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First Taste: Symington en primeur Vintage Port 2018, alongside 1998 Vintage Port

Old Masters, not so still life – a screen shot of the online tasting – reporting from Quinta do Vesuvio Harry, Rupert and Rob Symington (l to r)

In a world-first for the Port trade, the Symington Family launched their 2018 Vintage Ports via a live video presentation, following it up with an online tasting for trade and press, which I attended.   You will find my tasting notes below for Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port 2018 and Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira 2018 Vintage Port (the two en primeur examples) and the 1998 vintages of each, providing an insight into the evolution of these Single Quinta Vintage Ports.  

Small quantities of excellent wines from specific parcels at some of our top estates

Though located very near each other, being on opposite banks of the Douro – north and south – the resulting Single Quinta Vintage Ports from Quinta do Vesuvio and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira are very different.  They truly reflect the Douro’s incredibly diverse terroir – a real trump card.

Incidentally, teasing apart terroir differences even further, Decanter Premium recently published my review of Douro DOC 2017 (unfortified) releases from Quinta do Vesuvio (and Prats & Symington) here,  which highlights those parcels which go into the first and second unfortified Vesuvio wines.

As usual, I have cut and pasted the Symington’s vintage overview together with reports for each estate below.  The video of the trade and press tasting hosted by Harry, Rupert and Rob Symington (pictured top) can be viewed here.

Vintage Port 2018 – an overview of the year

Harry neatly summarised the vintage as one of “small quantities of excellent wines from specific parcels at some of our top estates,”  adding that quality was not consistent through the Douro region or the Symington estates, hence the production of small quantities from individual quintas, rather than a “super-blend classic/general declaration.”

In addition to Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port 2018 and Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira 2018 Vintage Port, which are being released en primeur, the Symingtons produced four other Single Quinta Vintage Ports which, in line with tradition, will be aged in the family’s cellars and released once they are ready for drinking.  They are Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos 2018 Vintage Port, Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim 2018 Vintage Port, Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha 2018 Vintage Port (all from the Cima Corgo) and, from the Douro Superior, Cockburn’s Quinta dos Canais 2018 Vintage Port.

The Upper Douro [Douro Superior] had a really stonking year in 2018

My key take-aways from the video were as follows:

  • It began in a state of drought, with 20 consecutive months of well below average rainfall
  • The drought was well and truly broken with unprecedented rainfall through spring, which culminated in an extraordinary storm at the end of May, with localised hail & some rain damage
  • The region experienced heatwaves through final ripening during August, with temperatures up to 43-44 degrees in the Douro Superior.
  • Despite the challenges, three key factors contributed to the favourable outcome: increased soil moisture from spring rains, the late-maturing Touriga Franca, which flourished during the hot harvest period, contributing lifted aromatics and the well-defined acidity which, said Harry, “shows the incredible adaptation of local varieties to the conditions.”
  • Multi-generational knowledge was also “particularly important” in 2018, with fifth generation family member/Chief Winemaker Charles Symington and his team skilfully blending individual parcels of different grapes, aspects and elevation.
  • When Charles Symington first started in the 1990s,  Sousão and Alicante Bouschet were“not Vintage Port varieties,” , said Rob, but Charles has spear-headed more plantings for use as “salt and pepper varieties; they never make up more than 5, 10, 15% of a blend, but certainly in the pursuit of acidity and freshness in such a hot region, they provide us with excellent options.”
  • For Rupert Symington, “the Upper Douro [Douro Superior] had a really stonking year in 2018.”
  • On the parcellated approach and smaller releases, “this generation of vintage port producers are being much more precise and deliberate with the blend…Vintage Port is not a category or style of wine that is standing still” said Rob.
  • You can drink Vintage Ports young now, but we’re not making them significantly differently, but today grapes are coming in at perfect ripeness, because we’re monitoring them in the lead up to vintage, said Rupert.
  • On whether the aguardente or brandy spirit used to fortify their Vintage Ports is better quality than 25 years ago, Rupert disputed that this was the case at Symington. “The Symington nose is for neutrality,” he said,  adding there’s no substantial difference between the spirit for the 1985, 1945 or 2018s Vintage Ports.

Vintage Port 2018 tasting notes

Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port 2018

The vineyards (Symington profile): Quinta do Vesuvio is located in the Douro Superior, the demarcated region’s hottest and driest sub- region with just 470 mm average annual rainfall. The property’s sheer size (326 hectares) and mountainous terrain result in varied aspects, predominantly north and northwest, as it occupies a south bank position along the Douro River.

