It is almost a full year since I participated in a grand Graham’s Vintage Port vertical tasting in West Palm Beach, Florida. The occasion? Bob and Arlette Catalado’s: The Great Wine Seminar.
After a hedonistic weekend of drinking other verticals of wonderful wines, last but not least came fourteen fabulous Vintage Ports. I was invited by the Cataldo’s to sit along side Rupert Symington who is the Joint Managing Director of the Symington Family Estates, to provide “color commentary” during the tasting. To see the line up of about 50 bottles (to serve the 70+ wine lovers) was most impressive.
Rupert provided a thorough historical perspective of the vintages and the Graham’s Port house, which his family purchased from the Graham family back in 1970. I thought I would have some great photos taken of the tasting and of Rupert, (and me) but my brother who excels at many things must not have been spitting his Port.
Here are the ratings of all 14 vintages of Graham’s Vintage Ports going back in time with all major declarations from 2003 to 1945. My conclusions follow the tasting notes. Thanks to Arlette, Bob and Rupert for a fantastic opportunity to try such a great lineup of extraordinary Ports!
2003 Graham’s Vintage Port – Opaque purple color. Floral fragrances abound with blackberry and black pepper highlights. Gotta love this kind of juicy sweet, classic Graham’s propped up by full throttle cassis and plum flavors. It shows crisp underpinnings of acidity and lively tannins that are round enough to make this very approachable at the moment. Focused and with deft balance, the mid-palate is still a bit austere. Unquestionably an excellent young Vintage Port with fine long term prospects. Is this the reincarnation of the 1966? It should be at its best around 2030-2040. 96+ points (3/12/06)
2000 Graham’s Vintage Port – Inky and opaque. There was an enjoyable minty freshness on the nose with delicate floral notes and dark berry fruit. It’s built in a seriously full-bodied, take no prisoners style. The tannins are quite a bit more aggressive than the 2003 and more omnipresent on the lead up to the fruit filled finish with a powerful cocoa and berry aftertaste. The Y2K version of Graham’s VP is one of the finest Ports of the vintage. Keep your hands off this one until around 2035-2045, if you can. 97+ points (3/12/06)
1994 Graham’s Vintage Port – Magenta in color. It is a great pleasure to try this bottling again as I know it has probably been close to to five years since my last visit. An expansive nose of violets, spice and poached plums set this Port off beautifully. Although still quite ripe and sweet as well, there is great depth and richness here, along with power and symmetry. Another classic Graham’s which goes down easy and has the stuffing for a very long life ahead. The tannins have taken a back seat to the fruit which is saying a mouthful, but excellent structural components will provide staying power to at least 2040. 96+ points (3/12/06)
1985 Graham’s Vintage Port – A sip of the ’85 is like falling in love on a first date after a great kiss. It is big, ripe and sexy. This Graham’s is always a crowd favorite and along with the Fonseca, it vies for Port of the vintage. Having reached 21, it is now old enough to drink, while still showing off its youthful spirit. Similar in color to the ’94, maybe just a shade lighter in the Magenta range. It offers brambly blackberry fruit along with ripe cassis and delivers a provocative, yet slightly hot but beguiling aftertaste. Very drinkable now but will be at its best from 2020-2030. 94+ points (3/12/06)
1983 Graham’s Vintage Port – This is the second Port I ever purchased and I always have a soft sport for it. At 23 this is heading towards a mid-life crisis for collectors: drink or hold? If you have a case, then I suggest both. Right now it shows off a precocious personality, ultimately harmonious and enjoyable at the moment. Yet the tannins are still quite ripe today and the spirit is noticeable on the finish but that just might be the decanting regimen used for this bottle. This should improve over the next decade and then I will be drinking mine at about 35 years old. 93 points (3/12/06)
1980 Graham’s Vintage Port – Offering a medium ruby color with less overt sweetness than usual for Graham’s and a dark berry profile. I am a fan of the 1980 vintage in general and after Dow, the Graham is right at the top of the vintage. It is much softer than all younger Graham’s bottlings in this vertical lineup but is extremely generous, especially on the juicy and smooth finish. Well-knit and no heat whatsoever, this is getting closer to maturity now, but will continue to drink beautifully from 2010-2020. 92 points (3/12/06)
1977 Graham’s Vintage Port – The nose shows some spicy elements and an herbal essence that add intricacy to the fresh raspberry aroma that showed no outward sign of spirit. Finally! I have never been a fan of this VP and it has always been a thorn in my side, even when put in front of me in a handful of “blind” tests (“let’s fool Roy”). However, this particular bottle made me think that at nearly 30, this wine has finally hit its stride. The alcohol did not stand out like a sore thumb which has been my main concern in every previous tasting. On the contrary, this seemed like a well-integrated, soft and smooth Port with plenty of stuffing. Bottles of this quality should drink best circa 2015-2025. 93+ points (3/12/06)
