If you were to ask Charles Symington, Graham’s Head Winemaker, what makes Vintage Port special amongst the fine wines of the world he would tell you that it is the harmony created by the combination of wines from different vineyards. There is no other fine wine in the world that uses the grapes from multiple properties, each with different characteristics, to make their greatest wine.
Graham’s wines are all made from grapes taken exclusively from five mountain vineyard estates spread across the Douro Valley. Each one has a unique aspect, soil composition and microclimate. The five properties are Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua (both in the heart of the Douro Valley on the north bank), Quinta das Lages (in the famous Rio Torto Valley), Quinta do Vale de Malhadas (high up the Valley in the Douro Superior) and Quinta da Vila Velha (on the south bank of the River). Charles talks eloquently about the different characteristics that each one of these Quintas (vineyard estates) brings to Graham’s Vintage Port.
The wines from Quinta das Lages are lighter, more ethereal, with floral, slightly resinous aromas: they are important for the elegance they bring to the wine, rather than their structure. The Rio Torto Valley is one of the greatest sub-regions of the Douro, famous for producing some of the finest Vintage Ports in history. Lages is the only one of the five Quintas not owned by either Graham’s or a member of the Symington Family. But since 1927 Graham’s has had very close relationships with this property, buying all its production and personally farming it.
Quinta da Vila Velha is predominantly north facing. It brings finely balanced acidity to Graham’s Vintage Port. And in particularly hot years the higher altitude and the cooler north facing vineyards can be a distinct advantage.
Quinta do Vale de Malhadas has only 400mm of rainfall a year: two-thirds of what falls at Malvedos. The property is also north facing: an advantage here because it keeps the vines cooler, not being exposed to direct sunlight in the middle of the day. Establishing vineyards here is the viticultural limit. But the wines are worth it. Typically, Malhadas wines have chocolate, blackberries and very ripe, smooth tannins. Charles notes that climate change will have a profound impact on vineyards such as Malhadas, which is already right at the extremes of survivability.
The wines from Quinta do Tua have powerful aromas, concentration and length. They are not as elegant as others, being noticeably more rustic in style. But they contribute good body and structure. This is a result of the high proportion of old vines on the estate, which have tiny yields, between 300g and 500g per vine.
Finally, there is Quinta dos Malvedos, Graham’s original Quinta since 1890, in one of the best locations in the Douro Valley. The Malvedos wines are usually the main component in Graham’s Vintage Port and are perfectly balanced and refined in their own right. Malvedos adds profound aromas of Esteva, or gum cistus flower, redolent with mint and eucalyptus. It also has powerful but ripe and velvety tannins and a great complexity of black fruits.
The process of making Vintage Port is a fine-tuned art. Charles selects specific parcels of vines from each of these properties to create a perfect harmony and balance. The proof is in the tasting. Graham’s Vintage Port is more than the sum of its parts. If you’ve tasted any, we think you’ll agree.
The mesmerizing Salão Arábe in Porto’s Palácio da Bolsa was the perfect setting for this special tasting. Framed by the intricately carved walls and stained-glass windows of this sublime room the Mayor of Porto and Rui Falcão, one of Portugal’s top wine journalists, introduced Paul and Charles Symington and the family’s 2011 Vintage Ports.
The 2011 Vintage Ports have made a lot of noise in the wine world since they were declared earlier last year. Jancis Robinson, wine-writer for The Financial Times, praised them as, “The best 2011 reds anywhere”. These wines, she said, have put Vintage Port firmly back on the world’s fine wine map. Proof of this, some other influential people were in the audience, amongst them Manuel Moreira, former sommelier of the year, and André Ribeirinho, the food and wine journalist.
Charles and Paul talked eloquently about the wines their family had made. A Port Winemaker, they explained, is like a painter who needs to have a whole array of colours before him on his palate to choose from. Vintage Port is a wine made from the grapes of multiple complimentary vineyards; the result is that the final wine achieves a balance and complexity that surpasses any of the individual lotes. This makes Vintage Port unique amongst the fine wines of the world.
