Port defies the weather
There is mixed news of the vintage in the Douro Valley of northern Portugal, where the grapes for port are grown. The harvest in 2012, according to the Symington Family Estates, maker of famed brands Dow, Graham and Warre, has been reduced by up to half the average.
"This is an incredibly low yield of about 1,400 litres [of wine] per hectare of vineyard," says Paul Symington. "Other great vineyards elsewhere in the world will give 4,000 to 5,000 litres or more on a regular basis."
On the other hand, Mr Symington adds: "The Douro grapes this year were in lovely condition, with small berries giving excellent colour and flavours and the musts [pre-fermentation grape juice] looked really first rate."
On balance, he concludes: "the accountants will not be happy with 2012, but the winemakers and tasters certainly will be."
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It's all down to the weather. The port grape growers have had as miserable a farming year as we have in Britain, but in different ways. They have had nearly two years of drought, with rainfall less than half the usual. They have had weird summer heatwaves that have desiccated the grapes on the vines, turning them to raisins. And in July many prime vineyards were wiped out by a freak hailstorm so violent it knocked over Mr Symington's 83-year-old mother, who broke a rib.
Finally, in late September during the harvest, it started to rain. This would have been welcome except that the downpour was so copious the parched vines sucked up too much moisture.
It swelled the grapes to bursting point, diluting the juice. Picked in this state, the fruit would have made thin, watery wine – not at all what you want for port. The harvest was suspended.
"This was a risky thing to do," Mr Symington says, "as the September equinox normally brings unsettled weather and we could have had a disaster on our hands if the rainy weather had persisted." But the gamble paid off. Delaying until October, when the skies cleared, allowed the Symingtons to harvest in much better conditions.
These reflections are a reminder that the world's most delicious fortified wine is a product of capricious nature as well as artful invention.
Every vintage in the beautiful but harsh Douro Valley has its own quirks and curiosities, and I like to think these reveal themselves in a thousand little ways in the savour of the wines.
It will be a few years before the best of the 2012 harvest finds its way into ready-to-drink ports, but there's a fine choice to be going on with.
A style I like is the late-bottled vintage (LBV) wine from a single harvest aged in cask for four years or so, then bottled when it's deemed at its peak for enjoyable drinking.
Try Graham's LBV 2007 (around £13 from all the big supermarkets and currently reduced to £10.20 at Waitrose) for its evocatively dense ruby colour, muscular, minty intensity and deep, velvety black fruits.
It takes a firm grip of the tastebuds, a relatively young wine but already toothsomely mellow and deeply satisfying. Since first visiting the Douro many years ago, I must confess to a personal infatuation with the style of port that the people who live and work out there prefer. It's called old tawny. These are wines long-aged in casks – so long that the original ruby colour gradually morphs to a glorious coppery hue, accompanied by an evolution in flavour from assertively sweet, dark and sinewy to delicately rich, creamy and fruity.
The youngest wines in this firmament are blends from various casks with a minimum age of ten years. The great port houses devote some of their most valued wines to these delectable bottlings, which are ready to drink as soon as they go on sale.
They are more expensive than LBVs, but do, I promise, repay the investment.
Try Quinta do Noval Ten Year Old Tawny (Waitrose £18.99). It's the slinkiest, creamiest port imaginable, with red-golden autumnal colour, aromas of fruit cake and figs, toasted nuts and warm spices, and a flavour that lives fully up to expectations. In the Douro, they drink Port like this chilled as an aperitif as well as after dinner at a more sombre temperature. Either way, this Noval wine does the job beautifully.
And so to Quinta do Noval Colheita 1997. This is a very rare Port, a cask-aged tawny from a single vintage. Noval was set up by a Portuguese family back in 1715 and although it now belongs to the wine-investment arm of the French insurance giant Axa, it continues the uniquely Portuguese custom of producing old tawny ports from single harvests. Colheita is the Portuguese word for vintage.
The 1997 Colheita, just released, is as expensive as it is scarce, at £36.99 from online fine-wine merchant Simply Wine Direct. That's about the same price as a bottle of Bollinger non-vintage Champagne, and the better bargain by a country mile, I'd say, having just tasted this fabulous port. It is the perfect old tawny, from a distinctly quirky year that began with winter snow storms which gave way to heat waves in February and March and concluded with one of the most ideal ripening seasons the Douro has ever seen.
A sip of this fabled wine, and you'll get the drift.