Richard and Dominic Symington at Graham’s Lodge in Oporto
This was our first full day of Roy Hersh’s fifth annual Fortification Tour, which he billed as “the best of the best.” He made an excellent start on justifying this billing by opening with verticals of six of the great Port houses, Graham, Dow, Warre (these first three all owned by the Symington Family Estates), Taylor, Fonseca and Croft (the last three all owned by Taylor). For our verticals, Roy chose three vintage years that are all reasonably mature now, and that many consider the best three consecutive vintages for most of these houses: 1963, 1966 and 1970. (Because this tasting was both a vertical and a horizontal, the term Roy likes to use is “diagonal.”) We did the first vertical of Graham, Dow and Warre at Graham’s Lodge in Porto, hosted by Dominic Symington, who also hosted us for lunch at the lodge following the tasting. The tasting was preceded by a tour of Graham’s lodge, including store rooms that house large stores of their vintage Ports resting on sand floors. After lunch at Graham, we headed over to Taylor lodge for a tour, conducted by their head of marketing for the Americas. We then adjourned to a lovely blue room for our tasting of the same vintages of the three great houses owned by Taylor. Taylor’s chief winemaker, David Guimaraens, came to join us midway through the tasting. We also were visited during our tasting by Taylor managing director Adrian Bridge, and by Adrian’s wife, Natasha, who is the chief blender for Taylor. We concluded the tasting there by tasting 2008 cask samples of single quintas with David.
I was delighted that morning to finally be in Porto (or “Oporto,” as the British call it), as I had originally intended to be there a full day before the start of our trip, to visit some other Port lodges and a famous Port tasting bar in Porto before Roy’s formal trip began. Unfortunately, however, the first leg of my journey–from San Francisco to Dallas, then to Madrid, and from Madrid to Porto–was diverted from Dallas airport about 45 minutes before our scheduled arrival there due to thunderstorms in Dallas that closed the airport for a few hours. (And there I’d been thinking that my main travel worry was ash clouds from Iceland.) My flight was therefore diverted to Denver airport, where we sat on the ground for a couple of hours, being told by American that there was no room on flights out of Denver at that point, so that we had to wait until the storm cleared to continue on to Dallas. Naturally, by the time we got to Dallas, my flight to Madrid was long gone, so I was forced to spend the night and most of the next day in Dallas (instead of Porto), because the only flight that had seats that could get me near my target was a flight to London’s Heathrow late the next afternoon (from which I’d then get a flight to Madrid and then on to Porto). I spent much of my unwanted day in Dallas standing in long lines trying to have them find and return to me my bag, which had been lost at that point on our arrival in Dallas (due to the backup, supposedly, of over a 100 flights being cancelled or delayed by the storm), and another 4 hours in the ticketing line waiting to have my ticket re-issued for London, Madrid and Porto. When they couldn’t find my bag anywhere after hours of pleading with baggage handlers, ticket agents and managers, I was told that it had been coded in the system to follow me on to Porto (despite other baggage handling rules that I’d been told wouldn’t allow a bag to enter Europe without going through customs in my hands). That, however, turned out not to be the case, and for the next 5 days, when I called morning and afternoon after my arrival in Porto a day late, I was simply told that they had not yet been able to find my bag. It finally was located, on the fifth day, in London Heathrow, and then took another 3 days to follow me all the way down to where I then was, on the island of Madeira. But I digress from the main point of this post–the glories of three great vintages of Port from six of the leading vintage Port houses.
View of Oporto from Graham Lodge
Vertical I at Symington Family Estates (owner of Graham, Dow and Warre, as well as Smith Woodhouse, Quinta do Vesuvio, Gould Campbell, Quarles Harris and Martinez)
One in every three bottles of Port in the world is now from the Symington Family Estates. The Symington Family owns 25 Quintas, and employs 226 people full time. The 25th vineyard the Symingtons acquired is Quinta de Roriz. Although they are the biggest landowner in the Duoro, they still buy additional grapes from about 2100 growers. They grow from 30-35% of their own production. Most of the grapes for their top quality wines are from their own properties. The Symingtons employ full-time coopers, to repair and refurbish used barrels. In 2007 production was 6,200 cases for Dow’s and 6,000 cases for Graham.
