How and Why to Declare a Vintage

The Malvedos winery was only about three lagares into harvest this year when the rumours started to fly on the internet that Someone – some influential wine pundit – had announced this was a vintage year.

Wrong.  Don’t believe it.  With all due respect, it is not his or her decision, and it’s too early to know.

How or why a port is made or declared to be “Vintage” seems to confuse those new to the wine.  There are several pieces to what makes a port a Vintage Port:

  1. Very simply, Graham’s decides to declare a Vintage – we feel the wines which we produced in a given harvest year possess the characteristics of a Graham’s Vintage Port.
  2. The wine is produced, aged and bottled according to the regulations which define Vintage Port.
  3. The IVDP, the regulating body for the Port trade, ratifies our decision, and approves the bottling and sale of the wine as Vintage Port.
  4. The Vintage Declaration is formally announced.

The Wine

Graham’s declares a vintage only when we feel we have an extraordinary wine.  The decision to declare or not lies with each and every port producer or shipper individually, every year – this is not a joint or trade-wide or regulatory-imposed decision.   Historically, we have declared a vintage three or four times a decade.

Cask samples and sample blends for review in Graham's tasting room

In the 15 months following a harvest, we continuously assess all the wines made from that year’s production.  We have to think not just about single lots of wine, but possible blends of lots – which, if any, combination of some number of wines, in some ratio, out of the 30 or more lots sourced from our five quintas, will create the extraordinary product that can be bottled, aged and enjoyed as Vintage Port.

Of course we are looking for marvellous, delectable flavours, but we also need to think about how those flavours will age and develop.  Equally important are characteristics of structure: if the acidity and tannic structure are not very firm when young, then the wine simply won’t have the potential to age for decades, which is a hallmark of Vintage Port.  Only when all of these factors are in balance, and we feel the wine is one which will reward the drinker for years to come over the full trajectory of the wine’s life from release to 50 or 100 years from now, will we declare that wine a Vintage Port.

How do we know?  That is purely down to the magic, the art, the experience, the gut instinct – whatever word you want to use – of the wine maker, Charles Symington.  Vintage quality is not something you can identify and certify in a tube or under a microscope.

Declaration How-to

Once we have decided to declare a vintage, the timeline for the declaration starts in the second January after harvest and runs like this:

  • January we submit the sample to the IVDP, which they approve for sale as Vintage Port
  • April (give or take) the Vintage is publicly declared with cask samples and a launch
  • By end of June we complete the bottling – the IVDP allows bottling up until end July of the third year after harvest, but we choose to bottle before the heat sets in for the second summer after harvest
  • From 1st May onwards the bottles are released for sale

Graham’s versus a Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage

The private cellar at the Lodge

Graham’s has an extraordinary reputation for the quality and longevity of its vintage ports.  Our wines are characterised by an incredible intensity as well as complexity of flavour, and great sweetness; and our vintage ports have the structure to last for decades.  Critics have admired (frankly, even raved over) our wines at all stages of maturity – from newly declared to century old vintages.  Declaring a vintage is a serious decision with this standard to uphold.

So, what happens if we feel the wines from a given year do not make a Graham’s Vintage?  One option is to declare a single quinta vintage, from our flagship Quinta dos Malvedos.  When you taste a Quinta dos Malvedos vintage, you recognise the richness and complexity of the wine –  the Malvedos lots have always been the backbone of a Graham’s blend.  But if you taste it alongside the nearest Graham’s vintage, you will realise, wonderful as is the Malvedos, it doesn’t have quite the same structure as the Graham’s.  Single quinta wines are wonderful and enjoyable, but rarely have the life expectancy of a vintage which is blended from several quintas.

When we do bottle a Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Port, we do not release it to the market straight away.  Instead, the wine is bottled the second spring after harvest, but we hold the bottles in storage in Gaia until we feel they are ready for drinking, typically 8 to 10 years.  As an example, the 1999 Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Port was bottled in 2001, but not released until 2010.

Back to 2010

So from now until April of 2012, no one, except Charles in his heart of hearts, will know whether 2010 will be a Vintage Port for Graham’s.  And if you ask him before then, the answer will be a charming smile and utter silence.

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Port Tasting at Bonham’s

Last night, 21st October, a tasting was held at Bonham’s, New Bond Street, London of Graham’s and Taylor’s Ports from 1970 to 2007.

