David Guimaraens’ tutored tasting of rare 1992 single varietal “Ports”
Last week David Guimaraens of The Fladgate Partnership was in town to present a masterclass and, let me tell you, Guimaraens puts the masterful into masterclass! Even when troubled by a kidney stone and fresh off the plane from Canada. So, at the risk of seeming lazy, I am going to share with you my almost verbatim notes from Guimaraens’ tutored tasting. Focused on six classic Port grape varieties it provided us with a rare opportunity to taste six library/experimental single varietal “Ports” (inverted commas because the rules don’t allow single varietal Port) followed by an equal proportions blend of all six, which really lifted his comments off the page and onto the palate. Tasting notes (and headings) my own!
David Guimaraens’ presentation
This masterclass stems from work carried out over 20 years when there has been lots of interest in grape varieties. This is a trip into the Port trade and behind the scenes of Port.
The Douro Valley – a mountainous, varied terroir
The main feature of the Port trade is it’s about the valley and the main characteristic of the Douro Valley is that it’s a region of mountain viticulture in a hot climate (two points). Mountain viticulture is one of greatest advantages we have, giving us many variables – altitude, orientation (north-facing, south-facing) and, within that, many different soil fertilities. Because of our hot climate, our extreme heat summer and low rainfall, our varieties have a key role to play.
The Douro Valley is very much known for the complex number of grape varieties we work with but we don’t always talk about their individual characteristics.
Quinta de Terra Feita
The Ports we are tasting today come from Quinta de Terra Feita, which is a special place for me. Taylor’s has three estates – Quinta de Vargellas (the most renowned), Quinta de Terra Feita and Quinta do Junco both in Pinhao Valley in the middle of the Douro. When I was eight years old my father [Bruce Guimaraens] took me out of the British school in Porto and put me in the Douro for two weeks to see the harvest at Terra Feita.
Terra Feita is also symbolic of lots of changes in the Port trade. It has belonged to Taylors since the early 1970s and has grown tremendously in size as the shippers got more control over the sources of Vintage Port. And today is a tribute to my father whose generation contributed to the understanding of grape varieties – work he started in the 1970s and particularly the 1980s. As we expanded our vineyard area, Terra Feita is where my father worked to identify and isolate varieties and work with them individually. All the Ports we are tasting were made in lagares and foot-trodden.
The original Douro grape varieties
Pre-phylloxera, the Douro varieties were Touriga (Nacional), Tinta Cão and Bastardo. When I went to Australia in the mid-80s I could see a lot of this Touriga planted and a lot of Bastardo (Touriga went out to Australia pre-phylloxera).
Post-phylloxera plantings – Touriga Francesa in ascendence
Phylloxera sparked an enormous change in Douro varieties. Afterwards, Bastardo fell by the wayside. Because the farmers of the Douro were not happy with Touriga (it doesn’t set well) it was sent to France who had a pioneering viticulture of cross breeding. There this original Touriga was crossed with Mourisco and came back to Portugal as Touriga Francesa. All post-phylloxera vineyards which had previously been planted to the difficult Touriga Nacional were then replanted to Touriga Francesa (which, more recently, has been re-baptised to Touriga Franca, though I stick with the original name of Francesa).
The field blend era
The late 1800s and early 1900s were a dynamic period for the Douro. The practice was to plant single varieties in different blocks. Several other grapes were planted in and amongst the Touriga Francesa – anywhere between 8-14 different varieties. So when you talk about the Vinha Velhas (old vines) of the Douro, it’s about the era before the 1970s when block planting was introduced and the post-phylloxera era of field blend plantings in traditional stone terraces.
In the old vineyards for many years everyone used to say it was a random mix but the more I have worked with old vineyards, the more I have noticed that there is an intention behind the practice. Normally 3-4 varieties make up between 60-80% of the vineyard- usually Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Amarela. Then you get a string of others – like Tinta Cão, Tinta Francisca, Rufete and Tinta de Barca.
Within the Douro, the percentage of each of these varieties varies depending on the Douro sub-region [Baixo, Cima Corgo, Douro Superior]. They also varied depending on whether the vineyard was south-facing or north-facing (which can make for a two degree temperature difference). So the mix was very much empirically based on what farmers knew about the region then.
The block planting era
Social changes gathered pace after the 1974 revolution. There had been a collapse of what had been going on in the Douro which is why my father’s generation got more involved in the Douro, buying vineyards and getting more involved in viticulture.
Two changes came about. First, mechanisation to reduce the intense labour requirement – a compulsory change. The voluntary change came with our approach to grape varieties. Quite naturally we, as shippers, had exposure to the rest of the world who work with fewer varieties and vinify separately, so we singled out a number of varieties to use, isolating the best and, making them individually, used our skill as blenders to put them together in the tasting room. Which is perfectly logical. At Terra Feita, that’s what my father did, mainly with Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa and Barroca. Touriga Nacional only came back to Douro in any expression [degree] in the 1970s following the new wave of investment in the vineyards; Tinta Amarela and Tinta Cão returned in a smaller expression.
