Graham’s Stone Terraces – Malvedos – photo credit Graham’s

Vintage Port 2017:  Symington Family Estate releases

Graham’s The Stone Terraces Vintage Port 2017 – one of my ports of the vintage

As 2016 Vintage Ports were launched in May last year (my report here), speculation was already rife about 2017 Vintage Port.  Well might 2016s look over their shoulder.  The quality of 2017 Vintage Ports was so compelling that the Symington family made their first ever ‘back-to-back’ general Vintage Port declaration since Andrew James Symington arrived in Porto in 1882.    A telling sign of being sticklers for tradition (the tradition of not declaring back-to-back vintages) if ever there was one but, as Head Winemaker Charles Symington told me at the London launch, such was the “exceptional” quality of the vintage, it was a case of “we cannot not declare.”

This is the first of my 2017 Vintage Port reports.  I have focused on the Symington family’s ports partly because this superlative range include one of my ports of the vintage, but also because the Syymington’s extensive vintage reports provide a great introduction to the year.

I tasted the Symington’s range three times over May and June, at two producer tastings and a tasting organised by the Port Forum with the support of Vintage Wine & Port in Hampshire, who keenly champion smaller houses in addition to the big players.  You’ll find my composite tasting note on final lot cask samples below, preceded by the Symington’s individual vintage reports from for each wine.  These individual reports come from the Symington’s Vintage Port website, which is an excellent resource.  You will also find links to stockists and reports on earlier vintages.

Incidentally, in case you are wondering about the hiatus since the 2017 Vintage Ports were launched in May (and my lack of posts in July and August), I had surgery and was off work recuperating until last week.  I am sure you will agree, writing up my Vintage Port 2017 notes is a fine way to get back in the saddle!

Vintage Port 2017 – vintage conditions

Click here for then Chairman Paul Symington’s contemporaneous, comprehensive overview of the Douro 2017 vintage.  Keeping his powder dry at this early stage, Symington’s concluding comments did not give much away, simply describing Ports as “promising with purple-black colours and intense flavours.” After all, one needs to see how they develop in cask.

On the decision to declare 2017 Vintage Port, the Symington’s press release quoted Johnny Symington (who succeeded Paul as Chairman this year) and Charles Symington (Head Winemaker) as follows:

“Few wine regions in the world restrict vintage years with such integrity as we do in the Douro. The decision to declare Vintage Ports from two consecutive years was not one taken lightly. However, these two exceptionally strong harvests have produced wines of such immense quality that we felt justified in making this historic decision.” Johnny Symington

“In my 25 years as a winemaker in our family vineyards, I have never seen a year like 2017. The yields were extremely low, but the concentration and structure took my breath away. We have made some really remarkable wines.” Charles Symington

And here is the Symington family’s assessment of how the 2017 vintage panned out for Vintage Port:

“The 2017 wines were the result of an advanced growing cycle which led to the earliest harvest ever recorded in the Symington family’s 137-year history as winemakers and port producers. Warmer, drier conditions than usual resulted in small, compact bunches of grapes in excellent condition, with yields amongst the lowest of the century so far, 20% below the 10-year average. Despite the harvest beginning in August, the maturations were perfectly balanced, resulting in wines characterised by extraordinary intensity, concentration and structure, combined with stunning aromas and freshness.

 The Symingtons have produced 2017 Vintage Ports from across their flagship Douro estates, and will shortly be offering limited quantities (by allocation en primeur) of Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and Cockburn’s as well as Quinta do Vesuvio, Graham’s ‘The Stone Terraces’ and Capela da Quinta do Vesuvio. The 2017 is just the fourth release of the latter two, which are only produced in truly exceptional years. Given the very low-yielding year, the 2017 Vintage Port is the smallest Symington declaration of the 21st century, with en primeur volumes approximately a third less than in 2016.

The distinctive conditions experienced throughout 2017 bear striking resemblance to the rainfall and temperature patterns of 1945, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest Vintage Ports ever produced. Both years had advanced growing cycles with low rainfalls balanced by less extreme summer heat, resulting in early harvests with extremely low yields of grapes in excellent condition.”

When I met with Johnny and Charles at the London launch of their 2017 Vintage Ports, I was interested to know how balance was attained in this, the earliest vintage on record.  Why?  Because harvesting early can mean flavours and tannins do not have enough time to develop.  However, as Charles explained, the entire growing cycle (not just the ripening period) started early, so “it was not a short cycle, but a complete cycle.” When the warm winter induced earlier bud burst and flowering, he told me, “we knew we were onto an unusual year.”  