“Charles came to me some years ago saying, ‘I need more small tanks,’” said Paul. The reason for this, he explained, was to allow Charles to store small quantities of wine separately, thereby avoiding the need to blend the wines from different parcels of vineyard at 3am during the Vintage time when there was no conceivable way of properly assessing the wines. Simply put, this expands the ‘palate’ of wines available to Charles and his winemaking team.
The skill and precision that this process involves was demonstrated in the first part of the tasting. Charles guided the audience through a tasting of the component wines in Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port from each of Graham’s five Douro Quintas. Each property has distinctive characteristics, which these wines expressed. And the job of the winemaker is to marry them together to create the perfect balance. (More detail on this part of the tasting and the individual characteristics of the component wines from Graham’s Quintas will be published here soon.)
There was still more to come, though. Graham’s Stone Terraces 2011 Vintage Port was next on the stage. This year was the first in which this wine was made. It is a very specific expression of micro-terroir, made only from two small old terraced vineyards next to the river, below the house at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos, one North-facing and the other South-facing. It couldn’t be more different, in terms of the approach to winemaking, to the Graham’s Vintage Port.
The success that this potentially quite challenging wine has achieved since it was made has been amply demonstrated by the awards lavished upon it. It was voted amongst the Top 10 Portuguese Wines by a panel of 18 international journalists at Essência do Vinho and subsequently selected as the Best Port Wine. Revista de Vinhos gave it 19/20 points. Jancis Robinson gave it 18.5/20 describing it as “stunning…racy…distinctive”. While James Suckling and the Wine Spectator each gave it 97/100 points.
No one was left in any doubt by the end of this tasting as to the appropriateness of Jancis Robinson’s remarks: “the best 2011 reds anywhere”. But more than anything, it was quite clear that there was a lot more to come from these wines … Stay tuned to find out more.
The recently announced 2011 Vintage Port declaration has met with considerable interest in Portugal and overseas. At Graham’s, we are very proud of our wines and it is very encouraging to register the excitement the 2011 Vintage is generating. This week, Jancis Robinson MW , one of the world’s leading wine critics wrote, “…anyone with an interest in superbly made top-quality red wine worth ageing for decades should arguably turn their backs on Bordeaux 2012 and look instead at Port 2011…There is little doubt that 2011 produced some stunning vintage ports, into which more effort and skill has gone than any other previous vintage in the Douro. And I find it impossible to think of any other wine region, anywhere in the world, that produced better wines.” In her assessment of 31 different Vintage Ports, Graham’s The Stone Terraces 2011 Vintage Port and Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port were among the highest ranked, deserving exceptionally high marks: 18.5/20 and 19/20, respectively.
In similar vein, Manuel Carvalho, writing in Portugal’s respected ‘Público’ newspaper on April 27th, described Graham’s The Stone Terraces 2011 as a “masterpiece”, going on to write: “For its exuberant aromas of fruit, mint and Douro shrubs, for its suggestions of black tea, for its intriguing spice notes, such is its complexity and richness. For its volume on the palate, the power of its tannins, which announce decades of longevity whilst at the same time combining with the acidity and fruit to render it immediately approachable.” His wine critic colleague — Pedro Garcias — was so impressed with the Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port that he summed up as follows, “One simple adjective suffices to describe this Port: superb”. Furthermore he predicted that the 2011 Vintage has what it takes to aspire to a legendary status in the history of Port.
2011 Vintage Port tasting, Graham’s Lodge, April 30th: The first showing of the 2011 Vintage Ports produced by the Symington family was on April 18th (scroll down to see previous post) in which Portuguese journalists were hosted by Paul and Charles Symington. The family decided to organize a second tasting, earlier this week in response to the enormous interest shown in Portugal following the declaration, barely two weeks ago. We will spare our followers repetition, but it is worth reproducing here some interesting, complementary aspects — recounted by Paul and Charles in both tastings — that weren’t touched on in the previous post.
Paul Symington emphasized the importance that Vintage Port declarations play as personal and career-defining moments, just as they were for previous generations who are remembered very much for the Vintages that they made ‘on their watch’. Paul has been involved in 9 Vintage declarations and Charles in 5 declarations, thus far.
All the 2011 Vintage Ports made by the Symington family were 100% from their own vineyards, a natural development given their sustained investment in vineyards since the late 1970s (vineyard acquisitions and vineyard replanting). With a total of 965 hectares (2,385 acres) of vineyards, dotted across the finest sub-regions of the Douro Valley and representing an incredible diversity of terroirs, the family has remarkable scope in selecting wines for their Vintage Ports.