Taylor’s Quinta de Terra Feita single varietal “Ports”
In 1992, we started to make single varietal “Ports” in individual lagares which were bottled as an experiment. Through the mid-80s to early 1990s we started to understand the contribution and behaviour of each variety but also perfected the site location within vineyard. Each variety is very sensitive to soil type. We could better distribute the varieties and maximise the potential of each in this way. For example, Tinta Roriz is extremely sensitive to yield (low yields are exceptional, high yields are mouthwash), so it was always planted in the poorer soils. Tinta Barroca ripens very well naturally and tends to shrivel, so it gets planted in the poorer orientations.
By the 1990s we came to two conclusions. Although it was interesting looking at the behaviour of each variety individually, the Ports still didn’t compare with the old vineyards where a mix was going on. And when we launched Quinta de Vargellas Vinhas Velhas, we recognised that extraordinary Ports are partly the outcome of low yields, but also the more we worked with them and compared them with what we were making [fermenting] individually, the more we came to the conclusion that fermenting varieties on their own and back blending them is just not the same as co-fermenting different varieties. So then we started cross-picking grape varieties so as to be able to co-ferment them.
While in the 1980s varieties were organised into much larger block plantings in order to fill one large fermenter, nowadays I am obsessed with micro-vinification so, while we still block plant, the aim is to match varieties to the best soils [so the block plantings are smaller] and we cross pick then co-ferment in smaller fermenters.
Taylor’s Quinta de Terra Feita 1992 varietal tasting
All the single varietal wines tasted come from the 1992 vintage which had a dry winter with a very dry growing season. The vines had to stand out a long time to ripen and the good ‘92s benefited from the late September rains (because the vines had stopped ripening in mid-September and even going backwards).
David Guimaraens’ observations: post-phylloxera this grape ended up continuing in the Dão but came back to Douro in the 1970s. It produces very structured, fruity Ports. Fruit which, on its own is so intense it’s difficult to tame. Many say if they were condemned to work with only one variety it would be Touriga Nacional, but we’re not in a dictatorship now! A good ripener, which attains 14.5 baume at picking.
My tasting note: It has striking sweetness/ripeness and spiciness to the nose, gum cistus too, all of which follows through in the mouth. Typically for Touriga Nacional it has a chocolatey edge and great density and heft to the palate – a richness of tannin and plumpness of body (which is balanced by good acidity). A satisfying warmth too on the finish, especially when I go back to the glass when its liquorice notes have also become more pronounced. In three words, big in everything!
Touriga Francesa (a.k.a.Franca)
David Guimaraens’ observations: a grapier fruit, so it is not as attractive as Touriga Nacional but it is the slowest ageing of our varieties and holds onto its fruit for the longest, so it’s the reddest of the six. Because of its very thick skin, it’s very resistant and, if you foot tread it on its own, it’s very hard work, which is why Guimaraens co-ferments Touriga Francesa with the thin-skinned and juicier Tinta Roriz. He points out this is the physical reason to co-ferment different varieties. Typically around 12.5 baume at picking.
My tasting note: as I’ve previously experienced with this variety, it has a sense of greater freshness on the nose together with a (here developed) florality – cold tea said my neighbour The Wine Society’s Port buyer Mark Buckenham – spot on! A cool menthol/eucalypt tinge too. In the mouth its still vibrant sweet red fruits and strawberry jam palate has a spicy liquorice edge. It finishes fresh – more elegant than the Touriga Nacional. Going back, it is still really elegant, long and poised with well balanced acidity and a finer weave of tannins than the chunkier Touriga Nacional.
David Guimaraens’ observations: Tinta Roriz is one of the pet hates of the Douro. It’s high yielding but this is a wonderful example. In a year where it behaves, Roriz gives you lots of finesse.
My tasting notes: marked opacity to the core tells you that this is not a high yielding “mouthwash” (Guimaraens’ description of high yielding Roriz). It has a slightly soapy, dried rose pot pourri quality to nose and palate. For me, quite typically of mature Roriz it has a fleshy mid-palate with a less overt sense of structure than the Tourigas, especially the Nacional – it’s less rugged, less obviously Douro. Nice and long with a seamless line, I found it the most vinous of the six. Around 13-13.5 baume on picking.
David Guimaraens’ observations: another variety which is a pet hate of the Douro (he adds I get frustrated because Douro wine is still in a discovery phase so grape varieties are moving around like fashion and these varieties need to be understood). As to which Barocca was a big feature in the old vineyards – perhaps up to 40% of plantings. In the early’ 90s as a student I recall the fermented must would look black – the most beautiful looking colour but, when we had our first classification tasting in the January after the harvest, it was always disappointing because it had lost all its colour. This is because though very rich in anthocyanins (which give the initial deep colour), Barroca has almost no tannin to fix the colour [which drops out]. For this reason and because it ripens to the highest level of sugar in the Douro, the reason to co-ferment it is chemical. I ferment it with Touriga Franca which is relatively low sugar because it helps to get the ferment going and to sustain it for longer. The bond also works because, with its very thick skins, Touriga Franca completes the phenolic component of the wine, contributing tannins. It can easily get to 15.5-16 baume at picking.