Other factors were at work too.  Although June was exceptionally hot, a massive rainstorm on 5 July was key (over 30mm of rain fell). “It really took the edge off the summer, so it never built up to extreme temperatures again, which helped with freshness and maturation,” said Charles.  Indeed, temperatures were “much cooler/below normal all summer.”

Using Sousão (renowned for its acidity, colour and structure) was another important factor for the winemaker, “allowing us to balance the blends.”  Symington reckons that, in 2017, he used perhaps 10% more than in 2016.

Small berries and bunches also played a hand in the complete cycle (giving the vine less work to do vis-à-vis the growing and ripening cycle).  Charles reported that they harvested under 860g/vine across all properties (20% less than in the previous year) and just 650g/vine at Malvedos.  The 2017 Vintage Port declaration is, he said, “one of smallest in a very long time, so the product will be quite rare.”

Symington 2017 Vintage Ports – the tasting

Graham’s Vintage Port 2017

Vintage report: Amidst growing concerns over climate change worldwide, the Douro has seen its fair share of unusual weather patterns in recent years. 2017 in particular was an exceptionally hot and dry year, with 42% less rain falling at Quinta dos Malvedos than the recorded thirty year average. Fortunately, the very hardy and drought resistant Douro varieties were well prepared to face this challenge and responded to the lack of water by devoting their efforts on producing a small but high quality crop with extraordinary concentration.

What was also remarkable in 2017 was the timing of the vintage, which started at Malvedos on 28th August, with the vines between two and three weeks ahead of normal in terms of their vegetative cycle. With such a small crop, only 166 pipes of grapes compared to 252 the year before at Malvedos (one third less), the vintage was over by September 15th. Charles Symington noted at the time that we finished up on the same date that we would have been starting in a more typical year.

Also of note in 2017 was the early ripening of the Touriga Franca, typically the last variety to be picked, which came into the winery almost a full three weeks ahead of normal, with a staggeringly low average yield of 650 grams per vine. Similar conditions were recorded at Vale de Malhadas in the Douro Superior and at Vila Velha and Tua in the Cima Corgo each of which supplied wines for the 2017 Graham’s Vintage Port. The quality of the Touriga Franca was so good that Charles increased its proportion in the final 2017 blend, relative to the two preceding Graham Vintages. The performance of the Touriga Franca is one of the surest barometers of a Vintage Port year.

Alcohol by volume: 20% v/v (20ºC)

Total acidity: 4.40 (g/l)

Baumé: 3.90

Bottled: May 2019

Cases produced: 5,250

My tasting note: luscious, with great intensity and concentration of milk and bitter chocolate-edged sweet plum, crushed (very pure) raspberry and cherry fruit.  There’s detail too – orange blossom Earl Grey and violet notes lend fragrance.  A firm (but ripe) underpinning of spicy (liquorice, cedar) tannin brings line, length and, doubtless, impressive longevity.  Going back, some esteva and dried sage.  Excellent. 30 years plus plus!

Graham’s The Stone Terraces Vintage Port 2017

Vintage report: the 2017 is only the fourth ever bottling of The Stone Terraces. The wine reflects the characteristics that have made this such an excellent year. We had an unusually precocious harvest. Picking began at Malvedos on 28th August and the last grapes came in on 15th September, a date on which we would more normally be starting. The hot and dry conditions for the year reduced yields overall in the Douro, although the Touriga Nacional which features so prominently in the Stone Terraces recorded yields of 750 grams per vine, which was only slightly less than normal.

The vinification of such small batches provides a challenge in itself and would scarcely be possible without the flexibility that is provided by Graham’s modern lagares at the Malvedos winery, which can be filled to a relatively low level and operated at not much more than 25% of their full capacity when required. This is essential when vinifying what typically amounts to not much more than a few boxes of grapes from each of the Stone Terraces vineyard parcels, with quantities further reduced by rigorous bunch and berry selection and, in 2017, a very low yielding year. Treading in lagares allows us to maximise extraction from such unusually concentrated grapes. The contributing Stone Terraces vineyard parcels at Malvedos were parcel 37, known as ‘Cardenhos’, and parcel 43, called ‘Port Arthur’, each of them with little more than 1,300 vines.

