Origin of a Vintage Port


November – February

Over the winter, after the last vine has fallen and the young wines are starting their slow maturing process, the vines take a well-earned rest. There’s little rest for the growers, however. All the vines must be pruned in readiness for the next vintage. In most cases this is done by hand. It is a long, arduous task that can take the whole winter. And it’s a cold one, too: the Douro can be bleak and wet and the schist slipper. A good pruner will treat each vine as an individual, pruning according to whether it looks tired or vigorous, and coaxing it to produce just the right number of bunches next summer. 
As the spring sun makes it presence felt and the average daily temperature starts to climb, the vines awaken and the sap begins to rise. This is the first sign of the vines dormancy coming to an end and the beginning of the growth cycle. A little later the buds will push their way past the hard scales that have protected them during the winter.
This is a time of growth, with new shoots greening the vineyards. All this growth must be tied to the wires by hand, to ensure that the grapes won’t be too much in the shade, and that the wind can blow through the vines, keeping disease away. Mildew and oidium (powdery mildew) are a threat, though less here, in this hot, dry climate, than in many regions. Nevertheless, the grower must be vigilant.
Flowering begins in May, one of the tensest times for the grower. 
It’s grass-cutting time, too: the grass that grows between the rows of vines, and on the walls of the terraces, must be trimmed. The grass is useful because it protects against erosion on these steep slopes, but it musn’t compete with the vines. The warmer and drier the spring, the earlier it will be cut. 
By June the vineyard is lush and thick with leaves, and hidden among the canopies are clusters of hard, green berries. The grower must be in the vines day after day, monitoring stress and watching for the early signs of disease or pests.
The sun blazes down, sucking moisture from the soil and, perhaps, threatening the vines with drought: a shower of rain can be welcome, but too much humidity brings the threat of rot.
The grapes have grown to the size of large peas. Around the first week of July they begin to change colour: just a hint of browny-purple at first, which spreads and deepens. This is verasion, the colour change that signifies the beginning of ripening. By late July they won’t grow any more: now it’s all about packing in the sugars, acids, tannins and pigments that will shape the future wines.
It is late September and vintage time. Year after year, the pickers return to work in the vineyards by day and tread the grapes to the sound of an accordion through the evening. The grapes are briefly crushed, then tipped into wide, shallow granite tanks known as lagares. Feet washed, the treaders climb in and tread rhythmically backwards and forwards. It’s hard work, with the skins and stems slippery under your feet and the temperature of the juice gradually warming as the fermentation begins. The air is pungent with the smell of crushed grapes. At the right moment, when the yeasts have turned about half the grapes’ sugar into alcohol, it’s time for fortification. Colourless, neutral, young grape spirit is added – and the fermentation stops, leaving the unfermented sugar as luscious sweetness in the made port.
The focus moves from the wineries up in the Douro to the tasting room in Vila Nova de Gaia, with its view of the river and the city of Oporto. The young wines must be assessed and their style judged: are they suitable for Aged Tawny? For LBV? Or perhaps for Vintage? They are the very best wines of the harvest, displaying the finest and most complete aromas, the most consistency with the Croft house style and the depth and stamina to allow them to age for many years in bottle. But it’s no easy task. The wines can be tough and inarticulate at this stage, with perhaps only very subtle differences between them.
The young ports are brought down from the Douro Valley to the Croft lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. In the past, the wines travelled down the river in the traditional boats, the barcos rabelos. Today they come down by road. The wines that have been selected as having Vintage Port potential are then stored in oak vats where they will remain until the spring of the following year. At this stage no decision has yet been taken as to whether they will be bottled as Vintage Port. This will only happen a year later after the wines have stood the traditional test of ‘two winters in the wood’.
Early March, One Year Later
Another tasting, and all wines set aside the previous year are tasted. Some won’t make the grade as potential Vintage Port material and will be eliminated from the selection process. Those that pass the test go forward to the next stage, the blending exercise. A series of blends are made up on a small scale in the tasting room. Each component wine is selected for its specific contribution to the blend. Some wines may be chosen for their aromatic character, others to provide structure or depth. The aim in each blend is to combine the components in the most harmonious way so that the result is balanced, complete and consistent with the Croft house style.
Late March, One Year Later
Now it’s time to taste the blends. The tasting panel assembles, and tastes everything blind. Tastings are often ‘triangular’, with the same blend being included twice in the same series to test the participants’ accuracy. Each taster must award a score to every blend and write detailed notes. At the end of each session, the panel meets to discuss the wines and determine which blends are preferred. If none are deemed satisfactory, the blenders may go back and create new blends or make adjustments to those already presented. By a process of elimination, after several tasting sessions, the choice is narrowed down to one blend.
Early April, One Year Later
But is the blend good enough? The decision must now be taken as to whether the chosen blend merits a vintage declaration. This is one of the most important decisions in the life of the company and the firm’s reputation as a Vintage Port producer depends on an accurate judgement. For a vintage to be declared, the wine must be of outstanding quality and possess the depth and stamina to allow it to continue improving in bottle over many decades in the cellar. This means that it will be relatively austere in youth, with a firm structure, plenty of body and tannic ‘grip’. Intensity and concentration of flavour are also required if the wine is to continue revealing layers of complex aroma over many years, the hallmark of greatness in a Vintage Port.
If it is agreed that a declaration is warranted, the selected blend will be made up in the lodges where it will be allowed to ‘marry up’ in large vats prior to bottling.
Historically Croft has only declared about three harvests in ten. The alternative, if the wines are judged to be of Vintage Port quality but not long lived enough for a full declaration, is to release a Single Quinta, or single estate Vintage Port.
Once a blend has been chosen, the panel considers whether it is of Vintage Port quality and a true expression of Quinta da Roêda’s unique terroir. If not, the wines are returned and are used for blends, most probably for Late Bottled Vintage.
April 23rd
April 23rd, St George’s Day, is one of the most eagerly awaited dates in the wine calendar. It is the date on which Croft and many other of the ‘first growth’ Vintage Port houses announce their intentions in respect of the last but one harvest. On 23rd April 2013 for example the announcement related to the 2011 vintage. The hope among wine merchants, collectors and Vintage Port enthusiast around the world is that Croft and other classic houses will declare. It all or an overwhelming majority of Port houses decide to declare a vintage, this is known as a general declaration. But not all houses necessarily declare the same years. Stylistic considerations, the geographic location of a house’s vineyards and the effect of climate on individual grape varieties may mean that one house is able to make an outstanding Vintage Port in a year when another is not. Croft has always taken a strictly individual and independent view, judging its wines on their own merits and sometimes declaring vintages not declared by the majority of other houses, for example the 2009 vintage. If Croft has decided not to declare but to bottle a Quinta da Roêda Vintage Port instead, a similar announcement is made to the trade and press. If there’s no announcement, there’ll be no Vintage Port.
Early May
The final blend has had a chance to rest and marry together, and it’s time to show them to the world. Tastings are held in all the main markets for trade, consumers and press. In the case of a full vintage, most of the wine is sold ‘on declaration’. 

Next: The Douro valley >>