The Joy of Port

My favourite tasting of the year so far was the Blandys Madeira seminar and I had no expectation that I would go to anything so wonderful again in 2011 – how wrong I was. Barely a fortnight later I was completely spoilt by another line up of amazing Portuguese fortified wines. This time it was Port and I was totally won over.

Our hosts were the effortlessly charming Johnny and Paul Symington whose family have been Port merchants for the best part of two hundred years and own most of the really great Port brands including Graham’s, Dow’s, Cockburn’s and Warre’s.

Paul Symington in full flow…

Remarkably though they can trace their involvement in the Port industry back through 13 generations to 1652 when Walter Maynard, Oliver Cromwell’s representative in Lisbon, exported 39 pipes of Port wine. Walter later settled in Oporto, married a Portuguese lady and one of their descendants married into the Symington family in 1891, but it seems that a good many others had married into various other Port houses along the way.

In recent years the family’s focus has been in expanding their portfolio of vineyards in the Douro Valley so that they control every aspect of their Port production. As Paul Symington told us, in the past they and all the other famous brands were more like negociants, shippers in Port parlance, than a domaine but that is less and less true today. As Paul told us, they have become farmers rather than merchants.

In fact this tasting was all about vineyards as the subject was their Single Quinta Vintage Ports. A Quinta is a wine farm or vineyard with a house and winery on it and the Symingtons now own 26 of these throughout the prime Port lands of the Alto Douro. By some strange oversight in my career I have never visited the Douro, but from the photographs they showed us it looks a stunningly beautiful place.

I was astonished to hear quite how rugged and inhospitable it is, no other commercial crop can be grown in the region, so without wine it would soon return to scrub. Much of it has almost no rain at all during the growing season and the soils contain virtually no organic matter at all, which makes for tiny yields, massively stressed vines and hugely concentrated grapes – I really must get there soon.

It was fascinating hearing Johnny and Paul talk about their family and history and heritage, but it was when they were telling us about the Quintas and the vineyards that you could really feel their passion and get quite swept up by their enthusiasm. I could tell that the Quintas and their vineyards are, for them, the true essence of Port and I always like that in a wine producer – good wine is made in the vineyard and they were very firm in pointing out that Port is a wine.

Vintage Port per se is made from a blend of different Quinta sites, whereas lesser undeclared years can often still have little patches of brilliance dotted around the region – that is where the Single Quinta Vintage Port comes in. It is a Vintage Port, but from just the farm, or Quinta, whose name appears on the label. They are sometimes said to be lighter and less substantial and not capable of long ageing. Whatever the truth of that – and I think that depends on so many imponderable that I cannot answer it properly – these wines speak of their particular location and so give different snapshots of the terroir in the Douro.

Some of these Quintas are high and cool, some are low and hot, some are right by the river and get the cooling effect of running water. Some get good rain while others suffer from perpetual drought, some are on rugged inhospitable rock, whereas a few have more generous soils – all these things end up in the finished wine and make them different. In a classic Vintage they would be blended together, but in these Single Quinta Vintages the differences are there for us to appreciate.

The line up of Ports that we tasted was quite splendid and showed a good spread of different Quintas and vintages at all stages of their development:

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos
Wines from this estate form the backbone of the Graham’s declared Vintage Ports, but the best of the undeclared vintages, bottled as Quinta dos Malvedos have also been famous for quite a long time. It faces due south, which gives it superb sun exposure, so ensures wonderful ripeness year after year. It is hot and dry and as a consequence the wines from here are amongst the most opulent and rich and this showed in vintage after vintage.

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos

The 2006 wines:
2006 Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos – released in around 2017
Scented and amazingly delicate nose with sweet fruit and light spice leading to a gloriously rich and sweet palate. What astonished me was how well knit and integrated it was. The overall sensation was of rich, lush primary fruit that masks the tannins beautifully and it all hung together really well, it even carries the alcohol very well. Despite the sweet rich fruit it finishes dry, clean and elegant – 90/100 points.

