«Article and photos © by Roy Hersh – Nov. 2007 Tasting through cask samples as well as recently bottled Vintage Ports can certainly be challenging ...»
Roy’s 2005 Vintage Port Forecast
Article and photos © by Roy Hersh – Nov. 2007
Tasting through cask samples as well as recently bottled Vintage Ports can certainly be
challenging for the best of palates. Although I feel privileged to have access to these
youngsters, I have come to truly enjoy this annual ritual and take pride in doing so. Whereas
many other wine journalists solely focus on the “generally declared” vintages, (such as 1994,
2000 and 2003) that tend to occur about three times per decade, I believe there’s a need and a responsibility to evaluate the “lesser” vintages in which lots of Vintage Ports are produced.
The 2005 Vintage Port Forecast was written with that purpose in mind.
With the 2005 Vintage Ports, the finite line of generally declared vintages continues to blur, as small growers that used to sell their grapes to the larger shippers in the Port trade, decide to bottle and market their own Vintage Ports under Single Quinta labels. Whereas the more traditional and long established members of the Port trade, have long held onto the custom of declaring their classic Vintage Ports on average just three years in ten. Those that make Single Quinta Vintage Port (SQVP) and growers-turned-producers do not necessarily share the same view of making Port declarations that infrequently. The dynamic of continued financial viability within the smaller companies, tends to provide them with a very different agenda.
Consolidation persists within the Port trade’s “Big 5” as they seek out new opportunities to develop depth in their real estate holdings and through the procurement of Quintas, vineyards and brands that are being added to their stables. It must be a nerve wracking time for smaller Port companies who do not possess both quality products and positive cash flow. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory is playing out in the board rooms in Vila Nova de Gaia and the weak are perishing. From where I sit, small family operated Port companies that have either run into financial trouble or receive an offer they can’t refuse (to relinquish control); often times the Ports produced by the new owners will improve in dramatic fashion and rather quickly at that (e.g. Noval, Croft, Burmester).
The 2005 vintage shows that there is a counterbalance to consolidation; with continued growth in numbers and improvement of the independent SQVPs along with the sustained increase in the quality and popularity of the Douro table wines being produced today. The Douro was fortunate, as 2005 introduced the third consecutive high quality harvest and both the DOC wines as well as the Vintage Ports benefited.
I’ve engaged in discussions with a broad representation of Port producers and there seems to be no consensus about the 2005s. Some mentioned that the innate quality was good enough for a general declaration, while others stated that they believe 2004 was even better and a few have decided to just wait and see how the Vintage Ports from 2007 turn out. Although the jury may still be out, having evaluated a couple of dozen VPs from across the Douro, the answer seems a bit clearer to me.
It is important first and foremost, to understand the growing conditions and harvest dynamics that took place during 2005 even before exploring the specific Vintage Ports or the 2005 harvest as a sum of its parts.
We first have to look back to 2003, as the dry winter led into 2004 and the rest of the seasons that year did not do much to create any real significant precipitation. Drought conditions took their toll, but there was relief on a few rare occasions. The dry winter conditions of 2004 then led into 2005. They were severe and showed ever more serious symptoms of drought, which prevailed throughout most of the ’05 growing season. Even with the lack of any measurable moisture, the flower set was said to have been very good For those that follow the harvests in Portugal the summer months were fraught with wild fires throughout the country and burned a large swath of hectares, especially in the Southern half of Portugal. Yet during the early part of the summer there was still little to no precipitation whatsoever and with the heat that is typical of August, the vines were not happy campers and took a respite. Expectations of good quality Port seemed low and yet there was an innate optimistic spirit that I sensed during my visit to the Douro at harvest time. Some growers felt that with less than half of the average annual rainfall of the past decade, balance and normal yields would be difficult to achieve. With similar concerns, some grape farmers decided to start picking much earlier than usual based on their experience. That was all about to change.
Early in September there were two significant rain showers that fell just a few days apart.