One of the peculiarities of Port making is the short period of fermentation and maceration involved before the fermentation is arrested by the addition of the colorless grape spirit. Whereas producers of unfortified red wines have the luxury of a relatively long period of maceration and fermentation to extract the necessary color, tannin and flavor from the grapes (e.g., two weeks or so typically in the case of classed growth Bordeaux, followed by a period of post-fermentation maceration), Port makers only have up to 48 hours for this extraction while the grape juice is still in contact with the skins, depending on the temperature and rate of fermentation. The key to producing quality red Port is therefore vigorous extraction of color and flavor compounds from the grape skins. This has traditionally been accomplished by using the lagar, a rectangular stone or cement tank, and employing a group of people to crush the grapes by foot, over a period of hours. In a well worked lagar, the skins eventually become virtually translucent. A number of studies have demonstrated that this type of crushing and brusing of the grapes and their skins is the most effective way to get the concentration and extraction needed for fine Port.
When rural Portugal experienced a lot of emigration in the ‘60’s, it became much harder to round up the workforce needed to accomplish the necessary foot extraction in lagares. Up until the early ‘60s, according to Dominic, individual farmers would make their wines, using lagares, and then seek buyers. With the decline in labor availability in the ‘60s, they instead started selling the grapes to the larger producers. Major producers increasingly employed autovinification based on the Ducellier system, which was first developed in Algeria. Autovinification provides vigorous extraction powered by valves that open and close due to the build-up of carbon dioxide, a natural by-product of fermentation. The Symington Group’s ’70 vintage was made with autovinification techniques. Graham was 50/50 autovinified and foot trodden in that year. Dow was 100% autovinified that year. 1963 was the last vintage everywhere that was 100% foot trodden in lagar.
The Symingtons were the first, in 1998, to introduce robotic lagares to Port making, using machines they designed, with expert consultants, to simulate the pressure and impact of repeated stomping of the grapes under human feet. Dominic estimates that about 10% of wine for vintage Ports is now foot trodden, at the quintas (not at lodges). Quinta do Vesuvio is one of the rare ones that is still 100% foot trodden.
Dominic told us that the family had compiled 120 years of comments that family members have written whenever they visit the vineyards. He went through the notes that pertained to the three vintages we tasted. 1970 had a wet winter after significant drought. The 1966 was picked beginning on the 16th of September, at 14 degrees baume. It rained heavily on the 29th and all picking stopped for 2 days. On October 4, the weather cleared. Yields were the lowest in many years. They don’t do green harvests in the Douro as yields are typically low anyway. The 1963 vintage was quite late. The last grapes came in on the 19th and 20th of October, with good weather (similar to ’07).
Warre vs. Dow vs. Graham
Dominic advised us, for our tasting, to compare horizontally how the wines have aged, and the stylistic differences between the houses. Graham typically has a sweeter, rounder style. Dow’s style is dry, with less residual sugar. Dominic described Warre as having elegance, and Dow as being typified by intensity. Warre’s has more pepper and mint. Warre is aromatic, lifted, less dense than Dow and not so muscular. It tends to exhibit floral tones–rock rose, and tree sap. Warre’s has a lot of Tinta Amarela, the “younger brother” of Touriga Nacional in flavor profile, mainly from an old vineyard originally planted in the late 1700s (since replanted). Dow is the most aggressive and hardest to get a sense of when it’s young, dry and tannic. Graham’s flagship vineyard is Quinta dos Malvados. They also have Quinto do Tua, Quinta da Vila Veha, and Quintas do Vale de Malhadas and das Lages. 28% of Graham’s current plantings are Touriga Nacional. Dow’s flagship vineyard is Quinta do Bomfim.
In this comparison, it was easy to tell the Graham sweeter, rounder style from Dow’s drier, more intense one. The elegance, aromatics and peppery nature of the Warre came through, and I was more impressed with these vintages of Warre than I expected to be. Roy is a fan of the ’66 vintage, which he feels is underrated (and therefore a very good value), and the Symingtons tend to trumpet their ’70s, especially the ’70 Graham. I thought the following wines showed very well over all, but I was particularly drawn to the complexity, completeness and length of the ’63s. The ’63 Graham followed by the ’63 Dow were my top wines of this tasting, and the ’63 Warre was the best of the Warres for me (slightly behind the ’66 Dow).
- 1970 Warre Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking medium ruby red color with pale meniscus; strawberry, creamy, light dried cherry, mint nose; delightful, tasty, rich, dried cherry, raspberry, strawberry, palate with a hint of tobacco leaf and a sense of pepper on the finish; long finish 94+ pts. (decanted for nearly 4 hours) (94 pts.)
