The first opportunity for a comprehensive tasting of a newly declared Port vintage usually falls in mid-summer. This year, in the week that I assembled samples from the major shippers, the thermometer in the North Derbyshire Peak District (where I live) rose to 30 degrees C. Not wanting to taste young Port in these sultry conditions I decided to wait until the weather broke and the temperature fell. However as soon as my PA had set up the tasting and uncorked the last sample, the local farmer decided that it was time for muck spreading and the smell in the air, inside and out, turned rank.
The 2015 vintage is one of those ‘oh so nearly but not quite years’ that must have been the subject of some tormented discussion among the Port shippers. In the end a few shippers opted for a classic declaration but the majority decided that 2015 was a single quinta or second label year. The reason for this is the hot, dry growing season with 40% less rain than normal in the Cima Corgo sub-region where many of the best vineyards are located. At the Symington’s Quinta do Vesúvio in the Douro Superior it was ‘simultaneously the hottest and driest growing season for 36 years’. (In case you were wondering 1979 produced a handful of rather straightforward single quinta wines). But 2015 has proved to be wonderful for the Touriga Franca grape, a variety that is usually overshadowed by the more famous but much less widely planted Touriga Nacional. Charles Symington commented that ‘Touriga Franca is a grape that enjoys heat and that is exactly what we had… The end result of these low yields and made to order conditions for this variety produced the best Franca grapes in memory’. Of course back in 1979 when block planting was just beginning, there was no way to pick and choose among the different grape varieties. You took what you were given from the inter-planted vineyards, under-ripe and over-ripe grapes thrown in together, and made the best of it. However in 1979, despite the heat and drought, yields were high. In 2015 yields were low.
Fortunately the annual cycle started off with a wet autumn in 2014 followed by a very dry but cold winter. Consequently at the start of the growing season in March 2015 the water table was relatively high. Spring was warm and dry with the hottest June for fifty years with intense heat around São João. Fortunately some rain fell in May in the easterly Douro Superior, the sub-region that tends to suffer most from heat and drought. July continued to be hot but the weather cooled down in August and relatively cool night time temperatures helped to mitigate against over ripening. By the start of September the crop was looking fine and healthy. A number of leading properties in the Cima Corgo began picking (as early as 7th at Croft’s Quinta da Roeda) when the benchmark date is normally the closest Monday to 20th of the month. Rain fell just when it was needed on 15th and 16th September after which the skies cleared and fine, clear weather returned until the end of vintage. Usually the best grapes are picked at the start of vintage but some of the best Touriga Nacional was picked towards the end of the month.
Dirk Niepoort is quoted as saying ‘2015 was as perfect as it gets’. Others clearly felt something was lacking (balance or structure maybe) so, apart from Cockburn, Ramos Pinto and Niepoort, this is a single quinta year with some outstanding wines, the best of which will clearly stand the test of time. Those who picked later produced more structured wines showing ripeness and concentration.
In my notes set out below there is not much need to talk about colour (all the wines are, at this stage, a deep, youthful crimson-purple) but I make no apology for dwelling on the architecture of the wines. This is a year where the wines seem to be defined by their structure and balance. Some will be long-term keepers, others will not.
The following wines are listed in the order they were tasted. All were tasted blind (apart from the two wines from Niepoort) and the samples re-tasted two days later when the wines had opened up and the local air had thankfully cleared.
Cockburn 2015 **** (Cask Sample)
The only classic declaration from the Symington family this year, declared in celebration of Cockburn’s bicentenary. The wine emanates mostly from Quinta dos Canais, bolsterd by fruit from Vale Coelho and Quinta do Cachão do Arnozelo, all in the Douro Superior. Touriga Franca is the largest component of the blend (41%) followed closely by Touriga Nacional (37%). Old vines, Sousão and Alicante Bouschet make up the balance. Mostly picked eight days after the rain, which greatly benefited the ripeness and balance. Deep, ripe and dense initially on the nose, still a bit raw, this wine opened up after a couple of days to reveal a lovely scented berry fruit bouquet (reflecting the relatively high proportion of Touriga Nacional); similarly lovely plum and berry fruit on the palate with lovely fine-grained, gravelly tannins building in the mouth and a long structured finish. Not the biggest of the 2015s but this wine combines depth and finesse in equal measure. This is Cockburn back on form: a must buy for me! 18
Graham’s The Stone Terraces 2015 ****/***** (Cask Sample)
A wine from three small plots of vineyard in a narrow curving valley on the Malvedos estate. None of the plots faces south which proved advantageous in a hot, dry year like 2015. Very low yields: less than 1kg per vine. Wonderfully aromatic (reflecting the high percentage of Touriga Nacional) with a classic floral character but closing in on itself after a couple of days; soft, rich and opulent on the palate with broad-structured tannins building in the mouth and leading to a ripe, complete finish. Very accomplished wine. Just 400 cases produced, priced around £140 a bottle. 18.5
Ramos Pinto 2015 ****
A blend from fruit grown at Quinta da Ervamoira in the Douro Superior and Quinta do Bom Retiro in the cooler Torto Valley: closed on the nose initially and still not very showy after a couple of days but with underlying ripeness and intensity evident; rich fruit compote character on the palate supported by big, ripe tannins and a big finish. This is a serious wine that will need plenty of time in bottle to show at its best. 17+?