I presented my family’s Graham’s Ports and Adrian Bridge presented Taylor’s.  Richard Mayson, well known writer on Port and Portuguese wines was the ‘moderator’.  Anthony Barne and Richard Harvey of Bonham’s had organised the tasting and some 50 people were present.

The extraordinary terraced vineyards of the Douro - here at Graham's Quinta das Lages in the Rio Torto

We started with a brief presentation of what the Douro is all about, its geography, its special weather conditions and its unique grape varieties.  Many present had never been to the Douro and therefore had little idea of our terraced vineyards and the challenges that we face in not only building them but also in maintaining them, so showing a map of the Douro and locating the key vineyards was an important starting point.  We then showed pictures of the vineyards.  I showed pictures of Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua, although of course our best Graham’s Ports also come from Quinta da Vila Velha, Quinta Vale de Malhadas in the Douro Superior and Quinta das Lages in the Rio Torto.

The tasting was very interesting as we compared the Graham and Taylor 1970, followed by the 1977.  Both of these two years showed lovely maturity and are clearly at their very best, although neither will fade anytime soon; on the contrary they will age superbly for many years.  There was general agreement in the room that the 1970 was one of the very greatest Vintage Ports produced in the last half-century and a wine well worth seeking out.

We then tasted the 1985’s which showed more youth and depth, although at 25 years old, they are wonderful for drinking now.  The 1994’s were, as usual, a revelation.  At this stage many Vintage Ports are going through their late adolescence and can be slightly awkward, but neither of these two 94’s showed anything other than deep, complex ripe fruit flavours. This is destined to be one of the very greatest years.

The final flight consisted of the 2000 and the recently bottled 2007.  The former were outstanding youngsters after just 8 years in bottle and showed the luck that we had in the Douro in this, the millennium year.  Again this is a wine that any decent wine-lover ought to have in their cellar as it will make wonderful drinking at any time over the next 10 to 40 years and beyond.

The 2007’s, bottled just over 12 months ago in the spring of 2009, were superb.  The mild summer of 2007 produced wines with very precise fruit flavours and a fine acidity, there is no doubt that these wines will take their place amongst the greats.  Those who had kept some of the 1970 on their tables, were able to appreciate how a great Vintage Port can evolve from the deep tannins and muscular structure of the 2007’s to the superb and delicate balance of the 1970’s over nearly 4 decades.

At the end of the tasting I made an appeal for Port to be served in decent sized wine glasses.  In the UK Port is often served in small and very inappropriate glasses, where it is difficult to appreciate the colour and the aroma of these great wines.  I also suggested that Vintage Port could be served at less formal occasions.  Too often Vintage Port in the UK is associated with formal dining, when these wines can equally be enjoyed round a kitchen table with fine food at any informal lunch or dinner with friends.  Few wines give such intense pleasure as Vintage Port, so they should not be kept only for formal occasions.

The Bonham’s team then gave us a small dinner at the end of which they served a Harvey’s 1897 Vintage Port that was quite astonishing.  The wine had its original cork and was still in excellent condition, pale, delicate but in perfect balance.  I have three times in my life tasted the Dow’s 1896, but never had an 1897. So thank you Bonham’s.

Paul Symington 22nd October

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Noémia Revisited

Miles Edlmann wrote on 16th October:

There is a strange mix of calm and frenzy in the vineyards today.  I’ve just been up to visit Noémia, my favourite vineyard, whom some readers might remember from last year.  António Silvano, Paul’s caseiro, confessed to me last night (with just a hint of emotion) that he also has a soft spot for her.  Her transformation from a sad wreck of a vineyard into a real viticultural gem has been tremendously rewarding for both of us.  The legendary 1980s popsters the Human League couldn’t have put it much better (were they of course interested in grapevines, which as far as I can tell nothing in their repertoire indicates):

I picked you out
I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new

Marvin Gaye was interested in grapevines, but I think he was only a bit of an eavesdropper (or a terrible gossip, at the very least).

