The closest link between the people that make wine and the people that drink it
A large family gathering gave a very good reason to put my new Taylor’s Port Tongs to action. We’d seen these used at Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas a week earlier to worthy effect and Adrian Bridge had kindly given us each a pair to take home.
The principal purpose of Port Tongs is to open a bottle where the cork may be too old and in danger of disintegrating by removing the glass neck of the bottle as well as the cork itself. That aside, with an audience to hand, there’s every good reason to use them purely for some sporting showmanship.
An unknown, ullaged (a trade expression for bottles where the wine has, in time, leaked out) bottle was selected from the family cellar. From external appearance, probably a vintage from the 1950s or ‘60s.
The brand new (and, indeed, very firmly branded Taylor’s they are too) tongs were duly planted into a fire and left to heat.
A bowl of ice-chilled water was prepared in which a cloth lay soaking. Once the Tongs were glowing hot, they were held round the neck, and lightly held touching the glass at a spot between cork and the level of the wine. Held there for a minute or two, they were then removed and the ice-cold cloth wrapped round the neck which was followed immediately by a very satisfying, high-pitched ‘’ping’’ – et voila! The neck of the bottle sheered neatly, and the wine was ready to be decanted with no glass shards apparent.
The wine had stood up well enough – the bottle was a third empty – but in spite of this it was fresh enough though soon mellowed into a supple, delicately hued glass of well-aged Vintage Port. One of the party, a brother, ventured it as 1960 Dow – a wine he recognised from the cellar some good few years ago.
2011 is a sensational vintage in the Douro valley. I remember speaking to one of our producers in December of 2011 and remember vividly their confidence in the harvest (though cautious to point out that a declaration was not to be confirmed until 2013). Reports about the vintage have continued to be enthusiastic and the possible declaration of the 2011 vintage seems to have become the wine trade’s worst kept secret. In eager anticipation a team of six of us flew into Oporto on Saturday 16 March. It was my first visit to the region and I was as excited to meet our producers and experience the famous Douro landscape for myself as I was to get an insight into the 2011 vintage.
Arriving at Oporto airport, the luscious green landscape belies the fact that in summer this is the hottest wine growing area of Europe. Not wanting to miss the England versus Wales, we watched the rugby at the house of Johnny and Helen Symington before driving to the hotel to change for dinner at The Factory House. The Factory house was originally built by the British Port wine shippers as a type of gentleman’s club to discuss their business. Today the members represented are still all British-owned Port companies and they still meet on a Wednesday for lunch, to discuss business and participate in a blind tasting. After a sumptuous dinner, we were totally surprised as the side doors of the dining room opened to an identical twin dining room used solely for the enjoyment of vintage port. Graham’s 1952 Diamond Jubilee Colheita was served alongside 1970 Graham’s vintage port with plates of dried apricots and walnuts. The evening was not complete without a toast to the Queen and the President of Portugal as well as the stories of the Bishop of Norwich. Port is traditionally passed to the left, but when a guest has forgotten to pass the port their attention is called by the question “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” Those who are not acquainted with the tradition will be told that he is ‘a good chap, but never passes the Port’. Intriguingly, the current Bishop of Norwich is called Graham….
Vintage Port is a fascinating example of a category which has gained a fanatical following amongst a relatively small constituency of wine connoisseurs, most of them based in Great Britain and latterly the USA. Berry Bros are lucky enough to be the largest single importer of Vintage Port into the UK, and to have a treasured stock of early London (BB&R) bottlings of celebrated vintages in the Family Reserves. For all the sound and fury, Vintage Port only makes up 2% of overall production and is mostly focused on those shippers which are in British independent ownership, with the occasional honorary Dutchmen (Dirk Niepoort ) to spice up the po(r)t.
The origins of Vintage Port are somewhat cloudy, unlike the wine, which will only, with age, become crusted. The trade between Portugal and England was dependent on the extent to which we were irritated or at war with France, but the Methuen Treaty of 1703 coincided pleasingly with the habit of adding brandy to the wine and the practice of ‘second year’ bottling became more prevalent in the middle of the eighteenth century. The first specifically vintage-dated wines correspond with the emergence of the extant bottle-shape and there are extensive records of vintage bottlings dating back to 1870. The current system is a peculiar amalgam of romantic ritual (the patriotic Declaration falls on April 23rd; St George’s Day) and minute bureaucratic procedure ( in terms of sample approval by the IVP - Insituto do Vinho do Porto- and then permitted bottling timing) not forgetting the necessity to have had an outstanding season in the year in question. Cynics observe that Declarations appear to have followed commercial rather than meteorological imperatives, with well-spaced campaigns (2000 then 2003 then 2007 for example) ensuring optimal returns. The reality is, of course, far more complicated, with so-called split declarations (2009) and lengthy gaps (between 1985 and 1991 for example) both illustrating that the process is far from proscriptive or rigorously cyclical.
