Port houses raid their cellars for limited-edition, old-vintage releases

It’s boom time for collectors and aficionados as fine old ports that were originally intended for blending are bottled and released

Words by Adam Lechmere

Kopke releases limited edition ports
Kopke has released a white and a red 1940, in celebration of the year that it was declared the Douro’s oldest house

All the talk among port aficionados this year has been the widespread – and well-received – release of the 2018 vintage Ports. But amid the excitement, port houses have also been busy mining their stocks of decades-old barrels for several special-edition releases.

Kopke, Graham’s and Taylors have all released very old colheitas (barrel-aged ports from a single vintage) in recent weeks. The wines were traditionally blended into age-statement ports but are now being bottled after decades ageing in barrel – representing a “fundamental shift” in the port houses’ approach, said Adrian Bridge, managing director of Taylor’s parent company the Fladgate Partnership.

Wines that were traditionally blended into age-statement ports are now being bottled after decades ageing in barrel

Two years ago Kopke released 380 bottles of its CNK 380 Very Old Tawny to celebrate the 380th anniversary of its founding, in 1638, by Cristiano Nicolau Kopkë. It followed that in 2019 with its Very Old Dry White Port, which was aged for an average of at least 50 years in 300l barrels.

This year the house has released a white and a red 1940, in celebration of the year that Kopke was officially declared the Douro’s oldest port house. “The harvest of 1940 is a rarity; it’s extraordinary that these wines have survived the passage of time, wars and revolutions to be released to the market,” said chief port winemaker Carlos Alves.

For the CNK, Alves was able to draw on material that averaged 95 years, including the 1900, 1920 and 1937 Colheitas (the oldest aged in a 2,500l tonel).

White port is a particular speciality of Kopke, its portfolio spanning aged examples from 10-year-olds to 40-year-olds. The precise blend of the 1940 white is not known but it’s likely to be a field blend of Viosinho, Gouveio, Rabigato and Malvasia Fina. White ports are treated at vinification much like reds, with long maceration and extraction of tannins to increase the ageing potential.

The Kopke special editions represent the house’s undertaking to “show the versatility of very old ports,” Alves said. For the winemaker, cellaring colheitas for long ageing “is a legacy for future generations. I believe 2015 and 2017 will produce very great red colheitas, and 2013 and 17 will produce great whites,” said Alves. Another major aged release – being kept closely under wraps – is planned for 2021.

Alves added that he would be taking care to lay down good quantities of 2020 for ageing. “Because of the pandemic it will be a memorable vintage for decades to come,” he said.

Kopke can draw on older reserves than most when it comes to bottling aged Ports

Taylor’s has been releasing very old ports for years – the £2,000 Scion 1855 launched in 2010 was followed by the Single Harvest 1863. There will also be an 1896, “probably next year,” Adrian Bridge told Club Oenologique.

The house also now makes an annual release of 50-year-old tawnies, an idea that first struck Bridge on the occasion of his 50th birthday in 2013. “People wanted to send me a present and [as 1963 was a classic vintage] there wasn’t much around, so my mind turned to these stocks of tawnies we have, sitting in wood. We followed that with the 1964 and we will keep going as long as we have the stocks.” The house has just released a 1961 in the US, ”for people who will be 60 next year.”

This more flexible approach, a departure from traditional industry standards, reflects the “fundamental shift” mentioned by Bridge. “It’s giving us this rich seam of aged tawnies.”

Adrian Bridge says the idea to release an annual 50-year-old tawny came from his own 50th birthday

There is an element of serendipity to the very existence of some of these wines. “In the 1950s and 60s very little was kept back in barrel as the wine was bottled as soon as possible to be sold,” explained Johnny Symington, joint managing director of Symington Family Estates, owners of Graham’s. “The fact that we have these barrels and the wine wasn’t blended away over the years is lucky.”

This year marks Graham’s’ 200th anniversary, though for obvious reasons, celebrations haven’t quite gone as planned. Instead, the house has released the 1990 Single Harvest Lodge Edition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the opening of its fine cellar building, The Lodge, in 1890. In 2021 it will celebrate the 201st year of its founding with “a limited-edition collection of Graham’s most remarkable wines in a luxurious Bicentenary Cabinet”. The celebration was to have been held in March this year with dinners in ten cities but it fell foul of the pandemic; Symington stressed that the party would lose nothing by being held a year later.

Symington’s, which recently opened a pop-up restaurant overseen by Michelin-starred chef Pedro Lemos on its Quinta do Bomfim estate, is also releasing ports from vintage-declared years. These include the Graham’s Cellar Masters Trilogy – 1994, 1963 and 1940 Single Harvest Tawnies, released at the end of 2019 and early this year. Again, it is fortuitous that stocks of these wines are still in barrel, when most could have been bottled. “’94 and ‘63 were acclaimed vintages,” said Symington. “We had some of those wines that we kept for a very long time in cask. It’s wonderful to see how they have matured, alongside those that have aged in bottle.”

There’s also something pleasingly radical about releasing a vintage year as a colheita – there are very few houses that do it, on the basis that it will confuse people. “But there’s no reason why not,” said Symington. “Why shouldn’t a great year produce a wine that is as wonderful aged in wood as in bottle?”

The 2018 vintage was widely declared despite being described as a “rollercoaster” by many observers, with drought in winter, high rainfall and hail in spring and sporadic heatwaves in summer. Quantities are tiny but those winemakers who made careful selections have produced excellent wine. The vintage, coming after the declarations of 2016 and 2017 is remarkable for another reason: it is the first time for over 300 years that three vintages have been declared in a row.