Vintage Port’s standing as one of the world’s great classic wines was confirmed and strengthened at Christie’s Fine Wine Auction held in London on October 23rd, 2014. The majority of the Vintage Port lots submitted for auction achieved prices above Christie’s High Estimate price markers, reflecting the great interest generated by some very rare lots of wine that attracted high bids.
The auction revealed Vintage Port’s relevance in today’s market for fine wines with bidders willing to pay final hammer prices, which in many cases were well above the High Estimate price. An apt example of this was provided by an auction lot of 6 bottles of Graham’s legendary 1945 which went for £6,500, well above Christie’s indicated High Estimate of £4,800 and also — very significantly — 30% more than an identical lot of Graham’s ’45 that was auctioned at a Christie’s Fine Wine Sale two years ago in Amsterdam. A reminder if one were needed that the 1945 Vintage Port, one of the twentieth century’s finest, is now extremely rare.
The Graham’s 1963 also achieved a magnificent result with an auction lot of 6 bottles going for £1,800, again well above Christie’s High Estimate indication of £1,100 (or 64% more than the High Estimate marker).
Graham’s Johnny Symington who attended the auction was very pleased with the outstanding performance of Graham’s Vintage Ports, not just with regard to the older wines but also more recent Vintages such as the 2011 (Graham’s The Stone Terraces Vintage Port) and the 2000. Johnny and his cousin Clare were invited to host a pre-sale dinner at Christie’s attended by Christie’s guests on the night before, and this proved an equally successful event, which paved the way for the auction itself.
Edwin Vos, Christie’s International Senior Wine Specialist, wrote to Johnny the day after the auction: “I guess we have shown that vintage port is very much alive. The interest the Symington wines received from our dinner guests and during the sale was encouraging.”
This was a challenging year in the Douro. We had a very wet period from December through to February with 44% more rain than normal. Apart from the difficulties encountered by those engaged in replanting vineyards, this rain was most welcome. It was coupled with mild temperatures that encouraged early bud-break in the first week of March at Malvedos. The weather remained unsettled through the early summer and on 3rd July a huge rainstorm hit parts of the Douro, with over 80mm falling in a few hours, mainly around Pinhão. This caused extraordinary damage, flooding the local railway station and precipitated an avalanche of rock and mud that destroyed the car of a well-known wine maker in the village (fortunately nobody was in the car at the time). Many farm roads were ruined and for a few days the River Douro ran golden yellow with the large amounts of precious soil that had been washed off the hillsides, once again highlighting the challenge of farming in the largest area of mountain vineyard on earth. Thankfully no hail fell and the vines themselves were largely unharmed, but the farmers had the unwelcome added expense of getting JCB’s in to re-build their farm tracks.
Once the mess caused by this July storm was cleaned up, it became clear that the vines were enjoying the cooler weather which persisted through August. In fact we all began to think of 2007, when an equally cool August delivered some stupendous quality grapes to our wineries.
The maturation continued some two weeks ahead of last year and picking started on 11th September at Malvedos, earlier at our more easterly vineyards. The grapes were in really lovely condition; soft skins, full berries and balanced sugars and acidity, perfect for making great Port and very good Douro wines. But Mother Nature was not in a mood to help us and the weather remained unsettled. In some areas this caused problems, in others the rain made little impact. It is clear that some extraordinarily good wines were made in the Douro Superior which had only occasional rainfall and that was of short duration and therefore ran off quickly.
Parts of the Alto Douro had an excellent vintage, other areas less so, and unfortunately parts of the Baixo Corgo had a difficult time. Charles Symington commented: ‘It has been an extraordinary vintage, the difference in rainfall between Pinhão and Tua being almost hard to believe’.
Touriga Nacional was consistently good this year, showing its undoubted class. But what was surprising was how very well Touriga Franca performed. This variety ripens late and its tight bunches and thin skins are a recipe for danger in a year like this. Nevertheless some wonderful wines are emerging from this variety. Souzão was also a star of this vintage.
Inevitably our wine makers had to make difficult choices, so the less blue-eyed varieties had to take second place and some suffered. Various vineyards located near water courses and in the tighter and lower valleys were damaged, as was predictable. The hand-picking that predominates in the Douro, with increasingly heavy cost implications on producers, delivered a huge advantage to us in our winemaking in 2014 as a crucially important selection is made by the pickers, something that is impossible in a machine-picked vineyard.
