Tried & tasted: Symington Family Estates’ 2011 Vintage Ports, including the maiden Graham’s Stone Terraces

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Having tasted the Sandeman 2011 Vintage Port (reviewed here) last Monday, I then trotted off to a comprehensive tasting of no less than 13 2011 Symington Family Estates Vintage Ports, 5 of which were blend components of Graham’s 2011 – an insightful exercise.

Below you’ll find my notes on the wines (which I re-tasted at the Big Fortified Tasting last Wednesday), plus the Smith Woodhouse which I subsequently tasted at The Big Fortified Tasting.  First, here’s the text of the Symington’s press release about the vintage (comments in red are observations made by Paul & Johnny Symington during the tasting):

“The 2011 Vintage Ports are of an exceptional quality and are expected to age superbly over the coming decades. The weather is the decisive factor in creating outstanding wines in the Douro and the strong winter rains in late 2010 were crucial. April and May 2011 were unusually warm and, combined with some rainfall, resulted in a reduction in the overall production of the region.

The warm spring encouraged early budburst, flowering and veraison. Similar conditions occurred across most of Europe, leading to predictions of a harvest several weeks before normal. It was clear in the Douro, however, that although the sugars were rising in the berries, the tannins were unripe as there was insufficient humidity in the soil to allow the grapes to fully mature. Only 25 mm of rain fell in May, June and July 2011 (though June through to August was cooler than usual) compared to the average of 97 mm, so by mid-August the vines were showing signs of stress. On August 21st rain swept in from the west and over the Serra do Marão, and again on the 1st and 2nd September (rainfall between January and the end of August totalled 250mm versus an average of 400mm). This beautifully timed rain (like ‘the papal blessing’ said Paul) was perfect for those producers who had the courage to avoid the early rush (when Chief Winemaker Charles Symington warmed baumes were high but tannins were still green), and was followed by a succession of fine sunny weeks well into October (with cool nights, allowing the tannins to get back in synch in terms of ripening). The scene was set for the making of superb Ports.  (The yields were very low on account of the drought, mildew and oidium in April and May).

(For the first time since 1963) All of the Symington family’s 2011 Vintage Ports were made in lagares (open treading tanks – apart from Vesuvio, robotic though Paul commented he thinks it’s now irrelevant whether wines are trodden robotically or by human foot – the Symingtons no longer monitor this) and all the grapes came from the family’s own vineyards. Selection has been rigorous and only the finest barrels have been chosen, so the quantity bottled represents a very small proportion of the production of the family vineyards. For example the Graham’s 2011 Vintage Port represents 8,000 cases (9%) out of the potential 88,850 cases produced at the five Graham’s vineyards.

The Symington family’s substantial investment in the 1980’s is now bearing fruit with vineyards of Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca (according to Paul Touriga Franca outperforms Touriga Nacional in some years [which are typically great years for DOC wines] but, if the weather breaks, it’s punished), amongst others, now well over 25 years old. These vines are producing superb quality grapes and are invaluable, together with the vineyards of very old mixed vines that were planted by the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of the current generation. The additional investment in several small specialist wineries, all equipped with lagares, has allowed the family to make Vintage Ports of quite outstanding quality. (Analytically, they have more tannins than in the past but are not likely to strip the enamel off your teeth like in the past, said Paul).

The 2011 Vintage Ports have an exceptional depth of colour and concentration, rarely seen in the Douro and with marked minerality from the schistous Douro soil. The palate has superb balance, with a powerful and rich bitter-chocolate taste, in hand with wild berry fruit, supported by well-structured and schist-edged tannins that will give these wines the traditional longevity for which the great Vintage Ports are so famous.

For details of all the Symington 2011 Vintage Ports and a full 2011 Harvest Report, please visit The Vintage Port Site.

