Having recently returned from my first visit to Quinta de Vargellas in the Pesqueira district of the Douro Superior a few weeks ago, it brought to mind a Port tasting which I attended a couple of years ago.
It was May 20th, 2004 and I flew to NY to attend a spectacular tasting and luncheon at the Gramercy Tavern which was led by charismatic Adrian Bridge, Managing Director of The Fladgate Partnership. I have been fortunate to attend some remarkable tastings of Quinta de Vargellas’ venerable Vintage Ports (June 2002) in Aspen and more recently (February 2004) in So. California; but the NYC tasting in conjunction with Kobrand Corporation, The Fladgate Partnership’s U.S. import/marketing arm, provided the distinct opportunity to try some celebrated “Vinha Velha” bottlings and some rare older Vargellas beauties.
It was a select gathering of wine journalists that would be amongst the very first individuals to partake in the new release of the ultra-rare, Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha Vintage Port 3-pack. This was a limited edition boxed set of the 1995, 1997 and 2000 VVVVP (Vargellas Vinha Velha Vintage Ports) that was being offered in a swank velvet lined, wooden display box for very serious Port collectors. Up until then, the Vargellas Vinha Velha bottlings had never been released in the United States and I had only one previous experience with a 1995 VVVVP, which a good friend brought out to Seattle for my Port tasting in October 2001.
The Gramercy Tavern put on a fine luncheon providing a first course of Maine Crabmeat Fondue with a sweet pea puree, bacon and pink peppercorns paired with a pleasant 2001 Jadot Meursault. I won’t bother with tasting notes on the wines that accompanied our lunch, as there is much to say about the Ports coming up. Our main course consisted of a roasted loin and braised shoulder of lamb, served with Swiss chard, Jerusalem artichokes and lemon confit. The lamb was outstanding and portioned perfectly for a mid-day meal. Another 2001 Jadot accompanied this course and it was a tasty Burg from Nuit-Saint-Georges. As a post prandial offering we enjoyed an assortment of Farmstead cheeses and to whet the whistle, a glass of Taylor’s 20 year old Tawny … always a welcome dessert in itself.
Quinta de Vargellas, located in the upper reaches of the Douro River Valley known as the Douro Superior, is within the Eastern most Port producing area in Portugal, not far from the border with Spain. Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman bought Vargellas in 1893, after it had fallen on hard times due to the Phylloxera epidemic which destroyed vineyards across all of Europe. There has been much change since those difficult years, yet a visit to the Douro Superior can feel like taking a step back in time. It is hard to imagine just how remote this area really is until you visit it and/or stop to think that there was no electricity at Vargellas, as recently as 1972!
To a skier, the main vineyards of Vargellas look like a “bowl” which extends from about 1,300 feet in altitude down to the Douro’s South shore. Its extremely hot summers, Northern exposure and mountainous terrain create an inhospitable environment except for the rugged, low yielding Vargellas vines with roots that creep deep down through vertical schist to find mineral-laden water. They produce deeply concentrated and powerful Port wine with incredible grip. Along with Quinta de Terra Feita, Vargellas is and has been the essence of Taylor’s great Vintage Ports for well over a century.
Some writers have made comparisons between Quinta do Noval Nacional and Vargellas Vinha Velha. My take is that they are both distinct and very different from one another, especially in flavor profile. While I understand the need of some to make comparisons, to me the Ports from both properties are unique in their own right. The Vargellas Vinha Velha vines are considerably older than those in the Nacional parcel (Vargellas vines are about 80+ years old while in the Nacional vineyard they average less than 40 years old). The belief is, that older vines are less vigorous and produce lower yields and provide greater concentration to the clusters that are produced. Certainly that is the case with the concept of Vargellas Vinha Velha. Ultimately, it is a matter of whether the relative quality is ample enough to compensate for the reduction in the quantity produced.
