Graham's Declares the 2011 Vintage Port

Portugal was the first country in which the 2011 Vintages were shown. The UK, USA and others will follow in the coming weeks.
Portugal was the first country in which the recently declared 2011 Vintage Ports were shown. The UK, USA and others will follow in the coming weeks.

This has been an eventful week for Graham’s. On Monday, April 15th, Graham’s declared the 2011 Vintage Port. A few days later on Thursday the 18th, Charles and Paul Symington hosted a tasting of the family’s 2011 Vintage Ports at the recently renovated Graham’s 1890 Lodge. Their guests were Portuguese wine journalists and this event marked the first time that a declared Vintage Port was first shown in Portugal, before any other country. Some of the country’s leading wine critics came to this tasting, keen to gain their first impressions of the wines that have been generating considerable interest. Judging by the very positive comments it is clear that our guests agree with us that the 2011 is an outstanding Vintage.

Many of Portugal's most influential wine writers gathered at the Graham's Lodge to gain their first impressions of the 2011 Vintage Ports.
Many of Portugal’s most influential wine writers gathered at the Graham’s Lodge to gain their first impressions of the 2011 Vintage Ports.

The event started with an opportunity to taste the component wines that comprise the Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port. This wine is a careful selection of the finest wines produced at Graham’s five Douro Quintas. This proved an interesting experience in helping the tasters to understand what makes a classic Graham’s Vintage Port. Charles started with the Quintas whose aromatic contributions are more evident: Lages, Vila Velha and Malvedos. Lages wines have long been favoured for their elegant complexity, showing fine violet aromas, characteristics no doubt influenced by the property’s (cooler) north and east-facing aspects in the Rio Torto. Similarly, Vila Velha, with a predominantly west-facing aspect, has a relatively cool maturation cycle, which allowed its late-ripening Touriga Franca grapes to excel and deliver superb aromas of rockrose and violets in 2011. Malvedos, the cornerstone of Graham’s Vintage Port since 1890, provides floral characteristics of eucalyptus and mint with soft violet overtones as well as rich flavours of cassis, mulberry and blackberries. Quinta do Tua and Quinta do Vale de Malhadas were the last two component wines tasted and they each showed the muscularity for which they are known, in the form of tremendous concentration and weighty tannins which add great structure and staying power to the final wine.

Paul and Charles Symington talk the guests through the wines
Paul shares some anecdotes with his guests
The line up of component wines which comprise the Graham's 2011 Vintage Port blend.
The line up of five component wines which comprise Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port

Leading on from the fascinating terroir tasting of the component wines, it was time to sample the Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port, whose final blend is made up as follows: 35% Malvedos; 19% Vale Malhadas ; 18% Vila Velha; 16% Tua; 12% Lages. Both Charles and Paul explained the sequence of events that laid the foundations for this Vintage year: Abundant 2010/2011 winter rains, which replenished the water reserves deep in the Douro subsoil and compensated for an otherwise very dry year; a very dry June and July, followed by an ideal weather pattern immediately leading up to and during the vintage (opportune rain showers in late August/early September, followed by weeks of dry, sunny conditions); perfectly ripened grapes with copybook balance of baumés (sugar content), phenolics (pigments, tannins) and acidity (freshness and longevity).

The tasters put the wines through their paces
The tasters put the component wines from Graham’s five Quintas (vineyards) through their paces

A very interesting characteristic is apparent in the Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port, as well as in the other Symington family’s 2011 Vintage Port houses, namely a marked schistous minerality which lends the 2011 wines a very distinctive profile. They have an exceptional depth of colour and concentration, superb aromatic elegance and well-structured schist-edged tannins. Paul described this schist character as akin to the smell of the parched, powdery Douro schist soil just after rain when it exudes a wonderful, fragrant wet-earth scent. Charles explained that this very attractive aromatic character also owes much to the exceptional performance of the Touriga Franca varietal in this vintage. He explained that as a late-ripening variety, the Touriga Franca thrived in the idyllic conditions leading up to and during the vintage (it was the last variety to be picked in October). In other words, the weeks of uninterrupted dry sunny conditions, which followed the well-timed rain of August 21st and 1st/2nd of September allowed the Touriga Franca to ripen evenly and completely, delivering its full quality potential. Charles is a great believer in the Touriga Franca and explained that this variety is often unjustly overshadowed by the Touriga Nacional. It can be a tricky varietal to grow in less favourable weather, but when conditions are right, it has a great deal to offer, particularly in aromatic finesse. Accordingly there was a higher inclusion of Touriga Franca — 31%, compared to 25% in the previous declared Vintage, the 2007.

