A few weeks ago in London, I was privileged to attend a historic vertical tasting of Cockburn’s Vintage Ports, dating back a century with two dozen wines present.

Included later in this issue, I’ve written an article, part of the “Vertically Speaking” series, which characterizes this event in picture and prose, replete with tasting notes. I can’t think of a better occasion to offer a profile of this esteemed Port shipper.

The story of a natural born trader leads us to the founding of Cockburn’s Port company. Just after Napoleon met his match at Waterloo, Robert Cockburn, a soldier of Scottish descent who had been part of Wellington’s army, became a purveyor of Port wine and other Portuguese perishables. He established Cockburn’s, Wauchope & Co. (which later changed to Cockburn Smithes & Ca. S.A. and finally, just Cockburn’s). This is the same Robert Cockburn who was smitten with Ms. Mary Duff, well known to those who’ve read Lord Byron’s fawning words, written whilst he was still a young man. Cockburn married Duff and their heirs and partners went on to control the Port Shipper for nearly 150 years. They succeeded in opening a branch of their business in London and thus, England became a most vital market, enabling Cockburn’s Port to spread throughout the rest of the Port drinking world.

I was fortunate enough to meet Peter Cobb, an engaging and successful director of Cockburn’s in NYC at a Wine Spectator event a dozen years ago, before his retirement in 1999 (he now works for the IVDP). He was the last link to the Smithes branch of the Cockburn partnership and was part of the family-owned firm which was cash poor and had no choice but to sell shares to Harvey’s of Bristol (along with Martinez Gassiot) in 1962 & 1963. Later the company was sold again, this time to multi-national beverage concern that came to be known as Allied-Domecq.

Cockburn’s owns six quintas; four of which are located in the rustic Douro Superior, the most famous is the gem known as Quinta do Tua, (named for the nearby Tua River). The quinta dates back to the early 1800’s and since 1989, they’ve also owned Quinta dos Canais. Canais is an enormous property which grows intensely concentrated grapes, opposite Quinta de Vargellas, on the North bank of the upper Douro River -- not too far from the border with Spain. For about a century before buying Canais, Cockburn’s bought grapes from this property and it became the backbone of their Vintage Ports. Cockburn has occasionally bottled Single Quinta Vintage Ports from these two particular properties. Many hectares are vertically planted or “vinha ao alta” in the remote flat lands further North and away from the river bank, but lying still within the demarcated region. This type of vineyard layout permits Cockburn’s to incorporate mechanized farming with the help of tractors, which would otherwise be impossible on such steeply terraced hillsides elsewhere in the Douro.

Since the late 1970s, Cockburn’s has made great strides in their replanting efforts. They pioneered the concept and aggressively planted in “varietal blocks” to segregate the grape types. In fact, at one of their properties, they have 100 hectares solely dedicated to Touriga Nacional grapes, which underscore a significant commitment to this splendid cultivar. Lots of credit goes to Miguel Côrte-Real Gomes (Cockburn’s Commercial & Viticultural Director), known as one of Portugal’s most brilliant viticulturalists and a very talented Portmaker too.  Back in the late 1970’s, he worked as a vineyard manager for the company and has been with them ever since. Today, Miguel is considered a leading expert in canopy management and clonal selections and lectures at symposiums around the globe, on these and other vineyard related topics. Additionally, Miguel has a great sense of humor.

At the beginning of summer in 2006, I visited Portugal to arrange a special program for that year’s Port Harvest Trip, which included a seminar regarding the 250th Anniversary of the Douro’s demarcation. While in Gaia, the news broke about the Symington Family Estate’s (SFE) acquisition of Cockburn’s from Beam Global Spirits & Wine; which had taken over the ownership from Allied-Lyons, (owner of Harvey's of Bristol) which had changed their name to Allied Domecq after they acquired the Domecq family holdings. Allied Domecq was then sold in 2005 to Pernod Ricard and Beam Global.

Beam Global relinquished the vineyards, quintas, armazems, bottling lines, production facilities and of course, all of the maturing Port stocks. However, Beam did retain ownership of the Cockburn’s Wines & Spirits name and rights to manage the brand strategy as well as the sales/marketing and distribution. So, with lots of autonomy, Cockburn's Wines & Spirits continues to operate from their Lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia, managed by Miguel and assisted by a very capable team. Under a complex 20 year supply agreement between Cockburn's Wines & Spirits and the Symington Family Estates, we can be assured that the Cockburn's quality and house style will remain intact.

Ergo, the Symington’s, have gained further control over some pretty impressive properties and great quantities of young and ancient Port. Anytime a family-owned Port company can wrest control from a major beverage conglomerate that is spirits-centric, the focus tends to improve dramatically, as the core business remains the same. It will be interesting to observe how Cockburn’s Port and the staff become assimilated by SFE. But knowing the Symington’s values and prudent approach to running their successful Port business, I won’t be surprised in the least to see Cockburn’s return to the quality produced during their glory days. If indeed 2007 becomes a generally declared vintage, we will quickly see what Cockburn’s will deliver under SFE’s new stewardship.


Founded: 1815
Website:  Cockburn's
Address: Ruas das Corados, 4400-099, Gaia
Phone: +351 223-776-500
Owners: The Symington Family Estates
Winemaker: Miguel Côrte-Real Gomes

At the end of 2007, I started polling our Forum readers about their favorite Vintage Ports from specific Port shippers and producers. Join our conversation about Cockburn’s Vintage Ports.


A handful of Cockburn’s impressions from previous tastings:

Cockburn’s “Special Reserve” Port – I have had this wine many times, especially at trade tastings. Spicy raspberry and a mocha nuance show the house style for which this wine in particular has become the standard bearer. A gentle and warming, mostly dry finish persists. It is the number one selling Ruby Reserve (this category used to be called “Vintage Character”) and worldwide sales approach 250,000 cases a year. It may just be the single largest SKU sold in the UK. 88 points

Cockburn’s 10 year old Tawny Port – Orange-light ruby in color with a beige colored rim. Sweet nose of maple syrup, chestnut and ripe orange. Great aromatics! Medium bodied with fresh ruby fruit and just slightly nutty flavors and a hint of vanilla on the extroverted aftertaste that ends up quite dry in style. 88 points

Cockburn’s 20 year old Tawny Port – just slightly lighter in color towards the center than the 10 year old. This Cockburn Tawny offers fresh and clean nutty nuances on the nose with a bit off toffee. The medium body and soft silky elegance to this delicious wine is really fine and concentrated. The honeyed walnut flavor provides excellent length on the finish with velvety butterscotch on the aftertaste. A nice flavor progression from the 10 year old Tawny and a step up in drinking pleasure. 92 points

Cockburn’s 20 year old Tawny Port – I thoroughly enjoyed this tawny. The light brown color showed the enhancement of long term wood aging. The toasty hazelnut presence was warming and welcoming. The harmony of the nutty and vanilla flavors on the long and sumptuous finish are memorable. It would be a great accompaniment for those who enjoy Port with a cigar. 93 points