Reverting to the idea of unexpected places to enjoy your Graham’s Port wines… Dominic Symington was in Oslo last week, to host a special showing of our wines at Ullevaal Stadion, the Norwegian national football stadium, in conjunction with the Norway-Portugal game.
Upon entering the VIP hospitality lounge the guests were first surprised, then intrigued, and finally very pleased to discover our ports as an alternative to the usual beer or dry wine served at this type of event. Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny came as a revelation to many in the crowd; not only were they delighted to discover this alternative to the familiar ruby styles of port, but they found that a fine old tawny, nicely chilled, was very refreshing.
Arne Steck of Solera, our distribution partner in Norway, assisted Dominic in answering everyone’s questions about port wines.
We were pleased the crowd toasted the outcome of the game with our wines, of course, though we couldn’t help wincing inwardly at the result: Norway 1, Portugal 0, the first time Norway have defeated us.
Graham’s winemaker, Charles Symington, continues cheerful about harvest prospects at Graham’s quintas.
There was a little rainfall at our properties earlier this week, but not enough to make any difference. On the other hand, no harm is being done either by the lack of rain.
Temperatures have dropped – at just shy of 11:00 am on Friday 10 September, Charles (calling in from the Douro) was looking at a thermometer reading of 21° C (70° F) and clear blue skies. The outlook is for daytime temperatures between 20° and 30° C, which is ideal.
We continue to be very pleased, even pleasantly surprised, at how well the vines have endured the heat this summer – clearly the extraordinarily wet winter replenished water supplies deep in the ground to a good degree, and our mature vineyards have done just fine.
Had it rained, that might have speeded up the maturation a bit. As is, the maturation of the berries is progressing steadily but a bit slowly, but most importantly, it continues to be a very well balanced maturation.
Right now, we expect to begin harvesting some of the old mixed vineyards at Quinta do Tua on Thursday 16th, and plan to start picking at Quinta dos Malvedos around the 22nd. Vila Velha is tentatively scheduled to start on the 16th, and Lages and Vale de Malhadas both on the 20th. As always, this far in advance the start-of-picking decisions are tentative – we will continue to monitor the maturation and ultimately, decisions are confirmed the day before picking starts, not just for any given quinta, but for each separate vineyard within each quinta.
Overall, we’re in a good position right now, the weather outlook is favourable, and it promises to be a very good vintage.
Readers are no doubt familiar with Miles Edlmann, who is responsible for viticultural research and development for Symington Family Estates, and his writing for the Graham’s Port blog when the vines can spare him. Miles also writes the monthly Douro Insider report which is posted to the Vintage Port Site. [Update: The Douro Insiders is now posted in this Blog, and all issues can be accessed through the tab on the menu above.]
Whereas here in the Graham’s blog we naturally focus on the conditions at the five quintas that make our wines, Miles’s Douro Insider report is a summary of observations from across the Symington family’s 27 different quintas which are scattered across the entire Douro DOC region, and of course span the full range of microclimates. Between them, these estates have 935 hectares (2,300 acres) under vine. The largest single holding is Quinta do Vesuvio in the Douro Superieor, with 137 ha of vineyard, the smallest is Quinta da Madalena on the Rio Torto with just 4 ha of vineyard.
The full August Douro Insider report has just been posted, but we wanted to highlight this excerpt, which is Miles’s more detailed review of the lab results of the maturation studies.
At this stage the news is as follows: the quality of the fruit appears excellent. There are few signs of fungal attack and the quantity is probably something a bit over average too. Sugar levels are lower than usual for this stage, probably because over the last few weeks temperatures have been above the upper limit for photosynthesis for much of day. On the other hand there is so far little sign of dehydration of the fruit, although slight symptoms of water stress have started to appear in the vines. Some of the basal leaves have dried out but given the relatively still conditions many of them have not yet been blown off by the wind. As a result they are still carrying out an important role in shading the fruit against the brutal sun.
