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  1. Tasting Notes
February 28, 2024

The Douro Boys Luxury of Time 20th Anniversary tasting

A tasting of top wines and Ports from the influential group of winemakers.

By Sarah Ahmed

The Douro Boys, the pioneering club of Portuguese table winemakers, provided a spectacular reminder of their Port-producing roots at a celebratory tasting, reports Sarah Ahmed.

By design, not default, the Douro Boys have been game changers for the Douro Valley. Looking beyond the family tradition of growing Port grapes or making Port wine, the group was launched in 2003 with the goal of winning equal acclaim for the region’s Douro DOC light wines. As the name suggests, the Douro Boys were a bunch of (predominantly) young guns who, with the honorable exception of Niepoort (a shipper), owned Douro estates—namely, Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vale Meão, and Quinta do Vale Doña Maria (which has since been sold, but its owner, Cristiano van Zeller, and his eponymous company remain in the group).

Between them, the group now produce around four million bottles of Douro DOC wine, which are distributed in more than 100 countries. The Douro Boys have not, however, thrown out the baby with the bath water. Indeed, Miguel Roquette’s ritual of anointing his newborn babies’ lips with Quinta do Crasto Port wine speaks volumes about the talismanic hold of Port. As do the Luxury of Time bottles and casks of rare Port being nursed in the Douro Boys’ cellars, and their fast-growing roster of new Port brands and labels.

As if to remind us of the group’s roots, the 20th-anniversary celebrations began with a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime tasting (for them and for us) of ultra-rare and fine aged examples. Surrounding us with slumbering Ports in cobwebbed casks and dusty bottles, Niepoort’s atmospheric lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia provided the location. The following day, we tasted mature Douro DOC wines, but the group’s show-stealing Ports are the focus of this feature; only the Douro wines to which I gave my highest scores are reviewed here. As one would expect, the mature red flight had a better strike rate than the shorter white flight. It was not just a numbers’ game. My pick focuses on the fresher, more complex mature whites, with integrated oak.

Returning to the Ports, while Vintage Ports have traditionally garnered more attention, the Douro Boys—on trend, as ever—focused here on ultra-premium wood-aged Ports. The category’s growing importance was underscored in 2022 by three “new” classifications: 50-Year-Old Tawny Port, 50-Year-Old White Port, and Very Very Old Tawny Port, for wines more than 80 years old. Because the 19th-century Ports under review preceded this new classification, they are labeled as “Very Old Tawny.” Though some are vintage-dated, they are not classified as colheitas because the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (the certifying body for Port wine) was not created until 1933. Rather, explained Cristiano van Zeller, the vintage is based on growers’ or Port houses’ private records, “and their quality and tasting age confirm their antiquity.”

Having spent extraordinary periods of time in wood, the intensity and complexity of the Douro Boys’ vinous “antiques” impressed. These were attention-grabbing, charismatic Ports. Broadly speaking, the non-vintage Tawnies, or those Tawnies aged in Vila Nova de Gaia’s cooler, relatively humid, Atlantic-influenced location, tended to be fresher, lower in residual sugar, and lighter in body. Prone to higher evaporation, the Douro Valley’s traditionally warmer, drier storage conditions produced the densest styles, with higher, viscous sugars, some almost concentrated to an essence, like a reduction sauce. Traditionally, a soupçon of these blockbuster vintage-dated Ports would have been deployed in non-vintage blends; bottled solo, they are extraordinary supping wines.