1970 Graham’s Vintage Port – When the ’70 Graham’s is spot on, it is one of my all-time favorites by this illustrious Shipper. This bottle delivered in spades! It’s a 36 year old gem that just keeps getting better with every sample I get to try. I don’t open my bottles yet, as I think the upside here is well worth the wait, but I love it and this example is showing a bright and youthful ruby color with no bricking. The ‘70 is a complete VP and pretty close to perfection even at this point. All components are in synch with a lovely and sexy nose lead by fresh flowers, spice and boysenberry with finely knit subdued tannins only noticeable late in the game. The symmetry here is remarkable and the flavors and finish meld into one fine, sumptuous swallow. A long life is still ahead for this exemplary Graham’s and I suggest it will drink best circa 2010-2020. 97+ points (3/12/06)
1966 Graham’s Vintage Port – I’ve found a bit of bottle variation from this vintage, this being one of the better examples. The ‘66 still has some upside improvement and will probably hold on during a long plateau when it finally reaches full maturity almost a decade from now. Surprisingly, this delivered a bigger impression than the ’70 which is a personal favorite of mine, from the same year that Graham’s sold to the Symington’s. This particular bottling showed no hints as to its 40 years of age and still had a superb structure in place. I’d have given another point or so, except for a bit of heat on the palate which also showed spirit on the otherwise sublime finish. It will drink best circa 2005-2015. 94 points (3/12/06)
1963 Graham’s Vintage Port – I have had significantly better examples of the ’63 Graham’s but this was still a good bottle, just not as great as some from the past couple of years. Medium ruby color with a touch or orange to the rim. The nose offered Asian spice, anise and raspberry and the red fruits translated to the palate as well, with a layered mid-palate that provided a focused insight to the core of this Port. It should drink best circa 2010-2020. 93 points (3/12/06)
1960 Graham’s Vintage Port – Light pink color showing some advanced bricking on the edge. This is fully mature if not past peak. There is a slight medicinal note which was a distraction. The light and simple approach is still enjoyable in a fully evolved style that is starting to fade into a decent Tawny, albeit with a solid finish. This was at its best circa 1995-2000 and I would not cellar these any longer. 86 points (3/12/06)
1955 Graham’s Vintage Port – I have had more examples of the Graham’s from this vintage than any other producer and it never fails to bring a smile to my face. This was just a bit lighter and also more advanced than a couple of other recent bottles. Light ruby with a pink hue on the rim; with the nose of geraniums, mocha and wild berries. This is a delicious medium-bodied Graham’s that typically shows more weight. Yet there is still a hint of tannins that show up on the everlasting finish. The generous and soft mouth filling juice offers textural pleasure and is fun to roll over the tongue. Slightly more advanced on the palate with some honeyed, caramel and treacle flavors. Bottles of this ilk will drink best circa 1995-2010, but some of the more fully charged ‘55s may last up to an extra decade. 95 points (3/12/06)
1948 Graham’s Vintage Port – At 58, this is simply a gorgeous example of why ’48 is considered one of the very best vintages of the 20th century. The light pinkish-ruby color shows just a moderate amount of bricking and it would be difficult to ascertain its age from the color alone. Sweet cherry and a backdrop of almonds provides a marvelous if not profound palate presence with layers upon layers of rich and velvety cocoa flavors on a mind blowing persistent finish with hazelnut nuances. Although the tannins are fully resolved here, this beauty is held together with stunningly vibrant acidity. A joy ride in the mouth and this should drink well for at least another decade if this bottle is representative. 96+ points (3/12/06)
1945 Graham’s Vintage Port – It is hard to believe this is a 61 year old VP, as it shows its uncanny youthfulness and yet it is so Graham’s by nature. The refreshing mint adds an exotic quality to the elegant raspberry fruit. On the palate there is a seamless transition from the stuffed mid-palate to the smooth and sensuous aftertaste. Wonderfully complex and great length to the finish. Wow! 95 points (3/12/06)
Conclusions: As one can determine from my notes and scores, Graham’s Vintage Port deserves its place in the top tier of the Port Wine industry and I still have them ranked at #4 overall for Vintage Ports. I have had all of the above vintages on at least two prior occasions, but only one pre-’45 Graham’s Vintage Port, a great bottle of 1927. When I compare Graham’s to the Shippers that I place #1-#3, the reason is that I have had more older VPs from all of them and base my rankings on the entire 20th century, again curves, consistency etc. Is that fair to Graham’s? Well, it just gives me further data points on the other houses that rank higher, as I have been fortunate to try many of their really old bottles. Therein lays the difference.
But what really makes a Vintage Port producer great? For me it boils down to consistency at a very high quality level. With 14 vintages tasted above, only one scored less than 92 points. That is remarkable and the average comes out to a lofty 94 points. Remove the low scoring “lesser vintage” 1960 and the average nears 95 points for the other 13 vintages. What else do I need to say?