As Churchill’s undergoes a brand refresh and launches Grafite, a new range of still table wines from the Douro, so founder Johnny Graham tells Victor Smart about the need for change in the business he set up 41 years ago. Appealing to a new generation of drinkers, competing with the raft of other winemakers in the Douro and slowly handing over control to his daughter Zoe are all part of Graham’s masterplan.
“The new name, Grafite (graphite in English), is the word the firm’s winemakers often use to describe the mineral quality of the wines, produced by the native schist and granite soils in the Quinta da Gricha winery.”
The Buyer last went to a tasting of Churchill’s wines four years ago. Much has changed since, but then again, much is the same. Then we were at the Douro Bar London Bridge. This time we are at the newer Douro City Bar in Finsbury Square also decked out in iconic Portuguese blue and white tiles. Then Churchill’s was a family-run business with two lines: port and table wines. That too is the same. Then Johnny Graham was head honcho; that’s not changed either, although now he is gradually shifting control across to his daughter, Zoe, and other family members; like the port they make, you can’t hurry things at this family business.
Johnny set up Churchill’s in 1981 as a stripling in his late twenties. In the ‘nineties they purchased a 100-hectare property, Quinta da Gricha, on the south bank adjacent to Roriz in the Cima Corgo. Today the firm bills itself as a maker of Boutique Port and Douro wine which pretty much captures things. As his daughter has begun to move centre stage, the firm has permitted itself a brand refresh; nothing too extreme, nothing BrewDog.
But the brand logo in no longer all capitalised and there are some rather stylish diamond-shaped labels for the ports emblazoned with ‘MINIMAL INTERVENTION for finest character’. The table wines have been renamed as Grafite with nicely drawn contemporary labels taken from the winery’s terracing; on these still wines Churchill’s Estates gets just a small, unobtrusive mention.
10-30 year old Churchill’s ports
The firm has two tales to tell; let’s start with the heritage brand – the ports. Port is Johnny’s life, a consuming passion. From the outset his mission has been to make his offering drier and fresher than his competitors. The grapes are bought in but handpicked, foot crushed in the traditional way and the yeast is non-inoculated. Typically, they add a bit less brandy and instead have rather more alcohol derived from the grapes.
Zoe’s task is now to wake up the world (or younger drinkers, at least) to port’s charms.
“One of the challenges we face as a category is how to re-introduce port to a new generation of drinkers,” she says. “We want to go beyond the cocktail-mixing directed at this target market to make port a desirable icon of luxury and beauty as this generation defines it.”
Let’s start our tasting journey with the 10 Year Old Tawny at £30 a bottle (19.5 ABV, 101 g/l residual sugar). There are notes of dried fruits and orange peel. But the thing that makes a real impression is the fullness on the mouth coupled with the appealing freshness. As we move up the range even more finesse and elegance start to emerge. The 20 Year Old Tawny is a big step up and then with the 30 Year Old Tawny (19.5 ABV 114/gl) retailing at £80 a bottle there’s a sense of occasion just in sipping it. The dried fruits and orange peel are still there but it is the long velvety finish and, well, lusciousness, that is memorable.
Serving the ports chilled is essential. For the cheaper wines the advice is not to be too precious about this. Put them in the fridge and if they a bit too cold they will soon warm up. For the pricier wines, chilling in the fridge for at least 20 minutes is still vital.
Note to self: stick a bottle of port in the fridge then imbibe as an aperitif over the course of the week.
Grafite: a totally new approach to the table wines
Moving on to the table wines and Churchill’s is competing foursquare with other winemakers from the now well-discovered Douro Valley. The new name, Grafite (graphite in English), is the word the firm’s winemakers often use to describe the mineral quality of the wines, produced by the native schist and granite soils in the Quinta da Gricha winery.
Take the Tinta Roriz 2019 (13.5% ABV) which sells at £20 a bottle. A third of the wine is aged for 12 months in French oak cask; the remaining part is kept in stainless steel tanks to maintain fruitiness. Touriga Nacional 2014 (13.5% ABV), sells at the same price. Made 100% from the Touriga varietal this is aged for 12 months in second and third year French oak, thereby ensuring that the oak doesn’t dominate. These reds stand out as well-made, balanced wines, not over-extracted that are likely to have immediate appeal to contemporary drinkers.
The Churchill’s bottles themselves are lightweight, rather than unnecessarily massive. A thoughtful environmental gesture from this traditional yet somehow thoroughly modern winemaker.