The Douro Boys tasting

WOOD-AGED PORTS BY THE DOURO BOYS

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Quinta do Crasto Colheita Tawny Port 1997
(Bottled in 2015; 20% ABV; 4.5° Baumé)

This is Crasto’s first colheita (single-harvest) Tawny Port. Having spent 18 years in 550-liter Port pipes, it is initially smoky, quite pungent, with esteva (gum rockrose) undertones. With time in glass, it unfurls to reveal much more delicate flavors of dried pear, pear skin, and cedar, with a lick of candy apple. Cleansing acidity and a firm backbone of tannin and minerals make for great structure and a well-focused finish. 93

Quinta do Crasto Honore Very Old Tawny Port
(Bottled in 2015; 19.7% ABV)

On acquiring Quinta do Crasto in 1918, Constantino de Almeida transferred his private collection of Ports to Constantinos, the Port house he founded. Honore, a 400-bottle release from this collection, was launched by his great-grandsons (Miguel and Tomás Roquette) in 2015, to commemorate the estate’s 400th birthday. It is believed to be a blend of 127- to 135-year-old Ports, whose concentrated, spicy Medjool dates, quince jelly, and honey flavors are propelled by two pillars of preservation: sugar (304g/l, no less) and acidity of the high-toned, volatile variety, which acts as an accelerant, bringing no shortage of pace to the palate. The long finish is nutty and intensely toothsome. 96

Niepoort Very Old Tawny 1863 Pipa
(Bottled into demijohn in 1970, then bottled in 1992; 21.5% ABV; 144g/l RS)

From one of Niepoort’s record-breaking 1863 casks, which was transferred to demijohn in 1970 to maintain freshness. Bottled to commemorate the birth of Daniel Niepoort, Dirk Niepoort’s oldest son, it is lifted, lingering, and layered, with great intensity and richness of flavor. Unfurling elegantly, it fills up the senses with the most harmonious crescendo of cedar and tamarind spice, spicy chutney fruit, and salted caramel, with a subtle edge of green tomato. Buoyed along, rolling acidity exquisitely animates the flavors. The finish has tremendous carry and back-palate resonance. Sublime. 99

Niepoort VV Tawny Port 170th Anniversary Port
(Bottled in 2012; 20.5% ABV; 135.3g/l RS)

Dirk Niepoort’s fingerprints are all over this. And I can confidently say so, because his grandfather’s original VV (a late 1960s/early 1970s bottling) shares the same base of 1863 Tawny Port but was much more explosive, with a firm backbone. But I also have the other blend components in mind—namely, the youngest 18-year-old Tawny Port and a splash of white Port, “to make it lighter, less sweet,” said Dirk, who favors precision and drinkability over power. Harmoniously integrated, the aged component makes for a rich, concentrated core of bolo de mel (Madeiran honey cake). Even of delivery, very complete, yet with tension and a subtle edge of green, it is drinking beautifully but, with this intensity and balance, still has great aging potential, too. Long, long, long, with cleansing mineral acidity to the finish. Incidentally, bottled solo in Lalique decanters, the above-mentioned 1863 (a pre-phylloxera Port) smashed auction-house records for Port in 2018 and again in 2019. 98

Quinta do Vallado 50-Year-Old Tawny Port
(Bottled in 2022; 19.5% ABV; 137g/l RS)

Vallado launched its fortified range with an impressive suite of age-dated Tawny Ports, and it was among the first to launch a 50-Year-Old Tawny Port. Glinting topaz, it is ultra-refined and mellifluous, with lovely freshness, purity, and nuance to the silky, caramelized orange and crema catalana palate. Notes of fennel, cinnamon, vanilla, pistachio, and milk chocolate-coated praline bring complexity and balance. Older components include an 1880 Tawny (8 percent) and a 70-year-old Tawny (2 percent). 97

Quinta do Vallado ABF Very Old Tawny Port 1888
(Bottled in 2016; 19.5% ABV; 296g/l RS)

Launched in celebration of Vallado’s 300th anniversary, ABF pays homage to António Bernardo Ferreira, who bought the estate in 1818. This 933-bottle release hails from three 650-liter casks of 1888 Tawny Port acquired from a Baixo Corgo grower, which was blended without refreshment. Correspondingly, it is dark in hue and flavor, exceptionally concentrated, with the texture of molasses and rich, decadent flavors of Medjool date and dried-fig fruit, black cardamom, espresso, and bitter chocolate. Sour and tangy tamarind paste and antique-furniture flavors are the foil, but—make no mistake—this is an unctuous feast in a glass, with a hedonic level of residual sugar. 97