2006 Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim – released in around 2017
I have always loved the dry, spicy Dow’s style in theory and that was confirmed by this wine. Acidity was much more marked giving it a touch of elegant austerity and a lighter feel. It was also quite a bit drier on the palate with fruit and licorice vying for pole position, because of this the alchol is more obvious on the finish, so is less attractive now, but should age well. 88/100 points.

2006 Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha – released in around 2017
I have always associated Warre’s with an elegant style and to my delight that really showed here. A beautifully balanced wine which combines luscious sweetness and opulence with some delightful savoury characters and a point of elegant acidity running through it. The overall sensation is of a silky, balanced and harmonious wines – 90/100 points.

Graham’s Quinta do Tua

2006 Graham’s Quinta do Tua – released in around 2017
Just across the Tua River from Malvedos this estate was created by Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira in the 1830s, sold to Cockburn’s in the late nineteenth century and passed to the Symingtons when they bought Cockburn’s in 2006.
The estate is low lying and produces less ripe fruit than nearby Malvedos and that showed in this wine. The nose was less intensely fruity than the wines so far, more floral – violets – and herbal. The palate was drier and more mineral with that lack of opulence leaving the spirit somewhat exposed on the finish at this stage in its development. This was very attractive, but perhaps not as fine as the others – 87/100 points.

2006 Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira – released in around 2017
This estate used to be the Symington’s favourite place to spend a relaxing weekend and was dear to their heart. They installed electricity in 1953, but because the Port market was so problematic in the ‘50s they sold it in 1954. However they kept using the grapes in their wines, so maintained the link and Paul is very proud that the family were able to buy the Quinta back in 1998.
The estate is only 40 km from the Spanish border and looks quite stunning. Johnny told us that back in the days before they sold it when the family were going there for the weekend, a cow was sent by train to Vesuvio, opposite Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira, this cow was then swum across the Douro and walked up to the house so that they could have fresh milk in their tea! In those days communications were non-existent so the staff at the house always knew the family were coming when the cow had arrived!

This wine was beautifully balanced with opulence, concentration and freshness all sitting nicely together. There was a wonderful array of black fruits, fresh and cooked, with smoke and spice adding layers of complexity. Despite the richness the finish is surprisingly dry with a real hit of firm tannins. Lovely stuff and one of my favourites, but does need time. 90/100 points.

2006 Quinta do Vesuvio – released in around 2017
This beautiful property was another built by Dona Antonia Adelaide Ferreira and now is a stand alone brand of Port and I could see why. It is opposite the Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira on the south side of the Douro.

The nose was lifted and concentrated and the palate was soft, sweet and luscious with black fruit and raspberry licorice characters before more complex mocha and coffee before sweet plums dominate. Firm tannins and a point of acidity cut through the rich sweetness leaving it luscious, but not cloying at all. 90/100 points.

The 1999 wines:
1999 Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos
The primary fruit has faded and evolved somewhat to give a less obviously opulent wine, truffley and salty caramel notes are showing now, but there is still a lovely weight of fruit which is slightly dried, cooked or jammy now – 90/100 points.

1999 Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim
Just like the 2006, the Dow’s style really shines through making a very different wine from the Malvedos. Complex nose of earth, coffee and black treacle leading to a palate of rich red fruit with creamy ripeness and a richness of molasses and black treacle toffee. The gorgeous finish has that dry spicy character and you would swear that you can taste the schist! 91/100 points.

The 1998 wines: these were fabulous and seemed to be younger than the 1999 wines.

Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira

1998 Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira
Yet again this Quinta showed beautiful balance and finesse all backed up by opulence and lusciousness. Rich fruit and fine milk chocolate dominate the palate with just the beginning of an earthy note and it finishes relatively dry. Very fine and enjoyable, one of my favourites with an astonishingly long finish – 93/100 points.

1998 Quinta do Vesuvio
Again this is beginning to be a little earthy with almost terra-cotta notes, white pepper, red fruit and anis. There is intensely sweet fruit on the palate, like delicate, good quality jam, this sweetness dominates the finish as well, but there are some complex savoury flourishes lurking in there too, which will emerge given time – 92/100 points.