IMG_1969Of the total production from Graham’s five Quintas (88,855 cases), and following months of exhaustive tastings, Charles and his cousins selected just 9% — or 8,000 cases — to release as Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port.

Graham's TST labelPaul and Charles then revealed that together with their cousins, they had decided to offer for the first time, alongside Graham’s classic Vintage Port, a very small bottling (250 cases, or 3,000 bottles) of Vintage Port drawn from two very special parcels of traditional stone-terraced vineyards at Quinta dos Malvedos. Accordingly, they named the wine, Graham’s ‘The Stone Terraces’ Vintage Port. These two 18th century terraced vineyards have consistently produced extraordinary Ports. One of the two vineyard parcels was originally called Port Arthur and has eleven schist stone terraces, ten of which have only a single row of vines on each. The other vineyard is known as Vinha dos Cardenhos and between them, the two parcels amount to a tiny fraction (1.8 hectares) of the Malvedos vineyard (89 hectares). The latter has a predominantly South-facing aspect, whereas the Port Arthur and Vinha dos Cardenhos vineyards are East-facing and North-facing. These cooler aspects mean the grapes mature very gradually and evenly and being shielded from the powerful July and August Douro afternoon sun, their unique aromatic properties come more readily to the fore. This is a very individual and distinct Vintage Port of extraordinary intensity and quality.

The north-facing Vinha dos Cardenhos, behind the Quinta house at Malvedos
The north-facing Vinha dos Cardenhos vineyard parcel, behind the house of Graham’s historic Quinta dos Malvedos

Paul Symington’s tasting note for the 2011 Graham’s The Stone terraces Vintage Port: This wine is very individual; it has highly specific characteristics with a very intense tannic structure and a colour of purple-black intensity. The easterly and northerly aspect of these two small vineyards results in fresh scented aromas of violets and mint. There is a complex palate of weighty and spicy tannins combined with blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. This is an extraordinary wine of great power and elegance; it is a new departure for Graham’s and the Symington family.

The Cardenhos and Port Arthur vineyards, shown here in a 1925 survey of Quinta dos Malvedos.
The Cardenhos and Port Arthur vineyards, shown here in a 1925 survey of Quinta dos Malvedos. The original survey chart is exhibited at Graham’s Museum in the 1890 Lodge

Following this tasting session, which included a further six 2011 Vintage Ports from Graham’s sister companies (Cockburn’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, Quinta do Vesuvio and Quinta de Roriz), the tasters were invited to lunch at the recently opened Vinum restaurant, contained within the Graham’s Port lodge. The food was served with various Symington Douro wines, including the Chryseia 2004 Douro DOC (made jointly by the Symington family and Bruno Prats) and — to end the meal on a particularly high note — Graham’s 1963 Vintage Port (served from two magnum bottles). The Vintage Port was simply sublime, 50 years old and still so vital and complete. Curiously some commented that this Port too showed the ‘schistous’ aromatic notes that Paul had earlier associated with the 2011 wines. There were also wonderful aromas of tea-leaf and mint, bergamot and cinnamon and a seductive palate, complex and very, very refined. An absolute delight. We believe that in 2061, when the 2011s reach fifty, they too will offer up a similarly extraordinary experience.

