VineScout Agronomy Day at Quinta do Ataíde

Charles Symington welcomes participants to the VineScout ‘Agronomy Day’

During the last week of August, the Vinescout vineyard monitoring robot was back at Quinta do Ataíde in the Vilariça Valley to undertake the third and final round of summer field trials for 2018. The three-year project, which is working to develop an autonomous vineyard robot that can aid wine producers in measuring key vineyard parameters, is now in its second year of development and the five members of the project consortium are very satisfied with progress made. The VineScout II prototype was first trialled this summer during mid-July and beginning of August, and on its return to Ataíde for the third stage of testing, some learnings from the previous trials were incorporated. Balancing weights were fitted to the front wheels to improve traction and balance and special protective cover guards were designed to keep transmission bearings free of the fine powdered Douro schist which can wreak havoc with moving parts.

Professor Francisco Rovira-Más, VineScout consortium coordinator explains how VineScout works

On August 29th an open day — ‘Agronomy Day’ — took place at Quinta do Ataíde to publicly present VineScout II. Turnout was excellent, not just in terms of numbers, over 50 guests attended, but also in regard to the diversity and calibre of those present. The academic world was well represented with senior figures from several Portuguese universities, the leading Portuguese technology innovation incubator, INESC-TEC, tech companies, the Regional Director of the Ministry of Agriculture, wine producers, international business consultants, as well as journalists from Portugal and overseas. Very encouraging was the presence of Dr. Thomas Engel from the John Deere European Technology Innovation Centre in Germany and Marc Vanacht, a leading US-based International business consultant with strong links to agriculture and food chain companies. Marc, whose professional life obliges him to travel widely and frequently, commented that, to his knowledge, there is no robot in viticulture as advanced as VineScout — anywhere in the world.

The morning session of Agronomy day provided guests with the opportunity of seeing VineScout being put through its paces in the vineyard at Ataíde, namely in rows of the research vineyard which the Symington family planted there in 2014 and which comprises 53 red and white grape varieties. Participants in the open day were given the chance of interacting with the robot and with the various consortium members of the project and the two-way discussion was productive and valuable for all concerned. In the afternoon session, members of the teams involved with the robot’s development presented their findings from this year’s intensive field trials.

VineScout is programmed to navigate autonomously among the rows of vines to collect data

The robot’s incredible vineyard mapping capabilities were discussed and the positive impact this can have on wine producers’ vineyard management became evident. One comparison between what is currently available and what the robot can bring to wine growers really summed up the promising potential of this project. While existing vineyard mapping/monitoring technology is limited to taking readings from a reduced number of sampling points (about 25), VineScout is able to take 3000 readings in a comparable vineyard area and in the same time period. Furthermore, it does this automatically. The scope and possibilities that this opens up in terms of impacting the quality of the end product is nothing short of impressive.

VineScout will return to the Douro in the summer of 2019 in the form of prototype III for further and final field testing. The project will be concluded by the end of the year by which time it will have evolved to a point where the stakeholders are confident it will be ready to advance to the next stages: series production and market availability.

Fernando Alves, Symington R&D Viticulture Manager answers questions posed by a Portuguese TV reporter

 

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VineScout Vineyard Monitoring Robot: Year 2

Vinescout is a self-propelled, electrically powered vineyard monitoring robot under development by a four-nation pan-European consortium of which Symington Family Estates is one of the partners (see previous blog post on the subject: September 11th, 2017). The three-year project (2016 – 2019) is working to develop an autonomous vineyard robot that can aid wine producers in measuring key vineyard parameters, including water availability (vine water status), vine leaf/canopy temperature and plant vigour.

Current vineyard data gathering techniques have a number of limitations; they are expensive, require trained personnel, are very time-consuming and often only deliver an incomplete picture because the sampling rates are necessarily low, largely due to the afore-mentioned reasons. This precludes the viticulturist’s and winemaker’s access to comprehensive and reliable information during the growing and ripening cycles of the vine, on a regular basis and in real time. Consequently, most producers are denied the opportunity to use data that could help them fully optimise their vineyard management, and ultimately influence the quality of the wine they produce.

As the end-user member of the VineScout project, Symington Family Estates hosts in its Douro Valley vineyards the intensive schedule of vineyard trials, first begun in the summer of 2017 – Year 1 of the project — and which are now continuing in the summer of 2018 at Quinta do Ataíde, where the second prototype of the VineScout is being put through its paces. With the valuable learnings taken from last year’s field testing, the various stakeholders worked intensively towards the production of a second prototype, which incorporates a series of advances relative to the first prototype.

