Like a country singer who shoots to the top of the charts after 20 years toiling away on the smallest stages on the festival circuit only to be labeled an overnight success,.. Portugal is the hidden gem of the wine community, suddenly thrust into the international spotlight after centuries of excellence.
Great wine is not new to the region; while traditional techniques such as crushing grapes by foot have slowly given way to new state-of-the-art vinification processes, delicious wine has been produced in Portugal, and in the Douro in particular, long before the more “refined” parts of the wine world stood up to take notice.
By any standards, 2014 was a spectacular year for producers in the Douro, something demonstrated and celebrated by none other than the influential industry publication Wine Spectator. When the 2014 edition of its Top 100 list was released, the top spot went to none other than Dow’s 2011 Vintage Port, a surprise to many who may have expected, well, almost anything but a port. The region’s success wasn’t limited to Dow’s at number one, either; a number of other Portuguese wines made the cut, many of them also from the Douro: #3 – Prats & Symington Douro Chryseia, #4 – Quinta do Vale Meão Douro, #13 – Fonseca 2011 Vintage, #27 – Quinta do Portal’s 2011 Colheita, #56 – João Portugal Ramos Reserva 2012 of Alentejo.
It’s no coincidence that all three spectacular offerings from producers in the Douro are from the 2011 vintage. The Wine Spectator list appeared to be heavily influenced by vintage-based variations, and 2011 in Portugal was a vintner’s dream. The conditions were excellent by any winemaker’s standards, with a primarily dry growing season with pockets of rainfall from late August through early September, allowing the grapes to sail through the final stage of the ripening process perfectly hydrated and bursting with flavor-packed juice.
Within the industry, excitement about the vintage was swift, with declarations like “the best vintage in 20 years,” or in some cases, even 50, being bandied about. Why, then, did it take Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list to highlight the magic coming out of Portugal’s 2011 vintage? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it’s an illustration of the publication’s reach and power, but perhaps it’s simply that the majority of wine drinkers tend to reach for what they’re most knowledgeable about and most comfortable with. Common varietals from well-known regions are safe bets. Spending $100 or more on a California Cabernet is a no-brainer; investing in a Burgundy or a Riesling from the Mosel holds little risk, even if you don’t spend too much time investigating vintages or taste testing before loading up your cellar. Those region’s legacies speak for themselves, and there’s something to be said for reliability. After all, even a bad bottle from Napa is good, right? Right?
That’s an argument for another day (not really — it’s not right), but the point is that following the herd may lead you to some fantastic bottles of wine, but it also might keep you from discovering some truly great finds, and that’s why lists like WS‘s Top 100 are so spectacular. Not only did the 2014 edition offer up great selections from up-and-comers such as Chile and interesting appellations such as Sta. Rita Hills, it offered up a hefty helping of Portugal, and people are starting to sit up and take notice. Our recommendation? Read up, study up and buy up, because the prices are right (and they sure as heck won’t always be), and these wines are must-tries — every single one of them.
Dow’s 2011 Vintage Port
People drink port because it’s power mixed with precision, and this bottle’s layered complexity and lush, ripe notes of black plum, dark chocolate, brandied cherries and velvety cassis do nothing to disappoint. The finish is extensive and strong, leaving the palate coated in a swirl of exotic spices pierced by the tart accent of just-ripe raspberries. You can drink this $82 beauty now or in 40 years with equal appreciation and success.
Prats & Symington Douro Chryseia
At an average of $55 retail and 97 points on the 100-point WS rating scale, it’s hard not to be a little skeptical about this small-production red. Only 2,400 cases were made, making it a tough find, but it’s worth trading favors if you can score a bottle. Elegance personified, this bottle needs a little cellaring to round out the rough-hewn edges, but the ripe, red fruit, olive-like salinity, and peppery chocolate finish will make you happy you decided to wait. WS recommends cellaring as long as 2022, but it will be delicious even if you decide to drink it much sooner.
Quinta do Vale Meão Douro
Lush and seductive, WS says, and that’s right. Dark fruit, kirsch, cream, spice — it’s all there, with plenty of rich chocolate to boot. There’s a minerality, and the white pepper note makes this echo the Chryseia a bit, but at $76, you’ll be looking for more, and you’ll find it in the layered complexity that leaves you enraptured as you fall more and more in love with the Douro with each savored sip.