Alcohol by volume: 20% v/v (20ºC)

Total acidity: 4.22 (g/l)

Baumé: 4.00

Bottled: May 2019

Cases produced: 600 (9L)

My tasting note: transporting.  In fact, it put me in mind of the opening lines of Annie’s Song, by John Denver – “you fill up my senses, like a night in the forest.”  But here, it’s Tourigas Franca and Nacional and the Douro which steal your heart.  It is quite the essence of everything that is good and great about these varieties and the Douro, with terrific animation – aromatics and gently push me, pull me juiciness (lovely tension, persistence) – to its concentrated but lithe milk chocolate-edged crushed, sweet raspberry, blackberry, cherry and plum fruit (very Graham’s), which animation lends a surprising sense of delicacy.  Together with a shower of ultra-fine, rising tannins (with a hint of coffee bean) and incredible freshness, it makes for a super sensual port (think velvet, or cashmere) with a tremendous arc of flavour. I think the word lingering was invented for this wine.  One of my two top ports from this exceptional vintage.

Dow’s Vintage Port 2017

Vintage report: 2017 was a very different year to 2016 in terms of the viticultural conditions and it was interesting to watch the progression of the wine and scrutinize its quality as it developed over its first two winters. Whereas 2016 had a Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira very mild winter and exceptionally hot summer, this was compensated by abundant winter and spring rainfall. Conversely, 2017 was warm and dry throughout, although summer temperatures were closer to average, which proved to be a very significant factor allowing for complete, balanced ripening.

In 2017, the mature plantings of Touriga Nacional from the east-facing Vinha Grande parcels at Senhora da Ribeira made an important contribution. These older vines’ well developed root systems and the cooler aspect of the vineyards proved their worth in the particularly hot and dry conditions.

Dow’s grapes are fermented in the small, specialist wineries of Bomfim and Senhora da Ribeira. Our winemaking teams select various single variety plantings to vinify separately as well as some specific cofermentations, which in 2017 included combined fermentations of Sousão and Touriga Franca. They are trodden in our modern lagares and achieve ideal extractions, producing wines of great complexity.

Alcohol by volume: 20% v/v (20ºC)

Total acidity: 4.24 (g/l)

Baumé: 3.40

Bottled: May 2019

Cases produced: 5,250 (9L)

My tasting note: A markedly deep colour, with suitably inky aromatics to nose and palate (chocolate violet creams) and a hint of fiery ginger/spirit.  In the mouth, it reveals Dow’s signature dryness on a dark, brooding, concentrated palate with tightly coiled blackcurrant, black and blue berry fruit, bitter chocolate and just a hint of mint and cedar, the whole steeped in (tightly) spiralling, dynamic, ripe powdery tannins (which, on third tasting, I described as almost mellifluous).  The fruit tasted significantly sweeter and showier on the second and third tastings (different days and locations), confirming there’s a bounteousness yet to be mined. Builds to a long throw, spearing, precise finish, with savoury, spicy liquorice and esteva notes and firm, very persistent acidity.  All the building blocks in place to go the full distance.  Very impressive.

Warre’s Vintage Port 2017

Vintage report: Warre’s Cavadinha and Retiro vineyards have old mixed-variety vines (one-fifth and one-third of the respective vineyards) which really came into their own in what was one of the hottest and driest years on record. We only had half the rainfall that we would expect in an average year; at Cavadinha just 332 mm fell compared to the 30-year annual average of 681 mm, and most of that was concentrated in the winter.

The warm and dry spring conditions precipitated a precocious growing and ripening season, with budbreak, flowering and veraison all happening two to three weeks earlier than usual. The Douro’s hardy grape varieties showed characteristic resilience, adapting early to the dry conditions by reducing their water intake to conserve what little soil water reserves there were for later — when they would be most needed. It is quite remarkable that in July, soil moisture levels — although low — were not as depleted as expected and this, combined with summer temperatures that were close to the seasonal average, was critical in sustaining the vines through the final ripening stages in August.

The decision to pick when we did was vindicated by the exceptional quality of the Touriga Nacional that came into the Cavadinha winery from the higher lying Quintas do Alvito and Netas (neighbouring Cavadinha) during the first week of September; two to three weeks earlier than usual. Temperatures gradually became more moderate from September 10th, allowing us to wait for the Touriga Franca to ripen to perfection, conserving the excellent levels of acidity that has brought such exquisite freshness to Warre’s 2017. Yields were unbelievably low, the old field blend at Retiro produced just 470 g/vine and the Cavadinha field blend 860 g/vine. At Telhada, Warre’s vineyard in the remote Douro Superior, the average yield was also well down with just 590 g/vine. These tiny yields were mirrored in the incredible concentration and intensity of the fermenting wine in our lagares.

