Old Tawnies from the Symington Family (as well as three Vintage Ports)

Staged at New Armouries in the Tower of London in November 2018, this was Paul Symington’s last UK tasting and presentation before his retirement as Chairman at the end of the year.  The wines shown were, I think, Paul’s choice. Tawny Port has shown an extraordinary increase in demand with global sales have grown by €21.3 million over the last 7 years. I recall Paul Symington telling me some years ago that the repackaging and rebirth of the family’s tawny ports was one of his proudest creations. The Symington’s lay claim to the largest stock of Ports in existence amounting to 16,855 casks and the equivalent of a further 29,370 casks held in oak toneis and vats. This entails seven coopers working full time to maintain and repair the wood. Many of the pipes or casks are 80 – 100 years old. This tasting included some of their finest tawnies and colheitas (known as ‘single harvest tawny’) including a previously unseen 1969 single harvest Port from Cockburn. Notes on the three vintage Ports shown prior to the tawnies can be found at the end of the tawny tasting.  

Graham’s Twenty Year Old Tawny ****

This wine did not show well at the Decanter World Wine Awards earlier in the year but was much better here. Lovely mid-amber / tawny colour; spicy yet restrained milk chocolate character, soft and seamless on the palate retaining just a vestige of tannic spice leading to a lovely clean toffee and butterscotch finish, elegant and not too sweet.  17.5 

Dow’s Twenty Year Old Tawny ***/****

Deeper and more youthful in appearance than Graham, still garnet at the centre with a thin amber rim; demure on the nose, reserved with a touch of creamy fruit character; primary berry fruit much more evident on the palate, soft and mellow initially with a tannic bite mid-palate, still tastes young and peppery so not really a twenty year old in my book, almonds and fresh berry fruit on the finish which is drier than the Graham’s and characteristically Dow in style. A ‘structured tawny’ in their words, rather idiosyncratic but a lovely wine nonetheless. 16.5  

Graham’s 1994 Single Harvest Tawny ****

Slightly deeper amber tawny than the Graham’s twenty year old (above); soft and mellifluous on the nose, lifted honeysuckle; super-smooth and creamy, seamless with just a dusting of residual tannin around the edges and on the finish. Long cream-toffee character, richer in style than the twenty year old. Glorious wine.  18

Graham’s  1982 Single Harvest Tawny *****

Just 6 pipes of this wine were bottled for the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry to Megan Markle in 2018.  Over 50% of the wine set aside had been lost to evaporation. Very pale amber-tawny, delicate both in colour as well as on the nose, beautifully nuanced and silky-smooth (taffeta), toffee apple freshness with a touch of dryness and a supremely elegant creamy finish.  Very fine: this delicate refinement is my style of tawny. 19    

Dow’s Forty Year Old Tawny ****/*****

Still quite deep in colour, grading from garnet to mahogany-green on the rim; savoury, woody and still a touch spikey on the nose, rich but still quite structured, quince marmalade and all-spice, made in a dry style so there is nothing cloying on the finish unlike some forty year old tawnies which can be intensely sweet; rich, polished wine, akin to a beautiful mahogany dining table. Lovely old wine.  18.5 

Graham’s 1972 Single Harvest Tawny ****/*****

There were just 9 pipes of this wine after an average evaporation rate of 56% and 550 cases were released in 2018, priced at £215 a bottle. Much deeper  amber-mahogany than the 1982; distinctly lifted  on the nose and singing from the glass, orange marmalade fruit with savoury complexity underlying; similar orange marmalade richness on the palate with a touch of mint and eucalyptus, the sweetness is offset, like an old madeira, by lively acidity which leads into a long, fresh yet almost exotic finish. 18.5   

Cockburn’s 1969 Single Harvest Tawny *****

This is a wine brought to London from cask especially for this tasting. The year is significant because it marked the launch of Cockburn’s Special Reserve which transformed sales and marketing of Port, first in the UK then worldwide. The subsequent demand for quality grapes helped to transform the Douro.  Cockburn’s lay claim to having more wine in wood than any other Port company. Mid-deep amber / mahogany in colour; lovely, slightly lifted orange marmalade character, a touch of balsamic vinagrinho; vibrant orange and quince richness with just a dusting of tannic spice, maderised (in a good way), multilayered and mellifluous with fresh apple-like acidity keeping it all together and alive. A ‘wow’ of a wine. 19.5

Graham’s 1963 Single Harvest Tawny ****/*****

From one of the great years of the twentieth century, a wine aged for over fifty years in cask: mid amber/tawny in hue; soft yet demure dried fig character on the nose; similarly soft and seamless on the palate, richness and texture of age offset by citrusy acidity towards the finish. Very settled: nothing high toned here. Long dryish finish yet curiously rich at the same time.  18.5     

 Graham’s Ninety Years Port *****

No, this is not a new Port category but a wine bottled to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday. It is a blend of three venerable wines from 1912, 1924 and 1935, priced at £800 a bottle. Deep mahogany with a distinct torrefaction character on the nose of coffee beans and chocolate, underlying toffee-like concentration and richness; intensely sweet quince marmalade character, glorious richness and texture, toffee and butterscotch with wonderful velvety complexity offset by fresh citrusy acidity and leading to a glorious finish. 19 

Three vintage Ports:  

Graham 2016  *****

From late-picked grapes after mid-September rain in 2016, declared earlier in 2018: deep, opaque colour; lovely vibrant perfumed aromas, now closing in; fresh, delicate initially, laced with fruit and firm, fine grained tannins which gradually build in the mouth, pepper and spice, not a massive wine but supremely well poised and balanced with a touch of Graham’s characteristic opulence on the finish.  19

Graham 1994 

1994 marked a turning point for Vintage Port with new investment paying off as well as a return to traditional values after a volatile period from the early 1970s onwards.  Now 22 years old, this wine should be plateauing out to long-term drinkability: deep in hue at the centre, just turning on the rim; rather an ugly, flat nose, perhaps a touch oxidised and possibly a poor bottle; sweet and smooth initially on the palate, lovely rich, fleshy fruit and firm tannins rising in the mouth leading to a firm finish, suggesting that this wine still needs time. Better on the palate than on the nose. Reserve judgement. 

Graham 1963 *****

Landmark year marking the renaissance of vintage Port after the Second World War when the wines were released in 1965. There are just 500 bottles left in the Graham’s lodge: lovely colour, still deep at the centre; still tight-knit and all-together on the nose, a touch minty, angular, needing time in the glass to open up; gloriously seductive on the palate, silky opulence characteristic of Graham, fine tannins rising in the mouth, leading to a vibrant finish. Still surprisingly tight knit after all these years. Anyone born in 1963 certainly has a wine for life.  19 


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