How and Why to Declare a Vintage

The Malvedos winery was only about three lagares into harvest this year when the rumours started to fly on the internet that Someone – some influential wine pundit – had announced this was a vintage year.

Wrong.  Don’t believe it.  With all due respect, it is not his or her decision, and it’s too early to know.

How or why a port is made or declared to be “Vintage” seems to confuse those new to the wine.  There are several pieces to what makes a port a Vintage Port:

  1. Very simply, Graham’s decides to declare a Vintage – we feel the wines which we produced in a given harvest year possess the characteristics of a Graham’s Vintage Port.
  2. The wine is produced, aged and bottled according to the regulations which define Vintage Port.
  3. The IVDP, the regulating body for the Port trade, ratifies our decision, and approves the bottling and sale of the wine as Vintage Port.
  4. The Vintage Declaration is formally announced.

The Wine

Graham’s declares a vintage only when we feel we have an extraordinary wine.  The decision to declare or not lies with each and every port producer or shipper individually, every year – this is not a joint or trade-wide or regulatory-imposed decision.   Historically, we have declared a vintage three or four times a decade.

Cask samples and sample blends for review in Graham's tasting room

In the 15 months following a harvest, we continuously assess all the wines made from that year’s production.  We have to think not just about single lots of wine, but possible blends of lots – which, if any, combination of some number of wines, in some ratio, out of the 30 or more lots sourced from our five quintas, will create the extraordinary product that can be bottled, aged and enjoyed as Vintage Port.

Of course we are looking for marvellous, delectable flavours, but we also need to think about how those flavours will age and develop.  Equally important are characteristics of structure: if the acidity and tannic structure are not very firm when young, then the wine simply won’t have the potential to age for decades, which is a hallmark of Vintage Port.  Only when all of these factors are in balance, and we feel the wine is one which will reward the drinker for years to come over the full trajectory of the wine’s life from release to 50 or 100 years from now, will we declare that wine a Vintage Port.

How do we know?  That is purely down to the magic, the art, the experience, the gut instinct – whatever word you want to use – of the wine maker, Charles Symington.  Vintage quality is not something you can identify and certify in a tube or under a microscope.

Declaration How-to

Once we have decided to declare a vintage, the timeline for the declaration starts in the second January after harvest and runs like this:

  • January we submit the sample to the IVDP, which they approve for sale as Vintage Port
  • April (give or take) the Vintage is publicly declared with cask samples and a launch
  • By end of June we complete the bottling – the IVDP allows bottling up until end July of the third year after harvest, but we choose to bottle before the heat sets in for the second summer after harvest
  • From 1st May onwards the bottles are released for sale

Graham’s versus a Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage

The private cellar at the Lodge

Graham’s has an extraordinary reputation for the quality and longevity of its vintage ports.  Our wines are characterised by an incredible intensity as well as complexity of flavour, and great sweetness; and our vintage ports have the structure to last for decades.  Critics have admired (frankly, even raved over) our wines at all stages of maturity – from newly declared to century old vintages.  Declaring a vintage is a serious decision with this standard to uphold.

So, what happens if we feel the wines from a given year do not make a Graham’s Vintage?  One option is to declare a single quinta vintage, from our flagship Quinta dos Malvedos.  When you taste a Quinta dos Malvedos vintage, you recognise the richness and complexity of the wine –  the Malvedos lots have always been the backbone of a Graham’s blend.  But if you taste it alongside the nearest Graham’s vintage, you will realise, wonderful as is the Malvedos, it doesn’t have quite the same structure as the Graham’s.  Single quinta wines are wonderful and enjoyable, but rarely have the life expectancy of a vintage which is blended from several quintas.

When we do bottle a Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Port, we do not release it to the market straight away.  Instead, the wine is bottled the second spring after harvest, but we hold the bottles in storage in Gaia until we feel they are ready for drinking, typically 8 to 10 years.  As an example, the 1999 Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Port was bottled in 2001, but not released until 2010.

Back to 2010

So from now until April of 2012, no one, except Charles in his heart of hearts, will know whether 2010 will be a Vintage Port for Graham’s.  And if you ask him before then, the answer will be a charming smile and utter silence.

2 thoughts on “How and Why to Declare a Vintage”

  1. Hi all
    Just caught up with your blog-excellent. Message for Charles Symmington: How are you? Well I hope, your photos seem to show you in a good light. Talked to Anne this morning and your name came up. It seems such an age since we saw you! The crew were here this year in the harvest again and, as you can imagine, we all had a great time. I have a query: The corks in the 1991 Gould Campbell are a bugger to get out! The centres just pull out! Has anyone else commented? The wine is delicious, round rich chocolaty with bags of raisiny, curranty fruit and still young, though I love drinking it now! Anyway interesting to hear if you declare 2010. Here in the Luberon it was an excellent vintage if a bit down on quantity, but an average of 14° Baumé. Hope to see you soon Charles
    Best wishes
    François

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