These storms made all the difference and provided much needed nutrition for the vines as well as the individual grapes. Fortunately, it cleared up for the remaining days of the growing season and the ’05 harvest took place under near perfect, azure skies. The warm sunny days and cool nights had a positive effect on acidity levels which was a key factor for overall balance. Phenolic ripeness which had been a serious concern just a few weeks earlier resulted in grapes with RS levels and anthrocyanin extractions that brought smiles to the faces of growers and portmakers alike. This, in spite of the fact that the 2005 crop yields were about 20% lower than in 2004.
Overall impression of the vintage and when to drink the 2005 VintagePorts
The 2005s share a few common threads which are interwoven through the majority of the Vintage Ports included in this Forecast. Similar to its forerunner the ‘04 vintage in that 2005 shows a narrower range of highs and lows than I typically find in the “big” vintages like 2003, 2000 and 1997. Overall, there are some well made VPs, but only a handful that really captured the imagination. There were two or three examples from the ’04 vintage that really zinged my happy zone while in 2005 possibly a handful, as well as one or two real surprises.
I am not sure where pricing is going to wind up with these youngsters, but to generalize, the 2005 Vintage Ports are built for early consumption and should be priced accordingly. That’s not to say they should only be enjoyed while they’re mere youngsters, as a handful of ‘05s have enough grip and backbone to improve for the next 3+ decades. Speaking of common threads, one that stands out in comparison to the young Ports of a year ago, is the ease in which the wines can be approached, (unlike 1997 and 2003) with the softer and round nature of the tannins.
It is difficult to make sweeping generalizations about two successive vintages, however, again making direct comparisons to 2004, I found there to be brighter acidity levels in the 2005 Vintage Ports. Whether that was directly a result of the cooler nights at the end of the growing season or not, I remember finding some of the 2004s lacking the degree of vivid crispness that many of the 2005s seemed to ante up.
Additionally, the extraction levels seem to be even darker and denser with nearly every 2005 showing fully opaque dark red/purple color. Also, there is a distinct ripe, sweet and fruit driven nature to many of the 2005s, where structural components seem to take a back seat.
In many cases, the gentler nature of the tannins in the ‘05s VPs seem obscured, at least for now, by the dominating concentration of the fruit.
Some suggest that this is a stylistic change in the practices of the portmakers, yet I see and hear no evidence of this being the case. In fact, I believe it is simply an example of the difference in Mother Nature’s influence from one vintage to the next. That said, I have heard this opinion before, most notably with the 1994s at this same period in time and for a year thereafter. Now at 13 years of age, there is no question that the structure of most ‘94s have risen to show their well structured nature and are in synch with the fruit. 2005 is no different and please do not read into this that I am making any other type of comparison with 1994 VPs.
Across the spectrum of the 2005 class of Vintage Ports, I believe the key factor is that they exhibit equilibrium in spades. The 2004s showed some fine symmetry too, but I believe the majority of ‘05s possess not only more vivid acidity and extraction, but late arriving lush tannins which created harmonious young Vintage Ports with lots of ripe fruit flavors. Put into strictly numerical terms, the two dozen VPs I tasted from 2004 averaged a rating of 91 points. Comparatively, in 2005 the overall average is up only slightly to 91.5 points, not a very significant difference. However, there are a few particular producers who rose to the occasion in 2005 and made alluring and gorgeous Vintage Ports that showed their inherent ability and also the quality of the vintage.
So should we invest our hard earned dollars in the 2005 VPs?
Beyond those with children born in 2005 or anniversaries, there are reasons why some 2005s deserve space in the cellar. First of all, there are a number of intriguing VPs that will deliver plenty of drinking pleasure. The prices for a vintage such as this will seem quite inexpensive compared to the next classic and generally declared vintage. Like the 1995s from a decade earlier have proven, solid VPs made in an ultimately drinkable style, reward those with the insight to drink them at 10-20 years old while the great vintages remain untouched in the cellar. It is all about planning your cellar’s depth.