For the first time in half a century (specifically since the 1963 vintage in the Douro) the Vintage Ports in 2011 were 100% vinified in lagares (shallow treading tanks) and this shows through in the superb quality displayed by all the 2011 wines.
A point not often explained but one that has a great bearing on the family’s capacity to consistently produce outstanding Vintage Ports is the tremendous benefit of owning and operating several small micro-wineries (referred to by some as ‘boutique’ wineries) with independent winemaking teams (coordinated by Charles Symington) whose sole objective is the production of the best possible Port. There is no loss of focus in the pursuit of this goal because they are not distracted by the requirement to make styles of Port other than those with the potential to be graded as Vintage Port.
Leading on from the above, Charles was also keen to stress the significance of the substantial investment made over the last 10 to 15 years in numerous small storage tanks at these specialist wineries. This allows each fermentation to be kept separate until such time as the winemakers and tasters decide how to best use them. Paul reinforced that the possibility of keeping such ‘diamonds in the rough’ separately is a key contributor in the making of exceptional Ports.
During this second tasting session, Charles and Paul made a bit of a joke about the distinction made between old vines and the others — when describing the provenance of grapes that contribute to Vintage Port blends. The fact is that when we refer to old vines, we really should say very old mixed vines (50 years+) because ‘the others’ are 25 to 30 years old and thus, by any standard, are themselves old, mature vines (planted in single varietal parcels during the early 1980s).
Following this second tasting which involved 13 different wines (the 5 components of the Graham’s 2011 Vintage + 8 Vintage Ports; two Graham wines; two Vesuvio wines and one each from Cockburn’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and Quinta de Roriz), the 15 guest tasters were invited to lunch at the new Vinum restaurant at Graham’s where the highlight was a lovely Graham’s 1963 Vintage Port, celebrating its 50th birthday this year.
This has been an eventful week for Graham’s. On Monday, April 15th, Graham’s declared the 2011 Vintage Port. A few days later on Thursday the 18th, Charles and Paul Symington hosted a tasting of the family’s 2011 Vintage Ports at the recently renovated Graham’s 1890 Lodge. Their guests were Portuguese wine journalists and this event marked the first time that a declared Vintage Port was first shown in Portugal, before any other country. Some of the country’s leading wine critics came to this tasting, keen to gain their first impressions of the wines that have been generating considerable interest. Judging by the very positive comments it is clear that our guests agree with us that the 2011 is an outstanding Vintage.
The event started with an opportunity to taste the component wines that comprise the Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port. This wine is a careful selection of the finest wines produced at Graham’s five Douro Quintas. This proved an interesting experience in helping the tasters to understand what makes a classic Graham’s Vintage Port. Charles started with the Quintas whose aromatic contributions are more evident: Lages, Vila Velha and Malvedos. Lages wines have long been favoured for their elegant complexity, showing fine violet aromas, characteristics no doubt influenced by the property’s (cooler) north and east-facing aspects in the Rio Torto. Similarly, Vila Velha, with a predominantly west-facing aspect, has a relatively cool maturation cycle, which allowed its late-ripening Touriga Franca grapes to excel and deliver superb aromas of rockrose and violets in 2011. Malvedos, the cornerstone of Graham’s Vintage Port since 1890, provides floral characteristics of eucalyptus and mint with soft violet overtones as well as rich flavours of cassis, mulberry and blackberries. Quinta do Tua and Quinta do Vale de Malhadas were the last two component wines tasted and they each showed the muscularity for which they are known, in the form of tremendous concentration and weighty tannins which add great structure and staying power to the final wine.
Leading on from the fascinating terroir tasting of the component wines, it was time to sample the Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port, whose final blend is made up as follows: 35% Malvedos; 19% Vale Malhadas ; 18% Vila Velha; 16% Tua; 12% Lages. Both Charles and Paul explained the sequence of events that laid the foundations for this Vintage year: Abundant 2010/2011 winter rains, which replenished the water reserves deep in the Douro subsoil and compensated for an otherwise very dry year; a very dry June and July, followed by an ideal weather pattern immediately leading up to and during the vintage (opportune rain showers in late August/early September, followed by weeks of dry, sunny conditions); perfectly ripened grapes with copybook balance of baumés (sugar content), phenolics (pigments, tannins) and acidity (freshness and longevity).
