My Favourite Vintage

Graham's Private Cellar
Graham’s Private Cellar
This week, journalist, wine critic, and founder of fortheloveofport.com, Roy Hersh, commits to the daunting task of selecting his favourite Symington Family Estates’ vintage.

Given the depth and breadth of vintages to consider, selecting an individual year produced by this esteemed stable of Port shippers, is no easy feat. In order to meet the criteria, a specific harvest had to produce a great bandwidth of outstanding Ports and be very drinkable today. While a vintage like 1927 would be an easy choice, it makes far more sense to choose a year that most Port lovers can relate to.

In recent times, the 2011 vintage is a no-brainer. Low yielding and led by the near-perfect Dow and supported by many other excellent Vintage Ports from the Symingtons and others, it is a great year to have cases aging in the cellar. While delicious and approachable in their youth, I’d prefer these continue to age for another 12 to 15 years before beginning to pull corks; as the complexity and secondary nuances would really just be hitting their stride at that time. Overall, a great year, but it is just too soon to settle on the 2011 vintage.

While this may be an odd choice, I’ve always felt that the 1980 vintage was not only an under-appreciated year, but one in which the Symington Family Vintage Ports excelled. There are some other shippers that made fine Vintages too, however across the board, Dow’s and Graham’s are likely the two Ports at the top of the 1980 class, respectively. There are others from SFE too, such as Gould Campbell which over delivered in ‘80 and still show loads of upside from here, while Smith Woodhouse is a little more predictable, yet deeply extracted and with concentrated flavours.

1980 Warre’s is definitely a smooth and sexy Port and while it has already begun to develop secondary characteristics, its best drinking is still several years hence. Therein lies the conundrum, as the drinkability factor comes into question. At 37 years of age, it is hard for readers to understand when I say that this vintage is still drinking young. The Dow’s, Graham’s, Gould Campbell and Smith Woodhouse if tasted blind, would fool many into guessing that these Ports are from a younger vintage such as 1994 or even 1997… Which is saying a lot.

So, 2011 and even 1980 are a bit too young, 1945 and 1927 a bit obscure for the average Port consumer… How about we focus on the 1966 vintage which just passed the half century mark last year? For current drinking with serious Port friends, this is my go to vintage. 1966 was especially kind to the Port shippers that now make up the breadth of Symington Family Estates, even though several of these houses were acquired by the Symington family after these Ports were vinified and bottled. Across the board the 1966 vintage shows an exceptional number of Ports that are drinking à point today, but also well within their window of peak performance.

When I look at the Port houses owned by the Symington family and consider their 1966s, this would have to be the sweet spot for current consumption. Personally, I do prefer Vintage Ports that present secondary, if not tertiary, characteristics and well-defined flavour profiles. I am sure many others would select the 1970 vintage, 1963 or even choose 1994. But across the board, every 1966 Vintage Port by the Symington’s is still in fantastic condition, when one comes across bottles cellared properly.

If forced to select just one, there’s no question that for my palate preference the Dow, is at the top rung of the 1966 ladder for SFE. It has been drinking well for many years, and when I say well, that is an understatement here. I’ve had the good fortune to taste nearly a dozen bottles of this Vintage in the past six or seven years. Best bottles are still exhibiting a dark garnet colour, with gutsy structures, well-delineated aromas and an intensity and sophistication in both the utter richness and succulent dark berry flavours. Graham’s is also incredible and often this ’66 is picked as “group favourite” during blind tastings. It appeals in a smooth, ripe, approachable style that it is noticeably softer than the Dow’s tannic structure and may offer greater overall hedonism, vs. the Dow’s which shows extraordinary vibrancy and signs of power given its age.

It really depends on which house style appeals most. Warre’s is at a near-perfect place in its evolution today; at peak, it will never be better than it is right now. That being said, I’d be happy to drink the Warre’s any day of the week. It is a viscous and elegant Port stuffed with sweet black cherry and mocha and generous acidity to keep it interesting in the glass, with a memorably soft ending. The Smith Woodhouse ‘66 is a classic and this one has held up very well indeed. Broad shouldered, with layers of fragrant earth and grape, a meio seco core that’s somewhere between secondary and tertiary flavours. Gould Campbell is a rock star in this vintage and likely my second favourite Port of SFE’s 1966s. Spiced purple freshness on the nose with plum and boysenberry notes that translate to the palate. With a solid five hour decant the Gould morphs into a multi-layered rich wine, with plenty of time to drink well from here.