As I mentioned earlier, only a select few of the 2005s are going to improve for more than a couple of decades. Understanding that this is a vintage in which most Ports won’t go the long distance route, a buying strategy can take advantage of the best values available, for near and mid-term drinking. Price will ultimately dictate what many consumers decide to shell out for 2005s, while at the same time; Shippers may decide to hold back a considerable quantity of their Ports to realize greater margins when the bottles have matured for a decade or so.
Nonetheless, with 2007 looking like the next possible general vintage declaration, we won’t see any new “classic” Vintage Ports until at least 2009 or 2010.
Whether consumers decide to devote cellar space and financial resources for 2005 VPs or not; there is no question that it is a solid vintage. Some Port collectors will want to include ‘05s to maintain their verticals, while others simply will enjoy drinking young Vintage Ports.
Given how well these drink in their youth, restaurant buyers will probably be diving in to sell these by the glass and bottle. In reality though, we’ll have to see the retail pricing before deciding if 2005 is worth dedicating money and cellar space. I’d suggest seeking out the cream of the crop and looking for where the values lie within your own Port collecting stratagem.
My evaluation routine from year to year has varied little in the way I approach cask samples and pre-released finished bottlings of Vintage Ports. Whether my overall analysis and ratings given to specific 2005 Vintage Ports vary from other journalists and critics, my tasting regimen remains consistent and has been employed for over a decade’s worth of vintage critiques.
Whenever possible I try the wines on several occasions. Like last year with 2004s, I was fortunate to be in Portugal during the first half of this year, to assess a broad spectrum of 2005s while they were cask samples. This was followed up by retasting and documenting the same VPs, (as well as a bunch of others) during the first two weeks in October in Gaia and the Douro during harvest. Those experiences are what I consider to be “snapshot views” of the young vintage Ports. Some find this an adequate way of assessing a vintage and solely base their reports on their momentary glances reflected in tasting notes.
I have included a select few 2005s which I only tasted during a pair of visits to Portugal. A number of VPs that I tasted over there were not included in this report because I felt it imperative to spend more time with those specific Vintage Ports as it would have been unfair to report those very brief impressions. Nevertheless, the vast majority of what appears in the ‘05 tasting note section that follows, were “finished bottles” (unless noted otherwise) that I spent numerous days with in single blind evaluations. Given the challenge of obtaining enough samples to adequately portray an infant vintage at large, I find it advantageous to use an amalgam of my own tasting notes, (on the same VP) from both snapshot views and adding in the multi-day assessments too. This approach provides me with a significantly more focused, comprehensive viewpoint and enhanced acuity in prognosticating drinking windows.
My typical tasting regime is to choose five to six bottles that have been allowed to settle, while stored in my cellar and including them in a blind flight. I believe that tasting a range of young Vintage Ports by flight rather than individually, enables me to achieve greater precision and a broader view of the vintage as a whole. The bottles are then opened, neck capsules removed and decanted for twelve hours. Once the VPs are poured back into their original bottle, my wife positions each one into numbered bags.
I scribe detailed tasting notes during each approach over a three day period. The first day, I normally taste them at 4 or 5 hour intervals at least twice, but usually three times. On the second and third day, I make sure to try them twice. In the past (unless a generally declared vintage) I only re-tasted a few specific bottles on the third day. Beginning with the 2005s, I made a permanent modification to my methodology, as every bottle was kept and re-tasted twice on the third day after it was opened. Typically, over the years I haven’t found much of a change between day two and three, but this year I learned the importance of re-evaluating in this way, when I noticed a couple of VPs that had improved quite dramatically between my appraisal on day two and three.
THE 2005 VINTAGE PORTS There are currently twenty-three VPs that made this report in time for release. There will be a section added on with between 3 and 10 more Vintage Ports, as some bottles were held up by US Customs while a few producers were not able to get their bottles into the USA at all.