The 1979 wines: an amazing flight of wines which really shows how complex and fine these wines can become once aged. It is easy to focus on the sweetness and bright opulence of Port when they are young as they can be so delicious and simply hedonistic. Once aged though they take on all sorts of complex characters.

1979 Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos
The age was showing here in that it is paler and no longer opaque. The nose was much more leathery with truffles and buts and caramel as well as gamey and nutty notes. The palate offered dried fruit, nougat and caramel. It was very elegant, but still with a sweet, caramel and dried fruit rather than jam, opulence on the finish. Still very nicely balanced and fine – 91/100 points.

1979 Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim
Bonfim has been consistently less opulent than Malvedos and this was no exception with a pale garnett colour, coffee aromas with leather and a salty savoury note. This was the most delicate to date with a hugely long finish of treacle, nuts, coffee and flashes of spice all kept integrated by dried fruit. I loved this wine, it was beautifully integrated and worked as a whole – 93/100 points.

1979 Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha
Again the style is consistent with the previous vintage of this wine. The colour is now very pale and the nose very delicate and elegant with stewed fruit and brittle toffee. The palate has a lovely texture, almost creamy with nougat, caramel and toffee together with dried fruit and a herbal quality. It finishes wonderfully elegant and fine – 92/100 points.

The 1965 wines: a vintage dear to my heart as it is my birth year. It was not a great harvest anywhere, indeed it was not a declared year for Port and so I have only ever had two 1965s before; a Krug Mondavi Napa Cabernet and Unico Vega Sicilia, so I was thrilled to be able to double my score. I was slightly troubled however, when our hosts said that these wines were 50 years old and I had to keep correcting them!

1965 Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos
This was simply stunning, very pale with a russet tinge. The aromas were prunes, smoke, worn leather, herbs and caramel. The palate delivered buttery toffee, sage, leather and figgy fruit, but it was really about the sensation of elegance, opulence, sweetness, savoury herbal and salty notes, lots of tension and complexity and joyousness. A stunning, stunning wine, dare I say sublime – 97/100 points.

1965 Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim
Again this was true to form with an austere character, less fruit, drier and delicate with a gorgeous rose petal flavour running through it. It feels more brittle and has mocha and savoury characters and shows its age much more than the 1965 Malvedos. Lovely now, but does not have the vitality of the other 1965 – 90/100 points.

The 1950s:
1958 Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos
A lovely experience, fine and superbly integrated. This was very pale with a sort of rose petal colour to it. The palate is very delicate and hints at things rather than delivers massive characters, this makes it fragile, but the toffee sweetness does show as well and it has a butterry texture. that hints at the former opulence. The finish is fresh, if delicate – 91/100 points.

1950 Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos
I was completely carried away by drinking this wine, Truman was in the White House and Attlee in Downing Street when this was made!
This was redder and darker than the ’58 with a dark toffee hue. The nose was pretty vibrant with coffee and molasses notes. The palate gave gorgeous toffee and molasses flavours with a salty twang, a bit like the top of a creme brulée. The gorgeous finish delivered rose petals together with a creamy richness together with lively freshness – 97/100 points.

This tasting really excited me and I did not leave thinking these wines were simply alcoholic and sweet. I was blown away by the balance, the integration, the freshness and the elegance of these Ports at every stage of their development. I was also amazed by how the general characteristics of each Quinta showed quite consistently at all ages – Malvedos showed opulence and richly sweet fruit, Bomfim was markedly drier and more austere while Cavadinha always showed an elegance.

The youthful Ports were bright, utterly delicious and intensely fruity. The mature examples were complex and entirely different and showed that although Port is famous it is sadly underrated as a wine. Once aged they are not just about sweetness, but all the other intriguing and complex characters that tamed the sweetness and left them balanced. I could happily pull the cork on any of these and sit in a garden enjoying these wonderfully complex and fascinating wines.

These were great Vintage Ports, they happen to be Single Quinta Vintage Ports, but to taste them was a great privilege and a wonderful, wonderful experience. Do yourself a favour and grab some of the currently available examples to drink this winter and treat yourself to some of the 2006 when they are released on to the market. For my part I intend to get over there and to study this dramatic wine region at first hand as soon as I can.

15 thoughts on “The Joy of Port

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