In the pages of the current issue of Decanter (August 2015), Richard Mayson, a renowned authority on Port and author of the book “Port and the Douro” (published by Infinity Ideas) responded to a question on what vintage Ports are currently ready for drinking by naming the best wines of the early ‘90s and ‘80s before saying “If I could choose just one year to drink now it would be 1970, and if I could choose one wine it would be Graham’s.”
Coming from an exceptionally hot year, and (at the time) the first since the Symington family acquired Graham’s, the 1970 Vintage Port displays a beautiful dark amber colour, lifted floral aromas on the nose, and hints of mint and spice with a slight smokiness. On the palate it is extremely rich and structured, with a vibrancy of tannins, flavours of lovely soft leather, and some plummy black fruit flavours.
From the 14th to the 16th of April, Graham’s received 19 students from the Institute of Masters of Wine. The students, of 7 different nationalities, spent time in Porto where they visited several Port lodges before travelling upriver to the quintas of the Douro Valley.
Founded in 1955, the Institute of Masters of Wine is a respected community of wine professionals, and one of the most prestigious wine qualifications in the world. To become a Master of Wine you must undertake an in-depth three-year program of study, followed by practical and written exams, and the completion of a paper based on original research. Because of the difficulty of acquiring the qualification, there are currently only 318 Masters of Wine worldwide, and it was with great pleasure that we received some of the current candidates in Porto.
Arriving on the evening of the 14th, they barely had time to set down their bags before they were on their way to the Vinum restaurant in the Graham’s Lodge for dinner. After being welcomed by Paul Symington, the group settled into a dinner accompanied by Altano, Chryseia 2012, and a tappit hen of Graham’s 1970 Vintage Port.
The next morning the group had an early start, being greeted by Paul Symington, Antonio Agrellos (Noval), and Nick Heath (Taylor’s) at nine o’clock in the morning in the historic Porto Factory House. The hub of the Port trade for more than two centuries, it was in these surroundings that the group tasted a variety of Ports from the different houses before departing to visit several of Vila Nova de Gaia’s Port lodges.
By two o’clock the group were at the Graham’s Lodge for another tasting, this time led by Dominic Symington. Here they tasted wine from several of Symington Family Estates Port houses, such as Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and Cockburn’s, finishing with a magnificent Graham’s 1955 Vintage. This tasting, which consisted of wines from 2011 to 1955, demonstrated how Vintage Port evolves and matures, and the various stages it passes through in this process. Not a group to stay in one place to long, they then set off for the Douro and Quinta dos Malvedos.
When the group arrived at the quinta they were greeted by a meal accompanied by Quinta do Vesuvio Douro DOC, followed by Graham’s 1977 Vintage Port, before retiring for the night in preparation for a technical tour of Quinta dos Malvedos and its winery the following morning.
Waking up to a pleasant spring morning in a Douro Valley quinta is not something everyone gets to experience, but so it was that the Master of Wine candidates started their day. Met by Charles Symington (head winemaker), Henry Shotton (Vintage manager), and Charles’ dog Simba, (who as Charles himself says “gets more attention than the wine”), the group were shown around the famous quinta and its lagar winery, seeing first hand what they have been hearing about for the past two days. The visit to Quinta dos Malvedos came to an end with a tasting of five Quinta dos Malvedos Single Vintage Ports from 2009, 1996, 1988, 1979 and 1965. The group then departed for Porto, stopping off at several other Douro quintas along the way.
It was great to meet the candidates for the distinguished qualification of Master of Wine, and we hope that the information we imparted helps them to reach their goals. We wish them the best of luck in their studies.
It has long been a tradition for special occasions to be marked by the laying down of Vintage Port from the year of the event. Problematically, due to the fact that a “Vintage year” is normally only declared in the second year after the harvest, the
recipient of the gift often has to remain empty handed until sometime after the celebration.
In order to overcome this problem, Graham’s are now the first Port company to provide a Vintage Port bond which is available for purchase in the year of harvest. Allowing the purchase of Vintage Port while the wine is still on the vine guarantees that a certain quantity of the wine produced will be reserved for the holder of the bond.
The bond, which will be available from several UK wine merchants, including Berry Bros. & Rudd, Jeroboams, Selfridges, Tanners and Vintage Wine & Port, can be redeemed after 18 months, when the wine has been bottled and shipped. In the meantime, the buyer will be provided with a high quality presentation bond certificate with personalised calligraphy that can be presented to the recipient on the occasion being celebrated.
Graham’s Vintage Port Bonds, limited in number due to the small amount of Vintage Port produced, are a very special and personal way to celebrate an event. Due to Vintage Port’s longevity, the wine can then be enjoyed throughout a person’s life, the qualities of the wine maturing alongside those of the drinker.
