Cockburn's Port Bicentenary tasting
Celebrating 200 years of this once renowned Port house, now undergoing a revival under the Symingtons

 

This was a truly remarkable tasting, looking at the past and present of possibly the most well known Port house of all, Cockburnís. We tasted some incredible wines, many of which are now extremely rare. Itís a tasting that will never happen again.

Cockburn's was, for a long while, one of the very top Port houses. Founded in 1815 by Leith wine merchants Robert and John Cockburn, it produced some great wines. In the glory days of the company, Cockburnís Vintage Port was often the most expensive of all. In 1962 it was bought by Harveys of Bristol (which in turn was acquired by Allied Domecq), and the quality began to wane as the focus shifted to quantity and the bottom line. By the time it was purchased by the Symingtons, it was still a major player, but the great Cockburn's Vintage Ports of the early 20th Century were a distant memory.

The Symingtons bought Cockburn's at the end of July 2006 (although it wasnít until 2010 that they took full control of the brand) and redirected all the Cockburn's grapes to their own wineries. Cockburn's was short of technical people and their wineries werenít big enough, so decisions were being made in the vineyard for winery reasons. Since 2006 the Symingtons have reduced the picking rate to about half what it was, picking things when they should be picked. In 2007 they classified all the farmers, and closed down two of the wineries, transferring must from these to others with better conditions.

Another quality gain has been in vineyard management. 30% of all Cockburn's plantings are Touriga Nacional, which is a good thing, but most of these grapes were being picked too early. There was no adapting or flexibility. The Symingtons introduced GIS systems to look at the vineyards properly, and understand their natural variability.

Ageing and blending was another area where quality could be improved. Cockburnís had 30 000 pipes of stock, divided between 500 lots, with 60 pipes per lot. The stock had to be rationalized. 'There were some gems in there,' says Paul Symington. A major problem was the industrial refrigeration system that Cockburn's used for all the wineries as part of a stabilization process. This removes some risk, but it isn't good for quality.

Finally, the Symingtons changed the management style and company culture. 'When we bought it I was astonished how different it was to a family company, all based on reporting,' says Paul. 'There were completely different values to ours.'

 