This handful of Vintage Ports make it very easy to choose 1966, which was not initially thought to be a great vintage. Critics back in the day believed this vintage was too tannic and would never come into full balance. In reality, the tannins have enabled these Vintage Ports to evolve and show an invincibility through their first half century, yet spotlight their seamless symmetry too. The best of the 1966s will continue to develop deeper and multifaceted personalities, and the best bottles will reward the patience of Port enthusiasts who appreciate what mature Vintage Port has to offer.

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Quinta do Vesuvio & Dow’s Senhora da Ribeira 2015 Vintage Ports Declared

Quinta do Vesuvio (Left) & Senhora da Ribeira (Right). Photograph: Adriano Borges.
Quinta do Vesuvio (left) & Senhora da Ribeira (right). Photograph: Adriano Borges.
Following the declaration of the Cockburn’s 2015 Bicentenary Vintage Port and Graham’s 2015 Stone Terraces Vintage Port, Dow’s and Quinta do Vesuvio are the latest Port houses to make an annoucement.

Produced at two of the Douro Superior’s most remote vineyards, the Symington family is pleased to announce the declaration of the Quinta do Vesuvio and Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira 2015 Vintage Ports.

In the Douro Superior, the 2105 growing season was simultaneously the hottest and driest for 36 years, although (unusually for the Douro Superior) it had benefited from more spring rain than the other sub-regions of the Douro, putting the vines in a good place to withstand the intense heat.

Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira

At Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira, the vintage began on the 8th of September, although the finest varieties, namely the Touriga Nacional from the east-facing Vinha Grande and the Touriga Franca from the south-facing Vinha da Pedreira, were only picked towards the end of the month in order to reap the benefit from the heaven-sent rain which fell on September 15th.

The best Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca, combined with some Sousão, were fermented in the estates’ lagares to produce a Port with an exceptionally intense, purple-black color with deep complexity, fine tannins and balanced acidity.

Quinta do Vesuvio

At Quinta do Vesuvio, Touriga Nacional from the Vinha Nova and Raposa vineyards began to be picked from the 21st of September, followed by Touriga Franca from the Vale da Teja vineyards, a week later.

Quinta do Vesuvio is one of the only estates to still use traditional granite lagares, which were constructed in 1827, to make all the property’s Ports. During the 2015 vintage, 50 people tread grapes for up to three hours at the end of each day’s picking to create a Vintage Port that is exceptionally complex, concentrated and elegant.

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Graham’s Declares Stone Terraces 2015 Vintage Port

Stone terraces, quinta dos malvedos, graham's
The Stone Terraces of Quinta dos Malvedos
For the second time ever, Graham’s is declaring a Vintage Port made exclusively from the time-worn stone terraces of Quinta dos Malvedos. Read on for more information on the wine and its provenance.

The Stone Terraces vineyard at Malvedos comprises three adjacent parcels in a narrow curving valley; one faces north and is known as ‘Cardenhos’, whilst the other two, known as ‘Port Arthur’ (see here for a possible history of the name), face each other across the Síbio brook; one facing due east, the other due west. The fact that there is no south facing terraces proved to be of great benefit during the 2015 growing and maturation cycles, which were the driest and hottest of the last three decades.

Whilst most of the Malvedos vineyards, which have a predominantly southerly aspect, were subjected to challenging conditions, the Stone Terraces vineyards in their more sheltered positions were shielded from the excesses of the heat.

In 2015, the grapes were picked by hand over the weekend of the 12th/13th of September, a couple of days before substantial rain fell across the Douro Valley, and were subsequently fermented in lagares at Quinta dos Malvedos’ own small winery. Yields were incredibly low, at just 0.82 kg per vine, and several hours of treading over the following days delivered a magnificent wine with sublime violet aromas.

Tasting note (from cask samples in the Symington Family Estates’ tasting room):

A wine with a sublime floral essence reminiscent of bouquets of roses and violets – gorgeous. There is a discreet hint of toffee. The palate is opulent, whilst not overbearing, and reveals a mineral freshness and some peppery spice. Supremely refined, it is elegant and balanced.

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Cockburn’s Declares Bicentenary 2015 Vintage

Quinta dos Canais
Quinta dos Canais. Photograph: Adriano Ferreira Borges
Today, Cockburn’s announced the declaration of the 2015 Vintage, and as such the second Cockburn’s Vintage Port produced under Symington Family stewardship. Below, we recapitulate the viticultural year in Quinta dos Canais.

The Year in the Making

Rainfall marked the beginning of the viticultural year in October, replenishing water reserves that had been diminished during the preceding summer. In the months to come, these water reserves would prove crucial, as the winter of 2014/2015 and the spring that followed were very dry.  As such, the period between the start of the vegetative cycle and the initial stages of the ripening season was simultaneously the hottest and driest of the last 36 years.