Quinta do Vallado Adelaide Tributa Very Old Tawny Port 1866
(Bottled in 2012; 19.5% ABV)

Named for the formidable 19th-century Douro landowner Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, who owned Vallado and from whom the current owners are descended (as is winemaker Francisco Olazabal). This Port’s sheer density and viscosity prompt the question of whether it might be better in a blend, rather than bottled on its own. Undeniably impressive, it has flavors of dark raisins, slightly bitter cardamom, high-toned balsamic/furniture polish notes (ullage and oak), and “third extract” molasses that, less sweet and higher in minerals, make for a savoriness on the finish, despite the 283g/l of residual sugar. Like Vallado’s 1888 ABF, the Port was sourced from another cellar, whose original batch of five chestnut barrels concentrated over time, leaving only two barrels of 550 liters each. Left on ullage for at least 40 years, these two casks were bottled without any correction or refreshment; 1,300 bottles were made. 94

Quinta do Vallado Very Old Tawny Port
(Bottled in 2023; 19.2% ABV; 190g/l RS)

Gaping age differences are much remarked on in marriages. Happily, though, this blend of Ports, ranging from 40 years old to 140 years old, is a marriage made in heaven. Its depth of (mahogany) color, sheer weight, and intensity of concentrated raisin and prune fruit herald the aged component. As does the acidity, which, following a sumptuous entry, animates cascading layers of flavor, with burned toffee, caraway, black cardamom, licorice, almonds, espresso, and a hint of leavening mint. For savoring, sip by sip, it is a vin de méditation. 98

Van Zellers & Co Colheita White Port 1940
(Bottled in September 2022; 20.5% ABV; 5° Baumé)

While Tawny Ports are all moreish charm, with dialed-down fruit and firmer acidity, white Ports tend toward austerity, especially when they have spent this long in cask. Doubtless influenced by an exceptionally dry, low-yielding year, this colheita’s pedigree is revealed in its intensity and structure. Complex, with high-toned (but controlled) tertiary notes of chutney, nam pla fish sauce, smoked almonds, and pickled walnut, with a balancing lick of barley sugar. A firm backbone of acidity carries a resonating finish with dusty, antique wood and warming spirit to the tail. 92

Van Zellers & Co 30-Year-Old Tawny Port
(Bottled in February 2023; 20% ABV; 3.6° Baumé)

For Cristiano van Zeller, 30-year-old Tawny Ports are the tipping point for the tertiary characters of cask aging, especially with a splash of significantly older Port—in this case, from 1958 (van Zeller’s birth year). Here, wood (100+ years old) is good—part of this Port’s patina of age, which, together with a green-tomato edge, contributes to harmony and elegance. It reveals textbook flavors of milk chocolate-coated praline, grilled hazelnuts, honey, and caramel, with suggestions of khoobani ka meetha, the silky, sumptuous, stewed Hunza apricots with pistachio and coconut cream served at Asma Khan’s acclaimed Darjeeling Express restaurant. 93

Van Zellers & Co Very Old Tawny 1860
(Cask sample bottled April 14, 2023; 20% ABV; 135.85g/l RS)

With a relatively low level of residual sugar and cleansing, mineral acidity, this elegant cask sample has remarkable nuance and restraint for its age. Pâtisserie notes to both nose and
palate beguile, with fresh-baked madeleines, apricot-glazed pain au raisin, and delicate scents of lavender, cardamom, and saffron, as well as Fernet-Branca and classic Douro notes of esteva, licorice, and black pepper. Ever so lingering, with a tapering, poised finish. Lovely. 97

VINTAGE PORTS BY THE DOURO BOYS

Quinta do Crasto Vintage Port 2000
(Bottled in 2002; 20% ABV)