Be that as it may, things are certainly looking good for a Declaration this April 23rd, with the quality of the vintage in question (2011) apparently reflecting a growing season that was every bit as good as those for the last truly great vintages (1994 and 1977). Paul Symington, when asked to outline the appeal of 2001 has responded with an unmistakable cri de coeur; ‘Quality!…Quality!….Quality!’, which appears to be quite promising. The nation awaits what is now an open secret; indeed trade tastings have already been organised during the week in question and one or two of the less obviously anglophile houses (Ferreira, Offley and the once very patriotic Sandeman) have defied St George, as is their prerogative, and already made the Declaration.
There will be great excitement over the coming weeks: who will win the battle of the big names between friendly(ish) rivals Taylor and Graham? Will Dow excel itself once again as it did so memorably in 2007? What will the Symingtons do now that they have control over the famous name (and equally importantly vineyards) of Cockburn? How will the enigmatic and brilliant Dirk Niepoort perform and will Quinta do Noval, often the most eccentric when it comes to backing specific vintages, actually declare this time? All will become clear over the coming weeks. But one thing is for sure ..Vintage Port remains one of the greatest of all fortified wines, not merely by definition, and also one of the most under-valued. Despite the near Messianic loyalty of its adherents, the category is under-appreciated as an investment wine and therefore remains exceptional value. One of my favourite evenings in the BB&R Events Calendar is our Annual Port Walk, when we open 25 or so differing ports, the vast majority of which are from the vintage category. It is fascinating to trace the development of these noble wines each year; last time, the 94s were really starting to come into their own from the ‘younger’ wines and the graceful 1970s were showing the full kaleidoscopic potential of the more senior representatives. Great Vintage Port ages with far more dignity than he who purchases it, and each of the seven ages of port will entice, fascinate and beguile in equal measure. It seems almost certain that 2011 will step onto this stage with all the mewling self-belief of one of the very greatest.
As traditional and British as Berry Bros. & Rudd, Port started life as a full-bodied, dry, red wine, known in 17th century London as ‘blackstrap’. Brandy was often added to the wine by British merchants to ensure it arrived in good condition. In 1678, however, two English wine merchants visiting the Douro region found the ‘sweetish and extremely smooth’ wines of the Abbot of Lamego, with whom they were staying, better than any others they had tasted. The Abbot admitted adding brandy to the wine during rather than after fermentation, and the two Englishmen bought all of his stock and shipped it home. England and Portugal have long since been trading partners.
The Symingtons have been Port producers for five generation but their family’s involvement in Port dates back fourteen generations through a great-grandmother Beatrice Atkinson. As an Atkinson myself, I must admit to remaining ever hopeful that I find a genealogical connection through our individual family trees to link me to this spectacular Port institution. Aside from this frankly unlikely connection, my total devotion to this fortified wonder is certainly signed and sealed, especially after an invite to visit their vineyards and Port Houses over 3 days during harvest in early October.
Family values do remain a priority for the Symingtons, in fact this impressive company are the leading owner of vineyards in the Douro, which are owned and managed wholly by five members of the Symington family, all five of which I was lucky to meet on this trip.
A group of five of us stayed at Quinta dos Malvedos where we enjoyed sampling many Ports and even had a hand (or foot) in helping with the 2012 harvest! Once issued uniforms, all 5 of us and Johnny Symington stepped into the old stone lagare, full of the day’s grape collection – it’s a sensation I won’t forget for a while! At first the treading is silent and rhythmic but after a set amount of time the musicians begin their music and we all started to dance. I am proud to say Berrys’ were the first to start a conga line; that really got the grapes mixed up! It was good fun but hard work, we only stayed for an hour but the locals tread for 4 hours each night– my hat goes off to them.
The hospitality of the Symington family was second to none. We got to have a sneak peak at the renovations happening at Graham’s Port Lodge, I will definitely be going back to see the completed result in 2014. The stand out Port for me was the 2007 Graham’s Vintage, a definite one to watch.
Corrine Graham, Wine Club Administrator
On a dreary evening at the end of April, we welcomed 75 Cellar Plan members to the Napoleon Cellar at No. 3 St. James’s Street for the first Cellar Plan Fine Whisky tasting. Berrys’ has a long history of selling whiskies, most notably with Cutty Sark blended whisky, but has been a long standing independent bottler, particularly of single cask, rare whiskies and this was a great introduction to these spanning four decades of a gamut of differing styles.
Last week the Berrys offices were abuzz with excitement over the arrival of the newest release of Tio Pepe En Rama. This is the third year that Tio Pepe have produced their pure and powerful Fino sherry, and as it was the 200th anniversary of the founder of Gonzalez Byass’ birth, the wine has been made from the oldest and therefore most flavoursome casks from the Tio Pepe Solera, and the bottle has been decorated with a beautiful old hand-drawn design from 1857.