What better way to end a fabulous meal than with two magnums of Graham's superb 1963...
What better way to end a fabulous meal than with two magnums of Graham’s superb 1963…
The tasting was followed by a delicious meal served at Graham's VINUM restaurant
The tasting was followed by a delicious meal served at Graham’s VINUM restaurant
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Tracking the Season – 19 April

Vertically planted vineyards at the western end of Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos
Vertically planted vineyards at the western end of Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos show thriving vivid green cover crops

At Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua the viticultural season is well underway and we are busy in the vineyards with a wide range of tasks, whilst the vines are growing well.

From the week before Easter through 11 April we had rain most days, which has been very welcome.  Alexandre Mariz, our viticulturist, is finally expressing cautious optimism that we may have had enough rain to see us through a typically hot, dry July and August.  After two and a half years of drought, the reserves deep in the soil had a lot of catching up to do.  There is no further rain in the immediate forecast.

The grape clusters are already formed, awaiting flowering and fertilisation sometime in May
The grape clusters are already formed, awaiting flowering and fertilisation sometime in May

Since the 11th it has been clear and warm – low 20ºs C – which is a bit cool for the time of year, but welcome.  Alexandre says the recent moderate temperatures have been good for two reason:  first, the moisture in the soil has a better chance of sinking in rather than simply evaporating in the heat, and second, it means the development of the vines since budburst has been steady, not wildly exuberant as it can be with a sudden hot sunny spell.  The result is that the vines are looking very healthy and already showing the nascent clusters of grapes-to-be.  Although we still need to get through the flowering and fertilisation period in May to know what kind of crop to expect, right now the signs are promising.

Malvedos Touriga Nacional 19 April 13:54
Malvedos Touriga Nacional 19 April 13:54

We have begun the despampa, a process of removing excess shoots from each and every vine by hand to leave two shoots from each bud.  Removal of excess vines and the odd shoots that sometimes spurt from the trunk or even from the Americano rootstock ensures good air circulation which is important to minimise the chance of fungal diseases.  Limiting the number of shoots also concentrates the vigor of the vine into those remaining, so we will have greater concentration of flavour and sugar in the grape clusters that ultimately do form.

The Touriga Franca planted a month ago is thriving
The Touriga Franca planted a month ago is thriving

The Touriga Franca vines that were being planted in the newly-re-landscaped parcel west of the caseiro’s house during our last visit to Malvedos are settling in and starting to sprout well.  In the other parcel which we are renovating near the top of the quinta, the surriba – landscaping works – are nearly done, with just a few more days of work to go.  Alexandre was hoping to start the planting sometime this week, with the five hectares divided between the Touriga Nacional and Sousão varieties.

As part of the work of re-landscaping our vineyards, we plan for drainage systems to handle the often heavy rainfalls in the winter.  We need to strike a balance between holding the rain on the terraces so it will sink into the hillside, and managing the safe run-off of excess water in a heavy rainstorm, without eroding the soil-banked terraces.  For this reason every line of terrace is subtly canted into the hillside, so water will gather at the back and sink in, but they are also arced so excess water can run down to one end and enter a system of drains which run alongside the access roads.

Massive schist slabs unearthed during the lanscaping works at Malvedos
Massive schist slabs unearthed during the lanscaping works at Malvedos
The confluence of the Tua and Douro rivers shows clearly the silt-laden golden water of the Douro
The confluence of the Tua and Douro rivers shows clearly the silt-laden golden water of the Douro

In addition we incorporate drains into the hillside to capture some of that flow and direct it safely into the river.  The pipeline is buried under the terraces and will end in a stone covered cascade further down the hillside, in a place which is a natural run-off.  As we have re-built the patamares massive slabs of unearthed schist have been set aside, and ultimately will be used to build that cascade and mask the end of the pipe.

And speaking of run off, the Douro is showing the golden-bronze colour for which it is named, a reflection – quite literally – of light off the silt from the schistous soil which has run off into the river during the recent rains.  Paul Symington was recently telling visitors it has been some years since he last saw the river this colour.  The river is high and running quite fast, with white water wakes streaming from the buoys that mark the safe channel.

So far, so good!

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