Croft, Quinta da Roeda 2015 ***/****
Picking began early at Roeda in 2015 (7th September) and was inturrupted by rain on 15th/ 16th: tight and minerally on the nose initially, opening up quite rapidly to reveal very pure, expressive berry fruit; sweet and succulent in style, not especially big or structured but with soft, chalky tannins and lovely purity. Exotic. Not a long-term keeper but a lovely wine for the medium term to drink from about eight years hence. 16.5
Fonseca Guimaraens 2015 ****
A blend of wines from three Fonseca estates: Quinta do Cruzeiro and Quinta do Santo António in the Pinhão Valley and Quinta do Panascal in the Távora valley. Guimaraens is the label that Fonseca use ‘in certain years when classic Fonseca vintage is not declared and are generally more supple and approachable when young’. This wine marks Fonseca’s bicentenary and seems to have been made for the middle to long haul. No information supplied on the varietal make-up. Closed and dense on the nose with underlying ripe fruit, still rather demure after a couple of days; immediately big and impressive in the mouth, ripe and fleshy with solid tannins to back up the fruit, leading to a peacock’s tail of a finish. The biggest and most structured of the 2015s that I have tasted so far: this will be a long-term keeper. I would broach this around 2030! 17.5
Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas 2015 ****
Vargellas (in the Douro Superior) picked early in 2015 and most of the finest wines had been made before mid-September when there were two days of rainfall. No details of the varietal make-up: closed with underlying ripeness on the nose initially, this quickly opened up to reveal its floral fragrance with a touch of dark chocolate and tar; soft plum and berry fruit on the palate with a touch of all-spice and firm, rapier-like tannins on to the finish. Well-balanced wine for the mid-to-long term. 17
Dow’s Quinta Senhora da Ribeira 2015 (Cask Sample)
From a small but magnificent estate in the Douro Superior, much of it south facing. This wine came from the old, inter-planted vineyards and relatively late picked Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca picked on 23rd and 30th September respectively. The grapes were foot trodden in the traditional manner in small granite lagares at the quinta. Very low yields: just 0.65 kg per vine. Deep, dense, brooding aromas, even after two days on ullage; seemingly rich and succulent initially with ripe plum and berry fruit compote, well-structured with a big, bold and rather austere, dry but powerful tannic finish. Foursquare. Very typically Dow in style, works well in a super-ripe vintage like this. 700 cases produced. 17.5
Quinta do Noval 2015
Christian Seeley explains the philosophy of a Noval vintage thus: ‘a Quinta do Noval declaration cannot be categorised according to the traditional distinction between a full declaration and a single quinta declaration, for the simple reason that all our greatest wines are wines from a single quinta, the great vineyard of Quinta do Noval. Whenever we decide to declare a Quinta do Noval Vintage Port, we are clearly saying that this is a great wine that deserves to bear the Quinta do Noval label.’ The 2015 is enigmatic on the nose, seemingly a bit weedy on first impressions, this developed a ripe, heady aroma in the glass and then a classic scent after three days; soft, succulent, slightly ripe cassis fruit, very pure and well defined, backed by firm, fine grained, linear tannins. By no means massive but beautifully poised with plenty of finesse. 2,600 cases have been produced, which amounts to about 9% of the total production of the quinta. 18
Quinta do Vesúvio
Picked from 21st September onwards, Touriga Nacional followed by Touriga Franca. These two varieties make up most of the blend supplemented by a little Sousão grown on more granitic soils. Entirely foot trodden in granite lagares on the estate. Rich and heady on the nose with ripe blackberry jam fruit and a touch of aromatic esteva (gum cistus) on the nose; dense and opulent on the palate, sundrenched fruit backed by big, ripe velvety tannins and a dusty tannic finish. Full, round and satisfying, showing richness, weight and finesse. 1000 cases produced in total, priced at £65/bottle. 17.5+
Niepoort 2015 (cask sample)
From a blend of 60% old vine fruit from Vale de Mendiz in the Pinhão valley and 40% from Quinta da Pisca (see below): deep and youthful in colour, though not inky black; ripe and focused on the nose, though not very expressive or aromatic at this stage; plump berry and plum fruit supported by fine grained tannins, firm, balanced but not especially big with lovely, well-defined length. 17+?
Niepoort Bioma 2015 (cask sample)
Made entirely from organically cultivated fruit grown at Quinta da Pisca, high above the Douro downstream from Pinhão: marginally deep in colour than the Niepoort above with a more expressive wild berry character on the nose; ripe with great purity and definition on the palate, very pure berry fruit character backed by ripe, peppery tannins, not big but elegant, long and sweet in style. 17.5
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