Vintage Port’s standing as one of the world’s great classic wines was confirmed and strengthened at Christie’s Fine Wine Auction held in London on October 23rd, 2014. The majority of the Vintage Port lots submitted for auction achieved prices above Christie’s High Estimate price markers, reflecting the great interest generated by some very rare lots of wine that attracted high bids.
The auction revealed Vintage Port’s relevance in today’s market for fine wines with bidders willing to pay final hammer prices, which in many cases were well above the High Estimate price. An apt example of this was provided by an auction lot of 6 bottles of Graham’s legendary 1945 which went for £6,500, well above Christie’s indicated High Estimate of £4,800 and also — very significantly — 30% more than an identical lot of Graham’s ’45 that was auctioned at a Christie’s Fine Wine Sale two years ago in Amsterdam. A reminder if one were needed that the 1945 Vintage Port, one of the twentieth century’s finest, is now extremely rare.
The Graham’s 1963 also achieved a magnificent result with an auction lot of 6 bottles going for £1,800, again well above Christie’s High Estimate indication of £1,100 (or 64% more than the High Estimate marker).
Graham’s Johnny Symington who attended the auction was very pleased with the outstanding performance of Graham’s Vintage Ports, not just with regard to the older wines but also more recent Vintages such as the 2011 (Graham’s The Stone Terraces Vintage Port) and the 2000. Johnny and his cousin Clare were invited to host a pre-sale dinner at Christie’s attended by Christie’s guests on the night before, and this proved an equally successful event, which paved the way for the auction itself.
Edwin Vos, Christie’s International Senior Wine Specialist, wrote to Johnny the day after the auction: “I guess we have shown that vintage port is very much alive. The interest the Symington wines received from our dinner guests and during the sale was encouraging.”
Whilst some other areas of the Douro Valley have been visited by frequent showers over the last few days, at Malvedos we are into our third consecutive day with no rain at all. It is not infrequent for vineyards just 5 or 6 kilometres downriver or upriver from us to record downpours while this stretch of the valley remains largely dry. Still, we aren’t letting our guard down as the continuing unsettled conditions mean the winemaking team at the Quinta have to be prepared to change tack at a moment’s notice; nothing we aren’t used to.
Thursday September 18th: An uneventful day during which we continued picking the Tinta Roriz, biding our time and allowing the welcome sunshine to dry the valuable parcels of our Touriga Nacional grapes. We heard that in Porto, about 100 km to the west where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean, the city had been deluged with showers all day long. It is fascinating to many of our overseas visitors how a country as small as Portugal can have such climatic variations, not just in terms of rainfall but air temperature as well. In our case this is easy to explain; between the humid Atlantic coastal plain to the west and the Douro wine country there is a mountain barrier running roughly north to south (1,415 metres/4,642 feet high), which effectively acts as a weather divide. Most of the rain transported by the prevailing westerlies tends to fall on these mountains (the Alvão/Marão/Montemuro ranges) resulting in gradually drier conditions on the lee side where the Douro wine region begins. At Vila Real, the regional capital on the sheltered side of the Marão range, average annual rainfall is 1,074 mm whilst at Malvedos it is virtually half that figure (624 mm). The distance between the two in a straight line is a mere 25 km (15.5 miles).
Friday September 19th: Another mainly sunny day and during the afternoon some more welcome wind, very useful in helping to dry things out. We moved on to picking the Tinta Barroca and after lunch, Charles, Alexandre and Henry walked around several vineyard parcels and were relieved to find the grapes remaining on the vines still in fine condition (thus far we have harvested 45% of the grapes from the Malvedos vineyard and 58% from neighbouring Tua). The decision to restart picking the Touriga Nacional was confirmed and harvesting should continue during Saturday. Back in the winery Charles decided to co-ferment in one lagar some Tinta Barroca (showing high Baumé readings) with Touriga Franca. Charles and Henry then tasted the recently made Port from the Stone Terraces parcels of ‘Port Arthur’ and ‘Cardenhos’ (harvested Monday morning). Their smiles of satisfaction mirrored the evident quality of the wine in the glass; very floral nose and intense concentration in the mouth.
Saturday September 20th: we awoke to a cool, fresh morning with clear blue skies and have therefore continued to bring the Touriga Nacional grapes into the winery. The first load of TN that came in this morning revealed a very satisfactory 14º Baumé. However to take maximum benefit from this spell of improved weather it has been decided to halt picking tomorrow to allow the remaining parcels of Touriga Nacional to fully ripen — the “compasso de espera”, as Alexandre put it, i.e., marking time. We’re in no hurry, what we want is to realize the grapes’ full potential to continue making the finest possible wines at Malvedos. The plan is to resume harvesting the Malvedos Touriga Nacional from Monday and on Tuesday to continue with this same variety but from Tua as well. Then on Wednesday the first Touriga Franca grapes (which show great promise) will be harvested at Tua.