The vineyards are laid out along varying altitudes, ranging from 110 metres up to almost 500 metres above sea level. These two variables are important features of the property’s terroir; combined they shield the vineyard from excessive heat.

The estate’s mature vineyards in the Vale da Teja section of the property date from the 1970s and are a vital contribution to the wines in challenging years. These vines have a well-developed root system, enabling them to tap the water in the subsoil, providing vital sustenance through the dry summer conditions. They contribute to the incredible complexity and structure of Quinta do Vesuvio wines.

You can find a video about Quinta do Vesuvio’s terroir here.

Symington Vintage Port Report 2018: The 2018 growing season was a rollercoaster, consisting of a winter drought, a deluge in spring and heatwaves through the final ripening period.  There was 2.5 times the average amount of rainfall in March at Quinta do Vesuvio, which meant that the growing cycle started later. As a result, the berries were more vulnerable to the heatwaves during the final ripening period. However, the viticulture & winemaking teams navigated the challenges through meticulous care in the vineyard and careful selection of wines from different parcels in the final blends.

The north & northwest facing aspects of the property and the higher altitude vines, shielded the berries from the hot weather through the final ripening period, when temperatures reached 45ºC. The Touriga Franca from the Vale da Teja (approx. 300/350 metres) was co-fermented with the Alicante Bouschet from the Castelos vineyard (approx. 250/300 metres). This delivered a notably more elegant Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port, balanced by the freshness of the Touriga Nacional from the Raposa vineyard at 350-400 meters and the Sousão from the higher lying section of Vale da Teja.

My tasting notes: This blend of 54% Touriga Nacional, 40% co-fermented Touriga Franca & Alicante Bouschet and 6% Sousão is a deep, opaque hue, with crimson, red flashes.  The Vesuvio has a more open knit nose and palate than the Dow’s, with esteva-edged, raspberry, black berry and currant, sweeter jammier notes and dried rose lift to the nose.  In the mouth, it is impressively smooth and biddable, with supple tannins, fleshy, really slinky, ripe summer pudding/red and black fruits of the forest compote, a moreish chocolatiness and savoury pouch tobacco kick to the back palate.   On day three, a hint of orange blossom.  The tannins catch up going into the finish, lending focus and light grip but, having tasted it over three days, the overwhelming impression is of velvet-smooth, supple red and black fruits.  Generous of expression, lithe of structure and harmoniously balanced, I could not agree more with the Symingtons that this is a “notably more elegant Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port,” also Rupert’s observation that Vesuvio is more red-fruited than is typical in 2018.   It is dangerously drinkable and, I might add, the 1998 tasted alongside was in fine form, similarly wild fruited, floral and thoroughly delicious – the family resemblance self-evident.  Quinta do Vesuvio 2018 is a release of 965 cases of 12; it represents just 3% of Quinta do Vesuvio’s total production. 20%, Total acidity: 3.96 (g/l),  Baumé: 3.60  Bottled: June 2020 (no filtration) .  RRP £282.00/6 bottles in bond; £359.82/6 bottles inc. VAT & duty (£59.97/bottle).  Current stockists include The Wine Society, Tanners, Vintage Wine & Port, Farr Vintners, Clarion Fine Wines.

Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port 1998

Symington Vintage Report 1998: Unusual weather patterns in 1998 led to small yields of high quality, highly concentrated wines. However, only a handful of shippers declared in 1998, with many of the big names opting instead to declare Single Quinta Vintage Ports.   Describing it as a curious, ‘we was robbed’ year, Rupert reported that there was a rain storm during vintage, but wines made before the rain were really very fine.  Cooler ferment characteristics reflect cool vintage conditions, he added.

My tasting note: for Rupert, at 10 years Single Quinta Vintage Ports start to become accessible, but from about 15 years, go into perfect drinking mode.  A darker hue than the Dow’s and with more primary fruit and poise to nose and palate, the Vesuvio 1998 seems younger.  A well-directed, juicy but gutsy, mouth-filling, expressive palate reveals coffee-edged dried plum, dense fruitcake and lashings of spicy liquorice on days one and two.   It had really opened up by day three, showing pine needle and mushroom hints to its markedly red-fruited palate, with sweet strawberry and plum, still well-supported by chocolately tannins.  Like the 2018, harmonious, with great expression.  I particularly enjoyed picking up some of the nuances (red fruits, pine needle) that I enjoyed in Quinta do Vesuvio 2017 Douro DOC, recently written up here for Decanter Premium.  £47.50 at Cadman Fine Wines,

Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira Vintage Port 2018

The vineyards (Symington profile): The Quinta is situated in the remote, hot, dry Douro Superior sub-region and commands a magnificent position on the north bank, overlooking a broad sweep of the Douro River.