A very interesting characteristic is apparent in the Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port, as well as in the other Symington family’s 2011 Vintage Port houses, namely a marked schistous minerality which lends the 2011 wines a very distinctive profile. They have an exceptional depth of colour and concentration, superb aromatic elegance and well-structured schist-edged tannins. Paul described this schist character as akin to the smell of the parched, powdery Douro schist soil just after rain when it exudes a wonderful, fragrant wet-earth scent. Charles explained that this very attractive aromatic character also owes much to the exceptional performance of the Touriga Franca varietal in this vintage. He explained that as a late-ripening variety, the Touriga Franca thrived in the idyllic conditions leading up to and during the vintage (it was the last variety to be picked in October). In other words, the weeks of uninterrupted dry sunny conditions, which followed the well-timed rain of August 21st and 1st/2nd of September allowed the Touriga Franca to ripen evenly and completely, delivering its full quality potential. Charles is a great believer in the Touriga Franca and explained that this variety is often unjustly overshadowed by the Touriga Nacional. It can be a tricky varietal to grow in less favourable weather, but when conditions are right, it has a great deal to offer, particularly in aromatic finesse. Accordingly there was a higher inclusion of Touriga Franca — 31%, compared to 25% in the previous declared Vintage, the 2007.
Of the total production from Graham’s five Quintas (88,855 cases), and following months of exhaustive tastings, Charles and his cousins selected just 9% — or 8,000 cases — to release as Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port.
Paul and Charles then revealed that together with their cousins, they had decided to offer for the first time, alongside Graham’s classic Vintage Port, a very small bottling (250 cases, or 3,000 bottles) of Vintage Port drawn from two very special parcels of traditional stone-terraced vineyards at Quinta dos Malvedos. Accordingly, they named the wine, Graham’s ‘The Stone Terraces’ Vintage Port. These two 18th century terraced vineyards have consistently produced extraordinary Ports. One of the two vineyard parcels was originally called Port Arthur and has eleven schist stone terraces, ten of which have only a single row of vines on each. The other vineyard is known as Vinha dos Cardenhos and between them, the two parcels amount to a tiny fraction (1.8 hectares) of the Malvedos vineyard (89 hectares). The latter has a predominantly South-facing aspect, whereas the Port Arthur and Vinha dos Cardenhos vineyards are East-facing and North-facing. These cooler aspects mean the grapes mature very gradually and evenly and being shielded from the powerful July and August Douro afternoon sun, their unique aromatic properties come more readily to the fore. This is a very individual and distinct Vintage Port of extraordinary intensity and quality.
Paul Symington’s tasting note for the 2011 Graham’s The Stone terraces Vintage Port: This wine is very individual; it has highly specific characteristics with a very intense tannic structure and a colour of purple-black intensity. The easterly and northerly aspect of these two small vineyards results in fresh scented aromas of violets and mint. There is a complex palate of weighty and spicy tannins combined with blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. This is an extraordinary wine of great power and elegance; it is a new departure for Graham’s and the Symington family.
Following this tasting session, which included a further six 2011 Vintage Ports from Graham’s sister companies (Cockburn’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, Quinta do Vesuvio and Quinta de Roriz), the tasters were invited to lunch at the recently opened Vinum restaurant, contained within the Graham’s Port lodge. The food was served with various Symington Douro wines, including the Chryseia 2004 Douro DOC (made jointly by the Symington family and Bruno Prats) and — to end the meal on a particularly high note — Graham’s 1963 Vintage Port (served from two magnum bottles). The Vintage Port was simply sublime, 50 years old and still so vital and complete. Curiously some commented that this Port too showed the ‘schistous’ aromatic notes that Paul had earlier associated with the 2011 wines. There were also wonderful aromas of tea-leaf and mint, bergamot and cinnamon and a seductive palate, complex and very, very refined. An absolute delight. We believe that in 2061, when the 2011s reach fifty, they too will offer up a similarly extraordinary experience.