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Wine Legends of 2011: Château d’Yquem 1921

Every month in the magazine we celebrate a different bottle of wine that we believe should be recognised as a 'wine legend', this year's selected 12 include Dom Perignon 1961, Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947 and Graham's Vintage Port 1945.

Wine Legends of 2011: Graham’s Vintage Port 1945

Graham’s Vintage Port 1945 Douro, Portugal

A legend because…

Although other shippers produced fine vintage Ports in 1945, Graham’s was exceptional. As Richard Mayson, the Decanter World Wine Awards Regional Chair for Port, notes, it is ‘among the finest vintage Ports declared this [20th] century’. Decanter’s veteran columnist Michael Broadbent declared in 1989 that it was ‘outstandingly the loveliest’ of the 1945 vintage Ports. Looking back In the first half of the 20th century, it was customary to ship much vintage Port to Britain to be bottled and released directly by importers. But the 1945 had to be bottled entirely in Portugal as there was a serious glass shortage in England in the aftermath of World War II. It was shipped in 1948, but a strict quota system imposed by the British government meant that only limited quantities of Port could be shipped each year. This was the consequence of the near bankruptcy of the UK after the war. Current MD of Symington’s (which owns Graham’s) Paul Symington says: ‘My father Michael recalls vividly the agony of choosing which wines to ship under our quota.’

The people

Graham’s was a family-run business from its founding in 1820 until 1970, when it was bought by the Symington family. The Grahams were major textile manufacturers as well as wine producers. Gerard Graham was the member of the family responsible for making the wine, assisted in the vineyards and winery by Leonard Flower and Charlie Guimaraens. Its principal quinta, Quinta dos Malvedos, was not acquired with the business in 1970, although the Symingtons changed their minds and bought it in 1982.

The vintage

As in France, this was a superb year, with a model growing season. Rain in late August was welcome rather than problematic. But the harvest took place from 6 September onwards under very hot conditions, making fermentation hard to control. All the major Port shippers except Cockburn declared the vintage, which has stood the test of time. The crop was far from enormous but neither was it as small as some have claimed.

The terroir

As is almost always the case with vintage Port, the grapes from which the final blend is composed are rarely the produce of a single quinta. This would certainly have been true of the 1945 Graham’s. According to Johnny Graham of the founding family, the bulk of the fruit would have come from Quinta das Lages in the Rio Torto valley, which had long been selling grapes to Graham’s and is renowned for its tannic wines. Although the 70-hectare Quinta dos Malvedos, on the north side of the Douro River just west of Tua, was the family’s best known vineyard, Johnny Graham is certain it played no part in the blend of the 1945.

The wine

Most of the quintas that supplied Graham’s trod their grapes by foot, and it is likely 1945 was made in the same way. It was bottled in Vila Nova de Gaia in 1947. Each of the major Port brands has its house style and Graham’s is no exception, being almost invariably the sweetest of the leading ‘British’ vintage Ports. Yet it is never cloying, thanks to the firm backbone of tannin supporting the fruit. Thus a Graham’s vintage Port can have youthful accessibility without impeding its ability to age 50 years.

The reaction

Michael Broadbent was a huge admirer of the wine, and in 1982 considered it at its peak, but far from tiring. Indeed by the late 1990s he was still responding with undiminished enthusiasm: ‘a sweet-smelling, fragrant yet powerful wine, still tannic, profound’. For US critic James Suckling, the 1945 is remarkable for its finesse and balance. In 1989 he described it as ‘ripe plum aromas, mediumbodied, with plenty of elegant, delicate plum flavours and a balance of rounded tannins on the finish.’ In 1999, Serena Sutcliffe MW, head of Sotheby’s international wine department, remarked on the wine’s ‘terribly fresh, extraordinarily rich, strong, alcoholic flavour married to sheer, petal-like glycerol’. D ‘Outstandingly the loveliest of the 1945s’ Michael Broadbent

The facts

  • Bottles produced: 80,000

  • Composition: N/A

  • Yield (hectolitres/hectare): 22hl/ha approx

  • Alcohol level: 21%

  • Release price: £40 per case [stated by James Suckling but unconfirmed by the Symingtons]

  • Price today: £660-£935 per bottle

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