Thursday 20 September 2018

Cockburn's Port

Producer: Cockburn's

In these days of Brexit and the weakening pound, it is difficult to imagine that at its peak the British Empire controlled nearly a quarter of the world’s population and land area. Whether imperialism has been good or bad for the world is open to debate, but I am grateful for at least one lasting legacy – port wine. Thanks to the alliance between Portugal and England, British merchants have had a substantial presence in the town of Porto since the 17th century. Many of them dedicated themselves to the wine trade, which offered better profit margins than other goods. The Treaty of Methuen, which reduced the tax on Portuguese wines entering England, further encouraged the growth of the wine industry in the Douro region. To ensure that the wines would not spoil during the long sea journey, they were often fortified with brandy, a precursor to the many styles of port in the market today.

Architecturally Porto retains a distinctly local and European feel, but wander around the scenic riverbank of the Vila Nova de Gaia and you will see the undeniable influence of the British in the brightly emblazoned names of the port lodges. The flags of Warre’s, Taylor’s, Symington and Sandeman line the Cais de Gaia, proclaiming a heritage that goes back hundreds of years. It is an even more impressive sight at night, when the whole area is bathed in a soft orange glow clearly visible from across the river. With so many port lodges in a small area, competition is intense. Touristy as it was, I thoroughly enjoyed the port and chocolate pairing at Kopke, and the live performance of fado (Portuguese folk music) at Cálem.

Cockburn’s is a brand that most people would easily recognise. Its most famous wine is the Special Reserve, a category created in 1969 to bridge the quality and price gap between Ruby and Vintage Ports. Less known is the correct pronunciation of the brand, KOH-burns as opposed to KOK-burns. I was met at the newly renovated lodge by Miguel Potes, Senior Manager Communications for Symington Family Estates. This articulate veteran has been in the port business for over thirty years! Symingtons is the current owner of Cockburns, having acquired the production facilities in 2006 and the brand four years later. They wasted no time in focusing on the production of Vintage Port, which had been somewhat neglected in favour of the Special Reserve. Miguel says that the effort was quick to produce results, commenting that “We were very fortunate that in 2011 one of the best vintages of recent history was made and we were encouraged by the very good response we had from the critics.”

Although the port lodges are in Porto, the grapes are actually grown in the landlocked Douro Valley some 300 km away. In the past the wine needed to be loaded on boats to from Douro to Porto (which is next to the sea) so that they could be shipped to target markets. It was also discovered that the climate in Porto, being cooler and more temperate, was better suited for the ageing of wine than the Douro Valley. Nowadays, hydroelectric dams have been constructed along the Douro River, so the boats have been replaced by trucks. You can still see the old boats lining the river in front of the port houses. Every year the historic boats, or rabelo as they are called, participate in a good-natured river regatta between the port companies.

Cockburn’s vineyards are mostly in the Douro Superior region, which is the most easterly and hottest of the Douro sub-regions. This is ideal for the ripening of high-quality Touriga Nacional grapes, which form the base for the finest ports. Another unique point about Cockburn’s is that they are the only port house to have a working cooperage. Miguel explains that “One of the most important aspects for making fantastic Tawny Port is to have seasoned wood. For that you need coopers to maintain these very old barrels.” The cooperage employs around eight people, scarcely enough when you consider that the cellars (the largest in Vila Nova de Gaia) hold several thousand barrels. The average age of the barrels at Cockburn’s is around seventy years, with some over a hundred years old! Used port barrels are much sought after by the whisky trade to provide extra flavour and complexity.

Miguel also organised a tasting for us where he shared where Cockburn’s ports stand in comparison with other producers. The Special Reserve is between Graham’s, which is quite big and luscious, and Dow’s, which is a slightly drier style. The Douro Superior contributes a rich ripeness to the wine, counterbalanced by a savoury lift and freshness. The Tawny Ports were delicious, though I should state that my preference is for this category as I find it has more complexity and less aggressive sweetness than ruby ports. Miguel commented that “One of the biggest advantages of tawnies over vintage ports is their versatility – you can serve them as a lightly chilled aperitif or after-meal wines.”

Next up was the Quinta dos Canais 2010, made from a single estate. Single Quinta wines are made in years that are not considered outstanding, but from very good vineyards. The summer of 2010 was marked by excessive heat that caused some grapes to shut down and as a result this particular wine has a very low proportion of the late-ripening Touriga Franca. This was a very smooth wine with lots of black fruit, floral and spice character, already quite accessible. The highlight of the tasting was Cockburn’s 2007 Vintage Port. According to Miguel, a classic Vintage Port is “more about the house style of that particular producer. The winemaker has the flexibility to go to several of his vineyards and select the best lots from the best performing grape varieties in that particular vintage. It is the maximum expression of quality from any producer.” The 2007 was also notable because it was the first vintage made by Symingtons after their purchase of Cockburn’s. This is beyond doubt a magnificent wine with lovely grip and firmness from the tannins, showing an elegant fruit profile of figs and boysenberry jam. No worries about the drinking window for this wine – it will age gracefully for decades!

No comments:

Post a Comment