Ideal weather conditions and winemaking improvements have made the recently declared 2011 Vintage Ports among the greatest wines ever produced in the region, says Richard Mayson

There were smiles on the faces of the Port shippers at the end of 2011 in a year when growers all over the Douro had bitten their fingernails to the quick. A good growing season is heavily influenced by the weather in the last three months of the previous year, and if it hadn't been for heavy rain at the end of 2010, 2011 might have been a nonstarter. Fortunately, spring began with good water reserves in the Douro subsoil, and the vines (especially the old vines, with their deep root systems) weathered the summer drought of 2011 relatively well. There was unstable weather during April and May, which caused an outbreak of oidium and reduced yields by around 15 percent. This was followed by unusually intense heat at the end of June. Some south-facing vineyards were literally scorched by the sun. The thin-skinned Tinta Barroca grape fared badly, whereas the heat-resistant Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca performed relatively well. By mid-August, sugar readings were ahead of average, indicating an early harvest, but with phenolic ripeness lagging behind, there was a potential lack of balance in the wines. This was redressed by rain on August 21, and again right at the start of September. Thereafter, the sun shone nonstop for five weeks, and the harvest conditions were perfect.

Temperatures at the start of vintage were hotter than normal, so cooling the musts was essential. Aromas in the adega were wonderful, and by early October it was already clear that a good, possibly great, Port vintage was in the bag. As António Agrellos, technical director of Quinta do Noval, said, "We knew at once that we were potentially in the presence of a great year." Sandeman's winemaker, Luis Sottomayor, added, "I have never witnessed Ports with such depth of color, complexity of flavor, and power."

With many wines now in bottle, it is clear that 2011 has lived up to its potential. All the leading shippers declared a vintage between March and May this year. The declared wines can be grouped into three categories. There are the so-called classic declarations, bottled under the name of the shipper and usually made up of wines from a number of estates in different parts of the Douro. With the shippers having become growers as well, nearly all the leading wines are now blended from the shipper's own vineyards.

Alongside these are the single-quinta (single-estate) wines, some of which produce a Vintage Port nearly every year along the lines of a Bordeaux château. Finally, there is a growing category of wines that I can only term "site-specific," produced from a parcel or parcels of highly prized old vines within an estate. It isn't just the weather that has shaped the 2011s. Assessing the quality and character of the vintage (and making the inevitable comparison with previously declared years), it is important to take note of the improvement in the quality of the grape spirit (aguardente) used to fortify Port. This makes up one fifth of the finished wine and clearly has a considerable impact. Over the past 20 years, the leading Port shippers have been working with distillers in France to produce a more neutral, vinous spirit that interferes much less with the fruit in a young Vintage Port. This really manifested itself in 2007, the last major vintage to be declared, when we were all wowed by the beauty and purity of the fruit, and it shows up again in 2011. Very few of the wines that I have tasted can be called "spirity," even at this early stage.

This compares very favorably with some of the more attenuated Vintage Ports from the 1970s and 1980s, when "spirit" crops up fairly commonly in my tasting notes. In those days, the shippers had to use the aguardente that they were given by the government, which exercised a monopoly until 1991. David Guimaraens, head winemaker for the Fladgate Partnership, which includes Taylor, Fonseca, and Croft, maintains that the transition from youth to maturity in a Vintage Port will be much smoother than it was in the past. Currently in their bloom of youth, it remains to be seen if the 2011s go through the sullen adolescence that has long been a phase in the evolution of Vintage Port.

Perhaps we can expect to enjoy these wines earlier than the 18-21 years that it used to take for them to reach maturity. At this early stage in their development, the 2011s show wonderful purity of fruit combined with ripeness and structure. The ripeness extends to the tannins, which are broad, as well as fine-grained, in the best wines. There are very few wines that I would term "raisiny" or "pruney," characteristics of an overripe vintage. Some wines are foursquare in style (rather more so than in 2007) but not aggressive. João Nicolau de Almeida of Ramos Pinto commented that "the better aguardente brings minerality to the wine," and this is a word I have used in a number of my tasting notes for the first time this year. There are several wines, especially the site-specific Ports, that are a wonderful expression of the Douro terroir. This is a trait not normally symbiotic with Vintage Port.

This is certainly a great vintage, but is 2011 another 1908, 1927, 1945, or 1963? Only time will tell, but in terms of more recent years, 2011 has the purity of 2007 with much of the ripeness of 2009 (a year declared outright by some shippers). At prices ranging from £350 to £500 per dozen in bond (with a substantial premium for some sitespecific wines made in tiny quantities), Vintage Port is still a relatively affordable world-class wine. I have tasted most of the wines on three separate occasions (once blind). There are too many good wines in 2011 to include them all here, but here are notes on a dozen that have captured my imagination.

