This month’s Question For The Port Trade was written by Axel Probst of Cologne, Germany, who asked:

Is it better to buy LBVs from declared or non-declared years?

Background: In declared years, especially in fully declared years all "the good stuff" turns to be Vintage Port. The harvest might have been better, but the good grapes won’t make it to the LBV.  In non-declared years, the harvest and the quality of grapes might be not as good, but the best grapes are then becoming LBVs (and Tawnies).  What do you think about it?

Cristiano van Zeller, proprietor of Quinta do Vale Dona Maria

It is a very pertinent question and, somehow, difficult to answer with a very straight answer. In reality and looking at my own experience and practice, when I have Vintage Port quality Ports in any given vintage I tend to make a Vintage Port of those wines. Then, the remaining Ports are directed to the LBV. We could say that this is common practice in every producer.

The question is that, when we make a Port at these levels, we are always, every single year, trying to make a Vintage Port. Then, just some years it doesn’t happen or it happens only in a fraction of the production. With this I am trying to say that we make the Ports at this level as if we were making Vintage Port. And that we are so demanding with the quality of our Vintage Ports that we only choose the best of the best, of the best to make one. So, whether we have a Vintage port in any given year or not, it doesn’t affect the quality of our LBV.

Because all our wines (I must insist again, at that level of quality production) are treated as they will be, at least, of the highest quality LBV. Only if they surpass that they become Vintage. And if, by any chance, the wines are below top LBV level, then they are declassified. My theoretical (and practical) conclusion is that it really does not matter whether an LBV is from a Vintage Port declared year or not; its quality does not diminish due to that factor. If, by any chance, a declared Vintage Port year has any effect on the LBV it would be to increase the quality of the LBV, due to the increased quality of the year. If anything changes, in a declared Vintage Port year, the LBV would tend to be better than in other years. I hope that this does not sound too confusing.

Adrian Bridge, Managing Director of The Fladgate Partnership

The answer is that it is best to buy your LBV from a producer whose quality and style you like. The year is less important than who made it and the capacity of the producer to reach the quality threshold – not all LBV’s are equal. Remember that the IVDP has a role in saying if an LBV that they approve is ‘within style’ not whether it is better or worse than another producer’s offering.

Why is the year not so important to quality? We aim to make all the grapes that we grow into vintage Port but clearly we only ever make a small proportion into our very finest wines. The remainder are selected to age as an LBV or as Aged Tawny. The quality assessment takes place in the February following the harvest and is done against our quality standards. In great years we may well put aside more as a Vintage or Single Quinta but we may well have a large quantity to be LBV. In years when the harvest has not been so good (for example 2002) we have only been able to put aside a small quantity as LBV. The grapes that went into these lots may well have come from the best parts of our vineyard but they are still fitting for LBV as that is what the year produced.

What is clear to me is that the high focus on quality and the outstanding individual terroirs of some of our vineyards allows us to be able to make some vintage (single quinta) most years and some LBV’s. However, we have made much less Taylor LBV in 2002 than we have in 2003. Therefore, in some markets (like USA) you may not even see 2002 appear as we switch over from 2001 directly to 2003.

When we at Taylor’s set out to produce modern LBV in 1970 we were trying to produce a wine that had the complexity of a single year, was ready to drink when bottled and was an everyday alternative to Vintage Port. Key to all of this is the quality of the product and I believe that it has become better and better over the years as we have been able to incorporate modern technology (we only got electricity at Vargellas in 1978!). To us this is more important than the exact year of production and ultimately that is what should matter to the consumer.

Pedro Branco, proprietor of Quinta do Portal translates the words of winemaker Paulo Coutinho

LBV’s from non-declared years may be effectively better but what surely happens is that we have more LBV available in non-declared years. When we taste a LBV from a non-declared year two years after the vintage and the wine shows a lot of complexity we can conclude the following:

  • The tannin and volume that we didn’t think would be good enough for Vintage Port, after all originated something more complex than what we thought it could do. But isn’t that the LBV philosophy? It’s too late but we can’t regret for having such a wine bottled as LBV.
  • The initial volume destined for Vintage Port will enrich the quality of the LBV and increase its volume. With two more years of ageing we’ll have a great LBV. The consumer wins by having access to a better wine and still, at a very reasonable price.

Rupert Symington, Joint Managing Director of the Symington Family Estates

I think the question of LBV’s that you raise must be taken in the context of the size of shipper in question as the scale of operation makes an enormous difference.

For a single vineyard producer, there will obviously have to be a choice made in any year as to what goes in to LBV and what into SQVP. It is fair to say that the quality of the LBV will very probably suffer whenever the producer bottles a Vintage.