On a very positive note, the seeds were already remarkably dark still well inside August and the skins surprisingly developed phenolically for this relatively low level of sugar. A more usual problem in the Douro is that sugar production outstrips phenolic maturation. Thus by the time the fruit is properly flavour-ripe there is a tendency for it to produce wines that are high in alcohol and care is also required to ensure that the acidity is correct. This year, however, the wines could be extremely well-balanced if maturation keeps following the same path. Currently the Touriga Nacional is looking particularly good as (perhaps due to its late veraison) levels of sweetness are lower than would be expected when sometimes they can verge on the excessive.
Graham’s wine maker, Charles Symington, reviews the conditions and outlook for the harvest at our five quintas in the heart of the Douro.
Fundamentally, we continue to be well placed for a good year. The vines are in fine condition and not suffering either noticeably, in the vineyards, or analytically, in the lab results of our weekly maturation studies. The grapes are healthy and continue to show a well balanced development. We anticipate an average crop size, which we will begin to harvest between 16 and 20 September.
At this point in the season, our viticulturalists have done all they can to ensure a good crop, and the ultimate quality of the harvest is now wholly dependent on the weather.
Whilst we had a useful amount of rain (12 mm) at Quinta do Vale de Malhadas in the Douro Superior, there was no rain at all at our three quintas clustered on the river banks near Tua, or at Quinta das Lages on the Rio Torto. On the 1st September there was heavy rain and some hail at Alijó, which is only 8 km (5 miles) north-northwest of Tua, but we didn’t get a drop of that on the river – a good demonstration of micro-climates in the Douro.
As at this writing, a few millimetres of rain are forecast to fall on the 7th of September – but note the forecast is based on conditions at Vila Real, about 22 km (13.5 mi) northwest of Malvedos. Whilst the forecasts are a good indication of what might come our way, we know that Vila Real enjoys considerably more rainfall and temperatures usually at least 4° C lower than we experience ourselves down on the river near Tua.
Although we have had no rain since June, and we might reasonably expect some vine stress by now, the vines are in fact in good condition, helped by several factors:
First, the extraordinary rains over the past winter mean the vines have good reserves of water deep in the ground to draw on.
Second, and very helpfully, the temperatures have come down from near 40°C (104° F) for much of July and August to lower 30°s C (upper 80°s F) and we had some good overcast at the end of last week. For the week beginning 6 September the forecast is for temperatures which won’t exceed 30° C (86° F) until Friday. The cooling of the air and the overcast together help to bring down temperatures in the vineyards.
Finally, recently we have not been experiencing the hot winds coming up river at the end of the day, which are typical of a Douro summer and can feel as if the whole area is getting treated to a blow-dry at the hair salon.
Looking beyond the Douro, keep an eye on the development of the Atlantic hurricane season. Hurricanes form as tropical cyclones over the ocean off North Africa, and tend to move north-west towards the Caribbean and eastern coast of the USA. Cyclones spin counter clockwise and can throw off scrappy storms from their northern edges that may drift back towards Portugal. These can make for odds and ends of rain in Porto, and potentially in the Douro if the system is strong enough to get across the Serra do Marão, the mountains that mark the western boundary of the Douro DOC area. Needless to say, we wouldn’t wish these cyclones to develop into hurricanes affecting the Americas, but occasionally we’re grateful for the little rain systems at this time of year.
The maturation of the grapes is progressing well, we have seen an increase of 1 degree of baumé per week, versus the usual progress of 1 degree every 10 days. As we started with slightly lower than normal baumé readings, this means the grapes are catching up a bit. Baumé is a measure of dissolved sugars in the grape must, and is indicative of ultimate alcohol and sugar levels in the wine (prior to fortification of course, in port wines).
In terms of the development of the key grape varieties, 2010 is shaping up fairly typically. We expect to begin our harvest with the Tinta Barroca, as usual, then Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and bring in the Touriga Franca last of all. At the moment, the Roriz is more advanced than the Touriga Nacional, which is the reverse of the usual pattern, but all of this will be monitored closely throughout the harvest period and decisions will be reviewed and either confirmed or changed day by day.
In the lab, the berry weights and liquid extraction are good, and the colour extraction is coming along nicely, an indication of phenolic ripeness. Taken together, the baumé, acidity, weight and colour readings all continue to show a nicely balanced progress; we are well placed for a good year.