In a region that is over 90 km long and with an average annual rainfall that varies from nearly 1,000 mm in the west to under 400mm in the east, it is simply not possible to give a blanket assessment of any year and in particular this year. What is certain is that it was not a glorious harvest right across the region as it might have been if the weather had held during September and overall yields will be down, possibly by a significant amount. But equally certain is that in such a diverse region some real gems will have been made as the grapes were in such lovely condition at the outset. The vineyards that were lucky enough to escape the rain, and many did, will have made some really lovely Ports and Douro wines.
Furthermore those winemakers lucky enough to be able to get grapes from various locations across the Douro will certainly have made some brilliant Ports and wines. It was a year to take full advantage of judicious vineyard investment in the best sub-regions.
As if to force home the point about the weather and just as the harvest was being wound up, another astonishing rain storm hit at about 7.00 AM last Wednesday 8th October. In just two hours over 80mm of rain fell in parts of the Douro, again causing extensive damage to farm tracks (some just recently rebuilt after the July storm) and causing great difficulties to those still harvesting and making the river run golden yet again.
Why ‘The Year of the Fox’? The fox is a wily creature and this year it was necessary to be wily (and lucky) and also because our wine maker at Malvedos, Henry Shotton, was fast asleep and alone one night on a mattress in the darkened winery, waiting for a lagar of must to be ready to run off sometime in the night. He awoke to feel something tugging at his boot laces. His fear can only be imagined, and when he sat up he saw that a small fox was trying to steal his boot. Very early the next morning the fox returned, this time to try and eat the fresh bread just delivered by the Tua baker that was hanging on the vineyard trailer…
Henry’s Malvedos winery team was recently reinforced with the arrival of Oscar Symington one of the 5th generation youngsters of the family which owns and runs Graham’s. Oscar’s father, Rupert, is one of Graham’s three Joint Managing Directors. The 18 year old lost no time mucking in, carrying out the multitude of tasks required of him, from helping to unload the trailers of grape laden boxes, taking his turn on the sorting table as well as helping out with the envasilhamentos (running off the must from the lagares for fortification). Oscar soon discovered that this particular task is a bit like doing your watch on a ship, involving as it does taking turns with your colleagues in this round-the-clock activity which can happen anytime — day or night. The eight-strong winery team are glad to have this extra pair of hands to lighten their burden; they have all been working continuously for three weeks since the vintage began at Malvedos on September 11th.
Oscar himself has barely had a chance to catch his breath since beginning his gap year; before coming to help out at Malvedos he had already worked for 10 days at the family’s Quinta do Sol winery followed by another 10 days at Quinta de Roriz jointly owned by the Symingtons and the Prats family of Bordeaux and where they produce one of the Douro’s iconic table wines — Chryseia. The majority of the grapes for Chryseia are sourced from the Roriz vineyard but an important element has always been drawn from the neighbouring property of Vila Velha, owned by Oscar’s grandfather, James Symington. Besides the contribution Vila Velha provides for the landmark Chryseia Douro red, the finest production is also supplied to Graham’s, making important contributions to the premium Ports it produces. The highly acclaimed Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port was comprised of components from all five Graham’s Quintas; Vila Velha making up 18% of the final lot.
Like his siblings and cousins, Oscar is following in the tradition of young members of the family working a vintage at the family Quintas, during school or university holidays. Graham’s is a family wine business through and through and it is very much part of the philosophy to let the youngsters gain practical experience in what is after all the family’s lifeblood: producing the great wines of the Douro Valley. Oscar’s great-grandfather, Ron Symington who like his twin brother John and first cousin Maurice was passionate about the Douro is known to have often said, “You have to let the dog see the rabbit” by which he meant that the older generation had to give the younger members of the family a chance to get involved. We’re not sure whether Oscar is comfortable with the metaphor but we are sure that he understands what his ancestor meant. Following his gap year Oscar will continue his higher education at Durham University in northern England.
Ron Symington, Oscar’s great-grandfather would often say, “You have to let the dog see the rabbit” — and he wasn’t referring to his gun dog!