The Roquette family first launched a Vintage Port in 1978, but, said Miguel Roquette, Quinta do Crasto Vintage Port 1994 is regarded as “the first real declaration.” The 2000 Vintage Port is true to the south-facing Cima Corgo-based estate’s plush, fruit-driven style, with bergamot and orange-peel lift to its ripe but muscular fruits-of-the-forest palate, and smooth milk chocolate to the finish. Filigree-fine, iron-filing tannins add mineral nuance and inform the line and length. Hard to resist, it was sourced from 70+-year-old field-blend parcels. 2023–30. 93

Quinta do Vale Meão Vintage Port 2000
(Bottled in 2002; 19.5% ABV)

Quinta do Vale Meão launched with a 1999 Douro DOC red. Once the Olazabal family assumed control of all their fruit (which had been contracted to AA Ferreira), the first Vintage Port was made in 2000 (a generally declared year)—and almost every year since. “All the wines come from our own vineyard… We can make great wines in ‘off’ years, too,” reasoned Francisco Olazabal. With good intensity, definition, and length, the red-cherry fruit at the core remains vibrant and is laced with dried herbs, licorice, a warming touch of kirsch, and a “cooler” graphite edge. It is a blend of Touriga Franca (which predominates), Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, and Sousão. Following poor flowering, the harvest averaged a measly 300g per vine; 8,000 bottles produced. An impressive debut. 93

DOURO DOC WHITE WINES BY THE DOURO BOYS

Niepoort Coche 2018 Douro DOC
(11.4% ABV)

Sourced from 80+-year-old field-blend vineyards at 2,000–2,500ft (600–750m) above sea level, Niepoort’s flagship Douro white is tightly wound, intense, and scintillating, with cordite, sencha green tea, fresh grated lime zest, minerals, and classy structuring oak. A rapier-like backbone of mineral acidity informs the precise, persistent finish. Thanks to its intensity of flavor, partial malolactic fermentation, and deft lees’ work, Coche is elegant, rather than austere, with great finesse. Following the coolest July of the 21st century came the hottest day in August, when temperatures spiked, delaying ripening; the grapes were picked between September 5 and October 2. After a gentle pressing, the must settled for approximately 48 hours, then fermented in 228- and 550-liter French oak barrels (50 percent new). Matured for around 12 months in barrel, prior to bottling unfined and unfiltered. 97

Niepoort Redoma Reserva Branco 2007 Douro DOC
(13.44% ABV)

This blend of several 80+-year-old field-blend vineyards at 1,500–2,500ft (450–750m) has a great track record for aging. The 2007 is no exception, not least because it hails from a relatively mild year, with a long, slow ripening period. Subtle notes of pine resin and nuts mingle with fennel, litchi, and minerals. Radiating pebble-in-a-pond ripples of white peach, it has mid-palate presence, yet a lightness of being. Silky lees make for a lingering, harmonious finish. This beautifully judged, unshowy wine fermented and aged for nine months on lees in 228-liter French oak casks, without stirring or malolactic fermentation. 95

Quinta do Vallado Reserva White 2019 Douro DOC
(13% ABV)

From a hot year with cold nights during the lead into harvest, this is a full-bodied estate blend of Rabigato, Gouveio, Viosinho, and Arinto, with succulence and fatness—a delicious mouthfeel. It reveals ripe citrus and lemon-peel fruit, with savory undertones of poached salsify and creamy oak. Super-saline, with fresh acidity, it throws long. Fermented and lees-aged with bâtonnage for several months in 500-liter French oak barrels (40 percent new, the balance second use). 93

Quinta do Vallado Reserva White 2011 Douro DOC
(13% ABV)

Yellow-gold in hue, this blend of Gouveio (50 percent), Arinto (35 percent), Rabigato (10 percent), and Viosinho (5 percent) nonetheless shares the salinity and bright acidity of the 2019 Reserva, which brings balance, life, and length to the lime flower-edged, creamy white peach and spicy, toasty oak. Reflecting the exceptional vintage, this powerful Douro white is showing well now and will keep for a few years yet. It was fermented and lees-aged with bâtonnage for several months in 500-liter French oak barrels (37.5 percent new, the balance second use). 93