- 1966 Warre Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking medium ruby color with clear meniscus; richer, creamy strawberry nose with a sense of pepper; focused, fairly dry, pepper, dried orange, mint palate that’s a little spirity; long finish (decanted for nearly 4 hours) (94 pts.)
- 1963 Warre Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Light bricking medium ruby color with clear meniscus; lovely, rich, dried cherry, incense, baked cherry, milk chocolate nose; tasty, lovely, elegant, chocolate palate with a bit of pepper; very long finish 95+ pts. (decanted for nearly 4 hours) (95 pts.)
Dominic said that Dow 1966 is in the tertiary stage, but has more evolution to go. It’s likely to be in this stage for another 10 years.
- 1970 Dow Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking light medium ruby color with clear meniscus; sandalwood, dried cherry, orange, tobacco nose; creamy textured, tea, orange, dried cherry, mint palate; medium-plus finish 94+ pts. (decanted for nearly 4 hours) (94 pts.)
- 1966 Dow Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking light medium ruby color with pale meniscus; lovely, vaguely savory, distant smoky meat, orange nose; nice, rich, youthful, orange, Chambord, spice, raisin palate, a little spirity; long finish 95+ pts. (decanted for nearly 4 hours) (95 pts.)
- 1963 Dow Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking light medium red color with clear meniscus; roses, floral, dried cherry, tobacco, cigar box, hibiscus nose; dried cherry, roses, tobacco, cigar box palate with depth, elegance and power; long finish 96+ pts. (decanted for nearly 4 hours) (96 pts.)
- 1970 Graham Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricked medium ruby red color with pale meniscus; ginger cake, dried cherry, fruit cake nose; tasty, fruit cake, chocolate, fig palate; long finish 94+ pts. (decanted for nearly 4 hours) (94 pts.)
- 1966 Graham Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking medium ruby red color with pale meniscus; nice roses, dried cherry, orange, tobacco nose with some VA; tasty, rich, dried cherry, ripe cherry, tobacco palate; long finish (decanted for nearly 4 hours) (95 pts.)
- 1963 Graham Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking medium red color with pale meniscus; earthy, spice box, sweet meat nose; lovely, hedonistic but poised, dried cherry, raspberry, chocolate palate with sweet tannins and serious grip; very long finish 97+ pts. (decanted for nearly 4 hours) (97 pts.)
Lunch wines at Graham Lodge with Dominic Symington
Over lunch, Dominic claimed that the Douro is like Washington State, and Porto is like the Cascades. They’ve had fifty percent of the usual rainfall there over the last few years, so the vines have been very stressed.
Dominic told us you can age a colheita, and it puts on a little more weight and depth, while it loses some freshness. All aged tawnies and colheitas have to have the bottling date on them. When he’s not drinking Portuguese wine, Dominic likes Cote Roties. Dominic’s memorable first great non-Port red was a 1961 Ducru when he was working in the wine business in London. Dominic offered that the 1977 Smith Woodhouse and Gould Campbell are also outstanding. He attributed this to the ability of those houses to choose just a few pipes and make a small quantity of something spectacular.
2002 was the greatest disillusionment of Dominic Symington’s life, since, as of 9/15, things were perfect. Then it started raining for days and killed the vintage. They had to abandon and destroy the whole crop of Touriga Nacional.
Dominic is involved with Madeira Wine Co. too. In the late ‘80’s, the Blandys asked the Symingtons to get involved in marketing their Madeiras. The Symingtons became equal partners in Madeira Wine Co. in 1989. Madeira Wine Co. had always made some canteiro wines, but the Symingtons got them to do dramatically more natural aging in casks, starting the wines on the top floor of the traditional lofts, and then bringing them down to the cooler floors or lodges after some time in cask. They don’t add caramel. They’ve stopped using the commercial, heated 60 degree centigrade tanks. Francisco is the chief winemaker for Madeira Wine Co., and he tells them that 30-35 years is the minimum aging needed for releasing a young Madeira. They lose 5% of the volume annually in the early years when the wine is on the top floor. The Symingtons suggested that colheita Madeiras would be a good entry to help generate interest, but originally they weren’t allowed to until more recent legislation permitted it. Then, once the law permitted it, for the first three months it didn’t allow for varietal or style designation of the Colheita. So the Madeira Wine Co.’s first Coheita under the new law was a 1994, and it was a blend. In ’96 they made a Malmsey Colheita.