THE WINES

Cockburn's Vintage Port 2014 Douro, Portugal
A blend of 70% Touriga Nacional, 20% Touriga Franca and 10% Sous„o, with the first and third fermented together, which works really well. This was a challenging year with unsettled weather and a July rainstorm and unsettled harvest weather. 'We were on for a cracking year,' says Charles Symington, 'but unfortunately the weather broke.' But the grapes were ripe at this stage and the differences among locations were significant. The Douro Superior had much less harvest rain. This is not a finished wine but it is sweet, powerful and quite silky, with a bit of spice and ripe, concentrated fruit. Very pretty, smooth and supple, with the orange blossom and rose aromas typical of Canais. Canais has 25 hectares of Touriga Nacional, which is a fabulous amount considering that only 5% of the Douro is planted with this variety. It contributes magnificent red fruits and super tannins according to Charles. 93-95/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 2011 Douro, Portugal
The most recently declared vintage, 2011, will be remembered in history as one of the great years. But at the time, it was a bit of a rollercoaster. But in the last weekend of August there were a couple of days' rainfall that came just at the right time, and then harvest took place in ideal conditions. This is made in the new Cockburn's style, emulating the great wines of the 1940s, with rock roe aromatics and silky tannins. It's relatively dry Ė as dry as Dow's and drier than Warre and Fonseca. Fresh, supple and elegant with silky, textured fruit. Very pretty with silky black fruits and some structure. Lovely fruit purity and precision, with floral and citrus peel notes. 94/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 1977 Douro, Portugal
A widely declared vintage, with a warm autumn allowing perfect ripening. This is actually a vintage that Cockburn's didn't declare, along with Noval and Martinez. They may have made a mistake. It was the first successful vintage after the Carnation Revolution in Portugal. The Symingtons say that they were worried whether or not they'd be allowed to stay, even though they'd never lived anywhere else. The US market took this vintage to heart and it was a huge commercial success, but Cockburn's didn't share this success because it was heyday of their Special Reserve Port (first made in 1969), and the management were asked by head office in Bristol how much Special Reserve they could make if they didn't declare the vintage Port. So they didn't declare, but the local management bottled quite a lot of unofficial Vintage under the radar. Sweetly aromatic and pure with some notes of dried herbs in the background (typical of the year) and lovely floral red cherries. On the palate there's tea, dried herbs, a bit of tannin and some red cherries. Lovely silkiness and also freshness, with hints of kirsch and mint. Lovely. 95/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 1969 Douro, Portugal
This was an under-the radar Port, because no one declared 1969. It was a year of low yields with bad weather during flowering, and it came after a decade of three great declarations (60, 63 and 66). July was hot and then it rained September 11-14, quite heavily: a bit later than was needed and for rather too long. But Cockburn's, in the Douro Superior, did better than most. This wine has a warm, slightly spicy, peppery nose with sweet, refined red cherry fruit and subtle toffee and raisin richness. There's a subtle minty edge and refined spiciness on the palate. Ripe yet elegant with lots of life in it. Superb stuff from a badly regarded vintage with more sweetness than is usual from this house. 94/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 1967 Douro, Portugal
Everyone else declared 1966, but Cockburn's chose the 67 as an eccentric declaration. Now at its half century (almost), it's a beautiful wine. Dry and quite delicate, it echoes the great pre-war vintages of Cockburn's in their heyday. Fresh, aromatic nose with a hint of mint. Very attractive, slightly earthy and grippy firm palate with pretty fruit. Spice and raisin notes with fresh cherries and some warmth. This has a hint of toffee but it's still very much alive with lovely elegance and softness. Such a pretty wine with rose petal and tea leaf aromas. 94/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 1965 Douro, Portugal
This year was not declared, but it has the qualities of a declared vintage. It was, at the time, one of the largest vintages ever in the Douro. Lovely nose of liqourice, tea leaf, rose petal and glace cherries. Nice density in the mouth: very spicy and a bit tannic, in an earthy, dry style with a lovely spicy finish. Dense. Nice citrus peel notes. This is really serious wine with elegance allied to structure. 96/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 1947 Douro, Portugal
Lots of rain in March at budburst, and then it was hot until early september, when there was some helpful rain. At the time Maurice Symington commented that the wines took plenty of work, the colour was excellent, and he had every reason to think they would turn out well. This 1947 is simply fabulous. It has rich, spicy, warm aromatics with a hint of coffee and mint, as well as some fudge. Superbly harmonious, elegant palate with lovely density and smooth, toffee-edged sweet cherry and plum fruit, showing elegance and concentration. Harmonious and delicious with no off-notes. 96/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 1945 Douro, Portugal
War destroyed Britain's economy, and it took 10-15 years to heal. This was a great Douro vintage but the biggest problem was the lack of bottles and the difficulty of transport. It wasn't declared by Cockburn's because of money issues. Smithies and Cobbs relied on the UK market, and even finding the money to pay farmers was difficult. For this tasting four of the last 6 remaining bottles were opened. It was put into glass demijohns and then bottled substantially later, so this wine is a hybrid between a tawny and a vintage wine. Pale golden colour with a smoothness and finesse in the mouth. Notes of raisins, spice, a hint of cherry, some orange peel. It shows such precision of flavour still, with incredible elegance. 96/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 1934 Douro, Portugal
This is the year the Port wine institute was formed, and it was when Cockburn's was really on song. Vintage started on 24 September and the grapes were incredibly healthy. The vintage was declared by 12 shippers, but not by Cockburn's. Quite a full colour with some toffee and spice on the nose, as well as red cherries and orange peel, as well as a bit of kirsch. Sweet and spicy with amazing intensity, and lovely dense fruit. This is an incredible wine that is almost perfect. It still has a bit of red colour after all this time: vital and vibrant. 98/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 1924 Douro, Portugal
This was a generally declared year; again, Cockburn's chose not to declare it. Fresh, vital, slightly spicy nose with notes of herbs and mint, as well as some rose floral characters, tea leaves and subtle earthiness. Such warmth on the palate with spice and mint, as well as a bit of grip. Real richness here with a lovely colour but a slight edge to the nose. Very interesting. 95/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 1918 Douro, Portugal
A difficult vintage on a number of levels. It was the peak of the influenza epidemic, and many people were absent from the vineyards through illness. A hot summer and a small harvest, and not declared. This is a pale colour with a complex nose of iodine, spice, raisins and red cherries. Some marmalade notes on the palate with lovely red cherry and citrus peel. Dry, spicy, complex and detailed. It has a few edges and deviations, but for a 97 year old wine this is remarkable and fantastically interesting wine. 96/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 1908 Douro, Portugal
'There's no region in the world that can make a wine that will age like this,' says Paul Symington. The 1908 has a reputation for being the greatest ever Cockburn's, and for me this was one of the truly great bottles I've ever had the honour of experiencing. Supple, sweet, fine and super-elegant with incredible purity. Notes of citrus peel and almonds, with rose petals and fine red cherries. So fine, expressive and elegant, this is practically perfect, if perfection is ever attainable in a wine. 99/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 1868 Douro, Portugal
Almost the last year the Port market flourished before it was destroyed by phylloxera. It was the last year before the railway line reached the Douro, and at this stage it was almost like a different country. It took two days on horseback to get from Porto to the Douro. This is the last remaining bottle from the Cockburn's cellar and it still had its original cork. Clean tawny colour with a hint of red. Highly aromatic showing notes of toffee, cedar, subtle earth, spice and butterscotch. The palate has spice, mint, medicine and marmalade. Lovely purity for such an old wine: it still has life to it and lovely finesse. 95/100

Cockburn's Vintage Port 1863 Douro, Portugal
This was an excellent year, regarded as one of the outstanding vintages in the history of Vintage Port. This is the last remaining bottle of this wine. Warmand sweet with notes of liqourice and cedar, with a slight hint of paint products. On the palate it is lively with citrus peel, spice and some raisin. Lovely freshness and great acidity here, with real presence and elegance, and subtle leafy notes. A real piece of history, this is so hard to rate. 95/100

A film of the tasting:

 

See also:

Visiting the Symingtons in the Douro (series)
 

Wines tasted 03/15  
Find these wines with
wine-searcher.com

 

Back to top