Later in the morning we were visited by João Vasconcelos, Graham’s market manager for the UK, who brought along a party of visitors from the UK, including Nigel Barden, the Food and Wine BBC Radio 2 Presenter. Henry treated them to a tasting of the magnificent Stone Terraces Port and this had everybody asking questions as to what the future prospects for this wine might be. The quality really is very good but it’s early days yet.
Over the last couple of days it’s been a little like playing cat and mouse with the weather on account of the erratic atmospheric conditions which leave Charles, Henry and the rest of the team here at Malvedos constantly guessing as to how best to proceed. Each evening Charles and Henry consult the weather forecast and then pour over the picking schedules which have to be constantly updated with additional input from our viticulture team. This constant vigilance and preparedness to alter the picking sequence at short notice is very much part of the philosophy which ensures that we are able to circumvent most of the unpredictable situations the weather sends our way.
On Monday evening Charles did indeed determine a new picking schedule which meant switching from the Touriga Nacional, due to have been picked from early Tuesday morning, to the remainder of the old mixed vines from the Síbio sections of Malvedos. This will allow the Touriga Nacional to dry off thoroughly (we hope) and to be picked in ideal conditions two or three days from now. To help keep Henry and his team on their toes the winery reception area scales decided to malfunction (probably due to the rain) but luckily we can use the scales at nearby Tua; an inconvenience but little more than that.
Today, Wednesday the 17th started off overcast but the rain (another fifteen minute shower) only arrived in the afternoon at about 3pm. Charles popped by the winery in the morning to take a first look at some of the recently made Ports and then confirmed the picking order for the day: old mixed vineyards from Síbio and the first Tinta Roriz grapes from block 17. By the end of the day we will have concluded harvesting the old mixed vines and henceforward, besides the Tinta Roriz we will be starting on the Tinta Barroca.
Later in the afternoon Henry, who is an aspiring Master of Wine, was visited at the winery by a recently qualified Master of Wine, Cees van Casteren (see photo on the left) — just the second person from the Netherlands to achieve the world’s most prestigious wine title (bringing the total number of MWs in the world to 301, from 24 countries). Cees is a well known author writing on wine and food and is also a noted wine educator in his home country. Cees was fascinated with the recently vinified lagares of Sousão and Touriga Nacional (both from the neighbouring Tua vineyard).
During the first half of September, 15 mm of rain has fallen at Malvedos, less than half of the monthly mean for the Quinta (33.4 mm). Most of this precipitation has taken the form of brief ten to fifteen minute showers, usually followed by some welcome wind which helps to quickly dry the grape bunches on the vines. Thus far then nothing to worry too much about especially as the forecast for the next few days indicates mainly dry conditions with the odd light shower and pleasant mild conditions with temperatures in the 20ºC to 25ºC range which is what is needed to help keep the grapes dry and to conclude the final stretch of ripening (particularly important for the late ripening Touriga Franca).
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.
When Charles Symington is in the Tasting Room it is very difficult to talk to him. He simply doesn’t hear you: he is intensely focused. All that can be heard is the sipping of wine, the clinking of glasses being placed back on the bench, and the low murmurs of the three tasters as they compare their impressions with one another.
“You need tranquility and peace when tasting,” Charles explains. There certainly is that in Graham’s Tasting Room: it is a place of deep concentration. Over recent weeks, samples of the 2013 Port Wine from each vineyard and each fermentation have been on their way from the Douro to the Tasting Room in Vila Nova de Gaia. Charles and his team, Nuno Moreira and Manuel Rocha, have been assessing each lote of young Port Wine and determining its future.
As they work through each sample, they determine which of Graham’s Ports the wine will be suitable for. This sometimes requires that they foresee the wine’s characteristics up to 40 years into the future for Graham’s 40 Years Old Tawny Port, for example. There is one special case though and that is Graham’s Six Grapes.
Charles explains that Six Grapes is so special that you only very rarely come across a wine of sufficient quality to make it. If you go looking for Six Grapes, you won’t find it: it is something that you come across while you’re not looking – and it doesn’t happen very often.
Like in an artist’s studio, the light in the Tasting Room is also extremely important. If it is not right Charles will often postpone his team’s work, especially when tasting Vintage Ports, which because of their deeper colour require the perfect conditions to be assessed properly. For the same reason, tasting is only done in the mornings.
It is a massive logistical challenge to gather all these samples. “You can’t just email wines around,” Charles remarks.