Anyway, the calm came from a feeling of satisfaction at a difficult job well done, a re-invigorated vineyard that had really given its best and produced very nearly 13 tonnes of grapes (over a kilo and a half per vine) at an ideal 13º Baumé.  Clearly a lucky number for us.  The bunches were immaculate, late-ripening but perfectly balanced and completely free of disease thanks to the blessing we’ve had with the weather over the course of the vintage. Again, we kept them separate in the adega because we know the wine will be special – so Noémia had a shiny robotic lagar all to herself.  The leaves have just started to turn and look like delicious glowing jellies, each variety in the mix contributing a different colour.  But you could sense that she was looking forward to a rest now, much like us.

The frenzy was due to the fact that I had promised the winery workers that the very last of the Symington grapes would be picked by the end of the day – and in this case they were ours.  It was a long shot, but the pickers worked like ants on acid and by just after five o’clock we were all enjoying celebratory beer and biscuits.  It’s been an unbelievable harvest and it will be well worth looking out for the wines once they are in bottle.

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2010 Douro Harvest Report

Grapes at Quinta dos Malvedos. Photo: Andrew May

After three very dry years, the winter of 2010 saw an extraordinary change and the Douro had an absolute deluge.  There were days in the vineyards when all that could be heard from every quarter was the sound of running water.  Being an area of mountain vineyards, this brought us considerable problems of erosion and fallen stone walls; it was a challenging and very expensive winter.  At Bomfim we had 50% more rainfall from October to March 2010, 789 mm instead of the mean 524mm.  This was a lot of additional water, but much needed.

The world’s great vineyards are all famed for their particular soils and how these cope with drainage, and the Douro is no different.  A wet winter is vital in order to replenish the humidity deep in the schistous rock of our vineyards.  Rarely has a wet winter been as important as this one.  We had no rain at all in July and August, literally not one millimetre for more than 8 weeks.  These are not normally wet months, but the long-term mean is 10mm and 28mm respectively and this is valuable.  To add to this challenge, August was hot with average daily maximum temperature over 35⁰ C.  To quote Miles Edlmann, one of the members of our viticultural research team, ‘Vines need humidity and temperatures below 35⁰C to photosynthesise, so it came as no surprise to see that maturation this summer was delayed’.

Once again the ability of our Douro grape varieties to cope with the harsh climate became evident.  In a hot July and August, the considerable leaf growth resulting from the wet winter was most welcome as the abundant leaves shaded the bunches and gave the vine more ability to ripen the fruit.  The old vines with deep roots were better off and in the Douro these roots can go down 25 metres and more.  Here amongst the deep fissures of our particular schistous rock there was thankfully still plenty of humidity this year.  Many expensive hours were spent watering the 6 month and 18 month old vines in July and August, or many would have certainly died.  The upside of the lack of summer rain was that the grapes were almost entirely free of any disease and were in very good condition, minimal treatments having been needed.

We had a delayed cycle this year, so we started picking some 5 days later than usual, on the 13th September at Quinta do Vesuvio, the 16th at Sra Ribeira, Telhada, Vale Coelho and Tua.  Quinta dos Malvedos, Bomfim and Retiro started on the 20th and Cavadinha was started only on the 23rd in its cooler and higher position.

It soon became clear that some varieties had coped a lot better than others.  The Nacional had very good phenolic maturation, but was held back by my cousin Charles Symington and our vineyard manager Pedro Leal de Costa, almost to the end in order to get a more complete ripeness.  Miles wrote ‘the Nacional had very dark seeds early on and the flavours were well developed’.  The juggling act that we have every year was played out again.  Chancing the weather forecasts, analysing the impact of the small showers on the 1st (1.6mm) and the 7th September (2.4mm), with another 6.6 mm on the 17th, all make the difference between making good wines and making really great wines.  It was decided to bring in the Barroca first, followed by the Roriz, with the Nacional only coming in at the end of the month just before the Franca.  Picking was actually suspended for a few days in some of our vineyards to give the Nacional more time.  This was an expensive and risky choice; the pickers have still to be paid or they will leave and are most unlikely to come back, and the weather forecast may not be right…

It appears at this early stage (some tanks are still fermenting) that the Touriga Franca, always a late ripener, has performed less well in some vineyards this year.  Franca did not like the conditions in some areas, but in others it was very fine.  But the excellence of the Nacional has more than made up for this.  Charles wrote ‘the wait was well worthwhile, the Nacional musts being well balanced with good colour, producing wines with very elegant aromas’.

