Cockburn's Bicentenary Tasting 2014 - 1863

Cockburn, one of the greatest names in Port, are celebrating their bicentennial this year. The company was founded in 1815 by Scottish brothers; Robert and John Cockburn. In fact it turns out from the records that the Cockburn family imported Port to Edinburgh in 1796 but the Symington family who now own the company have sensibly decided to leave the foundation date at 1815 rather than push the rewind button as some other shippers have done. 

The story of Cockburn's success is an intriguing tale of a number of enterprising families and a multinational, followed by another great and enterprising Port family. Originally called Cockburn, Wauchope & Co., after the founding partners, the name was extended to Cockburn, Wauchope & Greig when they were joined by Captain William Greig in 1828. Casks branded with the initials ‘C.W.G.’ can still be seen at Cockburn's lodges in Gaia. The company has always looked outwards and in 1829 (just fourteen years after the company was formed) Archibald and Alexander Cockburn established an office in London. The family was joined in 1845 by Henry and John Smithes and the firm was renamed Cockburn Smithes. By 1870 Cockburn’s had become the second largest Port shipper in terms of the volume of wine they exported.  In 1868 the first member of the Cobb family joined the firm and managed it in tandem with the Cockburns and the Smithes until Peter Cobb’s retirement in 1999. 

In the early years of the twentieth century, Cockburn’s vintage Ports commanded (on a par with Taylor’s) the highest prices and the greatest respect in the UK market. The company has long had a rather idiosyncratic approach to vintage declarations, often bypassing the years favoured by the other houses. This maybe partly due to the location of Cockburn’s main vineyards which were up in the Douro Superior, long before this region attracted other shippers. For example in the nineteenth century Cockburn’s were big customers of Dona Antónia Ferreira who established one of the Douro’s great vineyards at Quinta do Vale Meão. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, Cockburn’s vintage Ports have been based on Quinta dos Canais, a magnificent estate with a high proportion of the Touriga Nacional grape, well located in the Douro Superior. This sub-region, once the ‘wild east’ of the Port region is traditional ‘Cockburn country’ and helps to explain the opulent, even exotic style of some of Cockburn’s wines.

With the dramatic slump in Port sales that followed the Second World War, Cockburn's became prey to outsiders. The company was taken over by Harvey's of Bristol in 1962, a year after Harvey's had acquired arch-rival Martinez Gassiot. Harvey's was bought by Allied-Lyons (subsequently Allied-Domecq) making Cockburn's an increasingly small Portuguese cog within a very big multinational wheel. But with the media support afforded by a multinational company, Cockburn became the leading Port brand on the UK market. In the revolving door of take-overs and mergers, Allied Domecq was taken over by Pernod Ricard, leaving Cockburn in the hands of Jim Beam. In 2006 Symington Family Estates took over the fixed assets of Cockburn including 280 ha of vineyard and purchased the brand outright in 2010.

When the Symington’s came into Cockburn’s they found ‘some fabulous things and some horrors’ according to Paul Symington, currently joint managing director of the company.  Allied had invested heavily in vineyards in the 1970s and 1980s (including the purchase of Canais in 1988) but woefully neglected the winemaking. Without a central winery worthy of the name, many of Cockburn’s wines were made in bits and pieces throughout the Douro in fairly primitive conditions. This goes some way to explain the inconsistency of the company’s vintage Ports from the late 1960s onwards. During this time Cockburn set their store by Special Reserve, deservedly the best-selling brand of Port in the United Kingdom and, despite the lack of wine making facilities, one of the most consistent reserve Ports on the market. But the vintage Port flagship was neglected. Described by wine maker Charles Symington as being like ‘a 1960s Aston Martin that had been badly restored’, the Symingtons found 2,000 pipes of out of condition wine when they took over the company in 2006.  The family have spent the ensuing years returning Cockburn’s to its former glory, a glory that was very evident in an extensive tasting of Cockburn’s vintage Ports in 2012. (See my entry for 13th September 2012: 111 Years of Cockburn’s Port).

This tasting, although more limited in scope, goes back 152 years to 1863. It includes some very rare wines from recent undeclared years as well as great, declared vintages. There are some very distinctive and individual wines here. I have added relevant background notes including comments from Ernest Cockburn (1888 – 1945) a partner in the company from 1919 whose book, Port Wine and Oporto, is a remarkable contemporary description of the Port trade during Cockburn’s heyday.          

 Cockburn 2014 (cask sample) ***/****+?

Single quinta wine from Quinta dos Canais, made from over 70% Touriga Nacional with a slug of Sousão for colour and acidity: very deep, inky colour; still raw on the nose but floral, redolent of spring blossom; already quite suave, rich and opulent with a broad dusting of tannin, not especially big but elegant. With heavy rain falling during vintage, this was definitely a year for the Douro Superior. Early days but this should make a good single quinta vintage Port for declaration in 2016. 16.5 +? 

