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Graham’s Single Harvest Tawnies & Vintage 2015 under the microscope

panorama grahamas shard

No cosy club in St James for last week’s launch of Graham’s 1972 Single Harvest Tawny Port.  And not just because London’s clubs are buying half the amount of Port they did 10 years ago.  Rather The Shard, London’s glitzy glass skyscraper, was chosen to reflect “a fundamental shift in the way people view Port.”  Rising from the river to 310m, much like a classic Port vineyard, the 95 storey building was conceived as a ‘Vertical City,’ neatly under-scoring Paul Symington’s point that no-one has cellars any more.

It’s part and parcel of why he reckons Tawny Ports, such glorious wines from the get go, have been enjoying their day in the sun. Sales have risen by £7.4 million (€10 million) in the last four years. According to statistics from the Official Port Wine Institute, total Tawny Port sales worldwide have increased by 19% from 2010 to 2014.  The other factor which, for Symington, explains their increasing popularity is the appeal to younger bar and restaurant goers “with a penchant for chilled drinks with interesting and complex flavours.”

So, up it was to the 35th floor where I blithely tweeted about scaling “dizzy heights” before we’d even started tasting. Little did I realise that the visit was to re-trigger the motion sickness and dizziness which put the kibosh on visits to Niepoort and Quinta Vale D. Maria the previous week!  The good news is it didn’t take hold until after the tasting.

Paul Symington & Joao Vasconcelos

Paul Symington & Joao Vasconcelos

Before we got stuck into the Ports, I asked Symington if the so-called British Port houses are geared up for this Tawny Port renaissance.  Traditionally, they were known for being the Vintage Port specialists.  Symington agreed that this was very much the case until the 1980s, when the Portuguese houses got into Vintage Port and the Brits into Tawny.  In any event, he said, the Brits always made Tawnies, though they were not commercialised.  In fact the names he mentioned even sound like code names for prototypes – Warres Nimrod, Cockburns XP, Taylors OPW! That said, Symington revealed that Cockburns had a motto that the mark of a good blender was their ability to age Tawny Port.

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On a more prosaic note, Symington pointed out that his family have 17, 500 pipes of Tawny Port (with stock in stainless steel too) and, apparently, are the only Port house to have a team of coopers – six in Vila Nova de Gaia and one in the Douro (which I must admit surprised me).

Here are my notes on Graham’s 1972, 69 and 61 Single Harvest Tawny Ports plus the latest bottlings of the 20-40 Year Old Tawnies. Below my notes you’ll find Paul Symington’s hot off the press report on the current 2015 vintage.

The Tawnies

Graham’s Single Harvest Tawny Port 1972

Strong arm precision pour

Strong arm precision pour

I first tasted this wine in May at the Big Fortified Tasting.  Both then and last week I noted down “very Graham’s,” which is ironic. The ’72 is the first release of Graham’s Single Harvest Tawny Ports nurtured from vine to wine by the Symington and not the Graham family (who sold Graham’s to the Symingtons in 1970).  For “very Graham’s,” read very vigorous.  It’s not normally how I think of the genre, but this is an energetic Tawny – positively robust up to the ’69 with a powerful charge of chutneyed, spicy citrus and stone fruit – plenty of mid-palate oomph.  And the lively acidity to make it dance.  Fleet of foot then, with great resonance of toasted hazelnuts to augment a long lingering, cedar-licked finish.   Speaking of cedar, I reckon this is the perfect long quaff partner for a cigar.  Nine pipes out of 28 of the ’72 have been released, some of which found its way into these extravagant 4.5 litre bottles.  20% abv

Graham’s Single Harvest Tawny Port 1969

The beauty of Single Harvest or Colheita Tawnies is their individuality.  An individuality borne of a single vintage which has undergone more or less the same ageing conditions (compared with 10 to 40 Year Old Tawnies which include Port from a wide range of years which may have been aged very differently).  The ’69 could not be more different from the ’72 or, for that matter, the plush, darker ’61.  It’s delicate, very citrussy, relatively pointy/tapered, with the focus I recall from first tasting it three years ago.  Delicate and delicious with caramelised oranges, toasted almonds and hints of dried apricot on a rolling palate with lovely momentum and spice to the finish.  Very fine, precise even and, Symington observed, with 4.3 baumé, significantly drier than the ’61 (which had 5.7 baumé; the ’72 was 4.7 baumé). Six pipes out of 17 of the ’69 were released in January 2012.  20% abv

Graham’s Single Harvest Tawny Port 1961

The ’61, Graham’s first released Single Harvest Tawny, was launched in early 2011.  This bottling comprised 3 of 12 pipes, some of which has since disappeared into the 40 Year Old Tawny.  It’s conker bright, quite ruddy, with flashes of red chesnut – markedly darker than the tawnier gold of the ’69 and ’72.  It seemed to me, and Symington agreed, that this wine has some ‘Douro bake’ (i.e. some casks were aged in the Douro; hotter and drier than Vila Nova de Gaia’s Port lodges, Douro-aged casks are more susceptible to evaporation/concentration where summer temperatures average 36-38 degrees centigrade versus rarely 30 degrees in Vila Nova de Gaia).  The ’61 is plusher on the mid-palate, quite velvety, with satisfying thick cut marmalade citrus/citrus peel, malt/bourbon and a woody, dusty, walnut timbre to the finish with a touch of tobacco.  Not the clarity or energy of the other two but, like them, it is balanced if not as deft. For Symington, this balance is the key to a clean, food-friendly finish (as opposed to cloyingly sugar-coated one). 20%

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Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port

