Welcome to this latest chapter of MWH Wines’ guide to the finest vintage Port shippers.  In this blog we turn our attention to that most classical of shippers, Dow.

At MWH Wine Merchants, vintage Port isn’t just our business, it’s our passion.  Over the decades we have been fortunate enough to taste thousands of wines from dozens of shippers.  We’ve enjoyed everything from cask samples of young glories such as the 1997s through to venerable old wines including the 1963s by way of fabled idiosyncrasies like that of Port rarest of gems, Quinta do Noval’s Nacional.  

Such a breadth of tasting experience, coupled with more than a little research into these fascinating fortified fine wines, has left us well-placed to answer the one of the most frequently asked questions regarding Port: Which is the best shipper?

While this ultimately this is a question of personal taste – are you seeking power of finesse? Elegance or flamboyance?  Immediacy or longevity? – there are some producers that have over the years placed themselves above their peers by producing wines that have something extra special about them. 

In total these uber producers number around half a dozen or so and their consistent excellence makes them the only true contenders for the best shipper crown.  In this latest MWH Wine blog as to which is the best vintage Port producer, we’ll follow on from posts on Taylor’s, Fonsecaand Quinta do Noval and turn our attention to one of the world’s most famous shippers, Dow.

Dow: A Little History

Since their founding in 1798, Dow have become a by-word for Port excellence.  At every level, from their ‘basic’ Ruby through to their often-mesmerising vintage wines, their production is classical, painstakingly made and represents excellent value.  Founded by one Bruno da Silva, a successful Oporto businessman, Bruno was unusual in that he came to England to set up his shipping business rather than travelling from England as most of the great firms’ founders did.  Such was his acumen that the business thrived – despite the intrusion of the Napoleonic Wars – and his son John inherited a thriving concern.

In 1862 John went into partnership with another shipper, Frederick Cosens and it became known as Silva & Cosens.  Then, in a move that is so typical of the close-knit community that is the wine trade, they were joined by one George Acheson Warre – yes, one of those Warre – and in 1877 they merged with the small but revered company of Dow & Co.  The coming together of these three firms with the directors’ respective areas of excellence - John,  business,  George’s winemaking prowess and James Dow’s wine trade knowledge – proved a recipe for success that has helped make Dow what it is today, Port royalty.

Dow’s Style

If one had to define Dow’s wines’ style – which isn’t an easy task given the character variation that individual vintages are bound to impart – words such as ‘concentrated’, ‘tannic’, ‘austere’ and ‘uncompromising’ would probably be included.  They have something in common with Taylor’s in their precision, a little of Graham in their nuance and a little of Warre in their classicism.  That is not to say that they are a mere meld of other shippers’ wines;  that would be an unfair and untrue.  No, Dow’s wines are very much a product of their own vines and their creators’ technical brilliance and the quality is exceptional. 

When it comes to their vintage wines, wines which they were already famous for at the end of the 19th century, they can seem reserved and unrewarding when young.  This can put inexperienced tasters off - I recall my first encounter with them with the lean 1980 and wondering what all the fuss was about.  Even seasoned critics can mark them down as being too reserved and too tannic in their infancy and the truth is that in youth these can be difficult wines to love.  Even in more generous and softer years such as 1975 or 1983, they are wines that challenge on release, but give them time and they bloom into sublime examples that have an almost Burgundian peacock’s tail of nuance and flavour that few can match.

If you want to enjoy their great wines younger, then look to their single quinta wines, Quinta do Bomfim and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira.  In common with other leading producers, Dow draw much of their fruit from these owned farms and they form the foundations of their vintage wines.  Stylistically they bear the hallmarks of their (even) grander sibling, but they are more approachable young.  I have always found Bomfim to be a splendid wine; concentrated and refined with great power and finesse but with an approachability that makes it far more accessible.

As for Senhora da Ribeira this can be a gloriously rich and decadent wine that oozes black fruit concentration, sweetness and spice.  Since 2001 it has been made using ‘robotic’ lagares.  These large concrete tanks are fitted with machines that exactly replicate the method of crushing grapes under foot; something that is not only romantically traditional but which has been proven to make finer wines.  These hi-tech lagares offer multiple advantages over humans, however, in that temperature control is easier, resource is on-hand at all times and there’s an added level of regulation.  When married up with Dow’s other traditional winemaking techniques, the results are truly breath-taking.

Which Vintages To Go For?

In common with the other contenders to the vintage Port throne, Dow’s fastidious approach to quality means that if a vintage is declared then you are assured a spectacular bottle.  Given their style there are some vintages that need (even) more time than usual.  Great years such as the 1945, 1963, 1966 and 1977 will be drinking wonderfully in another 50 years, while lighter years such as 1975 and 1980 will always be leaner than some other shippers.  Below are some of our favourite Dow vintages:

1945, 1947, 1955, 1963, 1970, 1977, 1985, 1991, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2009, 2011

Dow: The Last Word In Refinement

Dow’s wines are undoubtedly up there with the region’s finest and they have a style that is all their own.  They are uncompromising and they need plenty of time in bottle, decanter and glass to show their extraordinary complexity.  Whilst a few have been quick to bemoan their lack of generosity in youth, we find that a small price to pay given the excellence that will finally be delivered.  I can’t say I’ve read too many reviews of great vintages of Latour where the taster has concluded, ‘Potentially great wine, but it won’t be drinkable for a few years so don’t bother.’  No, Dow’s reserve is central to what makes it such an intriguing and beautiful wine and as a shipper they are firmly contenders for coronation.

Like Some Vintage Port Help?

If you are looking for a specific wine then please get in touch by calling Mike on 0118 984 4654 or by emailing MWH Wines here.  A recognised authority on these wines, he’ll be happy to advise you on which wine is right for you.