The schist soils, challenging conditions, and high proportion of old vines result in very low yields – amongst the lowest of any wineproducing region on earth. Yields can be as low as 500g per vine and are rarely above 1 kg.

The late ripening Touriga Franca, which thrives in abundant sunshine, is particularly suited to the southern orientation and is a key component of the Senhora da Ribeira Vintage Ports. The finest Touriga Franca parcels are found in the Pedreira vineyards, surrounding the house and winery and descending to the river.

The other essential part of Senhora da Ribeira Vintage Ports is Touriga Nacional. The best Touriga Nacional parcels are in the Vinha Grande, planted in two swathes behind the house, rising to 400 metres.  Not as resilient as the Franca, the Touriga Nacional benefits from this cooler east-facing aspect and the higher altitude. This is crucial in delivering the acidity that gives Senhora da Ribeira Vintage Ports their freshness, balance and staying power. In addition, small parcels of Sousão — co-fermented for the first time in 2018 with Alicante Bouschet — contribute fantastic levels of acidity and superb colour.

You can find a video about Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira’s terroir here.

Symington Vintage Port Report 2018: the 2018 growing season was a rollercoaster, consisting of a winter drought, a deluge in spring and heatwaves through the final ripening period.  There was 2.5 times the average amount of rainfall in March at Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira, which delayed the start of the growth cycle. As a result, the berries were more vulnerable to the first heatwaves in August, when temperatures reached 43ºC.

The heat sensitive Touriga Nacional from the east-facing Vinha Grande was shielded from the heat by its cooler aspect and high altitude. The late-ripening Touriga Franca from the south-facing Pedreira vineyards thrived in the hot harvest days, allowing the grapes to reach perfect levels of ripeness.

With its high natural acidity, the Sousão played an even greater role in 2018 in balancing the high concentration that the warm and dry Douro Superior imprints on the wines. The Sousão was cofermented with Alicante Bouschet for the first time at Senhora da Ribeira, which added wonderful structure and colour to the wine. The warmer conditions in 2018 are reflected in a much riper style of Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira Vintage Port with more muscular and generous black fruit flavours.

My tasting note: a blend of 45% Touriga Franca, 40% Touriga Nacional  and 15% Alicante Bouschet/ Sousão (co-fermentation) , the Dow’s is a deep, inky purple, with more opacity than the Vesuvio.  Wake up and smell the tannins!  They impact on the colour, nose and palate of this vigorous Single Quinta Vintage Port, with its markedly minty, cool nose and palate and ever-present undertow of parma violets/bitter chocolate violet creams. A bottomless pit of concentrated black berry, cherry and currant fruit is well supported by firm acidity and a sturdy fretwork of graphite/iron filing tannins (great sense of dry extract).  Bolder of structure and more brooding of fruit than the Vesuvio, the finish is drier-seeming, more imposing than the Vesuvio . Even the heady farewell kiss of kirsch finds cool foil in the mint.  Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira Vintage Port 2018 is a release of 510 cases of 12, representing just 8% of Senhora da Ribeira’s total production.   20%, Total acidity: 3.73 (g/l), Baumé: 3.30  Bottled: June 2020 (no filtration).   RRP £126.00/3 bottles in bond;  £161.92/3 bottles inc. VAT & duty (£53.97/bottle).  Current stockists include The Wine Society, Tanners, Vintage Wine & Port, Farr Vintners, Clarion Fine Wines.

Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira Vintage Port 1998

A burgundy hue with a bricky rim.  The nose seems quite evolved, with raisined berry and prune fruit, esteva, sweet parma violets and bitter chocolate.  On day two, it seemed intensely herbaceous, flat and a little hollow.  On day three, less herbaceous, with prunes, bitter chocolate and iron-filing tannins.  Blunt compared with the Vesuvio 98….I know that this release was regarded as one of the highlights of 1998.  Perhaps this bottle showing some random oxidation?

Other 2018 Vintage Port reviews

Click here for my review of Ramos Pinto Quinta do Bom Retiro Vintage Port 2018


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