Graham’s Vintage Port 2011 blend components

Quinta das Lages (20% of the final blend)

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This north-facing Rio Torto vineyard (the only one not fornting onto the Douro) is on a long lease from a Lisbon-based doctor and has contributed to Graham’s since the early 20th century.  The hot Rio Torto produces very  very low yields and, says Paul Symington, it is chosen for the softness of its tannins and sure enough, they’re rich and velvety.  The palate shows eucalypt-edged cassis with hints of bitter chocolate, sweet cinnamon, leather and raisins – a dark, brooding flavour spectrum.

Quinta da Vila Velha (18% of the final blend)

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Predominantly west-facing, this vineyard doesn’t see much sun until noon but basks in sunlight for the rest of the day.  It is owned by James Symington.  Very perfumed, with white blossom and rock rose, plum, red berry, cherry and kirsch fruit which is silkily supported by sweet tannins – lots of sucrosity, though it finishes clean; elegant.

Quinta dos Malvedos (35% of the final blend)

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The backbone of Graham’s vintage Port since 1890 and makes a terrific single quinta vintage Port too (click here for a review of older vintages including the terrific 1950) Facing predominantly south, Malvedos produces powerful wines and, in 2011, this is just glorious with a eucalypt-edged blast of sweet, ripe raspberry and black cherry on the nose which follows through in the mouth together with lingering liquorice notes.  The tannins provide a powerful underpinning for the opulent but fabulously juicy fruit., so the whole has terrific balance.

Quinta do Tua (16% of the final blend)

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West-facing and located on the eastern side of the Tua river, Johnny Symington describes this as the “more austere” of the five and, perhaps because it’s tighter, more brooding, its robust backbone of tannin and the spirit are more evident at this early stage.

Quinta do Vale de Malhadas (19% of the final blend)

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This north-facing estate, owned by Paul, Dominic and Rupert Symington is the only one based in the Douro Superior (as opposed to Cima Corgo) and is just upriver from Vesuvio.  Yields are incredibly low ar 600g/vine – joked Paul “the well we thown money at but nothing ever comes out.”  The raw intensity of the nose foreshadows the sinewy schistous tannins of this very concentrated dark chocolatey wine.

Final blends

Graham’s Vintage Port 2011

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A blend of 40% Touriga, 31% Touriga Nacional, 23% very old mixed vines and 5% Sousão.  Though the nose is very tight, there’s an attractive whiff of violets and black pepper.  In the mouth, the whole is most definitely better than the sum of its parts.  It is already very complete, with flamboyant yet lithe sweet red cherry and berry and crushed blackberry fruit, chocolate, liquorice, flowers and hard pan minerals (an underlying tensile quality).  Powerful, velvety tannins and beautifully integrated spirit and acidity support and extend the palate, lending this wine terrific palate presence and length.  A glorious wine of which there are 8,000 cases. 20% abv

Graham’s The Stone Terraces Vintage Port 2011

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This new, limited edition (250 cases) Port is sourced from two consistently high performing small stone terraced parcels at Quinta dos Malvedos which differ in aspect (Malvedos is predominantly south-facing) and, in consequence, receive less direct sunlight.  Parcel 43/Port Arthur (1.2ha) is east-facing so benefits from direct morning sun only (though its schist walls retain the morning heat and radiate it back onto the vines), while Vinha dos Cardenhos (0.6ha) is north-facing.  Though having been replanted over the years, Touriga Nacional predominates, the vineyards which were originally planted in the nineteenth century have a mix of traditional varieties.  In 2011 the parcels were picked together then co-fermented in a single lagar.  It’s a perfumed, spicy, swoonful delight on nose and palate – sweet and opulent with its glacé red cherry, kirsch and black cherry fruit on the one hand and with great juicy vinosity – an elegance –  on the other.  Notes of saddle soap, dried herbs, liquorice and sweet cinnamon leaven, layer and lengthen the palate – a real backbone of spice – like a super-charged Collioure!  But with its fine tannins, an elegant Port.  20% abv  The retail price is likely to be around £100-115/bottle.