I think that old vines are more important for table wine production than Vintage Port, but there are certainly others with far more experience than me that give credence to the old vines theory with Vintage Port. However, one should not overlook the fact that the legendary 1931 Noval Nacional was produced with vines that were only six years old at the time. Replanting had taken place in 1925 in the Nacional parcel. So, is the difference really vine age when it comes to great VP, or is it the terroir itself? The proof is in the bottle and it would be a most fascinating experiment to do a blind tasting between the Quinta do Noval Nacional vs. Vargellas Vinha Velha from the excellent 1997 and 2000 vintages to evaluate the differences. Now back to the topic at hand.
Just a few weeks ago, while in Portugal, I had the good fortune to taste the fourth release of the Vargellas Vinha Velha (old vines), from the 2004 vintage. It was beguiling to say the least, please look for this story in an upcoming FTLOP newsletter. Without much further ado about grape, here now the tasting notes:
1912 Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port – From what I can tell this VP was never released commercially, as the 1912 “classic” Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port was a declared VP. Frank Yeatman was the winemaker of this Vintage Port (and all Taylor VPs from 1897-1958, a remarkable feat). To put the age of the 1912 into historical perspective, this Vargellas was vinified in the same year that the Titanic sank. Decanted 45 minutes prior to service this provides panoply of aromas from which to contemplate, offering a complex mélange of toffee, walnut, plum, mocha, orange peel and an herbal essence. The color was worth noting as amber to tawny with a yellow rim. This is probably the oldest Vargellas I will ever experience and the voluptuous body of this wine, along with the rich treacle, elegant and soft plum flavors delivers an aftertaste of thick, velvety crème caramel which is sublime. The two bottles opened, left just 11 of these in Taylor’s holdings and I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to enjoy this hedonistic, classic Vintage Port. 94 points (5/20/04)
Roy’s Note: The following assessment of the 1912 growing season was written that year by none other than Frank Yeatman, viticultural genius and Taylor winemaker. This is reprinted with permission from The Fladgate Partnership.
TAYLOR 1912 vintage
Notes on Viticultural Year and Harvest
There was plenty of rain during the winter and warm weather during the final half of May made the vine decidedly forward and favoured the flowering in the hotter situations, the latter half of May / June was however cold and caused much ‘desavinho’ in the ‘alto’. The summer was remarkably cool so that by the end of August the grapes the grapes, instead of being forward were rather backward. Hot weather and an east wind during the first fortnight of September rather shrivelled the grapes up but they were decidedly wanting in sweetness. Thunderstorms and rain on the 18th and 19th of September did immense good. The grapes improving immensely and gaining sweetness. Thundery weather lasted until the 22nd and many people began the vintage on the 23rd. Fine weather lasted until the 29th but it was then wet until the 2nd of ctober; this rain did harm causing some “podre” but not so much as might have been expected. We started the vintage generally on the 30th of September but Vargellas and on the 23rd.
Wines picked during the rain were slightly thinner than those picked before or after. Towards the end of the vintage there was a good deal of “podre” but when “escolha” was carefully done wines should be good- Graduation rather high, fermentation in most slow and steady, colour good.
Production in good situations large and rather more than was expected (“altos” small). Wines all round, “altos” and inferior parts of the baixo corgo excepted, should be decidedly good and 1912’s are most certain to be shipped.
