111 Years of Cockburns

Cockburn, one of the great names in Port, has long held a rather idiosyncratic approach to declaring vintages. They missed out on some classic years in the last century: 1945, 1966 (preferring 1967) and 1977 (preferring 1978). Not helped by number of weak wines in the 1980s, Cockburn’s lost their reputation for vintage Port having turned their attention to Special Reserve,  a wine into which they put an enormous amount of effort in the vineyard, winemaking and marketing. It grew, justifiably, into the number one Port brand in the UK.     

Having been bought by Harvey’s and subsequently consumed into Allied Domecq Cockburn’s foundered at the top end of the market.  Yet in the mid-twentieth century Cockburn’s vintage Ports commanded a higher price than their peers.   The Symington Family (owners of Dow, Graham and Warre among others) took over the production of Cockburn’s in 2006 and bought the company outright in 2010. 

This tasting, held by the Symington’s in Oporto,  was organized to rediscover Cockburn’s DNA.    From the very diverse set of notes below, it is difficult to draw conclusions other than to state (like Sandeman and Croft which also lost their way under multinational ownership) Cockburn used to make some outstanding wines. Judging from some of the more recent wines, which were shown at the start of the tasting,  Cockburn’s is already well on the way to recovering its heart and soul.   

2011 (lote)

Very deep in colour, black and spirit, raw and peppery, disjointed on the nose needing time to knit together; Touriga Nacional dominant, rich, sweet and voluptuous initially with firm, dry tannins building in the mouth, dark chocolate concentration on the finish. Very impressive all round wine. A possible constituent of a future Cockburn vintage.    No mark given

Cockburn’s Quinta dos Canais 2009 ****

Very deep, dark and opaque, still closed and demure, underlying floral, minty opulence; rich, voluptuous and soft initially, lovely texture with black pepper tannins rising in the mouth leading to a firm, well-defined finish. Long, fine and sinewy.  Just 106 cases bottled, 100 shipped to Australia. This is already a rare bird. 17

Cockburn  2007 ****

Lovely opaque, youthful colour; just opening up to reveal beautiful floral fruit, violets and rose petals, very pure and fruit driven; again very pure on the palate, Touriga Nacional-driven berry fruit , not especially big or broad but fine, focused and linear, peppery tannins rising in the mouth leading to a long, dryish black pepper finish.   2,500 cases declared. 18

Cockburn 1977 (undeclared) *** / ****

The late John Smithes didn’t like the ‘77s so Cockburn’s didn’t declare. It was a big commercial mistake as this was the year when the Americans first took a serious interest in vintage Port.  Cockburn’s bottled a small quantity of 1977 as ‘Crusted’ for themselves: mid-brick red; lovely open, floral aromas, fully mature, perhaps a touch hollow with spirit now showing through; fine, delicate, berry fruit character with a hint of dark chocolate mid-palate, focused, quite dry in style on the finish but still long and elegant. This would have been a very passable 1977 had it been declared.  16.5

Cockburn 1970 ****

Mid-brick red to mahogany; fine, tight-knit, sweet cherry fruit with mint and esteva (gum cistus), now slightly lifted; lovely gentle medicinal cherry fruit, quite rich and voluptuous initially with a bitter-sweet tannic core and a long, firm, bitter-sweet finish. Long and linear. 18 

Cockburn 1967 ****

Cockburn’s idiosyncratic approach to vintage declarations meant that they preferred 1967 to 1966: mid-brick red with an orange glint; gentle tea-leaf aromas, soft fragrant and beautifully melded together; lovely sweet, sinewy, elegant flavours, quite dry in style with a touch of tawny marmalade on the finish. Not big but beautiful and still holding up very well. 17.5    

Cockburn 1963 **** / *****

Mid-deep in colour, still with a pinkish glint; stunning wine on the nose, open fragrant, floral, and very elegant. Pretty (not a word I like using but it suits this wine); liqueur cherry character, rich and focused, still powerful with ripe tannins showing through, lovely length, combining power and finesse in equal measure.  18.5 

Cockburn 1960 ****

 Retaining good colour, mid-brick red centre, thin browning rim; honeyed aromas, rich, exotic and rather beautiful; rich and mellow in style, mellifluous texture backed up by a firm dry finish. A little short but standing up very well for a 1960, a year that suffered from high VA. 17     