Warre’s Vintage Port 2011

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The final blend by Quinta is 53% Cavadinha (an elevated, cooler site vineyard in the Pinhão Valley), 28% Retiro Antigo (Rio Torto Valley) and 19% Telhada (Douro Superior) and, by variety, 40% very old mixed vines, 37% Touriga Nacional and 23% Touriga Franca.   An extremely supple, balanced Port with lovely depth of juicy sweet cinnamon-accented black cherry, floral lift and a charge of fine schistous/graphite tannins, which tease out a long, elegant, tapered finish – very clean and precise – seemingly drier than the Graham’s.  3000 cases.

Cockburn’s Vintage Port 2011

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A blend of Touriga Nacional (55%), Touriga Franca (30%), very old mixed vines (10%) and Sousão  (5%) primarily from long-standing sources Quinta dos Canais and Quinta do Vale Coelho, with a small amount from Quinta do Cachão de Arnozelo, which is privately owned by a member of the Symington family.  The aim was to apply the lessons learned from the recent Cockburn’s DNA tasting, with Quinta do Vale Coelho “really a part of that alchemy that made the great Cockburns.” It produced tiny yields of just 300g per vine from its very old mixed vines and, according to Johnny Symington, “we think the strawberries, pineapple and mango come from Coelho.” Initially a little closed but, once you penetrate the dark chocolate, gingerbread and mocha notes, it gathers velocity and finesse, revealing fragrance and fruit – violets, toothsome sweet red cherry and berry and contrapuntal rhubarb and orange.  The tannins, very fine and persistent, have great sucrosity.  Lingering. 3000 cases.

Dow’s Vintage Port 2011

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A blend of Touriga Franca (40%), Touriga Nacional (36%), Sousão (10%) and 14% of old mixed plantings sourced from Quinta do Bomfim (35%), Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira (42%), Quinta do Santinho (14%) and Quinta da Cerdeira (9%).  Very inky in hue, this is very tight indeed, with classic Dow dryness/austerity – firm tannins and a yet to be mined concentrated seam of minerals, black currant, berry and cherry.  At this very early stage of its life, it means you are more conscious of the spirit, but this positively unshowy Port plainly has a long life ahead given its deep reserves of fruit and imposing structure.  Impressively hewn.  20% abv.  5000 cases

Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port 2011

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A blend of Touriga Nacional (40%), Touriga Franca (45%) Tinta Barroca (10%) and Tinta Amarela (5%) sourced from the predominantly west-facing Vale da Teja vineyard (30 years is the average age of these plantings).    Now this is showy.  Exuberantly fruited with flamboyantly perfumed and peppery blueberry, kirsch and black cherry fruit well girdled by powerful but ripe, velvety tannins.    1,250 cases

Capela da Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port 2011

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This Port (only the second Capela to be made) from a unique, relatively level low-lying parcel near the river, the Vinha da Escola is principally made from Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Sousão with, for the first time ever (in the Symington Vintage Port range), a small parcel of Alicante Bouschet. According to the Symingtons “[T]hrough ongoing evaluation over the last few years, the Alicante Bouschet has shown itself to be a very impressive variety, contributing structure and colour, due to its intensely coloured berries.”  The Touriga Nacional and the Alicante Bouschet were picked and fermented together on one lagar, as were the Sousão and Touriga Franca in early October.  The Dow’s may be impressively hewn but it’s elegant, whereas this very well-structured wine is much denser – massive in fact – more savoury too with dark chocolate, a hint of greenness, gingerbread spice and notes of guava and “berber whiskey” (sugar-laced Moroccan mint tea).  At this stage of the game velcro-like tannins well outpace the fruit.  I wasn’t as taken with this Port as others. One to review.  200 cases

Smith Woodhouse Vintage Port 2011

Sourced from Smith Woodhouse’s Quinta da Madalena vineyard which is mostly comprised of Vinha Velha (old mixed vineyards), though apparently this wine includes a significant amount of Madalena’s Touriga Franca – varietally a strong performer in this vintage.  An elegant, spicy Port with lifted coriander seed and darker gingerbread notes to its ripe, fleshy plum.  Seamless tannins show plenty of sucrosity.  Very well composed.  1,000 cases

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