Frank Yeatman- 12th Oct. 1912
1955 Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port – Except for some badly needed rain that arrived in early September, the 1955 growing season was blessed with a long and warm summer. Picking began on September 13th and the harvest delivered high yields and sugar levels at Vargellas. The viticultural expert and legendary Port maestro Dick “Smiler” Yeatman made this VP in a declared vintage year (but this was never released to the public), which is just one of the 50 vintages he was personally involved with. This and all bottles to follow had 1.5 hours of decanting. Medium-ruby centered with significant bricking on the edge. Expansive scents of maple syrup, minerals and licorice help set the stage for the sweet and spicy palate, with a creamy texture and superb balance. A seamless beauty with a prolonged decadent finish and just a slight touch of spirit; this Vargellas is likely the finest VP I’ve enjoyed from the highly regarded ’55 vintage. 96 points (5/20/04)
1967 Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port – This vintage represents the first in which Alistair Robertson (owner of The Fladgate Partnership) took charge, after the death of his uncle Dick Yeatman, the previous year. Jeremy Bull was the winemaker at Taylor, through 1990 (30 years) and made this brilliant Port just weeks after the picking began on September 26th. Following the fabulous 1966 vintage, the very hot summer of 1967 delivered few true winners. My two favorites have always been the Quinta do Noval Nacional, closely followed by the Vargellas. It shows a vibrant magenta color with slight bricking and fragrances of aniseed, cassis and enticing sweet plums. Superbly integrated with lush prune and raisin nuances, the ’67 remains a concentrated and voluptuous Vargellas with a seductively layered, sweet and nutty finish, which is finally at its peak. 94 points (5/20/04)
1970 Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port – A remarkably scarce Vargellas as only one pipe of this VP was vinified (approximately 558 liters which translated into 62 cases). It was the first exception that I am aware of, when the Single Quinta, Vargellas Vintage Port was declared alongside a “classic” Taylor’s Vintage Port (see: Roy’s Recent Tasting Notes section, below). In fact, this was the first time that Port from a specific parcel of Vargellas old vines was bottled separately. It has never been sold and still rests in the Taylor cellar in Vila Nova de Gaia. This particular old vines parcel is now below the surface of the Douro and is gone forever, due to the dam that was built in the 1970s, just up river at the entrance to the Valeira Gorge. Medium garnet color with a light colored rim. Vibrant, spicy fragrances of cinnamon and lavender. Copious quantities of black cherry and succulent plum fruit are supported by a superb structure of lip smacking acidity and gentle tannins. The grapes for this bottling were harvested below the Vargellas railway in a part of the vineyard that no longer exists, due to the flooding caused by the dams built on the Douro, just a few years later. This was a truly fantastic Vintage Port experience. 97+ points (5/20/04)
1995 Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha Vintage Port – A very warm spring led to perfect conditions for flowering, followed by a cool summer until the intense heat came in August. Fortunately there was some rain during the first week of September which cooled things down and reinvigorated the vines. Harvesting began on September 13th under crisp and clear skies, resulting in high yields and grapes with remarkably high sugar readings. This is the first bottling of VVVVP that was produced for sale to the public, although it took years before it was sold in the USA. Deeply extracted purplish-ruby color. Generous scents of violets and spice with licorice and prunes at the forefront and a backdrop of cedar. Although this was decanted a few hours ago, it is still very tight on the palate and needs far more time to really strut its stuff. This Vinha Velha is all about concentration and power, exhibiting intense almost punishing tannins that are fortunately supported by chewy, ripe sweet plum fruit and a chocoholic’s dream aftertaste. Still, this is pretty reticent at the moment and difficult to evaluate. 224 cases were produced and the original release was limited to the UK (and possibly Canada). 92+ points (5/20/04)
1997 Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha Vintage Port – The color of this Port almost makes the 1995 look like it is a decade older. Impenetrable black ink is the only way to describe what one sees in the glass, with only the slightest dark purple on the edge. Again there is that requisite violet fragrance that let’s you know where this comes from, but there is more: a wonderful hint of eucalyptus intrigues, while black raisins and prunes eventually come to the fore with some coaxing. This too is a tight beast and would benefit from extended decanting. Once it began to reveal itself, I preferred this sexy Vargellas to the 1995 VVVVP as it provides greater symmetry and given its youth, it could even be considered elegant due to its rounder mouthfeel, gentler tannins and medium body. I also sense more of a “true Vargellas character” to this particular Port. Approximately 100 cases produced. The 1997 is a certain winner! 95+ points (5/20/04)