Virtually throughout the harvest, we have had perfect weather.  Charles wrote ‘The showers (in September) were small interruptions to the clear blue skies and pleasantly warm weather experienced throughout the entire month’.  On the 3rd October, as often happens at this time, strong storms blew in from the west and over the Marão, and we had a lot of rain overnight in the Douro.  But remarkably the weather improved again and the forecast heavy daily showers simply did not fall.  Today, the weather is still fine as the last grapes come in.

So 2010 proved again that in the vineyard no two years are ever the same.  Yet again we had a very different cycle for our vines and we have used our experience to try to get the very best from our fruit.  Yields have been larger than the last two years, which were very low, but we have only returned to normal productions at our own vineyards.  Overall the region is likely to have had quite a large year.

Once again our family were managing two large wineries, Sol and Bomfim, and we again ran no fewer than 7 small specialist wineries at Vesuvio, Sra Ribeira, Canais, Tua, Malvedos, Cavadinha and Roriz.  Each small winery had its dedicated team making no more than a few hundred pipes.  They are now finishing some 5 weeks of non-stop work as this report is being written.  Our wine making teams have made some very good Ports and DOC wines this year, they now deserve a few days off.

For additional and detailed information about the 2010 harvest as it happened, this blog tells the real life story of how Port is made.

Paul Symington.

17th October, 2010

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Harvest 2010 Coverage Wrap Up

We thought it would be fun to try to summarise the harvest in a few pithy numbers, so I sent out emails requesting some information.  Suffice to say, it wasn’t that easy.  Some of the replies were too good not to share in full.

I asked Henry to sum up the activity at the winery, and he replied

192 beers – not much really!
21 Lagares fermented

From Charles Symington, I asked for production numbers and the mileage on this car:

No problem on numbers at Malvedos: we produced an overall 297 pipes, an average in 2010 of 1.09 Kg per vine, against an overall average of 1.05 Kg, a very balanced production in what has been a very satisfying vintage.

I have done about 2500 Km this harvest which is not that much considering the time this takes with average speed being very low, my tyres are looking worn, not to mention the other tyres from eating far too much over the same period!

My son Martin loves grapes, looks like he’s in the right place, have a sneaky feeling that he may have gained a tyre or two as well…

I tried asking Jackie Thurn-Valsassina about how many visitors we’d had through Malvedos, I had counted 166 on one schedule for the three weeks of harvest, she said there were so many more who were scheduled last minute she couldn’t be sure, and very often people stop in just to visit the winery when they pass by, unscheduled.  The Symingtons and Jackie do so much entertaining at the house, with meals and special tastings, I was curious how many bottles of wine our guests had enjoyed – answer:  “almost impossible to control!”

Finally, I asked our head viticulturalist, Pedro Leal da Costa about his mileage, and the answer was 7500 km, or 4,660 miles.  Playing around on my map, I figure if he could have driven all that in a straight line from Porto across the Atlantic he would have ended up somewhere in the Texarkana; alternatively he could have gone deep into Siberia.  In fact, he did it all criss-crossing an area roughly 60 km by 27 km on incredibly winding roads.

As for the blog, between us all writing since the first grapes were cut at Tua we’ve racked up 26,593 words and I have about 2,000 photos in my files.

It has been hard work but a lot of fun, and we hope you have enjoyed it as much as we have.  Please take this opportunity to send us your comments, either here or on Facebook, and give us your feedback, we love hearing from you.  Also let us know any topics that you might like to read about over the next 11 months before we start the 2011 vintage season.

So, this concludes our special Harvest coverage; we will now return to our regularly scheduled blogging!  Thank you.

Cynthia, Henry and the toneis at Malvedos. Photo copyright Mário Proença
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Malvedos Wednesday 13th October

View from the railway bridge up the Rio Tua gorge

This was our last day and we spent the morning finishing up cleaning and sending off the last paperwork.

We had lunch at Tua as usual and it was such a nice day that I could not resist walking back to Malvedos along the railway bridge.  It’s a fineable offence but oh what a view!

Just after lunch we got the latest laboratory results and did our last 4 aguardente corrections in the afternoon.  Charles came by at 4pm and we had a look at all the wines made in 2010.  Overall we were both very pleased with the quality of the wines made this year, and my particular favourites were the Nacional lagares.