VineScout pit stop during the intensive field trials on July 18th, Quinta do Ataíde.

The much streamlined and perfected second VineScout prototype has been performing exceptionally well. The mapping sensors have been fine-tuned and their enhanced capabilities have become apparent during the trials. The autonomous navigation system, for instance, has been much improved meaning the vehicle can move faster through a row of vines whilst maintaining the same data-collection capability. The practical knock-on effect, of course, is that the robot can map a given vineyard area faster and thus collect more data, over more extensive areas in a given period of time.

A further field trial session is scheduled for the end of August. Following that, it will be up to the two Spanish Universities, the French robot systems manufacturer and the British software company to further perfect VineScout to produce a third and final prototype for final field trials during the summer of 2019. This version will be very close to a full series-production version, which can hopefully be made available to wine producers in the medium-term future.

VineScout is fitted with solar panels to help charge the electric batteries on the go.
VineScout is fitted with solar panels to help charge the electric batteries on the go.
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2016 Vintage Port Declared

The Symington family is pleased to announce our decision to declare 2016 as a Vintage Port year. This is only the fourth Vintage declaration for all our Port companies since 2000 and the first since the magnificent 2011’s. Few wine regions anywhere restrict Vintage Years with such meticulous care and only truly exceptional Ports are declared in this way.

The 2015/16 winter was wetter than average, which provided a vital counterbalance to the hot Douro summer. Damp weather continued into May, which caused considerable fruit loss to the unwary. From June, normal service was resumed, and August was very warm although some welcome rain fell on the 24th and 26th. More heat ushered in September, and some started picking although it was clear to those who were properly monitoring their vines that the grapes were not ready. Furthermore, the long-range forecast predicted showers and sure enough invaluable rain fell on the 12th and 13th September.

This was the year to read the signs and to take risks; Charles Symington, head winemaker, delayed harvesting until the 19th September and the best Touriga Nacional was not harvested until the 26th, and the late-ripening Touriga Franca only during the first ten days of October. The greatest 2016 Symington Ports were made during this later period under lovely blue skies. It is not easy in our incredibly diverse region to pick grapes at exactly the right time, especially when yields are amongst the lowest in the world at 26 hectolitres/ha, with high risk of dehydration and when many producers rely on bought grapes and are therefore dependent on farmers for picking.  All the 2016 Symington Vintage Ports are made from our own Quinta vineyards where Charles and his viticulture team can be seen every day tasting and analysing grapes throughout August and September. All our Vintage Ports were made in our five small lagar wineries, using the classic treading method for great Port.

The 2016 Vintage Ports are exceptional with tannins that are amongst the most refined ever, supporting beautiful red-fruit flavours with extraordinary intense, purple colour. They have impressive structure and balance, with Baumés, acidity, tannins and colour in rare and perfect alignment. This is no doubt a result of the later ripening cycle which allowed our grapes to mature evenly and completely. Production of each of our 2016 Vintage Ports is approximately 1/5th below our previous declared Vintage following rigorous selection in the tasting room.

Vila Nova de Gaia, 9th April 2018

 

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Cockburn’s Lodge Open to Visitors

Cockburn's Lodge
Cockburn’s Lodge

The impressive Cockburn’s cellars, the largest in the old quarter of Vila Nova de Gaia hold 6,518 seasoned oak barrels of maturing Port, plus the equivalent of a further 10,056 barrels in larger oak vats are now once again open to the public.

Still a fully working Port Lodge, visitors will learn that even with modern technology, there will never be an alternative to the traditional slow ageing of fine Port in well-seasoned oak and will have the chance to see our seven coopers at work using the same tools and crafts that their ancestors used for centuries in what is the last fully equipped cooperage in operation in Vila Nova de Gaia.

The refurbished Lodge now also has a museum space that holds a collection of original 19th century watercolours painted by Baron Forrester, along with extracts from the unpublished 1930s diaries of another of Port’s legendary figures, John Smithes.

Paul Symington said ‘The opening of these cellars is another important step in the revival of this great Port house after decades of multi-national ownership. My family will continue to invest strongly in Cockburn’s to put the quality of the wines above all other considerations, and now visitors can come and see our work at first hand.’

As all visits are guided, reservation is required, and can be made online at www.cockburns.com/visit-us.