DOURO DOC RED WINES BY THE DOURO BOYS

Quinta do Crasto Douro Vinha da Ponte 2012 Douro DOC
(14.5% ABV)

Vinha da Ponte and Maria Teresa—Crasto’s flagship single-parcel reds—have a tremendous track record for aging. Ponte excels in cooler years, like 2012, according to Crasto’s winemaker Manuel Lobo, because it attains full phenolic maturation. And the proof is in the pudding. With fine, seamless tannins and strikingly fresh, incisive acidity, Ponte throws long, revealing bright bergamot and orange peel-edged blackcurrant and berry fruit. Concentrated and plush, yet with terrific poise, it barely shows its age. Sourced from an east-facing 97-year-old field-blend parcel, the wine spent 20 months in new 225-liter French oak barrels. 96

Niepoort Turris 2021 Douro DOC
(13% ABV)

Uncommonly light in hue and body, this wine, from one cool, east-facing site, was aged for 15 months in two 1,000-liter 60+-year-old barrels from the Mosel. It hails from elevated 130+-year-old bush vines (a field blend) and, a touch high-toned, has an attractive wild edge to both nose and palate, with violet-edged kirsch and slivovitz fruit (but without the body or spiritous warmth), pine-needle, mushroom, and forest-floor notes. Crunchy acidity and sandy, almost granular tannins make for a direct and vital wine. Delightfully different. 96

Quinta do Vale Meão 2011 Douro DOC
(14.5% ABV)

Ever candid, Francisco Olazabal admitted that, in this powerhouse year, he was initially disappointed with this “big” wine, which had shut down after bottling. Now he is happy, and with good reason. It is a swooping, silky, seamless affair, all blackberry and plum fruit, with a lick of dried herbs and bergamot. Really hitting its stride now, it is a blend of 55 percent Touriga Nacional, 34 percent Touriga Franca, 6 percent Tinta Barroca, and 5 percent Tinta Roriz. Great finesse. It matured in 225-liter French Allier oak barriques, 80 percent new. 97

Quinta do Vale Meão 2008 Douro DOC
(14.5% ABV)

In a milder year—4.5°F (2.5°C) below the growing-season average, said Olazabal—this release is lighter than usual, and the tannins and acidity are dialed up a notch, which makes for a dynamic, lively structure. It reveals tertiary notes of decaying rose petals, sweet bergamot, and savory oak to the juicy blackberry and plum fruit. The oak brings a certain creaminess, but the mineral acid line carries the day, emphasizing the freshness of the year. This blend of 55 percent Touriga Nacional, 30 percent Touriga Franca, 10 percent Tinta Roriz, and 5 percent Tinta Barroca was bottled in July 2010, following maturation in 225-liter French Allier oak barriques (80 percent new). 95

Quinta do Vallado Adelaide 2015 Douro DOC
(14.5% ABV)

The flagship is sourced from very old field-blend parcels, planted to more than 30 different grape varieties, of which around 30 percent is Touriga Franca, as is evident from the deep hue and pretty bergamot and violet perfume. Reflecting the even ripening period, this is beautifully balanced and fine framed, with seamless fine tannins, persistent acidity, and elegant length. Intense dark-berry fruit effortlessly absorbs the oak (it spent 20 months in French oak, 100 percent new). Youthfully primary still, it should develop well in bottle. 96

Van Zellers and Co CV Curriculum Douro Red 2008 Douro DOC
(14.5% ABV)

Compared with the 2012 vintage (also shown), which was also a mild, low-yielding year, the 2008 is positively corseted. Firmly structured, with ripe but imposing tannins, the fruit—spicy plum and kirsch—is concentrated but well defined, with layers of savory oak, graphite, and iodine, and meaty (beef carpaccio and silverside) undertones. Good line and length. Predominantly sourced from north-, northwest-, and west-facing 80-year-old vineyards in the Torto Valley, the wine spent around 20 months in French oak (90 percent new). 96

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