The spotlessly clean winery is locked up till harvest 2011

He gave Fonseca, Juca and myself Thursday and Friday off (it has been 24 days nonstop since we arrived on the 20th September) and we are all looking forward to a good rest at home.

Goodbye for 2010!

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River Levels at Malvedos

Another gem from the photographic archive at Graham’s, which focuses on the river at the Quinta dos Malvedos, a bit upriver from the winery – here you can see a little sand bar of sorts alongside the shore, and see how low the river was, and the very narrow navigable channel which veered towards our shore, back at the turn of the 20th century, before damming in the 1970s.

River at Quinta dos Malvedos, circa 1900

In a photo taken just a few days ago, you can see that that sand bar now has trees and shrubs growing on it, and has built up a bit on the outside edge, creating a shallow lagoon nearer the shore.  Just where the water is reflecting the sun you can see the marker for the navigable channel, which seems to follow the same route as it did over 100 years ago.

Sandbar October 2010

Finally, those of you who have followed Graham’s blog or conditions in the Douro generally this year, may recall that March was our sixth straight month of 100mm or more rainfall.  This photo was taken at the end of March from the train passing through en route to Tua.  Not only are most of the trees in over their heads, you can see from the white water around them how fast the river was moving.

At that time, the train service was terminating in Tua because those heavy rains had caused some rockfall and washout further up river, and it took another month or more before they could safely restore service.  Even now, work is ongoing just up the line from us, around Alegria, to secure the cliff faces so we don’t have any more rock falls and washouts on the train line.

Flooding in March 2010
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Malvedos Tuesday 12th October

Today we spent all day clearing up and carrying out deep cleaning at the winery.  Everything is washed: the floor, the lagares, the feet, the boxes, the pumps, the hoses, the sorting carpet – you name it and it’s all shiny before we leave.

Fonseca cleaning under the lagars with a water gun
Pedro and Juca washing the crates with water guns

The team was also doing some aguardente corrections to a few of the finished wines during the day and at 8pm just after we got back from dinner we fortified the last fermentation – yippee!

I am still waiting for a couple more results from the laboratory tomorrow morning and so hopefully we will be finished here by tomorrow evening and go home.  Tomorrow there will only be Fonseca, Juca and myself left at the winery as all the rest of the team have left this evening.

Dragging out the sorting table early morning 20 September
Dragging it back again 12 October
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Tinto Cão

Block 18 Tinto Cão - dizzyingly steep

The Tinto Cão (Red Dog if literally translated) was picked yesterday, 11 October, at Malvedos in a very healthy condition and was the last variety to be picked at the Quinta.

The mature Tinto Cão block we have here at Malvedos was planted in 1987 and the yields were extremely low this year at just 0.7 Kg per vine!  The parcel (Number 18) looks like a small twister on the block map for Quinta dos Malvedos and is spectacularly steep.  An abandoned house at the top of the block has a splendid view across the bend in the river to the west of us, towards another Graham’s quinta, Quinta da Vila Velha.

Tinto Cão 10 October

Tinto Cão is characterised by its robust small bunches and pellet like thick skinned berries which make it very resistant to both high temperatures and fungal diseases.  It adds delicacy and elegance to Graham’s Port blends, often producing wines with hints of spicy pepper that age very well.

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Malvedos Monday 11th October

Tiny Tino Cão bunches
The last grapes of 2010 heading to their lagar at Malvedos

Today was the last day of harvesting. The 19 pickers encouraged by Arlindo swept through the last of the Franca and the Tinto Cão at Malvedos in the morning and then moved to Tua to finish off the Franca there in the afternoon.  The last tractor arrived at the winery and was unloaded at 4pm amid tired smiles from the winery team.  Arlindo was positively beaming as his job is now done!

(Note from Cynthia:  I happened to be walking back to Tua just as the final cavalcade of pickers and tractors returned to Malvedos, whooping and hollering and blowing their horns!  All visibly very tired and very happy!)

In the winery we continued with corrections and fortifications. The last lagar we filled with the grapes picked today came in at 12.8º Baumé which is really great and it is now getting its 4 hours treading. Tomorrow night it will be fortified and that will be our last fortification for this year’s vintage.

At dinner time there were heavy downpours but thankfully this no longer affects us at all, as all our grapes are now in house.

Tomorrow the cleaning begins!

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