The Warre’s 2017 Vintage Port is made up of the finest parcels from Warre’s three Douro vineyards, Cavadinha, Retiro and Telhada, and the privately (family) owned Alvito & Netas properties. The field blends from Cavadinha and Retiro provide the principal structure with a combined contribution of 63%.

Alcohol by volume: 20% v/v (20ºC)

Total acidity: 4.50 (g/l)

Baumé: 3.70

Bottled: May 2019

Cases produced: 3,600

My tasting note: stylistically, Warres always sits between Graham’s and Dow’s for me, with lovely fruit (if not as lush and sweet as Graham’s) and a savouriness (but it’s not as dry as Dow’s).  My notes often feature roast beef and malt to nose and palate; 2017 is no exception.  There’s also sage, liquorice and milk chocolate – Blackforest gateau, even, with slightly kirschy black cherry fruit.  Juicy blackberry and ripe, savoury, wet cement tannins go with the flow.  Lovely balance, modulation and persistence, with length and layer.  Complete and very Warre’s.

Cockburn’s Vintage Port 2017

Vintage report: 2017 will be remembered as one of the hottest and driest years in the Douro. At Quinta dos Canais we had half the rainfall of an average year (just 246 mm) and temperatures broke several records during the spring. The summer was bone dry, just 6.2 mm recorded in June (monthly average: 24.3 mm), and not a single drop fell during July, August or September. It is quite extraordinary just how well-adapted our indigenous grape varieties are to the Douro’s challenging conditions. Fortunately, summer temperatures provided some respite – they were slightly below the 30-year average. This was critically important; if the lack of rain had been combined with extreme temperatures, the outcome could have been very different.

In 2016, the start of the vintage was deferred several times and the finest grapes were only picked from the third week of September and into the first half of October. By contrast, in 2017, the prized Touriga Nacional parcels at Canais were picked during the first week of September, the harvest having started on August 28th — unprecedented at Canais and Vale Coelho.

It is often the case in the Douro that years that test the vines to the limit are those that deliver the most memorable wines: 2017 is one of those years. The low yields resulted in very concentrated and well-structured wines of incredible intensity. The well-ripened fruit shines through, giving the wines stunning freshness and vitality. The 2017 Cockburn has the usual important Touriga Nacional component, but the proportion of Touriga Franca, given its excellent performance, was increased relative to the previous Cockburn’s Vintage.

Alcohol by volume: 20% v/v (20ºC)

Total acidity: 4.57 (g/l)

Baumé: 3.50

Bottled: May 2019

Cases produced: 2,500 (9L)

My tasting note: I’ve become a big Cockburn’s fan in recent years – click on this report of a bicentenary vertical back to 1863 and you’ll have an insight into what lies behind its renaissance.  It seems odd to think of Burgundy when tasting Vintage Port.  Older vintages ports which delicately retain their silky red fruits sometimes put me in mind of it.  This young Cockburn’s Vintage Port is hardly delicate, but it has so much fragrance and detail that Burgundy sprang to mind.  Spicy (yum, anise) German gingerbread biscuits with a lick of chocolate, rock rose, pot pourri on steroids, resinous esteva – it’s all there on nose and palate, with sweet, ripe raspberry, framboise, blueberry, blackberry, kirsch and lychee in an exotic, compelling swirl of flavours and aromas.  Ripe, yielding tannins let the fruit et al hold sway on the attack and through the mid-palate.  Then a fretwork of fine, filigree, mouthcoating tannins builds to a rat-a-tat peppery, mineral, tapered finish, with lovely energy.  Brought a huge grin to my face.  Delightful.

Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port 2017

Vintage report: Although 2017 was one of the driest and hottest years ever recorded in the Douro Valley, being on the south bank of the Douro River, Vesuvio’s vineyards were well placed as they face predominantly north and northwest with altitudes reaching up to 500 metres above sea level. These cooler aspects served them well in the challenging conditions of 2017.

Despite the heat, which was a constant throughout 2017 in the Douro, Quinta do Vesuvio fared better than most with less pronounced temperature deviations from the norm, especially during the spring. This factor went some way towards mitigating the lack of water. This pattern continued through the summer where temperatures, although high, were fortunately a little below the seasonal average — more so than in many other areas of the Douro.

