Some months ago, The Vintage Port Academy held a series of masterclasses and tastings in Hong Kong. Not only were we treated to several wood aged and vintage ports, but selected writers and journalists were also invited to a rare tasting of Single Quinta Vintage Ports from six different port houses: Croft's, Dow's, Fonseca, Graham’s, Taylor's and Warre's. As the name suggests, single quinta vintage port is made with grapes from a single estate, as opposed to classic vintage port which is a blend from different estates. It is not made every year; only in good but not declared years (all the grapes will be used to blend classic vintage port in declared years). Single quinta is usually the backbone of any classic vintage port blend and is made in exactly the same way - aged 2 to 3 years in casks then bottled without filtration. In a sense, single quinta vintage port is the expression of a particular quinta, while classic vintage port reflects the style of a particular house.
According to Euan Mackay from Symington Family Estates and Nick Heath from Fladgate Partnership, who led the tastings and masterclasses, Douro is probably one of the most difficult places for grape growing. It is very hot in summer and very cold in winter. The mountainous vineyards mean that all operations have to be carried out by hand. Water is precious but luckily the soil is mainly schist, which is not only great for drainage but also good for preserving water. Having said that, soil is actually not the major factor in differentiating single quinta styles. Rather it is the climate, landscaping, slope facing and grape varieties that make the difference.
This tasting was both educational and fun. All six ports had subtly different characteristics. The most interesting were the Quinta do Bonfim and the Quinta da Roêdo, which are next door to each other but the easiest to tell apart. The tutored tasting was followed by a blind tasting in a different order, and, not surprisingly, none of us got them all right.
Here are the characteristics of each port:
• Fonseca Quinta do Panascal: 1/3 Tinta Roriz. Dense rich fruit character, opulent.
• Warre’s Quinta do Cavadinha: Relatively cool site (250m above sea level), 37% old vines. Fresh and elegant.
• Dow’s Quinta do Bonfim: South facing site with prolonged exposure to the sun. 50% Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesa. Structured, complex and austere.
• Croft Quinta da Roêda: South facing. 50% Touriga Francesa. Ripe plum fruit, jammy, soft and round mouth feel.
• Graham’s Quinta do Malvedos: Younger vines (about 20 years old), fruity and floral, less austere.
• Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas: North facing site, strong floral character, elegant and refined.
For those who like port but don’t want too tough a challenge, try a blind tasting game of Ruby Reserve, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), Single Quinta Vintage and Classic Vintage. Ruby Reserve is more vibrant with fresh fruit character. LBV is richer, softer and rounder because of spending more time in oak. Single Quinta Vintage has more personality and develops earlier. Classic Vintage is more balanced and complete and can age for over 20 years in bottle. You can also put a 10 or 20 Year Old Tawny Port into the blind tasting but the colour will be a giveaway if you don't use black glasses. Tawny’s structure is provided by its acidity, not (perhaps surprisingly) by tannin, and it has more of the prune and coffee kinds of oxidised aromas.