An Exclusive Tasting of Cockburn’s Centuries-Old, Yet Drinkable Ports

An Exclusive Tasting of Cockburn’s Centuries-Old, Yet Drinkable Ports

In celebration of the 200th anniversary of Cockburn’s & Co., I was among 10 international journalists invited to taste through 13 of the historic Port house’s Vintages. One was 2011, the latest Vintage and first under its current owners, Symington Family Estates. At the end, I helped finish off the last existing bottles of the 1863 and 1868.

The dusty bottles arrived in Knightsbridge, London, straight from the Cockburn’s (pronounced “CO-burn”) cellars. Presented as a snapshot of the storied production house’s history, the tasting also served to highlight how the Symington family believes all future Cockburn’s Vintage Port releases should be produced.

The lineup was 2011, 1977, 1969, 1967, 1965, 1947, 1945, 1934, 1924, 1918, 1908, 1868 and 1863. The latter two, considering their ages, were astonishingly drinkable.  In particular, the 1863 had a lovely copper hue, orange blossom aroma and herbal toffee flavors.

“The best Cockburn’s Vintages are ripe, very fruity with a floral character,” said Charles Symington, head winemaker and viticulturalist. “Their flavors are citrus and orange blossom, soft and with tannins that are so beautifully integrated.”

The Symington group purchased the Cockburn’s & Co. vineyards in 2006 and the brand in 2010 from Beam Global.

The Symington group owns W.& J. Graham’s Port, Dow’s Port and Warre’s Port, as well as several other Port and table wine brands sold in the U.S.

Cockburn’s Port was different than any other from its inception in 1815, when brothers Robert and John Cockburn, Scottish wine merchants, decided to launch the business.

“The quality of the wine is the first thing to be looked into,” Robert Cockburn wrote in a letter to clients that was later published in a book, The Records of the Cockburn Family (Foulis, 1913).

It was an unusual viewpoint at a time when shoddy winemaking was the norm. Unlike their competitors, the Cockburn brothers focused so heavily on quality that instead of solely sourcing grapes, they purchased vineyards to gain complete control over the winemaking process.

By the early 20th century, Cockburn’s & Co. was the Douro’s largest Port producer—the king of Port. Cockburn’s 1908 was said to be the greatest Port of that great year. The glory years continued until after World War II.

In 1962, descendants sold the Cockburn family business. Cockburn’s brand and its Special Reserve were swallowed into a series of multinational operations. While Cockburn’s Special Reserve continued to succeed (and still does), the rest of the Cockburn’s Port range went into decline.

When the Symington family bought Cockburn’s & Co., it was with the avowed intent of restoring those glory years.

The Cockburn’s & Co. vineyards are located in the beautiful, remote and arid Douro Superior—the upper reaches of Portugal’s Douro Valley. It was unknown territory until the founding brothers took a risk and planted vineyards.

By 1979, Cockburn’s & Co. controlled an almost contiguous stretch of vines on the Douro Superior north bank.

Charles Symington calls the area “Cockburn’s country.” It’s known for producing concentrated grapes packed with superripe fruit—which originally made Cockburn’s Vintage Ports excellent.

These characteristics were still very much prominent in many of the 13 wines I tasted, starting with the 2011.

When I tasted this Port blind in 2013, I rated it 97 points on Wine Enthusiast’s 100-point scale. It was as powerful, rich and fruit-forward then as it is now.

I didn’t officially rate any of the wines tasted at the event, but I offer tasting notes below to illustrate just how impressively drinkable these wines are. I decided not to include any wines that I considered less than superb or the 19th-century Ports that are no longer available.

1967: Delicate, perfumed and well rounded.

1947: One of two great post-war vintages (Cockburn’s did not release a 1945 Vintage, although a few hundred bottles were made, kept in the company cellars and poured for the tasting). This Port is creamy and full-bodied, rich with spice, pepper and beautiful tannins.

1934: At 81 years old, this was one the stars of the tasting. It’s classic Cockburn’s, with red cherry fruit against a backbone of tannins still with amazing life;.

1908: Still with its original cork, it’s dry, stylish, rich and textured with lingering red plum fruits. This Port is described in legend as the greatest Cockburn’s Vintage ever. It was the last vestige of a really great wine.

Published on March 18, 2015
Topics: CockburnPortPortugal