Welcome to the final chapter of MWH Wines’ guide to the finest vintage Port shippers, one in which we reveal who, in our expert opinion, is the best of the best.
In coming to our decision, we have reflected long and hard on the subject, reviewed our tasting notes both new and old and considered factors such as consistency, character and the extent to which they reflect a taste of place, or terroir as the French would put it.
As vintage Port specialists – Jancis Robinson MW describes us as ‘an exceptional source of mature Port’ – we are often asked who is the best producer? While this ultimately is a question of personal taste – are you seeking power of finesse? Elegance or flamboyance? Immediacy or longevity? – there are some producers that have over the years placed themselves above their peers by crafting wines that have something extra special about them.
Answering this question has been something of a labour of love for us as vintage Port isn’t just our business, it’s our passion. Over the years we have been fortunate enough to taste thousands of wines from dozens of shippers. We’ve enjoyed everything from cask samples of young glories such as the 1997s through to venerable old wines including the 1963s by way of fabled idiosyncrasies like that of Port’s rarest of gems, Quinta do Noval’s Nacional.
In total there are just a handful of these uber producer contenders to the Port throne including the likes of Dow, Taylor’s, Fonseca, Croft, Quinta do Noval, Warre and Graham. Each of them is an outstanding shipper whose wines make for excellent drinking. Of these, however, we have singled out the following three as having the edge with one being first among equals.
Quinta do Noval
Well-structured, built for the long-haul and with a richness and generosity that always marks them out when tasted blind, Quinta do Noval’s wines are fantastic. Yes, they need plenty of time before they show their charms – even ‘light’ years such as the 1975 which required a decade in bottle before being ready to drink – but when their drinking window does open, it reveals a vista of flavours that can be simply dazzling.
While Quinta do Noval’s ‘normal’ vintage wines are a treasure in themselves, the estate’s single vineyard wine, Quinta do Noval Nacional, is the stuff of wine trade legend. This tiny parcel of ancient vines – they are thought to range from between 35-80 years old - produces (when the mood takes it!) wines that are unique. They are a taste of history, a throwback to a world before the phylloxera blight and before vines were switched from European to American rootstocks. Only produced in truly exceptional years, years that don’t always coincide with standard Port declarations – 1977 wasn’t declared, 1978 was - the fruit is pressed by foot in concrete lagars and aged in 2,500 litre barrels before bottling. In essence this is a 19th century approach to a 19th century wine.
Having such a star in its ranks almost propelled Noval to the throne, but two others just edged it out in our opinion.
There’s no denying Taylor’s rightful claim to the crown. These powerhouse wines have a structure and depth of flavour that is almost peerless. In behemoth vintages such as 1945, 1963, 1970 and the only-now coming around 1977 and 1985, they are simply breath-taking and will live for decades to come. But there is more to them than sheer power. These are wines of elegance, refinement and nuance that marry complexity and power in the same way as Château Latour or Armand Rousseau’s Chambertin does. Like these other legends, the wines need plenty of time in bottle, decanter and glass but once given sufficient time they bloom into something extraordinary.
Although it was nearly 30 years ago, we vividly remember our first encounter with Taylor’s 1970. Having pulled the long cork from the bottle, there was a rush of aromas of dried black fruits, blackcurrant jam, prunes, chocolate and kirsch tones that imbued the inky, dark liquid that pressed the sides of the decanter as though it were seeking to break free. The first sip was almost overwhelming. Even with two decades of bottle age it was a ferocious. Massive and concentrated it was saturated with flavour with notes of spices and minerals, which came together – somehow – as a harmonious and balanced whole. A remarkable wine from a remarkable producer, only one thing stood in the way of its coronation, a shipper who in our opinion just beats it to the punch. Just.
Perhaps it’s because Graham are in the privileged position of being able to control every aspect of their production – from grape to glass as they say. Because they are the owners of some of the highest vineyards in the region or because they are detail obsessives (to the extent that they have their own cooperage), Graham’s wines often transcend those of their peers.
Over countless encounters our tasting often feature observations such as ‘concentrated’, ‘massive’, ‘well-structured’ and ‘refined’. In this they have much in common with Taylor’s, but we always found just a little more generosity in Graham. The fruit always seems a touch more abundant and a little richer and the structure, while as massive and purposeful as any you will find, often appears to be slightly less noticeable allowing the flavours to shine through.
Again, these are wines that demand patience and which reward it richly. At our last encounter with their 1977 – a wine that will seemingly last forever – we were struck by its youth and vibrancy. The colour remains deep, the fruit abundant and fresh, and the tannins still there in (discrete) abundance. To extend the Bordeaux simile, if Taylor is Latour, then Graham is Lafite.
Choosing Graham as the finest port shipper wasn’t an easy decision. Taylor, and for that matter Noval and Warre, were exceptional contenders, but by virtue of consistency, a combination of power and precision and spellbinding complexity, Graham had it by a nose.
Graham’s obsessive attitude toward quality means that if a vintage is declared then you are assured of a spectacular bottle. Given their style there are some vintages that need (even) more time than usual. Great years such as the 1945, 1963, 1966 and 1977 will still be drinking wonderfully in another 50 years, while lighter years such as 1975 and 1980 will have a richness and depth that may be lacking in some other shippers. Below are some of our favourite Graham vintages:
When we started out on our consideration of which is the best Port shipper, we knew it would be a close call. But reflecting on some of the wines we’ve had from Graham it does seem that we’ve crowned a worthy winner.
Like Some Vintage Port Help?
If you are looking for a specific wine then please get in touch by calling Mike on 0118 984 4654 or by emailing MWH Wines here. A recognised authority on these wines, he’ll be happy to advise you on which wine is right for you.