Cockburn 2011 ****

A blend based on Quinta dos Canais and Quinta de Vale Coelho made in a fairly dry style; ‘as dry as Dow’ according to Charles Symington: deep and youthful in colour; closing in on the nose with underlying delicacy and finesse, cassis with a floral Touriga Nacional fragrance; smooth, suave cassis and berry fruit, firm but not massive in structure, long and beautifully balanced. With Cockburn’s looking to recapture their reputation for vintage Port, this is undoubtedly one of the best value wines of the vintage. 18

Cockburn 1977 *** 

A generally declared year, but not declared by Cockburn who were busy building up Cockburn’s Special Reserve at the time. Consequently this wine was bottled as ‘crusted’: mid-garnet with a pink - browning rim; open, fragrant, with a wild edge, a touch herbal with eucalyptus on the nose; delicate in style, cherry stone fruit with firm peppery tannins and an attractive bitter-sweet finish. Still standing up well, if just a touch rustic in style. 15

Cockburn 1969 ***/****

This is the year Cockburn launched Special Reserve which subsequently became the best-selling Port in the UK. It was a year of low yields and rain fell just before vintage, consequently no one declared: mid-garnet though still fresh and youthful in appearance; gentle berry fruit on the nose, still fresh though not especially aromatic; soft with a savoury / meaty character mid-palate, plummy fruit with lovely richness evident at the core yielding to a bitter-sweet dark chocolate finish retaining a dusting of tannin. A rather lovely, rare and very unusual wine. 16.5

Cockburn 1967

 An unusual declaration with Cockburn eschewing the generally declared 1966s in favour of 1967: pale-mid garnet-tawny; delicate, fragrant and a touch medicinal on the nose with a hint of jelly babies(!); soft, sweet and gentle on the palate but by no means lean, peppery tannins with a lovely sweet. Spicy finish. Not as good as the best of the ‘66s but beautifully balanced, in its prime and effortless to drink. ****

Cockburn 1965 ****

This was a good second-string vintage with some attractive single quinta wines made despite sporadic rain during vintage. This wine from Cockburn is undeclared: deeper in colour than the 1967; surprisingly rich in style for the year, black cherry and a touch of dark chocolate at its core; very opulent in style retaining lovely purity of fruit, medicinal sweetness backed by peppery tannins with the opulence returning on the finish. 17

Cockburn 1947 ****/*****

 Declared by Cockburn in preference to 1945. Ideal weather conditions: damp spring, hot summer, low yields and fine, relatively cool weather during the harvest meant thelagares took plenty of work: lovely garnet-to-tawny colour; a touch roasted on the nose and possibly drying out, coffee bean; wonderful bitter-sweet richness, fleshy and almost fat in style backed by good tannic grip followed by a smooth, suave finish. Lovely balance: impresses rather more on the palate than on the nose. 18.5

Cockburn 1945

 An outstanding year, bypassed by Cockburn when others declared a ‘victory vintage’. Due to lack of bottles at the time this was probably kept in demi-johns and bottled later as a garrafeira: consequently pale and faded in colour with a tawny rim; gentle, lifted orange peel aromas; smooth and delicate in style, mellifluous with lovely richness mid-palate and an elegant, almost creamy finish. Hard to judge this as a vintage Port but good nonetheless.  Just two bottles of this wine remain. ***

Cockburn 1934 *****

A successful year, declared by some though not by Cockburn: wonderful, youthful pink colour; still fresh, most attaractive on the nose with real depth underlying; sweet and minty, remarkably fresh with berry fruit still evident. Long and lovely. This has developed beautifully and is seamless from start to finish. 19  

Cockburn 1924

Another successful declaration overlooked by Cockburn. There is just one bottle of this wine left: pale tawny-orange; volatile on the nose, this is rather more thanvinagrinho; hot, sweet and edgy, orange peel with a burnt edge, quite exotic in style, much better on the palate than it is on the nose but I find it hard to award a mark.

Cockburn 1918

A fine harvest but ‘a miserable vintage’ in the words of Ernest Cockburn due to an outbreak of influenza, not generally declared: pale orange/amber; rich and aromatic, citrus peel aroma, high toned, rather heady and slightly sweaty; rich, thick cut marmalade character, still all there but rather coarse in style compared to its peers.  **/***

Cockburn 1908 *****

‘It seemed probable from the start that the year would be declared a vintage year’ wrote Ernest Cockburn and so it was for most shippers. Still with the original cork, this wine is now 107 years old and a real survivor: amazingly youthful in colour, still pink at the centre; heavenly aromas, floral and ethereal, still fresh and fragrant; rich and structured on the palate with beautiful bitter-sweet fruit and a tannic core, plenty of grip remaining on the finish, still fresh, upright and alive. Cockburn at its finest. 19.5

Cockburn 1868 *****

This is the first time I have tasted a Port from this vintage ‘classed as one of the best ever seen’ according to Ernest Cockburn. It coincides with the arrival of phylloxera which reached the Douro in 1863 but didn’t greatly reduce yields until the 1870s: remarkable pinkish colour, still looks youthful; fruit still very evident on the nose, fragrant and elegant (apparently this had some bottle stink on the nose when it was first opened but it soon dissipated); sweet cherry fruit, just drying out (but who cares!), tannins dry but still gripping with a lovely flourish of acidity keeping the finish alive. A ‘wow’ of a wine, the last two bottles of which were opened for the Bicentennial Tasting. 19           

Cockburn 1863

There was just one bottle of this wine and it was opened for this tasting. It proved to be ‘one of the outstanding years in the history of Vintage Port’ according to Ernest Cockburn who described the wines as ‘stout and fine’. Sadly this bottle did not quite live up to its billing: pale orange-amber; maderised and high toned on the nose with an aroma of wild honeysuckle; bitter-dry character initially with a vestige of honeyed sweetness leading to a long and lasting roast coffee finish. Showing its age but hardly surprising after 152 years! Hard to award a mark. It made the freshness of the 1868 (above) look all the more remarkable. 


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