Fortunately, in the Douro Superior (where Cockburn’s Quinta dos Canais and Quinta do Vale Coelho are located) rain arrived as temperatures began to rise in May. This rain was of enormous benefit and helped sustain the vines throughout June and July, although, the temperature fell in July, and August was significantly colder than usual, offsetting some of the effects of drought. Coupled to this, cool August nights proved decisive in preserving the natural acidity in the berries, and in the run up to the vintage the vineyards were in good condition.

The Vintage

Although the grapes were in good condition in early September, phenolic development was still incomplete and signs of hydric stress were beginning to show. As such, when the vintage started in Quinta dos Canais on September 7th, the vulnerable younger vines were picked first in the hope that rain would soon arrive to allow the final ripening of the most valuable grapes.

Charles Symington noted: “We held back and on the morning of the 15th [of September] a massive storm hit the Douro which lasted until early next morning, the skies then cleared and temperatures dropped to ideal ripening conditions…perfect! The vines responded to this miraculous rain and within 4 days the Touriga Nacional was transformed, skins having softened and flavours developed. At Canais picking resumed on the 21st and the Nacional was in fantastic condition and a week later the pickers moved on to the Touriga Franca, which was considerably advanced and showing great promise, possibly the most promising Franca I have seen.”

The Wine

Unsurprisingly, Touriga Franca constitutes the largest component of the Cockburn’s 2015 Vintage Port, with 41% (compared with 30% in the 2011). It is followed by Touriga Nacional with 37%— this variety also excelled at Canais where it was sourced from the distinctive, mature 30 years Bico de Pato (duck’s bill) vineyard. Picked 8 days after the rain of the 15th, the perfectly ripe berries delivered just 0.96 Kg/vine, giving the wine its velvety tannins and incomparable finesse and elegance.

The superb Touriga Franca was sourced principally from Canais, and complemented by a smaller quantity from Vale Coelho. The balance of the blend was made up of old mixed vines (9%); Sousão (7%) and Alicante Bouschet (6%), the latter from Quinta do Cachão de Arnozelo, which contributed to the structure of the wine. A co-fermentation from Vale Coelho of old mixed vines, yielding just 0.36 Kg/vine, combined with Sousão and Touriga Franca added great concentration, freshness and grip to the wine.

Tasting Note

The resulting wine is focused and precise, with great vitality and purity of fruit. Exuding freshness, it springs out of the glass with aromas of fleshy, black plums, and eucalyptus and flavours of red cherries. Well-toned and muscular, Cockburn’s 2015 Vintage Port is full-flavoured with a typical Cockburn’s ‘grip’.

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Port in the East

Dow’s 1963 Vintage Port served at the Ritz Carlton, Shanghai, last November. Photo: Sofia Zhang.
Jorge Nunes, Symington Family Estates’ market manager for Asia and the Pacific, writes about what brought him to Hong Kong, what keeps him there, and what he thinks is the future for the Port trade in the region.

For as long as I can remember, I had always dreamed of visiting Asia. Its long distance from Portugal (my home country) in a time before the internet and fast travel, the mystery and myths that envoloped its culture and history, the different people, languages, foods, and habits – Asia pulled me in like nowhere else on Earth. So, it was a happy coincidence that nine years ago, the Symington Family approached me with the challenge of travelling to the Far-East for several months a year, with the objective of developing the Port market there. This was no easy task, considering how undeveloped the wine market was at the time, but it was definitely an exciting project!

Nine years have passed (already?), and it has been almost five years since my “travelling” became permanent. It was when both the Symingtons and myself thought it would make sense that someone from the company be stationed there permanently that I made Hong Kong my home.

Although I now live there, Asia  continues to be the most exhilarating part of the world but is now much more open, and known to, the West, whilst being incredibly easy to travel to and from. Luckily, the wine market has followed much the same path and I am now working in an environment very different than it was when I found it – its quite incredible how much has happened in only ten years!

Consumers are now more mature, open-minded, motivated to experiment, and above all, eager to learn more. The later being, in my opinion, one of the most important cultural differences between our part of the world. Personal interest in learning more about a specific subject, allied with a fierce competitive streak, makes many Asians extremely motivated to learn. Most Europeans, myself included, all too often have a tendancy to disregard learning in our daily lives.