This latest release averages 23.4 years old and is a blend of 1987 (18%), 1995 (50%), 1982 (21%) and 2001 (11%) Ports, each of which were aged in 534l Port pipes prior to being blended and left to ‘marry’ in 10-15,000l vats for one year.  An expressive, fleshy 20 Year Old with dried apricot and caramelised orange fruit, smoky toasted almonds, a burnish of toasty oak, vanilla and café creme.  Slips down all too easily.  20%

Graham’s 30 Year Old Tawny Port

Of the four categories of Tawny Ports with an indication of age, the 30 Year Old tends to get a bad rap for falling between two stools – neither having the fleshiness of the 20 Year Old, nor quite the sophisticated patina of age of the 40 Year Old.  The Graham’s 30 Year Old is a redemptive strike, strikingly redemptive even, with the savoury walnut timbre of aged wines shuddering through its timbers but melt in the mouth salt caramel, nougat and maple syrup to flesh it out and extend its honeyed dried fig finish.  Very fine, long and lingering.  In a word, mellifluous. This release averages 34 years old and is a blend of the 1975 (34%), 1983 (41%), 1987 (25%).  I’d go for this over the 40 Year Old.  20%

Graham’s 40 Year Old Tawny Port

Only one or two casks in 100 makes it to this stage and over two thirds of the orginal wine evaporates – 14 to 15l are lost to every barrel every year.  Barrels are sacrificed to top up others.  Averaging 41.8 years old, the 40 Year Old blend is a blend of 1994 (8%), 1970 (47%), 1964 (18%) and 1979 (27%).  It has a subtle hint of volatile acidity on the nose, but it’s very well integrated on a nutty, long, honeyed palate with dried fig, marzipan and tobacco notes.  Again, very balanced.  Not quite the thrill of the best 40 Year Olds which have older wines in the mix, but very well made. 20%

Click here for previous reports on Tawny Ports.

Paul Symington’s 2015 Vintage Report

“An exceptional viticultural year is coming to a close in the Douro with farmers and winemakers pleased that a year’s work has resulted in some very good Ports and Douro wines.

The rainfall figures for the viticultural year show a reduction of 44% on the 21 year average with just 359 mm registered at Quinta do Bomfim, in the heart of the Alto Douro, for the 11 months to the end September 2015. This level of rainfall would cause serious concern in many wine areas, but does not in the Douro where the indigenous vines are superbly adapted to be able to mature fruit in dry conditions, albeit resulting in the very low yields which are so characteristic of the region.

The geography of the Douro and its schistous soils has an amazing ability to retain the winter rain and this is evidenced by the springs that continue to supply the Quintas and the villages scattered across the hillsides even after 8 or 10 weeks without any meaningful rainfall. Dry farming has recently become a fashionable topic in the world of wine but this subject causes wry amusement in the Douro where farmers have been ‘dry farming’ for centuries and irrigation only covers a tiny percentage of the vineyards.

The little rain that did fall this year in the Douro was nicely timed in May and June and was of ‘the right sort’, being steady and prolonged. This is important as short spells of very heavy rain will simply run off the Douro’s terraces, bringing little benefit and can cause serious erosion. Hence the fact that Douro wine makers never give full credence to the published rainfall figures, knowing that very heavy rain does not always reach the vines and often just ends up in the river.

The period between March and June this year was simultaneously the hottest and driest period for 36 years and flowering and veraison took place between 8 and 10 days earlier than normal, as expected given these conditions. However, July and August were cooler than average and this was of extraordinary benefit to the vines. If the normal heat of August had occurred, dehydration and raisining would certainly have followed, given the dry conditions, and the vines would have been forced to shed their lower leaves, reducing vital shade cover. The grape bunches were in really excellent condition by early September and have seldom looked so fantastic. The cool night-time temperatures had done wonders for the natural acidity in the berries.

The harvest started earlier than normal and the quality of the grapes was immediately apparent. Our sorting tables were seeing hugely reduced rejection levels to the delight of our farm managers and our winery teams. Heavy rain fell on Tuesday 15th September and on the morning of the 16th, but this was followed by a strong wind that very satisfactorily dried the grapes. After 10 weeks with no meaningful rain, the vines greedily absorbed the water and dilution in the berries inevitably followed. This was the critical moment of this year’s harvest and Charles immediately called a halt to picking in our best vineyards. This is never an easy decision given the unsettled weather that often comes towards the end of this month. Picking in our vineyards only resumed on 21st September and Charles said a few days later: ‘It is amazing how much difference 4 or 5 days can make’.  Without this rain the final phase of maturation of the Touriga Nacional and especially the Touriga Franca would not have been ideal, as dehydration would certainly have occurred after such a prolonged period with no rain. In the circumstances the steady rain of 15th and morning of 16th September (77mm at Quinta da Cavadinha, 52mm at Quinta do Bomfim, 63mm at Quinta dos Malvedos and 27mm at Quinta do Vesuvio) was absolutely perfect, provided picking was suspended for a few days. The Nacional and Franca picked during the week of the 21st and that of 28th September were of simply extraordinary quality, as were some of the old mixed plantings picked during this period. The rain softened the skins, allowing the colour and flavours to merge superbly into the wine.

Yields were somewhat below the already small average in the Douro, and Charles recorded 25% less Franca at Quinta do Bomfim this year with just 1.05Kg per vine, but with a perfect level of ripeness.

Only on Sunday 4th October (General Election day in Portugal) did the weather break and by then our very best grapes were safely in our wineries. Courage was needed to suspend picking in mid-September, but the days that followed the resumption of the vintage were beautifully sunny and calm: the risk was well worth taking and paid off handsomely. These 13 days, from 21st September to 4th October will come to be seen as the key to the great Ports and Douro wines made this year, we have no doubt.”

Paul Symington. Douro, Portugal, 7th October 2015


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