TODAY being Trafalgar Day, my focus is on the Iberian peninsula, albeit on an area 500 miles north of the scene of Nelson’s final – and most famous – adventure.
Since well before old Horatio’s day, UK families have dominated the port industry, but today only one such family business remains on active service on the Douro – Symington. Over time it has absorbed many familiar names, such as Warre, Dow’s and, the Scottish component, Graham’s and Cockburn’s. Where better, then, to spend a few days as the 2012 harvest began than in the company of Paul Symington, joint managing director and Decanter’s 2012 Man of the Year?
From the time Symington’s latest adopted son – Cockburn’s – introduced its Special Reserve, port shippers have tried to bridge the quality chasm between basic, inexpensive port and the splendour of the vintage stuff. If you need convincing about the magnificence of the latter, seek out 1980 Graham’s Vintage Port (£67, The Wine Society), which snugly wraps a surprising light texture around chocolate and ripe damson flavours and a freshness that belies its 20 years in bottle.
Two other aspects of port also deserve their day in the sun. With the recent revival of sherry, it is surely time for an upsurge in tawny port. While vintage port spends only a couple of years in oak and then – often – decades in bottle, a tawny spends all but a fraction of its life in wood. This mellows it, adds distinctly nutty flavours and extracts much of the colour. It is usually then blended to emerge in one of four main categories – wines matured in oak for an average of ten, 20, 30 or 40 years.
The results can be fantastic, as evidenced by the single-vintage (Colheita) 1952 Graham’s tawny that formed part of the Queen’s jubilee banquet this summer. Distinct differences develop over the years in wood but, for a good sense of the genre without completely breaking the bank, try Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port (£35.49, Waitrose), with its long, perfumed, figgy flavours and tasty citrus finish that works brilliantly chilled with salted nuts. Incidentally, it is noticeable how producers are now serving all ports a little cooler – and, to me, they’re the better for it.
Other ports deserving more attention are single-quinta versions. Most vintage port blends the pick of the crop from several vineyards. However, it is only about one year in three that the harvest is of such high quality that most shippers will declare it a vintage. In other years much of the good wine produced will be used to give backbone to one of the lesser categories.
Increasingly, though, in suitable ‘non vintage’ years, top-quality wine from a single estate is not being blended with lesser fare but is sold as single-quinta port. Although made in broadly the same way as vintage ports, these wines are simpler, ready sooner and more keenly priced. Good examples from Symington (all around £25) are the rich, spicy, award-winning 1999 Graham’s Quinta Dos Malvedos Vintage Port (Sainsbury’s), 1999 Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim (Tesco) – with well-integrated blaeberry touches – and the slightly minty, cherry-centred 1996 Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha (Morrisons).
Among other port producers, the widely available 2007 Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage Port offers a great value LBV that has dense, dark plum favours with a touch of nutmeg and is ready to drink. Quirkier is Croft’s Pink Port (£10.88, Sainsbury’s), a light, rosé style that is a gentle, spicy aperitif with flavours of dried fruit and herbs.