For some months after the brandy has been added to the wine, the young Port Wines cannot be tasted. They require this period of time to “fall bright”, that is, to become fully expressive in flavor and colour. During this period, the wine actually grows darker and the aromas intensify.
Charles and his team use this period to make fresh blends of Graham’s Aged Tawny Ports, which are then allowed to marry together for at least one year.
Charles, Nuno and Manuel conduct a quick first assessment of the wines, during which they record their first impressions and organize the wines accordingly into broad categories. They then work through them much more slowly, spending a long time over each lote, before deciding on their final classification.
Charles’ general comments about the 2013 wines were that they had remarkably good colour. A Port Winemaker, he then said, has to be fascinated by colour.
Have you got any questions for Charles regarding our 2013 wines? Ask him here – post us a comment.
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.
Just a little before 7am this morning, under clear skies, Sr Arlindo and his 27 strong team of pickers began to harvest the first grapes for Graham’s at Quinta do Tua; like Malvedos a Graham’s vineyard, just a stone’s throw away from the latter. The sun hadn’t yet risen over the crest of the hills (remember we are in the world’s largest mountain vineyard) and the temperature was a pleasant 16ºC, very welcome to the pickers who later in the day had to face temperatures a little over 30ºC. We started by picking the very old mixed vines (60 years+) on the imposing stone walled terraces (hand built by legions of workers during the 19th century). Yields are very low but the quality of the grapes is superb and not surprisingly the energetic roga (team of pickers) completed the picking of this old vineyard in just under two and a half hours. Then it was time for a well deserved short pause to enjoy the almoço, a nourishing second breakfast to recharge batteries and return to the picking; next in the order of the day was the Tinta Amarela parcel, planted at Tua in 2008.
Some visitors from our recently appointed distributor in Belgium (“The Nectar”), who had spent the night at Malvedos, were keen to witness the first grapes being harvested in the beautiful Tua vineyard. After braving the steep climb up to the parcel where the pickers were at work, they were rewarded with commanding views over the remarkable stone terraces and the Douro River. Worn out by their trekking up and down the Tua terraces they were rewarded on their return to Malvedos by a delicious glass of chilled Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port.
The freshly picked grapes arrived at the Malvedos winery at around 9:30 am and Henry Shotton, resident winemaker (his 14th vintage at Malvedos), and his team selected the grapes by hand on a sorting conveyor, prior to feeding them through the crusher and conveying them into one of the three lagares housed in the small, original 19th century winery building. A sample of freshly pressed juice was collected by Fonseca, known to all as ‘the Fonz’ to obtain the baumé reading (sugar level), which showed a most satisfactory 14.35. The Tinta Amarela, which followed was a fraction above at 14.4.
Shortly after, Paul Symington arrived and showed a visiting International Herald & Tribune journalist, Patrick Blum, around the winery, explaining the workings of the lagares where the grapes are trodden and which since their installation in time for the 2000 harvest have turned out such remarkable Graham’s Vintage Ports as the 2000, 2003, 2007 and the much acclaimed 2011 (as well as other Graham’s premium Ports, amongst which the Malvedos Vintages, Six Grapes Reserve and the Late Bottled Vintage Ports).
As outside temperatures rose, so did the tempo of activity with the arrival of Charles Symington, Graham’s head winemaker who was making the first of his regular visits to discuss the morning’s progress and to drive around the property with Henry to carry out a sequence of on-site grape sampling checks so as to confirm the pre-established picking order of each grape variety from the many parcels which make up the Malvedos vineyard. In the event, Charles decided to make a few switches, principally because the constantly changing weather forecast is indicating some possible rainfall on Thursday and Friday, which could place under some risk our finest grapes, namely the Touriga Nacional (22% of the Malvedos vineyard). Accordingly, these valuable grapes, which show all the signs of producing some very good wines, will be harvested over the next three days (24th — 26th), almost to the exclusion of all others. Normally, the Tinta Barroca would be picked first but Charles is keen to safeguard the promising Touriga Nacional crop. On Thursday, the ‘Port Arthur’ and Vinhas das Cardenhas vineyards (from which the Graham’s 2011 The Stone Terraces Vintage Port was made) will also be harvested, as they contain a high proportion of Touriga Nacional grapes.
In the next few weeks, Charles will criss-cross the Douro Valley several times, making regular visits to the five Graham’s Quintas (Malvedos, Tua, Vila Velha, Vale de Malhadas and Lages) as well as to the other vineyards owned by his family and which supply Graham’s sister companies. Charles will literally cover thousands of miles in the coming weeks as he leads his team of dedicated winemakers and coordinates the vintage which this year involves a team of nearly 1000 people. No mean feat…