Welcome to this latest chapter of MWH Wines’ guide to the finest vintage Port shippers.  In this blog we turn our attention to one of the most revered of all shippers, Graham.

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 DowTaylor’s, Fonsecaand Quinta do Noval and turn our attention to one of the world’s most famous shippers, Graham.

Graham Port: A Little History

W G Graham was founded in 1820 and remains a family-owned and run business – the fact that its owned by the Symington family who own half the Douro is neither here nor there!  In common with Champagne Ruinart who started in business as cotton merchants and gave champagne as gifts, William and John Graham came into the wine business by chance.  In 1820 they accepted 27 barrels of Port to settle a debt and on the back of it, these highly successful Scottish entrepreneurs founded what would soon become widely accepted as one of the leading lights in Port production.

In 1862 another Scot, one 19-year-old Andrew James Symington, arrived in Oporto and joined Graham.  A bold and ambitious young man, Symington spent a short time at Graham learning the ropes before going on to become a partner in both Warre and Dow in 1905 and in 1912 he founded the Symington’s, a business that would go on to become the largest and most important name in Port.  In 1970 Symington’s added Graham to their portfolio of properties, a fitting new star in a firmament that includes the likes of Dow, Warre and Cockburn’s.

Graham’s Style

Graham are in the fortunate position of being able to control every aspect of their production – from grape to glass as they say.  They are the proud possessors of some of the highest vineyards in the region – the altitude allowing for a slowly rate of maturity, longer-hang time on the vine and a wider diurnal temperature range (the difference in temperature between day and night) which aids complexity – and only use these grapes for their Ports.  Like many other great shippers – especially their great rivals Taylor’s – they are detail obsessives, with the winemaker overseeing every stage of the process and regularly tasting wines to check on their nascent evolution.  In another parallel with a great champagne house, in this case Bollinger, they have an in-house cooperage, the only one in the region. 

If one had to define Graham’s wines’ style – which isn’t an easy task given the character variation that individual vintages are bound to impart – words such as ‘concentrated’, ‘massive’, and ‘well-structured would probably be included.  They have something in common with Taylor’s in their precision and their power, but to our minds there’s just a little more generosity to Graham’s wines.  While they are often a tour de force, their vintage wines in youth can be about as approachable and easy to grasp as an electric eel.  But given sufficient time in bottle and the tannic walls will come down and little by little the glories that lie within are revealed. When ready – and this can take years if not decades – they often reveal wines that are simultaneously powerful and delicate. They offer plenty of sweetly toned red and black fruits before delivering note of black cherries, kirsch, mint, chocolate and herbs that are underpinned by a distinct minerality.

If you want to enjoy a taste of Graham’s great wines younger then look to their single quinta wine, Quinta dos Malvedos. Malvedos is at the heart of their vintage wines and the quality is stellar.  Made in the same uncompromising fashion, these wines are a touch – and I do mean a touch – lighter and mature slightly more quickly.  They are still capable of lasting for decades and in good, but undeclared, years such as 1962, they can be absolutely joyous.

Which Vintages To Go For?

In common with the other contenders to the vintage Port throne, Graham’s obsessive attitude towards quality means that if a vintage is declared then you are assured of 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 have a richness and depth than may be lacking in some other shippers.  Below are some of our favourite Graham vintages:

1927, 1945, 1948, 1955, 1963, 1970 (arguably their greatest post 1945) 1977, 1985, 1991, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2011

Graham: The Uncrowned King of Port?

It is hard to argue against the coronation of Graham. Their wines – down to their everyday wines – are exceptional – and their commitment to quality is admirable. Tasting a glass of their 1963 or 1970 is to enjoy something of other-worldly complexity and nuance wrapped up in a warming, utterly compelling glassful.  All that stops us reaching for the crown is memories of wines like Taylor’s 1970, Warre’s decadent 1985 or the immortal Quinta do Noval Nacional 1963.  When we started out on our consideration of which is the best Port shipper, we knew it would be a close call.  But reflecting on some of the wines we’ve had from Graham it does seem that the picture has become a little clearer.

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.