The February theme for the Winetaster’s Society of Toronto was Warre’s Vintage Port. In the dark, cold winter months, the warm, rich, velvetty texture of a fine port wine is just what is needed to envelop us and take the chill off. In this tasting, we sampled 8 different vintages, the oldest being the 1977. I liked most of them very much. One, the 1994, seemed a bit musty to me, an indication of a fault, but the table that I was at were the only ones to think so. My favourite was the 1991, followed by the 1980.
Warre’s has 340 years of experience making port as it was the first British Port house to be established in 1670. It is now owned by the Symington family who control the parent company, Symington Family Estates. The Symington’s also own the firms Dow’s and Graham’s, among others. Warre’s also owns several significant vineyards (940 ha and 25 quintas) in the Douro including Quinta da Cavadinha, Quinta do Retiro Antigo, and Quinta da Telhada. Quinta da Cavadinha and Quinta do Retiro Antigo are the two vineyards that supply grapes to the vintage port. Cavadinha is a cooler site and the grapes grown here provide freshness, floral aromas and good acidity. Retiro Antigo is a warmer site with older vines that give intensity, concentration, and complexity to the blend. Individual members of the Symington family privately own vineyards which they manage and the grapes are supplied to Warre’s.
In general, Warre’s vineyards are located on cooler sites and on the highest altitudes. The grapes take longer to mature which ensures they gain complexity during the slow ripening process. The grapes retain a higher acidity that helps to balance the sweetness of the wines. As a result of the unique terroir, Warre’s ports are characteristically elegant with a distinctive floral note. Warre’s Vintage Port is still primarily treaded by foot, but the Symington’s have designed “robotic lagares” to tread some of the grapes.
An interesting question was asked of the group about whether or not people in the room would be willing to buy vintage port sealed with a Stelvin (screwcap). I was surprised to see that quite a few people said they would be willing and would actually be very happy to buy a vintage port under screwcap. It seems that the screwcap is finally losing its loser image. (Although the other day at the restaurant I work in, a bottle of wine was refused because it was sealed under screwcap. I hadn’t heard of that happening for a long time.)
For more information on Vintage Port please read my Suite 101 article, “Vintage Port”.
1977: This vintage is considered to be one of the finest of the second half of the 20th century. Overall, the vintage produced wines of concentration, complexity, and longevity and was declared by all the major port houses. After such hype about the vintage I have to say that I was a little disappointed with the Warre’s 1977. The colour had faded dramatically to a light tawny colour. The wine has aromas of leather, spice (nutmeg), dried fruit (apricot), and animal. It has a very silky texture on the palate with flavours of leather and suede, and dried fruit. It seemed a bit light for the vintage. There was even some debate over whether this wine was more like a tawny port than a vintage port.
1980: The year started off badly with poor conditions during flowering and fruit-set. The remainder of the summer was great until rain during harvest complicated matters. Those who were able to avoid damage in the spring and pick at the right time were able to make some excellent wines. As mentioned above, I really liked this wine. It is a very dark garnet colour with stained, slow moving tears. Lots of aromas of rich, ripe dark fruit, with an unmistakable floral note. On the palate it has a smooth texture and a flavour that reminded me of chocolate covered cherries. Other dark fruit flavours are evident along with chewy tannins and a long length.
1985: Again, the spring started off a bit rough with a cold spell that lasted through May and June, leaving the grapes about 3 weeks behind their normal development. July and August were hot and dry which brought development back to normal. There were two days of rain in the fall but for the most part the warm and dry conditions continued right through the harvest. This vintage is seen as a classic vintage overall, with concentrated, rich, and potent wines. I actually found this wine to be a bit lighter than some of the others. There are aromas of cherry, black licorice, and brown spice. It is quite smooth, but it does seem to have a bit more of an acidic backbone than some of the other vintages we tried. The tannins are still quite firm and this wine could age for a few more years.
1991: Heavy rain at the start of the year were able to support the vines through the dry spring and very hot summer. The grapes achieved perfect ripeness with high levels of sugar. This wine is very aromatic with black cherry, plum, dark chocolate and suede notes. A very silky texture with rich chocolate flavours, licorice, cloves, and lots of plum. The tannins are soft and integrated and there is a very long, delicious finish. Definitely a beauty!
1992 Quinta da Cavadinha: Not a declared vintage. Drought conditions plagued much of the year with some vineyards showing signs of stress as a result. Heavy rains in the early part of August helped tremendously and sugar readings improved. This wine shows aromas of chocolate, black licorice, cherries, and a floral note. It has a smooth texture with flavours of dark fruit and a touch of leather.
1994: The very wet winter was a welcome relief after a few very dry years. The extra water replenished the ground water reserves. A cold and wet period in May affected flowering and reduced the crop size. The remainder of the summer had ideal growing conditions. The vintage took place with warm days and cool nights. This was my least favourite of the tasting as I found the wine to be quite musty with a hint of mould. I suspected TCA, but it seems that only those at my table thought so. Only one other person in the room thought it was faulty.
2000: Heavy rainfall in the spring lead to problems with flowering and greatly reduced crop levels. By the time harvesting took place in October, the grapes were healthy and perfectly ripe. Overall, the 2000 vintage will be remembered for the immense concentration of the wines and the very small quantities produced. The Warre’s 2000 vintage port has very floral aromas along with aromas of cherry, plum, and cassis. On the palate it is almost Cabernet-like with flavours of cloves and cassis. It has a firm structure and the tannins are a bit tight and need some time to soften and integrate.
2003: The year seemed just about perfect for the healthy development of the grapes. Just the right amount of dry weather and heat enabled the grapes to ripen early, but under ideal conditions. This was the first vintage blend to be partly made up with wine produced in the Symington Robotic Lagares (To find out more about the robotic lagares and to see a picture go the Symington website). There is good intensity of aromas on the nose with black cherry and other dark fruit, spice, chocolate, and a distinctive floral note. It’s very full-bodied with a smooth texture and firm structure. There is an abundance of dark fruit flavours, chocolate, and spice with a very concentrated and long finish. Quite delicious!