Churchill’s Port has been going for 37 years as a brand and using its own grapes for half that time. Victor Smart met up with Churchill’s head honcho to taste through a variety of library vintages and find out why this relatively new port house sees itself as on a cusp between old school tradition and modern day drinking.
All in all we taste eleven vintages of Churchill’s – the 2011 being the youngest to deliver a real wow factor.
Once port did not have to strive to be ‘relevant’. Now its history and the formality surrounding how it is drunk seems to weigh on its appeal: port has a powerful narrative behind it, yet not the sort of narrative which millennials in particular apparently find ‘relatable’.
If one man can reverse that it’s John Graham who has headed up the Churchill’s brand since it came into being in 1981.
On the face of it Graham looks pretty old school. He’s a purist. But his fondness (“love” may not be too strong a word) for the vintages his company has produced is infectious; an evening with him at the vibrant Bar Douro opened by his son, Max, in Flat Iron Square near London Bridge would win over all but the most recalcitrant drinker.
In Portugal itself port is drunk enthusiastically but not always with ceremony: drinking porto tonico – that’s white port, lashings of tonic and a simple citrus garnish – has been a big craze especially among younger clientele. Tawnies are popular too. The head of Churchill’s is all for port-based cocktails, with the lower alcohol content well below that of spirits commending itself to some drinkers.
But when it comes to distinguished vintages, a little formality is still essential.
Some of Churchill’s older vintages are only available in what Graham describes as library quantities, occasionally in magnums. Somewhat unorthodoxly, Graham opts to take us through the years starting with the most recent 2016 and then moving through nine vintages before concluding with the earliest, 1982.
To my mind, the 2011 is the first to create a real wow factor with a full, dark colour, fantastic acidity and a long finish. (Peak drinking won’t be until 2038 to 2048, though!).
The 2000 vintage, meanwhile, marks a milestone – the first of Churchill’s vintages where the firm started using grapes grown on its Quinta da Gricha estate. This is rich and complex on the palate with plenty of acidity and good tannins.
Going back into the twentieth century the 1997 vintage takes us to new heights. There are noticeable menthol notes and an elegant grip and acidity. Overall it’s my favourite yet we are journeying back still further. The 1985 has a rich mahogany colour and an excellent freshness and plenty of length. And finally we arrived at the 1982. With a medium-amber colour and warm spicy nose this will remain at its peak for another decade.
Graham takes the view that no vintage can be pinned down prematurely – given another decade who knows what heights a particular year may reach? But the overall picture is clear enough: Churchill’s are wines marked out by an excellent structure and natural acidity that any discerning person should be able to relate to.