En Rama is always hugely popular here, so we spared little time in ordering up a bottle for our hardworking tasting team to assess, along with a selection of Spanish nibbles to explore the wine’s huge potential for food matching. What we found is that this is probably the most intense Fino sherry we’ve ever tasted, which can only be a good thing. Comments by Oli Barton, Laura Atkinson, Emma Brown, Lucy Christopher and Steffan Griffiths.
I love this time of year. Christmas is just around the corner and shining like a beacon of warmth and cheer in the deepening darkness of winter. The food, the wine, the company and the fun – what better reward at the end of a long, hard year?
Throughout St James’s the window displays offer an enticing picture of festive life: cheeses from Paxtons, cigars from Foxs, hats from Locks, country clothing from William Evans. I wonder what will be under the tree for me…
As the temperature continues to drop this week, there is simply no better drink to have in your hipflask than The King’s Ginger. This emphatically ginger liqueur was specially formulated by Berry Bros. in 1903 for King Edward VII. Rich and zesty it was created to stimulate and revivify His Majesty and has been appreciated by bon viveurs, sporting gentleman and high-spirited ladies ever since. His Majesty was a man with a peerless sense of fashion, so we have spoken to our friends at esteemed hatters, Lock & Co, and they have agreed to make a bespoke, made to measure Edwardian hat for one lucky winner in our new competition.
Last month I attended a tutored tasting of Vintage Ports at our St James’s Street Cellars, kindly hosted by Johnny and Paul Symington. The wines ranged from the still very youthful (1994, 1997, 2000, 2003) to the mature and very distinguished (1945, 1955, 1963, 1966 & 1970) via those vintages in between (1977, 1983 & 1985) that represent years that generally have, perhaps, not fulfilled their early promise.
The 1994 Warre is clearly a superlative wine with awesome potential. Very much in a closed stage it still showed Warre’s elegant, harmonious style and is a vintage that looks set to rival the very best. 1997 Dow likewise showed the shipper’s typically firm dryness, but is just beginning to reveal some more mature notes. 2000 Graham more than lives up to its millennium label and while not unapproachable to taste, it is a wine of huge richness and depth that will last and last. 2003 was unnaturally hot for most of Europe, but wasn’t so out-of-the-ordinary for the upper Douro where 40+ degrees is not uncommon – the vines just closed down in the heat meaning picking was late. The 2003 Warre on show revealed a typical floral style and has, reassuringly, plenty of promise ahead.
There is little doubt that these latter years have benefited from varietal planting and the subsequent picking by variety rather than plot regardless of which vine was grown there; as well as the successful introduction by the Symington group of auto-lagares for much of their Vintage Port’s production: a more reliable, more controllable, and eventually more cost-effective method.
The mid-1970s were not Portugal’s, nor the Port wine trade’s, finest years due to political unrest, but the 1977 vintage saw markets expand after a difficult few years globally. The 1977 Dow was certainly agreeable but one can’t deny it is not showing the potential first awarded the vintage. 1983 Graham revealed an aged character of coffee and even toffee notes and 1985 Warre was integrated, soft and rounded. We didn’t have a 1980 to show, which is a pity as the Symington wines excelled in this vintage – and I haven’t seen a 1975 for ages, these were in some cases finally proving their worth but only at their last breath. Time will tell just how 1977, 1983 and 1985 fare – but I for one, with a few exceptions, go with the trend and recommend they be considered ready for drinking.
Mature Vintage Port is one of wine’s greatest achievements – it is so often the most remembered wine of a meal and this usually from those who all too frequently claim never to touch a drop. The 1945 Dow, from one of the most evocative of all years, pretty much anywhere, had a richness and power that defines all that is best in great Vintage Port – quite literally dissolving in the mouth. 1955 Graham in magnum showed a glowing sweetness of fruit and can be classed as ‘gently fading’ now; the 1963 Warre had a delicacy (house style again) yet also a punchiness from the vintage that saw the Port trade’s revival after the post-war slump. 1966 Graham showed more evolvement than 1963, a hot vintage even for the Douro and harder to manage in those days but still developing and very satisfying. 1970 Dow ticked all the boxes: elegant and amenable, with some energetic tannins still there to tickle the tongue – it is a delicious vintage to drink now or keep another 20 years.
It was a relaxed and thoroughly enjoyable evening which will have revealed to all some more about the Douro and the sheer dedication and long-term commitment the Symingtons, and others, have for their wines. They are among the very best in the world.
It was fun too to listen to Messrs Symingtons’ coy observations on whether 2007 will be declared a vintage come April. The Port shippers are bound by the IVDP not to declare until authorised formally, but it is looking an odds-on certainty that come St George’s Day (in fact the Symingtons like to come out a day or two earlier, that is, of course, if they do declare…) a very high quality, though low quantity, 2007 vintage will be declared. We will keep you updated!