So considering the aforementioned changes, how has the Port market evolved over the last ten years? Well, first of all, it’s important to define “Asia”. In the West we tend to consider Asia as one single body, when, of course, it is quite the contrary. It is instead a multitude of cultures, languages, foods, climates, habits, etc., and this means the way a market responds to a particular product or promotional campaign is entirely different from others, even when they are neighbouring countries.

Having said this, we have found that Port is beginning to find its place in similar moments of consumption and occasions across Asia. Apart from what we consider the “normal” dessert/after dinner consumption of Port – that without a doubt still exists – we also find more consumers beginning to socialise with Port on their tables, amongst friends and family, or in relaxed environments where they are not concerned about food-pairing.

This is, in my opinion, the right way to go.

Attempting to “force” our ways on the habits of others, i.e., “pair this with that” or “drink Port after dinner”, is a mistake that we make all too often do, and will inevitably lead to failure. The best path has been to educate, allow people to try the wine, and explain the context of Port in our culture while leaving it open for people to find their own space and context in which to enjoy Port. Fortunatly, this is now happening, albeit slowly.

From our experience of conducting many tastings throughout Asia, Tawny Port seems to be a firm favourite. The lack of tannins, smoothness, and ease with which they can be understood and appreciated, puts wines such as the 10 and the 20 years old Tawny Ports amongst the favourites almost every time. As an added plus, they also seem to pair quite well with many different cuisines: from the Shanghainese, to the Sichuanese and Cantonese, etc.

However, that’s not to say that other categories don’t also have their space. Vintage Port, Reserve Ruby and the easy-drinking Ruby & Tawny, all have established their roles in the development of this exciting region.

There’s still much to be done before Port becomes as popular in Asia as in the West, but the task that looked so daunting just a few years ago, is now starting to look a lot more achievable. No doubt, when that happens, Symington Family Estates will be seen as one of the pioneering companies in the region, and I, I hope, have contributed to that.

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A Year in the Vineyards, March 2017

Frost on the vine in the vineyards of the Douro
Frost on the vine. Photograph: Fernando Alves
Miguel Potes, no stranger to the ups and downs of a year in the vineyards, talks about winter pruning, low temperatures, and a lot of hard work.

The winter pruning of the 2016/2017 viticultural year was largely concluded in our vineyards by the third week of February, a little later than usual due to the fact that in many of our properties in the Cima Corgo sub-region of the Douro work only began during the first half of December. Typically, winter pruning would be well underway during the month of November, but this year’s delay can be explained by the longer than usual vegetative cycle of the vines over the preceding season (2015/2016), which meant that after the vintage the vineyards were still relatively lush and the onset of leaf-fall was delayed by approximately two weeks. The above-average temperatures during the first half of November accentuated this further.

The relatively late start to the 2016 harvest also inevitably influenced the delay in winter pruning. In some of our principal vineyards such as Quinta dos Malvedos, picking during the harvest was halted on two occasions to work around some (beneficial) rain that arrived during the middle of September. Some of the finest grape varieties, including the Touriga Nacional, only began to be picked from September 26th, which meant that the harvest finished quite late, well into October.

Our pruning teams did not have to contend with much rain; in fact over the winter the lack of rain has given us some cause for concern, the shortfall being approximately 40% when compared to the 30-year-average. However, they did face very cold conditions, especially through January, which records showed as being the third coldest January of the last 30 years. The lowest temperature was registered at Quinta do Ataíde’s weather station on January 19th: 5.6°C below zero, which underlines the continental climate of the easternmost part of the Douro region.

Fortunately our pruners are equipped with electric secateurs, which not only increase productivity but also make the task much less physically demanding. They do, however, have to face the whims of winter weather for weeks on end, not to mention having to negotiate the steepness of the terrain, which really doesn’t make their task any easier.

Winter pruning of the vines is essential for their rejuvenation in the spring and one of its prime objectives is to influence the following season’s yield by controlling the number of buds and therefore those that will potentially burst and give rise to the desired number of bunches of grapes per vine.  Because it is so labour-intensive and time-consuming it accounts for around a third of the annual costs in our vineyards.

Electric secateurs notwithstanding, winter pruning in our vineyards is still an entirely manual task. It is one of the single most important periods of the year in the lifecycle of our vines for it is at this time that decisions are made that will determine the individual future of every single vine and have a significant impact on the success of this year’s crop. During the moments the pruner spends on each vine his or her decisions influence its growth over the new vegetative cycle, its fate quite literally in their hands. Manual pruning requires great skill, knowledge and experience if it is to be carried out successfully and one of its great advantages, as opposed to mechanical pruning, is the precision it offers given that each vine is tended with individual care, one of the indispensable prerequisites for the production of the finest possible wines.

 

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