My tasting note: relatively pale and with pot pourri notes and no particular fruit expression it seems more developed on the nose, an impression which is confirmed in the mouth. Its warmth together with marked glycerol on the palate and no tannins to speak off signposts its role as a bulker upper of body (the fat not the muscle or the skeleton).
David Guimaraens’ observations: one of the pre-phylloxera varieties, it is very resistant with a small berry. Where its acidity and flavour varies from year to year, Guimaraens will vary the proportion in (commercial) blends, typically between 5-11% (the latter in 2011 when it behaved so well). It’s an advantage of block planting that we can vary the proportion of each variety according to how it behaves in a different location. Tinta Cão is valued for its flavour and balance – the third reason to co-ferment with other varieties (a component which is lighter for acidity and flavour),
My tasting note: relatively pale with a lifted floral/white peppery, incense-flecked nose and palate. Good acidity and intensity of red fruits and sweeter raspberry jam. A persistent, elegant finish keeps rolling – good freshness, spice and minerality (incipient iodine), with a firm spine of supporting tannins.
David Guimaraens’ observations: a very fragile skin, so it gets volatile very easily which means you need to select the fruit very carefully at harvest. If it’s dry it ripens early and shrivels away but, if the soil is too fertile or the weather is wet, it will rot. When it’s good it is centred and structured. Alongside Touriga Francesa it’s widely planted in the Cima Corgo and lower part of the Douro. On its own it can be overly scented.
My tasting notes: a deep colour with an intensely fruity perfume of dried figs and blueberries laced with bitter tobacco and methi notes which you encounter once again on the finish. An interesting palate, a little earthy –damp leaves – with black fruits and, am I imagining it or is there a touch of volatility – a hint of rhubarb or blackberry apple pie? Characterful with good body if less finesse than the Tourigas or Roriz.
David Guimaraens’ observations: in addition to bottling single varietal “Ports” we always bottled a blend of the each of the six varieties in equal proportions (though in practice this is not what I do).
My tasting notes: oh yes, the sum is much better than its parts – more complete, vigorous but balanced with greater complexity.
Pointing the way forward & back towards a more diverse, characterful future
The blend has many more dimensions of flavour and balance so my conclusion is that the old vineyards of the Douro were planted as field blends with that intention and it is no coincidence that some of the great wines from the Douro still come from field blends.
So it is up to us to make sure we plant everything and have the guts to do the blend at harvest. There is a pattern for each property, so you are not working from scratch each year, but there is still fine tuning to be done where there’s lots of different terroir and the character of each quinta and differences in conditions from one property to another are enormous.
Personality is a combination of location and the different proportions of the varieties that come in. Some of the seasoning was left out in the 1970s, 80s & 90s. I have retrieved a number of varieties from obscurity in the 1990s. Today I actively plant 10 varieties. For example Tinta de Barca makes up to 18% of the vineyards at Vargellas. At Roeda, Tinta Francesa is fundamental in the old vineyards and so important for the tropical fruit and the silkiness of Croft Ports. At Fonseca Tinta Amarela at Quinta do Cruzeiro and Quinta do Panascal is very important [and, of all the varieties which I subsequently noticed in the commercial releases tasted afterwards, the Tinta Amarela in Fonseca stood out for its pipe tobacco and dried fig].[Going forward] [W]e need to take care that the options of each shipper contribute to the personality and character of each house because we had got to a point where Vintage Port was too big and too fruity and losing the individuality of each house. It’s easy to have colour, but not so easy to have complexity and balance.
As a result of selecting varieties, we’ve pulled quality up and Port has become much more consistent across the region. Today, the harvest date is when you feel that a variety is ready to pick (and it is much easier to leave a variety out of a blend if it doesn’t behave with block planting) while in the past it was a judgment call on the [whole field blend] vineyard and then very careful selection. So, in the past, the best years were the years when all the varieties behaved and, when there was lots of variation, the difference between great and average Ports was much wider.
But while we’ve pulled the overall quality up, I also think we also pulled the top down. The region is producing Ports with more colour and fruit, but they’re also more square. When we are talking about great wine, we’re not talking about making our lives easy – we’re here to make great wine. We do not want everything to be the same….It’s been a great learning cycle in the last 40 years but I firmly believe that the best solution to avoid pulling the top down is to use all the varieties and co-ferment them again. Me and the viticulturist I’ve worked with for twenty years decide when to pick each and every vine and we work with our grape growers to reach same decisions.