Cockburn  1955 ***

Good, mid-deep brick red with a thin amber rim; high toned (lifted), caramelized and rather clumsy on the nose, hot and stick; tastes fresher, rich and quite dense., very sweet in style with a bitter-sweet core, dark chocolate, richness continues through onto the finish.  Marked down by the nose – possibly a poor bottle? 15.5  

Cockburn 1950 ****

Surprisingly good depth of colour: mid-deep centre with a thin browning rim; lovely, pure scented, floral aromas, esteva (gum cistus) still fresh and fragrant; gentle, sweet fruit, still lithe, creamy milk chocolate intensity, long and fine with peppery length. Lovely balance and one of the best 1950s that I have tasted. Wyndham Fletcher (ex-Cockburn’s) described this as a ‘useful rather than a great year’.  17.5

Cockburn 1948  ****

Not declared by Cockburn: lovely colour, still deep with a thin browning rim; singed on the nose, a touch or roasted coffee bean; still tight-knit and powerful, very rich and sweet, toasted yet powerfully rich and sumptuous with a broad, ripe tannic finish. Possibly not the best 1948 I have tasted but not far off! 18

Cockburn  1947 *** / **** 

Turning mahogany – tawny with an orange rim; lime marmalade aromas, slightly hollow after the 1948, fragrant yet mellow; very sweet and honeyed in style, retaining some peppery tannins with length and elegance though drying out on the finish.  16.5  

Cockburn 1945

Technically a ‘garrafeira’, this wine spent the first part of its life in garrafão (glass demi-john) until it was decanted into bottle in 1972. Only 7 cases were produced despite it being declared as a ‘victory vintage’ by most shippers. Mid-pale amber tawny; open, rather muted tawny nose, no fruit evident and rather hollow in context; better on the palate, toasted, touch of coffee bean, lovely texture, rich but burnt, lacking freshness and fruit and not really in the 1945 league. A curiosity that is hard to award a mark to. 

Cockburn 1935 ***

Mid-deep amber-mahogany; lovely lifted aromas, fine delicate and perfumed with a touch of toffee; sweet honeyed and mellifluous in style with dusty tannins on the finish, drying out and a bit flat after an hour or so in the glass. Not nearly as good as the last time I tasted this (Manchester Tennis and Racquet Club dinner – see note).  15.5 

Cockburn 1927  **** / *****

Deep mahogany, thin amber rim; amazingly powerful, exotic, maderised aromas, tropical fruit (passion fruit and mango), gooseberry  with a touch of cat’s pee! Lovely rich liquorous character, still firm and gripping with beautiful freshness underlying, fime and grippy on the finish, chocolate and raspberry here. An amazing wine after eighty five years.   18.5

Cockburn 1912 ****

Quite pale, tawny centre, thim pale rim; lovely nose, apples with honey and cinnamon (apple pie), just a touch of spirit showing through; fine, gentle and still wonderfully fresh after 100 years with a green streak running right the wau through on the palate, firm dry tannins, beautifully pure.  18

Cockburn 1908 *****

This is the first time that I have tasted this legendary wine: pale golden amber in colour with a touch of olive green, disappointing at first sight; ethereal, spicy, scented nose, honey and orange blossom, slightly caramelized at the edges; lovely gentle sweet fruit, mead, wonderful texture making it a joy to hold in the mouth, fading yet still retaining power and a vestige of grip.   A very, very beautiful wine.  19.5 

Cockburn 1904 *** / ****

Very deep mahogany colour, still with a glint of red; rich, smoky aromas, still quite dense and showing the ripeness of the vintage, it may be the stage in the tasting but did I get a whiff of potato then candy floss? Very rich and voluptuous in style, licorice and dark chocolate, still structured and tannic but a bit course and clumsy on the finish. Very interesting wine which must have started as tannic blackstrap!   16.5

Cockburn 1896 **** +

Still brick red in colour with an amazing pink hue then a browning rim; gentle dusty nose with a touch of milk chocolate; still rich and sweet with dark chocolate at the core and dusty tannins. Still has grip and depth after all this time. Amazingly youthful and tight knit. This was the best of a number of variable bottles.  Not voluptuous (possibly never was) but still elegant. 18+ ?


Location: Factory House, Oporto


19 - 20 An outstanding wine (*****)

17 – 18 An excellent wine in its class, highly recommended (****)

15 - 16 A good wine, with much to recommend it (***)

13 - 14 An enjoyable but simple, straightforward wine (**)

10 – 12 A very ordinary wine without faults but with no great merit (*)

8 - 10 Disagreeable (no stars)

Below 8 Faulty