Our lunch wines gave us a chance to try two of the Symingtons’ dry Douro wines, a white and a red Altano, as well as a white Port and a 10-year-old Graham Tawny, which was quite enjoyable with dessert.
- N.V. Graham Porto Extra Dry Port – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Light yellow color; floral nose; rich, floral, white peach, green pear palate; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
- 2009 Symington Douro Altano – Portugal, Douro
Light lemon yellow color; floral, citrus nose; light bodied, citrus, clean, crisp palate; short-medium finish (80% Malvasia Fina, 20% Moscatel) (89 pts.)
- 2007 Symington Douro Altano Tinta Roriz-Touriga Franca – Portugal, Douro
Dark purple violet color; smoky, tart plum nose; tart, herbaceous plum, charcoal palate; medium finish (87 pts.)
- N.V. Graham Porto 10-year Tawny – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Medium orange red color with clear meniscus; coffee, toasty, roast coffee nose; rich, syrupy, roast coffee, toasty, deep palate; long finish 91+ pts. (91 pts.)
Vertical II at Taylor Fladgate & Yeatman (owner of Taylor, Fonseca and Croft)
Taylor’s is the only British Port company that was never bought or sold since its establishment in 1692. Taylor now owns three quintas, or vineyard properties, including Quinta do Vargellas and two smaller ones. The company is family run. Alistair Robertson, eighth generation, is the current chair of Taylor’s, and his daughter, Natasha Bridge, is the chief blender. In 1948, Taylor acquired Fonseca, and in 2002, they acquired Croft, which then owned a quinta that Taylor had previously owned. David Fonseca Guimaraens is the chief winemaker. The managing director is Adrian Bridge (husband of Natasha). Adrian is currently leading the effort to build the Yeatman Hotel, across the street from the Taylor lodge. The hotel is scheduled to open July 23, and will have rooms sponsored by different wine producers, and will conduct wine dinners every Thursday. The company is known as Taylor, except in the U.S. and Canada, where it is known as Taylor Fladgate. The vintages we tasted through at Taylor are thought to be the best three consecutive vintages of both Taylor and Fonseca.
Taylor has dealt with the need to improve the quality of extraction in the wines that are not foot trodden by introducing piston plungers in stainless steel tanks in 1995. The 2008 vintage was all done in lagares, with treading at night and the piston plungers used during the day. According to David Guimaraens, the second biggest revolution in Port making, after the automated extraction techniques, is the greatly improved quality level of the grape spirits now being used.
Although the room we were in for our tasting at Taylor was a lovely one, full of antiques, the conditions for our verticals were not as ideal as they’d been at Graham Lodge. The lighting was not as good for determining the wines’ color, the table was quite cramped for holding 9 glasses for 11 people, and a couple of our bottles–especially the ’63 and ’70 Taylors–seemed off compared to samples that I and others in the group had tried before. (The great ’63 Taylor in our lineup, in fact, was corked.) Nonetheless, it was still a good opportunity to compare the styles of these three great houses, and it was a real treat to try the ’08 single quinta barrel samples at the end, not to mention a delight to have winemaker David Guimaraens with us for the second half of the tasting. I also enjoyed meeting Adrian Bridge, Taylor’s managing director, and Natasha Bridge, daughter of Taylor’s chairman and their highly trained chief blender.
Croft vs. Fonseca vs. Taylor
Taylor is thought to be the greatest of these houses, and Taylor vintage Ports typically fetch the highest prices in Port, after those of Quinta do Noval. Fonseca is a strong rival. Croft has the least reputation of these three, and Taylor mainly purchased it to reacquire the Quinta da Roeda vineyard property. The best of our Crofts was the ’63, although it was also showing more heat than I prefer. The Croft signature seemed to be a strong raspberry flavor, as well as touches of pepper. The Fonsecas showed the best in this tasting overall, due, no doubt in part, to the flawed nature of a couple of our Taylors. I got a lot of lovely aromatics from the Fonsecas, especially a common thread of dried cherry, baked cherry and cigar box. The 1970 Fonseca was my top wine of this tasting, closely followed by the 1966 Taylor. It was harder to compare the Taylors due to the clear flaw in the ’63 and the weakness of the ’70. The ’66 was distinctive due to its dried berry aromatics and chocolate flavor on the palate.
- 1970 Croft Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking light medium cherry red color with clear meniscus; baked cherry, cherry, berry pie nose; tasty, raspberry, cherry, strawberry palate, a little hot; long finish (decanted for about 3 hours) (93 pts.)