2000 Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha Vintage Port – An aromatic delight with kirsch, anise and dark plums that leap from the glass. This Vinha Velha is no wall flower! While it delivers infused flavors of sweet dark cherry, espresso bean and just picked grapes, the jammy, ripe fruit is absolutely delicious today. Lively tannins pack a puckering wallop on the palate and the admirable persistence on the finish shows the great promise for longevity in the cellar. As much as I enjoy this classy and voluptuous Vargellas, side-by-side with the 2000 Taylor VP, there is no question that I prefer the “classic” Taylor Fladgate bottling. However, this is certainly no slouch and this single Quinta bottling is better than many other 2000 VPs I have tasted. About 2,500 cases worth of juice was harvested from the old vines parcels, yet only 240 cases were vinified as Vargellas Vinha Velha. The balance became the backbone for the 2000 Taylor Vintage Port. 95+ points (5/20/04)
2000 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port – Inky purplish-black color. The nose of cassis, violets and pencil shavings need some coaxing here but the aromatics take a back seat for now, (but will be great in a decade or three) as this is all about what takes place in your mouth and mind. Seductive cassis and black currant flavors burst onto the scene and the densely concentrated juice just overwhelms the senses. Lots of “M” words here: monstrous, meaty, mind-blowing and masculine come to mind. This is one powerful young Port with tannins that take no prisoners. But finally, it is easier to see beneath the layers and understand what lies ahead. In at least a half dozen previous tête-à-tête tastings including the 2000 Taylor and Fonseca, I have always leaned towards the latter VP as it was more harmonious in its infancy. Today, I found the 2000 Taylor the best of all of the young Vintage Ports on the table. If you don’t have these in your cellar, so far, you have truly missed the boat. Grab a case while they are still affordable. This is a legend in the making, whether you decide to drink them someday or bequeath them to your grandchildren. Just a stunner! 98+ points (5/20/04)
2000 Delaforce Vintage Port – Dark ruby-purple color. This is still so primary and the essence of grapes with a prune note. The Delaforce has not budged much since my last tasting. Finely knit blackberry and plum flavors in a noticeable drier style, with a generous mouthfeel and it is smooth sailing. This VP is significantly less complex than the other Ports in this tasting, yet it is also softer and deftly balanced. The finish is tasty but lacks some length. Now under new ownership, I have a feeling we’ll see major improvements from this venerable shipper. 90 points (5/20/04)
2000 Croft Vintage Port – I will never forget that Croft was sold to the Fladgate Partnership just one day prior to 9-11. But I digress, as this is one of the better Croft Vintage Ports in recent times along with their 1991. I have little doubt that under new ownership and David Guimaraens’ care, Croft will once again become a well-known name. Quinta da Roeda has tremendous potential, its vineyards situated low to the Douro and the lagares there (which were removed in 1963) were replaced in 2002. Roeda belonged to Taylor in the 19th century and this gem is now back in the Fladgate crown. Already 300,000 vines have been replanted which is incredible considering that there are approximately 5,000 vines in a typical hectare and that only about 5-6 hectares are usually planted at a time. The nose is packed with explosive notes of blackberry, mocha and fresh flowers and I will never forget my first time smelling this wine when it was still a cask sample. Medium-bodied, smooth and providing sweet, ripe cassis and primary plum flavors. The core of this wine reveals its beauty, however I don’t get the sense this is built for the long term. So buy this Croft with the intent to drink it in the next 10-20 years. 92 points (5/20/04)
2000 Fonseca Vintage Port – Opaque purplish-ruby. It’s just too good to be true, can’t take my nose off of you … wow! The aromatics just keep getting better every time I revisit this hedonistic Port, with anise, blueberry and a spicy character to boot. The significant strength of this Fonseca is its extraordinary and seamless balance, rarely achieved in VPs this young. Descriptors just don’t do this wine justice, nor do mere point scores. From my very first introduction to this 2000 bottling, it has remained one of the greatest young Vintage Ports I have ever encountered. What more needs to be said? 97+ points (5/20/04)