The Symington family, based in Oporto in Portugal, organised a series of tasting of their 2011 vintage ports after 2011 was declared a vintage year.
This is a special event because, on average, vintage declarations happen only about three times a decade. The most recent were in 2000, 2003 and 2007 — meaning 2011 fits the average in the overall scheme of events.
Vintage port represents less than one per cent of Portugal’s total port production, but connoisseurs around the world queue up to get access to this wine. Total production of the five Symington vintage ports for sales worldwide was only 20,250 cases: 3,000 each for Cockburn’s and Warre’s, 1,250 cases for Quinta do Vesuvio, 8,000 for Graham’s and 5,000 for Dow’s.
Rain in winter at the start of 2011 provided water reserves to help the vines during a dry spring and early summer. But hailstorms in May and June meant it was a difficult growing season in the Douro Valley.
Winemakers said the hot and dry summer caused vines to shut down, which delayed maturation of the grapes. But rain at the end of August and early September, followed by blue skies during harvest from September 2 until October 15 saved the vintage.
The hail and heat reduced yields. Jorge Nunes, a Symington winemaker as well as their Asia sales representative, said most of the company’s allocations in Asia had already been sold or booked.
He said most of the large port houses had announced a vintage year for their top brands, meaning it was a “general declaration”. Nunes also said 2011 saw a return to the “basics” at Symington and “a classical, old school vintage” full of finesse. He described the ports as more “muscular” and while the vintage had a “blockbuster” style the wines were approachable when young because they were made with less tannin and more elegance.
Asked about longevity, he smiled and said: “We will be judged in 30 to 40 years.”
All of the ports were made using traditional method. This involves several hours of trampling of the grapes in large concrete vats know as lagares. Some of the trampling is by human foot and other approaches involve mechanical devices that simulate the human foot. It is the only way to extract all of the necessary flavours.
The 2011 Cockburn’s was distinguished by intense aromatics of what the Portuguese call “esteva”, named after a flower in the Douro Vsalley. The aroma comes from the high proportion of touriga nacional in the blend — 55 per cent. The other components are touriga franca (30 per cent), sousao (5 per cent) and the rest what the winemakers Charles Symington and Ricardo Carvalho call “very old mixed vines”.
Sousao is a “teinture” grape, meaning its job is to add colour to the wine. The grape has black flesh as well as skin, and these give the port its intense dark colour.
The phrase “very old mixed vines” suggests the vines are so old that no-one is quite sure what grape varieties are planted in the vineyard. The 2011 Warre’s blend is 40 per cent of these grapes, plus 37 per cent touriga nacional and 23 per cent of touriga franca.
As a young wine this port has aromas of blackberries and perfumes of violets and the esteva or rockrose mentioned earlier. It will be magnificent in three decades. These wines are a reward for patience.
The 2011 Quinta do Vesuvio tastes of blueberries and liquorice, and has velvety tannins. It could easily be drunk young but will also show magnificently in decades to come. This wine received traditional foot treading by teams of about 40 people each day.
Almost 800,000 litres of the 2011 Graham’s was produced but chief winemaker Charles Symington selected a mere 72,000 litres (or 8,000 cases) of this wine for the 2011 release. It is purple-black in colour with aromas of black China tea, violets and a taste of ripe red fruits, with touches of dark chocolate. Like many of the other ports, touriga nacional provides a large proportion of the blend, at 40 per cent.
The 2011 Dow’s, like its cousins, was bottled in late May and allowed to settle for one month before being distributed in July. The Uk and US sometimes take up to 80 per cent of total production, so the amount available to Asia tends to be low.
Touriga franca (40 er cent) and touriga nacional (36 per cent) are the main grape varieties, the former giving the wine its silky texture and aromas of violets. The latter provides tannic structure. At first this port seemed austere because of the tannins, but it has delightful aromas of cassis and dried figs, and it ends with a serene sense of minerality. A port to savour in decades to come.