- 1966 Croft Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking light medium cherry red color; cinnamon, dried red fruit, dried berry nose; cinnamon, earthy, cherry, raspberry, tobacco palate, rather hot; medium-plus finish (decanted for about 3 hours) (92 pts.)
- 1963 Croft Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking medium dark cherry red color with pale meniscus; berry, roasted, pepper nose; tasty, cherry, raspberry palate, with a little heat, more mellow than the ’66 and ’70 vintages; long finish 93+ pts. (decanted for about 3 hours) (93 pts.)
- 1970 Fonseca Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Medium dark cherry red color; strawberry, baked cherry, rhubarb pie, tobacco nose; tasty, rich, youthful, cherry, strawberry, baked cherry palate with depth; long finish (decanted for about 3 hours) (95 pts.)
- 1966 Fonseca Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; dried cherry, spice, baked cherry nose; tasty, rich, baked cherry, strawberry palate with depth; long finish (decanted for about 3 hours) (94 pts.)
- 1963 Fonseca Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking medium red color with clear meniscus; baked cherry, dried berry, tobacco, cigar box nose; resolving, tasty, dried cherry, tobacco, baked cherry, berry, raspberry, coffee candy palate; long finish 94+ pts. (decanted for about 3 hours) (94 pts.)
- 1970 Taylor (Fladgate) Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; odd, dried out, dried orange, VA nose; tasty, dried berry, cherry, roses palate with depth, a little hot, not showing as well as prior bottles; long finish (decanted for about 3 hours) (93 pts.)
- 1966 Taylor (Fladgate) Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; dried cherry, chocolate, dried berry nose; tasty, dried cherry, baked cherry, berry palate, good for drinking now; long finish 94+ pts. (decanted for about 3 hours) (94 pts.)
- 1963 Taylor (Fladgate) Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Bricking medium red color with pale meniscus; tobacco, constrained nose, that starts to show TCA after 2 hours in the glass; baked cherry, dried cherry palate with a touch of TCA; long finish (decanted for about 3 hours) NR (flawed)
2008 Cask Samples at Taylor Lodge
David finally tasted us on four single quinta cask samples, as well as the Fonseca second label, Guimaraens, vintage blend. He seemed quite happy with the ’08 vintage, which he indicated was a fairly cool one, giving relatively long hang times. Since Taylor declared the 2007 vintage, there is unlikely to be a 2008 declaration for its major houses (since the major houses, as a rule, do not declare back to back years of vintage Port). We are therefore likely looking at single quinta vintage Ports for ’08 from Taylor, so this was a good preview of how strong those are likely to be. I was particularly impressed by the potential of the Quinta de Terra Feita cask sample, which had lovely flavors and great balance. The others were also impressive, the weakest, for me, being the Quinta do Panascal.
While some of my readers might have thought that 18 great vintage Ports, and 5 Port cask samples was enough fortified wine for one day, we followed these two great tastings with a very special treat: a private tour and dinner at the Factory House, hosted by both Dominic Symington and David Guimaraens (two of the Factory House’s 11 members). That event will be the subject of my next post.
- 2008 Taylor (Fladgate) Porto Vintage Quinta de Vargellas – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Cask sample – opaque purple violet color; tart black fruit, charcoal nose; tasty, rich, black fruit, fig, tart berry, licorice palate with depth; long finish 93-94 pts. (93 pts.)
- 2008 Croft Porto Vintage Quinta da Roeda – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Cask sample – opaque purple violet color; tart black fruit, tart blackberry, violets nose; tasty, rich berry, blackberry, licorice palate with depth; long finish 93-94 pts. (93 pts.)
- 2008 Fonseca Porto Vintage Quinta do Panascal – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Cask sample – opaque black purple violet color; smoky, licorice, black fruit, fig nose; with depth; tasty, rich, black fruit, ginger cake palate with depth; long finish 92-93 pts. (92 pts.)
- 2008 Fonseca Porto Guimaraens Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Cask sample – opaque purple violet color; deep black fruit, licorice, pepper nose; rich black fruit, berry, blueberry, pepper palate with depth, surprisingly drinkable now; long finish 93-94 pts. (93 pts.)
- 2008 Taylor (Fladgate) Porto Vintage Quinta de Terra Feita – Portugal, Douro, Porto
Cask sample – opaque black violet color; lovely, black fruit, violet, blackberry nose; tasty, rich, black fruit, tart berry palate with balance; long finish 93-95 pts. (93 pts.)
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