In terms of port, 'vintage' still means 1991 is a good year


January 02, 1994|By MICHAEL DRESSER

The word "vintage" is one of the most abused and overused on the face of the earth.

Often it's used as a synonym for "fine," which it's not. Or "old," which it's not either. In most wine-growing regions, it simply means all the wine in a specific bottle comes from a single year, regardless of that year's quality.

For two major wine-growing regions of the world "vintage" is supposed to have a special meaning. In Champagne and the Douro region of Portugal, a vintage year is supposed to be special -- a mark of distinction accorded only a few times each decade to the producer's flagship wines.

The term has lost much of its meaning in Champagne, where vintages are declared with increasing promiscuousness. But in the Douro, which produces the classic fortified dessert wines we call port, the term "vintage" still has credibility.

That's because the producers of port have been admirably conservative in declaring vintages -- though one could quarrel with the choices of 1980 and 1975. Generally they wait for a year such as 1991, and it's an event well worth waiting for.

The 1991 vintage is the first to be widely declared in the port trade since 1985. For reasons that had as much to do with economics as wine quality, most producers sat out five straight vintages before a significant number gave their blessing to the 1991s.

They had good reason. The market is still saturated with unsold 1985s, 1983s and 1980s. Even the great 1977s, still far from mature, have not appreciated much in recent years.

But the 1991s were simply too good to resist for some of the best port lodges. The Symington family properties -- Graham, Dow, Warre and Smith Woodhouse -- all declared a vintage, as did Quinta do Noval and Cockburn. Part of their logic was that the 1991 crop was so small that releasing a vintage would not disrupt the market too much.

Still, some of the best lodges declined to produced a vintage port. Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca bottled 1991 only under their secondary labels -- Quinta de Vargellas and Fonseca Guimaraens. Early reports suggest that the difference in quality between these and traditional vintage ports will be minuscule.

(The quality difference between true vintage ports and some of the vintage-dated secondary labels is becoming more insignificant all the time. Such single-vineyard wines as Taylor's Quinta de Vargellas and Graham's Malvedos are often indistinguishable from fine vintage port. Judging by the stunning quality of Dow's 1990 Quinta do Bomfim and Graham's 1990 Malvedos, that harvest could have been declared a vintage with no loss of credibility.)

Cockburn's production director, Gordon Guimaraens, had compared the style of his 1991 to the 1970 vintage. It seems a fair comparison for the vintage as a whole. They are not monumental, tannic blockbusters such as '63 or '77. Nor are they chunky, charming wines like the 1985s. Like the 1970s, they strike a balance between the extremes.

A tasting of a half-dozen 1991 vintage ports suggests that even people with crowded cellars might want to find room for a few bottles of these wines.

* One that no port lover should pass up is the near-perfect 1991 Quinto do Vesuvio ($35). This rare single-vineyard property, introduced by the Symington family as a separate label in 1989, has produced one of the great ports of the last 15 years. It is at the same time immense and elegant, with lush flavors of blackberry, black raspberry, coffee, chocolate and herbs. Behind the lush, precocious fruit is a firm tannic backbone that suggests greatness in 30 to 40 years.

* Typically, Graham's 1991 ($32) was the sweetest, richest wine in the group. But Graham's sweetness is never mere confectionery. There is exceptional complexity and depth here, much as in the 1985. If you are one of those port drinkers who makes it a rare exception to a dry-wine-only policy, Graham's is probably not your style. If you're a dessert fiend, this could be your favorite.

* The 1991 Warre ($28) is especially impressive. This label usually lags a half-step behind Graham and Dow, but this year I found it to be comparable in quality, with unusual intensity and balance. It's the best Warre in my memory.

* The 1991 Dow is a typically elegant, stylish performance for this excellent house. It's unusually racy and acidic for a vintage port, which makes it appear on the dry side as ports go, but there's no disputing its concentration and intensity.

* The 1991 Smith Woodhouse and 1991 Cockburn (both probably about $28), are a notch below the other four in quality, but neither is any slouch of a port. The Cockburn shows this house's typical restraint, which is great if you want restraint in a port. (I don't.)

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