Portugal: Up to their knees in it

The 2000 vintage port is truly delicious thanks to some fancy foot work.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It takes a disciplined wine writer to get through the annual London International Wine and Spirits Fair without tasting at least 200 wines a day. I was one of them this year. Although my spitting figure was much lower than that, one thing I was determined to taste was the 2000 vintage of port. All the news on the grapevine suggested this was going to be a year to make everyone sit up and take note. And I am pleased to say, each of the wines I tasted had all the hallmarks of an exceptional vintage: rich, concentrated, supremely well-balanced.

It takes a disciplined wine writer to get through the annual London International Wine and Spirits Fair without tasting at least 200 wines a day. I was one of them this year. Although my spitting figure was much lower than that, one thing I was determined to taste was the 2000 vintage of port. All the news on the grapevine suggested this was going to be a year to make everyone sit up and take note. And I am pleased to say, each of the wines I tasted had all the hallmarks of an exceptional vintage: rich, concentrated, supremely well-balanced.

The 2000 vintage was good in other places, most notably (and expensively) in Bordeaux. In the Douro, however, "vintage" means something different. Wine is made every year, but only in certain years do some or all of the producers "declare", ie keep some of their wine separate for bottling with the year printed on the label. This should happen only in distinguished years, however, in marginal ones some port houses declare while others do not. In 2000, everyone declared. John Graham, of Churchill's, says, "We were hoping to be able to declare a vintage in 2000, but what we didn't want was to have to worry about whether the quality would be good enough. As it turned out, 2000 was a no-brainer."

The combination of high quality with that magic round figure should get the cash registers ringing in Oporto. Though not as merrily as they might have rung, because the year was also striking for its low yields. Poor weather when the vines were flowering meant they produced far less fruit, so on some estates yields are down 60 to 70 per cent from normal. That will make the wines even more desirable to investors.

The year also marked a major step towards the demise of a Douro winemaking tradition: grape treading. The Douro fermentation tank, or lagar, is shallow, open and made of stone. Grapes are dumped in with their stems intact and are then trodden by bare-footed teams of workers. There is a good reason for using the lagar. To become port, the developing grape juice needs to be processed with maximum extraction of colour and tannins from the grape skins and this long, gentle stir-and-crush operation is the best way of achieving it. Of course, it's also expensive because of the labour involved. And the work is not fun. So lagar treading is used for only a small proportion of the best wine; the rest is crushed mechanically, which has never been as good as the old-fashioned foot technique.

The major houses have been looking into replacing toes with machines, and the Symington group – which owns Dow's, Graham's and Warre's, as well as some lesser-known houses – thinks it has cracked the magical mechanical formula. Peter and Charles Symington, winemakers for the group's principal houses, designed "robotic lagares": expensive stainless-steel tanks, the same size and shape as the old stone troughs. This version, however, incorporates temperature-controlled "feet" (a kind of paddle) to simulate the action of the human variety. The walls of the tank are also monitored for temperature control so that "additional aromas are kept in the wine" according to Paul Symington. He says the robots have been in use for some time, though this is the first year in which they've been used to make vintage wine. And "the results are spectacular". He cites the "extra dimension" in the wines' aromas as a specific product of robotic fermentation which drinkers will notice.

The Symington family is not the only force for change in the Douro. Taylor's has been experimenting with a mechanical system and Quinta do Noval has a similar system of treaders. Whereas the Sym-ingtons believe their system replicates the results given by the human foot, winemaker David Guimar-aens, of the Taylor Fonseca group, says that its "piston plungers... come within 5 per cent of the quality attained by using traditional lagares". They still use foot-treading for vintage ports. But, if the Syming-tons's success is repeated elsewhere, we could see the end of human treading within a generation.

You'll be able to start placing orders for 2000 port shortly. But be warned: these wines will be in demand. Berry Bros & Rudd is giving the wines nine points out of 10 on its peerless website (bbr.com), the same rating given to the memorable 1994s. With interest running so high, the producers will be putting retailers on stricter allocations than usual. Paul Symington says that its three top labels – Dow's, Graham's and Warre's – will send 2,000 to 3,000 cases to the UK. That doesn't amount to much.

Me, I'd nab at least a couple of bottles from any of the major houses. Taylor's, the least opulently luscious of the major houses, is a particular favourite. Dow's is another star. I would hunt down Quinta do Roriz and Churchill as well. I would be on the lookout for wines from Niepoort, Quinta do Crasto and Ferreira. And I would keep them safe somewhere while waiting until either (A) they are ready or (B) I decide to give them to my great-grandchildren.

Not everyone agrees. There is a movement to-wards drinking the vintage goods in their infancy, and Alistair Robertson of Taylor's says that some people have always done this, despite the image of gentleman's clubs sitting on the stuff until the collected dust weighs more than the bottle. I'm not convinced. Vintage port has a funny drinkability curve: it can be exuberant and lively when almost neonatal. Then it goes into an unpredictable adolescence, sometimes wretchedly tannic and fiery, which can last (with periods of remission) for years.

The obvious solution is to buy several cases and drink them over several decades. And you know, that's not nearly as impoverishing an enterprise as going to town on claret. While first-growth clarets from the highly unspectacular 2001 vintage are being offered en primeur for close to £1,000 a case, most 2000 ports should come in at less than half that price, with all taxes paid. Even without the benefit of the human foot, this is a vintage to seize with both hands. *

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