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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