How to collect vintage port

Specialist Noah May guides us through the best producers and outstanding years of a fortified wine that can take decades to reach its peak. A collection of port that has lain undisturbed for a century at Raby Castle in the north of England is offered online until 20 June

Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Historical Vintage Port from the Cellars of Raby Castle until 20 June at Christie's

‘In wine terms, a vintage is simply the date the grapes were picked. But for a port to be labelled vintage, that year’s harvest must be declared exceptional.’ Lots offered in Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Historical Vintage Port from the Cellars of Raby Castle until 20 June 2024 at Christie’s Online

Winemaking grapes have been grown on the steep, arid banks of the River Douro, which snakes through northern Portugal to the join the sea at Porto, since the arrival of the Romans in the 2nd century B.C. Port, however, wasn’t produced until nearly 2,000 years later.

During the 17th century, rivalries between England and France reached a new height, culminating in Charles II placing a ban on the import of French wine in 1678. Looking for alternatives, British merchants turned to Portuguese makers.

According to legend, a bucketful of brandy was thrown into each barrel to stop it spoiling on the long journey to Britain by sea. Its effect — killing the yeast that converts sugar into alcohol — produced the strong, sweet, fortified wine known today.

There are several styles of port, explains Noah May, head of Wine & Spirits at Christie’s in London. These range from ruby port — a light, fruity wine, usually drunk young — to old tawny, a deep, nutty wine that is aged longer in the cask. The most sought-after port of all, though, is classified ‘vintage’.

‘In wine terms, a vintage is simply the date the grapes were picked. But for a port to be labelled vintage, that year’s harvest must be declared exceptional,’ explains May. ‘Typically, this only happens a few times each decade.’ Between 2000 and 2020, for example, there were only four unanimously agreed-upon vintages.

The cellars where Cockburn's port is aged in vats and oak barrels

The cellars where Cockburn’s port is aged in vats and oak barrels. For vintage ports, this is the preliminary stage: most of the ageing takes place after bottling. Photo: courtesy of Symington Family Estates

Vintage port is typically made from a blend of wines and cask-aged over two winters, before being bottled unfiltered and left to mature, which occurs more gradually in glass than in wood.

‘Young’ vintage ports tend to be at least 15 years old, while some of the most exquisite examples can be centenarians, or even older.

The practice of declaring vintages has been traced back to 1773, when a Christie’s auction catalogue announced the sale of vintage ports from 1765. Probably not by coincidence, it was around this time that glass bottles changed in shape. Instead of being bulbous and onion-like, they evolved into long and slender cylinders, which were much more suited to laying flat, keeping the cork moist and supple for prolonged ageing.

By the middle of the following century, hundreds of thousands of barrels — known in port terms as ‘pipes’ — were being shipped to London and Bristol, then bottled by merchants and delivered to clients’ cellars. Today, vintage port that has remained in some of these celebrated collections for many decades can often be found at auction.

Below, our specialist highlights four of the most prestigious port producers, called ‘shippers’, that collectors look for.

Taylor’s

The oldest and arguably the most famous port shipper, Taylor’s has been in business since 1692. It was founded by Job Bearsley, owner of the Ram Inn in east London. According to some sources, his son Peter was the first English merchant to make the perilous journey inland to the Douro Valley by donkey; and his grandson Bartholomew became the first English shipper to buy a property in the valley, the Casa dos Alambiques. Today it sits alongside Taylor’s three Douro estates, at Terra Feita, Vargellas and Junco.

During the first half of the 19th century, ownership passed to Joseph Taylor, the business’s former office manager in London, then to two merchants named John Fladgate and Morgan Yeatman, giving the business its current full title, Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman. One of Fladgate’s daughters married a winemaker called Pedro Gonçalves Guimaraens, whose distant cousin, David Guimaraens, is Taylor’s current head winemaker.

In 1934, Taylor’s introduced ‘Chip Dry’, a crisp, dry, white port aged in oak vats. In 1970 it created the first ‘Late Bottled Vintage’ style of port, which is aged more rapidly in wood, and filtered so that it can be drunk straight from the bottle.

Admired for their elegance and power, Taylor’s vintage ports are some of the most desirable — with the 1948 vintage being a particular standout. The wine critic Neal Martin praised its deep colour and soaring bouquet of berries, clove, sage and vanilla, awarding it the rare, superlative score of 100/100. ‘There is vintage port and then there is the 1948 Taylor Fladgate. It remains a monumental port that towers over the 20th century,’ he declared.

Fonseca

According to historic ledgers, the Fonseca winery sold its first pipe of port — equivalent to about 534 litres, or 720 bottles — in 1815. So fine was its taste that, by 1821, it was selling more than 1,000 pipes per year.

The business, which was established by João dos Santos Fonseca, owns three estates in the Douro Valley: Quinta do Panascal, Quinta de Santo António and Quinta do Cruzeiro. Together they cover 78 hectares and have produced four 100-point ports (awarded by diverse critics) in the past century: 1927, 1948, 1977 and 1994. Fonseca is the only shipper to have achieved this. The company was acquired by Taylor’s in 1949.

Robert Parker, author of Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, has declared Fonseca ‘one of the great port lodges, producing the most exotic and most complex port. With its lush, seductive character, one might call it the Pomerol of vintage ports.’

James Suckling, who wrote Vintage Port, echoes this, saying, ‘The vintage ports of Fonseca are perhaps the most consistently great of them all. Not only do they have a great freshness and powerful richness when young, but they retain that youthfulness for decades.’

Dow’s

Dow’s can trace its origins to 1798, when a Portuguese merchant named Bruno da Silva began importing wines to London. Thanks to his nationality, during the Napoleonic Wars his transport was the only one granted armed protection when sailing across the treacherous Bay of Biscay.

After a series of mergers during the 19th century, Da Silva’s company flourished under the name Dow’s, becoming a leading producer of vintage ports. Since 1912, five generations of the Symington family of winemakers have owned, laboured and lived on the firm’s two vineyards, Quinta do Bomfim and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira, both in the upper Douro Valley.

Dow’s is known for its superbly concentrated wines, intense and tannic when young, maturing to racy elegance, with violet and mint aromas. Its hallmark, however, is the wine’s long finish, which has been described by the Financial Times wine critic Jancis Robinson as having a signature dry, peppery character. Some of the best vintages include 1924, 1994 and 2015.

Cockburn’s

Founded in 1815 by two Scottish brothers, John and Robert Cockburn, this port house pioneered vineyards at Quinta dos Canais in the remote, rugged uppermost Douro Valley, as well as the use of Touriga Nacional grapes. Both location and grape had been largely overlooked by other estates.

This combination of distinctive microclimate, soil and grape gives Cockburn’s vintage ports their unique full body and characteristic floral aromas. They have an extraordinary length — or what the company’s renowned winemaker John Smithes called ‘grip’. Some of the classic vintages include 1908, 1912, 1935 and 1950.

Cockburn’s reputation took a hit after the business was sold in 1962 to Harveys of Bristol, which shifted its emphasis to special reserve wines rather than vintages. In 2010, however, the Symington family acquired Cockburn’s.

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Since then, the company’s focus has returned to creating spectacular vintages. In particular, its 2012 and 2015 offerings have achieved international acclaim, and restored collectors’ interest.

Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Historic Vintage Port from the Cellars of Raby Castle is open for bidding until 20 June 2024

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