Behind the bottle: Kopke Colheita Port

The longest-standing port house is boasting a bumper year. Libby Zietsman-Brodie takes a look at Kopke’s roots as well as the enduring appeal of its single-harvest ports

Words by Libby Zietsman-Brodie

kopke port
Kopke's Colheita ports always age for at least a decade, and its oldest available bottling dates back to 1934

‘There’s a new, very-old kid on the block, turning heads.’ So says João Belo, UK business manager for the parent company of Kopke, the oldest and first port wine house, situated for centuries in Portugal’s Douro Valley, the oldest demarcated wine region in the world.

Kopke boasts an enormous library of wines from the past 100 years that had been largely untouched for decades. Its bottlings stayed ‘hiding in the cellars like hidden gems’ while the company lay in the hands of rival port house Barros from 1953 until 2006. Now acquired by the Sogevinus group, Kopke is releasing these wines in small allocations on a two-year cycle to safeguard stocks for the future.

It is like a time capsule

The oldest available is the 1934, though it is the 1941 from World War II which stands out for Belo. ‘Even in that turbulent time, someone in the Douro was so determined to keep going, they made a wine and put it in a barrel. It is like a time capsule, and it is still one of the best wines I have tried.’

Colheita ports are single-harvest wines aged in barrel for a minimum of seven years, though Kopke’s Colheitas always age for at least a decade. The oxidative barrel-ageing typically gives these wines a lighter tawny colour and notes of nutty, sweet, dried fruits – though vintage variation means general rules do not always apply.

Recently, Kopke won Fortified Wine Producer of the year at the IWSC awards, and its 40-year-old Tawny picked up the Port Trophy. These accolades can be added to the 70-plus awards its Colheitas have taken home in the last five years. It seems that, much like the liquid, Kopke is still maturing and evolving, even after all these years.

kopke port wine cellars

The origins of Kopke Colheita Port

In 1636, Nicolau Kopkë moved from Germany’s Hamburg to Portugal in his role as General Consul of the Hanseatic League, a northern European trading block dealing in linen, iron and wine. Kopke’s first bottles of wine were shipped in 1638, and by 1781 the company had purchased vineyards in the beautiful Douro Valley, moving from a trading company to an established wine producer.

In 1922, three centuries after the company’s foundation, Kopke purchased Quinta de Sao Luiz vineyard, a site regarded by them ‘as the jewel in the crown of the Porto region’. For the last 100 years this impressive terroir has been the cornerstone of Kopke’s winemaking.

kopke port makers
old image of kopke vineyards
The Quinta de Sao Luiz vineyard, where Kopke has been making wine for nearly a century

Over time, the Kopkës married and merged with other immigrant families settled in Portugal – including the eminent Van Zellers, a wealthy wine dynasty dating back to the 1700s – and the company was bought and sold accordingly.

While the lighter, oxidative style of Colheita was appreciated by the Portuguese, the British tended to prefer their ports to be richer and ruby red. Lucky for the company, in the 19th century, Kopke was bought by the Bohane family in London. When Harrods launched its first wine department in 1900, the family’s prominent connections meant that Kopke was one of the first wines to be stocked in the luxury store.

carlos alves, winemaker for kopke port
Kopke's winemaker Carlos Alves has been crafting fortified wines since childhood

What goes into making Kopke Colheita Port?

‘Douro is all about blending. The sum of the parts will nearly always be better than the individual components,’ says Kopke winemaker Carlos Alves, who started making fortified wines as a young boy with his grandfather. ‘I am so lucky to have access to a vast library of very old wines here and it is my privilege to be able to preserve Kopke’s heritage for future generations,’ he adds. With exceptional care, Alves tastes the wines every year, deciding which to keep and what to blend.

It’s the details that make a difference

Education and investment in viticulture is key. ‘It’s a simple process,’ explains Belo, ‘but it’s the details that make a difference.’ Kopke harvests its block plantings of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cão, Tinta Barroca and Souzão from late August to early September, taking picked grapes to the innovative Quinta de Sao Luiz winery for refrigeration overnight. ‘No one owns enough land to produce the wine required, so we work with over 200 farmers in the Douro Valley,’ says Belo. ‘There are no contracts here, it is all done on time-honoured generational agreement.’

Though foot-treading is traditional, due to rising temperatures in the region (‘It can be 50 degrees in summer,’ explains Belo), pressing and extraction is mainly mechanised for temperature control. A neutral grape spirit is added to prevent inoculated yeasts from fermenting, and the wine is stored in barrels over the winter months to allow gentle oxidation, while being constantly checked and tasted – the very start of the selection process.

kopke bottles
Every single distinctive Kopke bottle is hand-painted

How did the design come about?

While it’s believed that Kopke’s distinctive bottle shape originally came about through necessity – this being a readily available style in the region in the 1600s – it was the company’s choice to stay true to the original for years to come. For Belo, this early silhouette paired with a more contemporary interpretation and positioning of the logo creates a balanced design that’s unique, ergonomic and elegant. He also recommends the ‘cute’ half-bottles, which he uses to keep olive oil in once empty.

Every single Kopke bottle is hand-painted by a group of five or six, decorating around 100 bottles an hour. The wax capsule on the top is likewise done by hand. ‘In a world of automation, the fact we still have craftsman doing this is beautiful,’ smiles Belo. ‘Our legacy is not only the library of wines, but the process we use to respect the identity of the brand.’

kopke cellar workers
kopke vineyards

What’s next for Kopke Colheita Port?

Kopke is consolidating its reputation as a premium wine producer, and not just for port; this September, it launched its first still wines with ‘pleasing’ results. Under the Sogevinus steer, it has been the best year ever for exports and demand for Kopke has ‘rocketed’ across the board, including in surprise new markets: ‘South Korea has just exploded,’ exclaims Belo.

Working with a few key partners, such as chef Monica Galetti of London’s Mere, Kopke now hopes to move port from ‘fortified’ to ‘fine’ wine and showcase its versatility when paired with upscale restaurant dishes. ‘Port is not just a dessert wine,’ says Belo, who recommends Galetti’s ‘incredible’ match of sweetbreads with Kopke’s 30-year-old white port.

And there’s more innovation yet to come. ‘It’s a little bit top secret,’ says Belo, ‘but we will be the very first to preview cask samples of 50-year-old Tawny and white ports. We have just blended a new 50-year-old Tawny for launch next year.’