Nothing says winter quite like the aromas of dried fruit, nuts and spices, or – in a word – Port.
Of all the recognized styles of fortified wine produced around the world, from Sherry to Banyuls to Australia's Rutherglen, Port is the one that has thrived the most. The combination of ripe fruit and a good belt of brandy has managed to capture the world's tastebuds much more effectively than its competitors.
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Despite their signature flavors and bold first impressions, fortified wines haven't had an easy time of it. Usually born out of a desire to prevent spoiling, the additional alcohol added to the base wines also added a welcome belt of sweetness and strength, which meant they lasted longer on slow sea voyages, especially ones that ventured through the tropics. This was an attractive quality back in the 1700s.
With the development of faster ships and, still later, refrigeration, the immediate need for fortification was removed but, by then, people were in love with the flavors; for much of the 19th Century, Port, Sherry and Madeira (and even Marsala) were as profitable a proposition as Bordeaux or Burgundy.
That popularity waned as the 20th Century elapsed, however, and now table wine sales dwarf those of fortified wine; but the fall-off hasn't been evenly distributed.
While fortified wines hit rough seas in the late 1970s and early '80s, it was Sherry that was hit hardest. Port and, to a lesser extent Madeira, retained their cachet and even managed to make a modest recovery from their popular nadir. Unlike Sherry, of course, whose resurrection is touted constantly – and vainly – by its fans even as sales continue to slide ever downwards.
While Madeira remains a relatively niche product (albeit buoyed up by its rarity and historical associations) Port has enjoyed a much smoother recovery. The warming climate in the Douro Valley has clearly helped, with vintage Port – the pinnacle of the region's output – enjoying more declared years than ever before; Quinta do Noval, for example, has released 14 vintage cuvées in the 21st Century, twice the number it released between 1980 and 1999.
The more recent vintages have also attracted more consistently good scores from the critics, too. Taking the Quinta do Noval as an example again, the raw average score of the 21st Century wines works out to 93.21, while the wines for the '80s and '90s have an average score of 89.57.
Speaking of critics, let's talk about how we arrive at our scores. Wine-Searcher collates scores from a wide range of critics, from influential single palates like Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson to publications like Wine Spectator, all adjusted for the 100-point scale. To generate a wine's aggregate score, Wine-Searcher uses a Bayesian methodology to calculate a weighted average, since not all critics are equal. This score is calculated for specific vintages of a wine, as well as across all vintages.
We measure this score to four decimal places (even though we only display the rounded, two-digit total), so even wines with the same rounded score are in strict order.The World's Best Fortified Wines on Wine-Searcher:
|Wine Name||Score||Ave Price|
|Quinta do Noval Nacional Vintage Port||97||$1159|
|Graham's Stone Terraces Vintage Port||96||$262|
|Taylor's Vargellas Vinha Velha Vintage Port||96||$262|
|Taylor's Vintage Port||95||$114|
|Dow's Vintage Port||95||$114|
|Fonseca Vintage Port||95||$111|
|Quinta do Vesuvio Capela Vintage Porto||95||$181|
|Graham's Vintage Port||95||$114|
|Blandy's Vintage Bual Madeira||94||$415|
|Niepoort Vintage Port||94||$101|
Port's dominance is plain to see – in fact, it's striking, and so is the increased love vintage Port is getting from the critics. Looking back to last year, the scores have gone up, with a 97, two 96s and five 95s; last year, the highest score was 96 and there were only two 95-pointers on the list. Most of the wines listed this year will be familiar from the 2019 list, but a special mention must go to the Graham's Stone Terraces wine, which managed to add an extra two points to its aggregate score – no mean feat.
And while Blandy's Bual flies the flag for non-Port fortified wines, it is a lonely voice. How much longer before the list of the world's best fortified wines is also simply a list of the world's best Ports? It would be a brave person who would bet against that happening in the next 12 months.
In the meantime, pass the bottle round as you celebrate this December. After a storm of a year like we've endured in 2020, we all welcome the safety of Port.