For a larger traditional shipper sourcing from multiple estates, the Vintage selection can be minuscule compared to the overall production, and therefore the quality of the LBV is virtually unaffected by any decision to bottle Vintage.

Clearly in a year where there are ideal conditions in the Douro, the overall standard of grapes will be higher, so in general the LBV from a great year should be better. In actual fact we have found that with greater control over picking dates in our own vineyards, and with enormous advances in port making technology, we are able to make top class LBV’s in almost every year from Letter A grapes, so the consumer buying, say, a Graham LBV need not worry about any noticeable variation in quality, even though the style will naturally change from year to year in line with the conditions and success of the different varietals.

It is worth finally pointing out that most LBV producers do not vary prices according to whether a year is considered great or not, and most LBV’s offer excellent value for money.

Bartholomew Broadbent, President of Broadbent Selections, Inc.

I would answer that it doesn't make a difference. The LBV probably comes from different vineyards from that of the Vintage Port. In the years when they don't make a Vintage, that best wine is probably being reserved to age for the older tawnies.

Christian Seely, Managing Director AXA-Millésimes Wine Group, which includes Quinta do Noval

I think that both of Axel's main points are valid. An LBV from a declared vintage year will naturally take second place to the Vintage blend. And an LBV from a good but non declared year, will have some of the best wines from the best terroirs that might have gone into the Vintage Port had there been one. But maybe growing conditions were less favourable. (Of course, high quality wines are also set aside for future tawnies and in our case Colheitas.)

In the case of Noval, the example I can give is that of our unfiltered LBV from 1996 and 1997. These are the two LBVs I am drinking at home at the moment and they are both in fact delicious but quite different. In the case of the ‘97 the excellent growing conditions are perhaps factor no.1, whereas in the case of the ‘96 there is more wine sourced from Noval's very best terroir. Take your pick: they are both great to drink now. I think it is important also to stress that even in a Vintage year, the proportion of wine selected to go into the Vintage blend is very small. Quinta do Noval Vintage in 1997 represented 1,200 cases, for example, out of a total production of Port of nearly 1 million bottles: this left a lot of very good wine left over for the LBV and for other high grade Ports.

The final point is that any serious Port house would not put a wine in bottle as their LBV if it was not of the highest quality. I would never bottle a Noval LBV I was not happy to drink. We didn't make a Noval LBV in 1995 for example, although we declared a small amount of Vintage. It was early days in the renaissance of Noval's vineyard, and after making the Vintage blend there just wasn't much wine to make an LBV. So we didn't. Conclusion: if it goes into bottle, it will be good and you can drink it with confidence!

Miguel Roquette is the co-owner of Quinta do Crasto

I do agree that in declared years, especially in fully declared years, most of "the good stuff" turns to be Vintage Port. But as a single Quinta producer this is not exactly so.

Every year at Quinta do Crasto only approximately 30% of our total Port production is bottled as Late Bottled Vintage or as Vintage Port, (if the quality is really good) being that the rest of the production is sold in bulk to major Port shippers in Gaia, as happened in the past with all Single Quintas.

Quinta do Crasto is a 100% grade A property and all of our Port wine is fully foot trodden in traditional lagares (20 men are employed every harvest only to tread the grapes). Vintage Port is only declared if the quality is outstanding and we even might have back to back declarations as it happened with our 2003 and 2004.

As for the LBV and having such a vast choice to select the best lots, we can have a great quality wine even in declared vintage years. Also our LBV is traditional and unfiltered and it will reward long term cellaring, needing to be decanted before being served."

My sincere thanks to those of you in the Port trade, whom have taken time out of your busy schedules to help us better understand this drink called LBV Port. I know we have all learned something from your great responses!

This is our 2nd monthly column, where the Port trade is invited to respond to your question on Port.  Each month I will select the best entry that I receive by email or see on the FTLOP Forum and send it off to members of the Port trade to seek their insight and responses.  Enjoy the read!

NEXT MONTH’S QUESTION FOR THE TRADE (for April 2007) comes from David Leachman of Watchung, New Jersey, USA

I think I've got a great suggestion for your next question for the port trade/port makers in your newsletter. One of the topics that ALWAYS seems to stir the pot, and elicits varying opinions, is how long to decant certain vintages/producers. Why not ask the experts, the people who taste all of their vintages, all of the time, what they think the optimum decanting time is for all their past vintages. they are the ones who are constantly tasting their 50's, 60's 70's and 80's on a more consistent basis than any of us.

I've had a 1970 Taylor that was decanted for 7 hours and was just beginning to open up when we consumed the last drop. I've had a 1970 Graham that was perfect after 7 hours, but lost steam after 8-9 hours. I would love to know what the various producers would say about this.

The response from the Port Trade will appear here in the April issue of FTLOP