Posted on 05.06.19 #81

A stormin’ Port: tasting the historic 2017 Vintage

Vintage Port declarations are like buses. You wait ages, and then two come along back to back.

The first consecutive ‘general declaration’ since the late nineteenth century, following a relative famine since the acclaimed 2011 release, also meant a welcome return for the joint press conference, featuring the rival Port barons, an upmarket ‘one-stop shop’ for buyers and journalists alike.

Just as the respective houses reflect an ethereal diversity of distinctive styles, so too do their representatives on earth, which adds a fascinating, fortifying flourish to the launch event.

Sitting alongside each other, Adrian Bridge, Chief Executive of Fladgate Partnership, Christian Seely, Managing Director of Quinta do Noval and the new face at the table, Charles Symington, Head Winemaker for the family firm, who, for the press launch at least, was filling the big shoes left by his recently retired cousin, Paul.

… someone should bottle the Symington gene …

Never mind Dynasty, or The Colbys, ‘The Symingtons’ would make a great soap opera. As the leading landowners in the Douro, with a history spanning five generations, the family’s brands encompass Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, Cockburn’s and Quinta do Vesuvio. At lunch, in a room of around thirty people, I counted nine with the name Symington. And I may have missed one. There are heirs, there are spares, and they are all impeccably polite. Never mind the Port, someone should bottle the Symington gene.

Oozing experience and charm, immaculate in his trademark bow tie, Christian Sealy is the personification of a Vintage Port himself. As head of the historic Quinta do Noval, which he runs alongside the other jewels in AXA Millésimes’s crown – Chateau Pichon Baron, Suduiraut and Hungary’s Disznókõ – he also oversees his personal project, Quinta da Romaneira.

Then there’s Adrian Bridge, a former military officer, confident and crisp, with the reassuring air of a man who would find a Port in a storm. Having expanded the Taylor Fonseca group to include Croft, more recently his Fladgate Partnership has also embraced upmarket tourism, with properties including Oporto’s luxurious Yeatman.

Declaring the new vintage, all three spoke as one, insisting that, despite the rare nature of a back to back general declaration, the similarities end there, with the 16 and 17 “very different years, with entirely different expressions”.

The new Vintage was defined by dry conditions throughout the growing and ripening season and an early harvest. After an early bud burst, a searing heatwave in June caused some bunches to burn. Heavy rain in early July cooled things down a bit, with lower-than-average temperatures in August. The early harvest wrecked summer holiday plans, with the 17 finishing around the same point that the 16 began. Old vines performed particularly well in the warm conditions, thanks to their more mature root structure.

Bridge spoke of “richness and ripeness” supporting the purity of fruit in his new releases, suggesting “spirit is like a canvas in art. Just as a picture is not about the canvas, a Vintage Port is not about the spirit”.

Announcing that “intensity, structure and concentration are the hallmarks of the 17 vintage”, Symington predicted it would be “much sought after”, in part due to the smaller volumes produced.

“Incontestably a great year – again”, was Sealy’s verdict, “with all the circumstances combining for us to be absolutely certain that it ranks alongside our historic declarations”.

… value over volume …

The UK remains the biggest market for Vintage Port, followed by the United States, Portugal and – perhaps surprisingly – Denmark, which has seen a remarkable recent growth spurt. The modern Port business eyes value over volume, with special category releases accounting for around twenty per cent of sales and more than forty percent of income. 

As for the future, could last year’s warm summer bring an historic ‘treble’ for the Douro with yet another back-to-back declaration next year? It’s too early to say, of course, but perhaps Charles Symington was hinting with his response: “2018 is a very good year”. And then, I’ll swear that he winked.

A longer version of this piece originally appeared in The Buyer.

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