2011 Fonseca

A blend from all three Fonseca estates: Panascal in the Tavora Valley, and Cruzeiro and Santo António in the Pinhão Valley. Dense, with minty ripeness, very pure, graceful fruit, soft and voluminous initially in the mouth, ripe tannins build to a long rapier-like finish. Outstanding wine for the long haul. 19

2011 Graham The Stone Terraces

From two plots of old stone-walled terraces at Quinta dos Malvedos, with one plot (Port Arthur) yielding just 900 grams (32oz) per vine. 250 cases. Still raw, showing the natural warmth of the locality, but wonderfully dense, with rich, fleshy fruit and a wild touch of esteva (gum cistus). Very powerful, longlasting wine. A wonderful debut! 19

2011 Quinta do Noval Nacional

From a famous patch of ungrafted vines lying at the heart of the Noval estate with a relatively high proportion of the deep-colored Sousão grape. Sullen and brooding, not as showy as some on the nose, big, broad, plummy fruit, rich and powerful, with profound depth and breadth. A classic. 19

2011 Taylor Quinta de Vargellas Vinha Velha

From five plots of vinha velha (old vines) between 80 and 120 years old, including some of the first varietal plantings in the Douro undertaken by Frank Yeatman in 1927. Not as expressive as some on the nose at this stage, restrained, tight knit, pure silky-minerally fruit, long, linear, and beautifully focused. Oldfashioned Vintage Port at its best! 19

2011 Warre

A judicious blend of wines from Warre quintas Cavadinha (higher altitude, contributing 53 percent), Retiro in the Rio Torto, and Telhada in the warmer Douro Superior (from old, mixed-variety vineyards, contributing 40 percent). Dense on the nose, with plenty going on underneath, rich, ripe cherry fruit, quite hefty in style. Big, ripe tannins and beautifully balanced. Stunning. 19

2011 Graham

Made up of wines from three Graham quintas and properties belonging to the members of the Symington family: Malvedos, Tua, and Vila Velha near Tua in the Cima Corgo, Lages in the Rio Torto, and Vale de Malhadas in the Douro Superior. Ripe and opulent in characteristic Graham style, lovely definition, sweet, firm, and minerally, with licorice intensity and concentration. Finishes beautifully. Complete. 18.5

2011 Taylor

A blend from Taylor's flagship estates, Vargellas in the Douro Superior and Terra Feita in the Pinhão Valley. Closed, with underlying purity of fruit, soft sweet cherry fruit flavors, initially with fine-grained tannins rising in the mouth, leading to a peacock's tail of a finish. Elegant without sacrificing power or potential longevity. 18.5

2011 Quinta do Noval

This model estate has been extensively replanted and enlarged over the past 20 years and now flows over the hill into the hot Roncão Valley. 60 percent Touriga Nacional in this wine. Ripe and plummy, sumptuous fruit combining freshness and depth, fine-grained tannins, with a long, ripe finish. 18.5

2011 Niepoort Bioma

From the tiny Quinta da Pisca that formed the heart of Niepoort 1970 and 1977, this wine will be bottled slightly later like the Vintage Ports of yesteryear. Back to the future: restrained, elegant, and minerally, with a firm, foursquare tannic superstructure. A very beautiful expression of Douro terroir. 18

2011 Quinta da Romaneira

From a huge property over the hill and up river from Noval that has been totally replanted. António Agrellos, who makes the wine at Noval, is also in charge here. Opulent and very expressive on the nose, floral, minty (80 percent Touriga Nacional), full and voluminous, leading to a big finish. A lovely wine to drink young or keep. 17.5

2011 Cockburn

A century ago, this house led the way in Vintage Port, commanding a price higher than any other. This is the first vintage under the new Symington ownership. Respecting past traditions, it is a blend mostly from Quinta dos Canais and Vale Coelho in the Douro Superior, with 55 percent Touriga Nacional. Ripe, quite restrained, with dark chocolate concentration and sumptuous fruit, but also with the tannins to support it, and lovely length. 17.5

2011 Croft

Since it was taken over by the Fladgate Partnership in 2001, this house has been thoroughly reinvigorated. Based on Quinta da Rôeda, which has been extensively replanted. Lovely, plump, plummy fruit (now Croft's signature style), suave and impressive, backed by ripe, well-structured tannins. The best Croft since 1963. 17.5