Charles fell silent for a moment, and then began chuckling. “Of course, this can all change in 24 hours…”
When is a Vintage Port not a Vintage Port? When some of it was never bottled, but kept in cask in the Graham’s Lodge for 75 years.
Despite a difficult season with a drought that wasn’t broken until September by “a little rain,” harvest began 23 September and continued in perfect conditions. Andrew James Symington’s notes, dated 14 October 1935 state:
I am inclined to think that the quality and good colour inspires hopes that the 1935 may prove good enough to make a Jubilee Vintage – quantity is less than last year – but quality appears to be better.
In the private cellar at the Lodge we still have three bottles of 1935 Vintage Graham’s on the shelf.
But if you visit the Sala do Baptismo, pay your respects to The Governor – that small oval tonel at the back of the room still contains 1100 litres of the 1935 wine, never bottled.
The oldest wines still in commerical use for tawny blends might be around 50 years old, but we still have wines in cask of all ages, including some from the nineteenth century. Charles Symington, our winemaker, explained that we do like to keep a small stock of exceptionally interesting wines as an in-house reference library from which we continue to learn about the ageing process. Rather like vintage cars, they are fun to have and to bring out for special occasions, but not meant for every day.
The Vintage 1935, bottled after only two years in wood, is described as “Good fruit and tannin integration with lovely balance and elegance.”
What does the 1935 look and taste like after 75 years in cask? The wine still has a deep tawny core, with a broad dark lemon rim that ends in a classic glinting green edge. The nose is surprisingly intense, first raisin, then lovely aromas of nuts and cigar box wafting up. On the palate, the wine is extremely elegant and balanced, it has almost a feminine character, unusual in ports. There is still a good acidity and a clean palate. Some very old wines can become a bit sticky and heavy in age, this one has not, the 1935 has maintained its elegance and aged exceptionally well.
Or, more succinctly, “It’s nice” – but you have to have seen the smile on Charles’s face when he said that, to understand just how nice this wine still is.
Tasting ports in groups of several wines can highlight the differences between styles, vintages, or ageing regimes. Graham’s master blenders rarely taste a wine in isolation, but compare several different samples, or samples versus finished and bottled wines, in order to fully assess the qualities of a given wine by contrasting it with others.
Very broadly, “ruby” is used to describe ports for which the making process preserves the deep red colour and the intense fruit character of the new wine. These wines will undergo wood ageing only in immense balseiros of thousands of litres, and never for more than six or seven years. Ruby ports, both Fine and Finest Reserve, Six Grapes and Late Bottled Vintage, will be bottled ready to enjoy. Crusted port is bottled and then stored by us for three years before being released, and can be enjoyed upon release or for some years after. Vintage port of course is only made when we identify an exceptional wine which has the power and structure to age for decades in bottle after only two years in balseiro.
Wines are typically tasted in a sequence starting with the youngest, simplest or lightest weight and progressing to the most mature, complex and intense; in this way the palate is not so staggered by a powerful wine as to be unable to appreciate a younger or more finely nuanced wine afterwards.
The Graham’s Precious Ruby tasting at the Lodge is a line up of a Late Bottled Vintage, Six Grapes, and a Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage. Visitors often question the sequence – they expect to be presented first with the Six Grapes, then the LBV, then the Vintage, based on the above tasting guidelines.
In fact, the Late Bottled Vintage is best presented first, though strictly speaking it is likely to be an older wine. Our LBV spends four to six years in the large balseiros before it is lightly filtered and bottled. This means that the wine is smooth, and although both nose and palate have plenty of red summer fruit, the impact of the fruit will have begun to soften and the wine may just begin to show some secondary flavour notes such as pepper or chocolate, depending on the exact vintage being tasted. The cask ageing also gives this wine a long and complex finish.
Graham’s Six Grapes is, we think, unique among ruby ports for several reasons. First and foremost, our intention with this blend has been to create an “everyday” port as much like a young vintage as possible. In order to ensure a consistent vintage character, we actually select the wines for Six Grapes before we consider candidates for making into Late Bottled Vintage.
Comparing it to the LBV you will find Six Grapes more intensely sweet and more intense generally, both nose and palate are very rich, complex and purely fruity – you will not find any secondary flavours here. The finish is again very long, but it is a very generous, luscious sweet finish, richer and more intense than the finish on the LBV, hence the decision to present Six Grapes after LBV in the tasting.
The Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage stands out from the other two for its darker and more complex fruit character and marked floral notes. Whilst the first two wines are blended from all five Graham’s quintas, in this wine the unique character of Malvedos stands out. With a southern exposure on the banks of the Douro, the grapes achieve full ripeness most years – which guarantees intensity and complexity of flavours. Malvedos is planted with a very high proportion of Touriga Nacional (29%) which brings cassis, mulberry, blackberry and raspberry flavours as well as great structure. The Quinta also features one of our favourite grapes, Touriga Franca (36%), which gives the wines their wonderful floral, especially violet, aromas. The finish is again quite long – a Graham’s hallmark – but in the Vintage ports the finish is more firm, with more tannic structure.
Have you enjoyed the Precious Ruby tasting at our Lodge, or tried comparative tastings at home with Graham’s ports? We would love to hear about your experiences and impressions.
At the end of the first week of maturity studies Charles Symington, winemaker for Graham’s port wines, shared his impressions of how the harvest could shape up, based on conditions so far.
First and foremost, the vines at all five of the Graham’s quintas look sound and in “fighting form” going into the final stage of ripening. The heavy rains over the winter mean the vines have had reserves to draw on and are coping well with the heat, despite the lack of any rain since June.
Also welcome news is the fact that the grapes are showing a good balance of sugars and phenolic ripening – in other words, the maturation of pips and skin (the indicators of phenolic ripeness) is keeping pace with the development of sugar levels. This is grounds to hope that when the sugar reaches the optimum level for harvest to make port, the grapes will be fully ripe and ready to render the maximum flavour and colour to the wine.
The week’s lab tests showed generally high weight of berries and generous quantities of juice – both indicators that the vines are getting enough water, despite two months of high heat and dry conditions. Whilst the sugar readings are lower than average for this point in the season, this is not a cause for concern, especially given the balance of ripening as described above. What the low sugar readings do tell us is to expect a later than usual harvest, as the grapes need more time to ripen. This makes perfect sense given that pintor – the moment the grape colour begins to change from green to red – was a week later than average, and the latest Charles could call to mind in his career. At this point, the indication is that we should be ready to harvest at Malvedos and our other quintas somewhere between 16 and 20 September.
The lab results also showed that the Touriga Nacional generally is behind normal, a bit of an outlier in terms of still showing higher acidity than other varieties, despite good phenolic ripeness. On the other hand, Charles observed that the same pattern occurred in 2007. Anyone who has tasted Graham’s 2007 Vintage will agree with his rather modest statement, “this is not bad news.”
Lab tests are not everything in assessing harvest conditions, however. They tell us how well the grapes and vines are doing, and by comparing the data to prior years we can extrapolate the likely rate of development and estimate a harvest start date.
The quality of the harvest can only by judged by actually tasting the grapes. This early, a winemaker can assess just the acidity and freshness of the fruit; flavour is actually the last thing to develop as a grape matures. In the last week or two before harvest, tasting the grapes becomes like tasting the wines and Charles can begin to imagine the flavours and qualities of the lotes (batches) of wine to be made and decide which grapes should be blended in the winemaking and which should be vinified as single varietal wines. Finally the flavour of the grapes will also tell him when exactly the grapes should be picked – typically he can set a picking date 3 to 4 days ahead, but that is always subject to change, and decisions are confimed at the last minute.
In an ideal world, Charles could wish for a little rain before the end of the first week of September. A good rain, accompanied by a day or two of overcast, would break the momentum of this hot summer as typically, by this time of year, temperatures do not recover after a rain storm to the prior levels. If the heat continues unabated, it could stress the vines and arrest the progress of the phenolic ripening, whilst dehydrating the grapes and causing a too-great concentration of sugar.
So, all told: present condition of the grapes is promising, hope for a bit of rain but not too much, or at least a decisive break in the heat, and expect a slightly later than usual harvest at Graham’s quintas in the Douro.
This week officially begins the countdown to the harvest for Graham’s port wines. All our winemaking and viticultural team will have had their holidays, and this past Monday we began our maturation studies.