We began to handpick the grapes at Quinta do Vesuvio on August 28th, the earliest starting vintage ever recorded there. This was not unexpected given the advanced growing and ripening cycle. There were very good signs that the time was right to pick, with good graduations and good phenolic ripeness providing very positive indicators. The excellent quality of the Touriga Nacional, Sousão and Alicante Bouschet entering the Vesuvio winery became evident in the first fermentations in the lagares where the deep colour of the musts and the very fine aromas showed great promise.

Alcohol by volume: 20% v/v (20ºC)

Total acidity: 4.37 (g/l)

Baumé: 3.9

Bottled: May 2019

Cases produced: 1,200

My tasting note: Inky, with bountiful, glossy blackcurrant, blueberry and crème de cassis, with savoury black olive, a lick of chocolate and liquorice spice. With persistent acidity and ripe, smooth tannins to tease out the flavours, it has plenty of carry and avoids being de trop.  Very polished.  Tasted on three occasions, I didn’t pick up the minerality I usually detect with this vintage. Terrific fruit power.

Quinta do Vesuvio Capela do Vesuvio Vintage Port 2017

Vintage report: In the space of 10 years, from 2007 to 2017, just four Capela da Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Ports have been made, all of them coinciding with classic Vintage Port declarations, which producers only commit to in outstanding years. As with the preceding Capela Vintage Ports, the 2017 is based on the namesake Vinha da Capela, the Escola (‘school’) parcels – laid out along the sheltered base of the estate’s main central valley, and the Vale da Teja vineyards separated from the Escola by a prominent ridge.

The favourable location of the Escola vineyard came into its own in 2017, one of the hottest and driest years ever recorded in the Douro. Low-lying along Vesuvio’s central valley floor, the constituent parcels are ideally protected from excessive heat and, significantly, act as a collection point for rainwater with soils that have more moisture than the more exposed areas of the property.

The mature Vale da Teja Touriga Franca plantings (more than 45 years old) have deep roots whose ability to access water far down in the subsoil make them ideally suited to overcome the trials of especially dry years such as 2017. Like all Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port, the Capela is trodden in the quinta’s lagares, more specifically in two smaller lagaretes, created by the partitioning of one of the existing large granite lagares. This makes for ideal extractions that provide the complexity and structure which are stylistic keynotes of Capela Vintages Ports.

For the Capela Vintages, our head winemaker, Charles Symington, favours co-fermentations — fermenting different grape varieties together in the same lagar. In 2017, he combined the early ripening Alicante Bouschet (from one of the Escola parcels) with the grapes from the old, field blended Vinha da Capela, which being low-lying also ripen early. This lagar was fermented at a slightly warmer temperature to maximise structure and concentration. The Touriga Nacional was joined with the Touriga Franca and the Sousão, as their ripening unusually overlapped, and this lagar was cool-fermented to favour aromatic expression. Both lagares fermented longer, another feature of Capela Vintages, which gives the wines a drier profile. Furthermore, the later run-off allows more extended skin contact, accentuating complexity and structure.

Alcohol by volume: 20% v/v (20ºC)

Total acidity: 4.51 (g/l)

Baumé: 3.40

Bottled: May 2019

Cases Produced: 472 (9L)

My tasting note: as one might expect, this is a very singular port, thanks to its very specific terroir and varietal make up.  The Alicante Bouschet and Sousão components contribute to the deep hue of this inky port.  The Alicante plays into its leafy edge, a certain breadth and swagger to the palate and sturdy, big-boned structure.  With its high acidity, the Sousão is a sappy, animated foil.  It reveals a dense core of blackberry fruit, with sweet, ripe strawberry notes and smudgy, savoury graphite tannins.  Whilst the first sample I tasted was very focused on the weighty fruit and savoury characters, on the second tasting, I picked up some fragrant orange blossom and spicier notes of crystallised ginger and liquorice.  On both occasions, I found the finish relatively savoury and dry (in terms of flavour profile).  A strapping port, with fruit girth, tannin breadth and savoury depths of flavour.

Other Vintage Port 2017 posts

Click here for my report on Quinta do Noval’s 2017 Vintage Ports.

Click here for my report on The Fladgate Partnership’s 2017 Vintage Ports.

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  1. Paul Metman

    Hi Sarah, great to have you back!! Hope everything is OK with you and will be even better in the future. No better “return” than this wonderful 2017 Vintage Report in your inimitable style! Hope it will be followed by many others, 2017 VP and still wines of our (or at least mine…) favourite winecountry!

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