshy with dark, chocolate fruit and minty ripeness, strapping, spicy tannic backbone, this has tomatesto use a Portuguese expression! Impressively full now but it will be better in 5 years. 17.5
Deep, nearly opaque with a purple rim; closed, dense and brooding with ripeness underlying, a hint of mint and gum cistus; lovely big, firm fleshy fruit, seemingly quite opulent in style for Dow, there is real depth and intensity here, rich, broad gravelly tannins running seamlessly all the way through to the finish. Undeniably good now but better in ten years! 18.5
Deep but without the youthful glow of Dow; more open too, rich, ripe liquorice fruit which just stops short of being pruney on the nose; soft and opulent initiallywith firm, fine grained tannins rising in the mouth, not nearly as big or as powerful as Dow but with a long succulent plummy finish. Now (just). 18
Graham **** / *****
Deep centre, just turning on the rim; still withdrawn, underlying richness and depth; lovely, tight knit and focused morello cherry fruit, firm tannic grip rising in the mouth, rich with a lovely bitter-sweet dark chocolate finish, great finesse and near perfect balance. Very good now and better still in 5 – 10 years. 18.5
Very deep opaque colour, thin turning rim; closed, tight knit, not giving much way on the nose, seemingly silky fruit underlying; lovely pure berry fruit initially with a super-fine tannic superstructure rising in the mouth, not as big as some here but this wine does not cut corners, revealing its freshness and purity on a really beautifully defined finish. There is great architecture here: a lovely wine already that will repay keeping for years to come. This was one of the Wine Spectator’s ‘two perfect Ports’ and I think that they might have been right! 19.5
Again, very deep in colour retaining a youthful hue; fine if still subdued on the nose, lovely pure underlying fruit just starting to emerge; fine and focused, tight knit, a little more foursquare than Fonseca with firm, fine grained tannins and succulence and depth. Still has a lot more to give and shares the purity, freshness and vitality of Fonseca. 19
Location: Hatton Garden, London
19 - 20 An outstanding wine (*****)
17 – 18 An excellent wine in its class, highly recommended (****)
15 - 16 A good wine, with much to recommend it (***)
13 - 14 An enjoyable but simple, straightforward wine (**)
10 – 12 A very ordinary wine without faults but with no great merit (*)
8 - 10 Disagreeable (no stars)
Below 8 Faulty