Every week from now through the start of harvest, we will collect samples of grapes from all our quintas and then analyse the samples in the lab to assess the maturity of the vineyards and plan when and in what order we will harvest the grapes for Graham’s port wines.
In the morning, teams collect samples of 200 individual grapes from each designated vineyard (or parcel) at each quinta. For example, at Quinta dos Malvedos we collected from three different parcels of Touriga Nacional – one just below the house, another halfway up the ampitheatre-like property, and another from a parcel at the top of the hill. Similarly we collected berries from three different parcels of Tinta Barroca scattered around the property, and then the team moved next door to Quinta do Tua, across the Tua River from Malvedos, and collected grapes from one parcel of Touriga Nacional and another sample from our vinhas velhas – the old mixed-variety vineyard.
To get a truly representative sample, the berries are plucked from grape clusters on both sides of a row of vines, from clusters at top and bottom of vines, from clusters buried in leaves as well as those more exposed to sun. We may include some green berries and also some berries that may have begun to dry out and become like raisins. Once we have 200 grapes from the parcel, the bag is sealed, marked as to its origin and stored in a cooler until it is delivered to the lab.
Every week until harvest we will collect samples of 200 berries each from these same vineyards, run the same set of tests, and accumulate data for weight, juice volume, Baumé, total acidity, pH, colour and taste. This early we expect to see lower sugars and higher acidities than later in the season, when that relationship will reverse. Based on this week’s sampling, we can begin to make our harvest plans, which will be fine tuned each week as the assessment continues.
In the lab, each 200-grape sample goes through a pretty simple and straightforward process of assessment: After weighing the sample, we roughly crush the grapes by hand in their collection bag, then press them in a miniature wine press and run off the must which is then centrifuged and measured for volume. Finally, the must is poured into wine glasses. Three chemical analysis tests are now performed, to measure Baumé, which is indicative of sweetness and alcohol levels, to measure total acidity, and pH. Two low-tech tests are also performed: we look at it to assess the colour, and we taste it to have a sensory impression to weigh against the test data collected.
Not all our testing is done in the lab, however, nor are our plans and decisions all based on lab results. The ultimate deciding factors are human. We draw on our own personal experience, as well as the historical records of the experiences of all the Symingtons and Grahams who have harvested these vineyards before us. Charles Symington, our head winemaker, will now spend most of his days in the vineyards looking and assessing their condition for himself and tasting the grapes as he goes. More from Charles and his preliminary assessment of conditions in an upcoming story.
In 1960 James Symington formally joined the family port business, and until his retirement in 1998 was instrumental in expanding distribution throughout Europe and opening up the North American markets for Graham’s and other family-owned brands of port. He has written a short memoir, with many amusing anecdotes about the port trade, both historical and from his personal experiences.
When visiting the United States in the late 1970s he realised that the image of port was terribly intimidating to people – the use of port tongs to open bottles, the business of decanting, and the legendary formality of passing port correctly at British dinners all seemed to put people off. James travelled widely, speaking with distributors and meeting their customers, encouraging everyone to enjoy fine vintage and tawny ports any time, any place, and cited his own experiences as examples of the adaptability of port to all kinds of occasions and circumstances, not all of which were terribly elegant or traditional.
The following excerpt from James’s memoir makes clear that all styles of port can easily adapt to a variety of circumstances and still taste wonderful and refreshing:
I was frequently asked how often I myself drank port. I have to confess to being an avid port drinker and virtually not a day in my life goes by without my having a couple of glasses after dinner or during the day. Port tastes particularly good on a picnic. A robust vintage, decanted before leaving home, tastes delicious in the open air and I have downed many an enjoyable tot while shooting snipe on the marshes south of Oporto or after woodcock in the Hebridean islands of Scotland. Having done my military service in the King’s African Rifles in Kenya in the mid 1950s I have a great fondness for Africa as a whole and Kenya in particular. Safaris do not offer the most convenient environment for transporting bottles of port but I solved this problem by transferring the port into half litre plastic hip flasks usually to be found containing whisky in airport duty free shops. Refilled with 20 Year Old Tawny port these may be packed into soft bags and can withstand the jolts and rough treatment often encountered on safaris. On one memorable occasion a few years ago every evening we had 20 Year Old Tawny which had been thrown about all day on a camel’s back! Tawny port is particularly resilient in these circumstances and it can still taste delicious even after such apparent rough treatment. I was always at pains to point out the great versatility of port to our customers although I think they found the camel treatment rather extreme.