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A Year in the Vineyards, July 2017

Despite the hot and dry spring, the vines are looking verdant and healthy(Quinta do Vale da Malhadas, foreground and Quinta do Vale Coelho in the background).
Despite the hot and dry spring, the vines are looking verdant and healthy (Quinta do Vale da Malhadas, foreground and Quinta do Vale Coelho in the background).

Weather extremes are not uncommon in the Douro Valley and the arrival of spring this year was a perfect illustration of that. The period of the vines’ winter dormancy, during which the plants have minimal metabolic activity (they’re literally asleep) was fractionally warmer and drier than average and the spring followed a similar pattern — hot and dry. However, the season kicked off in the Douro with abundant snowfalls on March 23rd that shrouded the region’s higher altitude vineyards with blankets of snow. Widespread frost also affected the Douro Superior on the 25th. The chill, though, was short-lived and temperatures soon swung back up in April; it was the third hottest month of April of the last 40 years.

As well as unseasonably warm, this spring was also very dry due to the overall lack of precipitation. March did manage approximately half the monthly average rainfall but April was remarkable for the near total absence of rain; just 2.6mm was recorded at Quinta do Bomfim where the average for the month is 46.9mm. It was in fact the driest month of April since official weather records began in Portugal in 1931. Precipitation in May was closer to the mean, helping to raise soil moisture levels. For the spring as whole (March through to May), rainfall was approximately half the thirty-year average.

As a result of these climatic conditions, bud-break, which marks the beginning of the vine’s vegetative cycle, began between the 8th and 10th of March (Touriga Franca at Quinta do Bomfim), very similar dates to 2016 and approximately a week earlier than average. Although the start of this phase then slowed significantly, the vegetative cycle soon picked up and advanced at a very fast pace.

Flowering occurred three weeks earlier than in 2016, beginning between the 4th and 5th of May and was two weeks ahead of average dates. By the end of the month the cycle maintained this precocity with formed bunches well visible in the Touriga Franca.

The upside of the hot and dry conditions has been the very low disease threat levels (downy and powdery mildew), in sharp contrast to the comparable period in 2016. Vine canopy management was a priority during the final stage of the three month period, involving vine hedging (despampa), shoot topping (desponta) and shoot positioning (ampara) — guiding the shoots through the trellis wires. Weed control along the soil top cover also required great attention given the extra vigour of plant growth encouraged by a combination of the high temperatures at the start of this cycle and the availability of water in the soil, which although limited was sufficient to stimulate such growth.

At our Douro properties, new plantings were concluded at Quinta do Bomfim with 7.5 hectares of Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca; Quinta da Macieira in the Vilariça Valley with 8 ha of Alicante Bouschet; Quinta dos Malvedos with 7 ha of Touriga Nacional and one hectare of top grafting (see definition below); Quinta da Telhada with 6.5 ha of Touriga Franca; Quinta de Roriz with 1.5 ha of Touriga Nacional and 1.9 ha of top grafting and finally Quinta da Perdiz with the planting of 4 ha of Touriga Nacional. This brings the total planting for this year to 34.5 ha of new vines and 2.9 ha of top grafting (changing over to Touriga Franca).

Top grafting (sobre-enxertia): “Changing the fruiting vine variety of a mature vineyard by inserting a bud of a selected variety in each vine, but retaining the established root system.” (source: The Oxford Companion to Wine, Fourth Edition, 2015).

At our principal grape variety library, established at Quinta do Ataíde in 2014, studies were carried out on the dynamics of bud-break and flowering for each of the 53 varieties planted and similar studies were also made at the Quinta do Bomfim Grape Variety Library.

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Temperatures Soar in the Douro Valley

Quinta do Ataide
Quinta do Ataide

After what has been an extremely dry Spring, Portugal has been in the grip of a heatwave since early June. While high temperatures are normal at this time of year, the prolonged high temperatures, which have seen some areas reach temperatures in the low 40º’s, are deeply worrying due to the potential negative effects on vineyards and agriculture, and the threat of forest fire.

One must only look to the tragic events unfolding in Pedrógão Grande to understand the violent and devastating and tragic impact of wildfire. We have nothing but respect for the courage and determination shown by the firemen, emergency services, and armed forces, in helping to protect the lives of people and their property.

In the Douro Valley, Symington Family Estates’ weather station in Quinta do Ataide recorded temperatures of 43.7ºC on the 17th of June, and had three consecutive days with temperatures above 43. The thermometers in Quinta do Bomfim, in Pinhão, peaked at 42.1ºC, the highest temperature ever recorded in the estate since records began in 1957.

Fortunately, the weather forecast shows a slight decrease in these temperatures over the next few days.

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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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