Whilst we love to see our fine vintage ports presented in a beautiful old decanter on a highly polished mahogany table, and always enjoy the effect of candlelight refracting off our crystal wine glasses, we think it would be a shame to save port only for those more formal occasions. The plastic hipflask via camel is perhaps a bit extreme, but port on a picnic is wonderful, and if the wine glasses are missing from your picnic hamper, don’t let that stop you …
One good way to learn about Graham’s ports is to taste in flights of several wines, as the contrast between wines helps to clarify and highlight the qualities of each. At the Graham’s Port Lodge, one of the popular choices for our visitors is a tasting of three tawnies, including The Tawny, Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny and Graham’s 30 Year Old Tawny. This particular line up is not just delicious, it provides an excellent demonstration of the effects of ageing in small cask.
All port wines, when they are brought down river to Gaia in the spring after harvest, are first stored in immense wooden balseiros of tens of thousands of litres. As our tasting room team assess each wine in the months and years after harvest, they may decide to move part or all of a particular wine into small casks of 550 litres, called pipes (or pipas in Portuguese) for eventual use in tawny ports. All wine stored in a wooden container of any size will experience a very gentle and minute exchange of oxygen through the wood, but when a small amount of wine is in a small cask the effect of this transpiration is intensified. Over a period of years in small casks the colour of the wine will change from deep dark ruby to more translucent tawny. The flavour will also change and mature, from the luscious red- or black-fruit driven flavours of young port, to more mellow and complex dried fruit, fig, honey, caramel and nut flavours, and in very old tawny ports will move on to even more complex flavours like tobacco and coffee.
Graham’s “The Tawny” is a blend of wines which have aged from 7 to 9 years, whilst the wines in the indicated age tawnies will have an average age of blend of the number of years named on the label – in this flight, we contrast The Tawny with our 20 Year Old and 30 Year Old tawnies.
One clue to the age of a tawny port will be the intensity and shade of colour. The Tawny is a very deep and intense golden-amber, a true and classic tawny colour. When you look at the Graham’s 20 Year Old, you see the same deep true tawny in the core, but with slightly less intensity of tone and a broader “rim” – the band of gradually diminishing colour at the edge of the wine when the glass is held at angle. This is due to the proportion of older wines in the blend. The 30 Year Old will be distinctly lighter, with an orange tint to the amber.
The Tawny is distinguished by an orange peel aroma on the nose, with hints of almond and possibly spice. In the 20 Year Old the almond aromas come to the fore; although the orange scent remains in the mix it steps back as compared to The Tawny. Graham’s 30 Year Old takes another turn altogether – all about dried fruits, the bouquet is strikingly perfumed and concentrated.
When you taste these wines you will find that the impact on your palate is much more complex than just flavour notes. Whilst the orange peel in The Tawny comes to the fore on the palate as it did on the nose, the outstanding impression is how incredibly refreshing it is, very distinctly so as compared with other port styles; serve it chilled to enhance this.
Graham’s 20 Year Old also delivers to the palate what it promised on the nose – nuttiness first and foremost, with some caramel and a lingering whiff of orange, but this wine is very sensual on the palate, very rich, sweet and smooth without cloying. Also very refreshing served chilled, the 20 Year Old Tawny is a particularly versatile partner for foods, the favourite choice amongst our Lodge staff being Crème Brulée.
Finally, our 30 Year Old Tawny Port shows its maturity in the sheer concentration and complexity of its palate which almost defies flavour note definition. Here, the wine is about the finish – it simply lasts and lasts. Although it could be paired with dark chocolate, this is a wine to be savoured as an after dinner treat by itself in lieu of any sweet dish.
We hope you will take the opportunity some time to try a flight of tawnies with friends, to savour the differences, to better understand the effects of wood aging, and most of all, to simply enjoy Graham’s wonderful range of tawny port wines.