We all have dirty secrets in out past, and here is one of mine. The first bottle of port I had was Cockburns Special Reserve. The year was 2001, I’d never tried port before and I didn’t like it.
I’d be lying if I could say I remembered what it tasted like, but I do remember that it was ‘Cockburns (anything with a funny name sticks in your mind) Special Something-or-other’ and that I really didn’t like it. In the eight years following, I’ve been exposed to other ports, my palate has changed, and now, it is my favorite style of wine. I don’t drink it often, but have more bottles of vintage port than any other wine in my cellar.
But I’ve never gone back to Cockburns Special Reserve since. I’ve tried a few of their vintages, and thought they were decent enough, but not their entry level port, until last week.
I was invited by Maxxium UK to try Cockburns current releases, plus a few vintages, at the Deseo Restaurant at Gleneagles. In the very impressive, yet informal, surroundings of their ‘food market restaurant’, we were treated to a food and wine matching with some of the ports.
First up was my nemesis! The Cockburns Special Reserve, that had almost put me off port for good. Prejudices put aside, I found that I actually enjoyed it! It had a very berry dominated nose, with some caramel aspects coming through, with cloves and aniseed peppered throughout. The palate was a bit light for my normal tastes, but had a bit of tannin up front which was nice and gave it some guts. Tobacco flavours came next, with a lot of spice, with it all being rounded up with strawberry and cherry flavoured tobacco. As a basic port, it is not bad. I still wouldn’t buy it at it’s full retail price, but when the supermarkets slash the price of this at Christmas, buy a case, it will be great for making gravy for venison and sneaking the odd glass for yourself whilst you are cooking! (7/10)
We moved on to the 2004 Cockburns Late Bottle Vintage, and this was a bit of a surprise. Cockburns always goes for a slightly drier style of port to the other big houses, and the LBV was exactly that. A very soft nose, and with a dusty, cocoa and leather aroma arriving before the sweet fruit. The palate was very savoury, with dusty spice, cinnamon bark and dark chocolate dominating the strawberry and bramble. It is almost as though someone had got a fruit compote, and dusted it with lots of spiced cocoa powder. As a wine on it’s own, it would be a little trickier to drink because of the savoury elements needing food, but because of that, it actually endeared itself to me more! I scored it 8/10, and then had it with a little Amuse-bouche of chicken liver, shallots and parsley. WOW! The wine added a lovely sweet layer to the chicken livers, and the savoury elements of the wine balanced the pungent element of the liver. It was outstanding.
Deviating from ruby ports into tawny saw us trying the ten and twenty year olds. The Cockburns 10 year old Tawny was very lively and fresh. Nutmeg, and marmalade on the nose, but not very complex. The palate was a touch thin, with dried citrus peel and raisins. Saltier elements come flying through, and whilst it was nice, it really wasn’t that special. (7/10) Pairing it with custard tarts was almost as good as the previous pairing, with a lovely creamy element being revealed in the wine, however, the sweet tart drew out the alcohol of the wine, and it became very unpleasant. The 20 year old Tawny has a lovely clove and orange aroma, with light floral elements. The palate is balanced, the alcohol is well integrated with a spicy dried fruit coming through. There is a slightly burnt caramel and vanilla element on the palate too. Seeing that this was to be paired with Crème Brulee made me think this would be another perfect pairing but it wasn’t to be. The outstanding dessert hauled a dry, alcoholic element out the port resulting in a horrific pairing. The theory was bang on, the execution was not.
The first vintage port came along next, the 2007 Cockburns Quinta dos Canais. This was very interesting. A light, style of port, lots of fresh raspberries, strawberries with hints of herbs and a nod towards some chocolate elements. The palate was sweet strawberries, quite herbal, with raspberry zing and then some cocoa and dried herbs. This is a very drinkable, and enjoyable, port. It has’t got a lot of depth though. (8/10 for drinking now) It was paired with a red berry jelly with basil, and again, the execution didn’t match up to the theory. Firstly, the basil leaf on the top of the jelly was a stroke of genius. It went so well with the herbal aspect of the wine. The red berry jelly would have worked too, but it was too light, with not enough fruit and not sweet enough. Though it was delicious on it’s own, the port – even though it was light – simply dominated the pairing. A shame, because this could have been magical.
Then we tried the last three vintages of Cockburns port. The 2000 vintage had a lot of sweet bramble on the nose, some eucalyptus and fresh mint too. A floral element comes through and is then followed by lots of alcohol and lots of spice. Very dry leathery flavours, with not much fruit, and berry stalks galore. A decent wine, certainly, but at a terrible point in its evolution. A nice flavour of sweet tobacco on the clean finish though. 6/10 at the moment.
Moving onto the 2003 vintage, it was a lot lighter and fruitier than the 2000. Aromas of cassis and then strawberry and cinnamon bark as well. It is very inviting. The palate has sweet berries at first, and then a lot of spice. Dried leather comes along next with a beef jerky sweetness. Lots of alcohol and then it softens with chocolate and juicy fruit. Again, it decides to get vicious on the finish, with lots of spice, almost too much, on the finish. A massive port, still in it’s youth and drinking well if you like a rollercoaster ride in your mouth. 7/10 at the moment, though I’d wait 20 years!
Finally, the latest release from Cockburns, the 2007 vintage. The more I try wines from this vintage, the more I realise that port producers are changing their wines. They are becoming more drinkable in their youth, probably to appeal to the emerging markets around the world who don’t want to wait a generation to drink their wine. There are a few exceptions of course, and Cockburns is one of them. The nose was very closed, you had to really search for the cherry and stewed plums that fought to stay hidden. Eucalyptus comes off and you notice a veggie element too. The palate has dark chocolate, bonfire toffee, treacle and it is quite dark and tannic. There is some sweet fruit, chocolate and a little toffee too in your mouth, but generally, this is quite tight. A dry leather finish. I think this is a sleeper, put it away for at least two decades, and you will have a delightful port at the end of it. 8/10 (possibly up to 9/10 with time)
I’m really glad to have been able to taste this old port house’s wines, and was pleasantly surprised at the entry level wines, particularly the Special Reserve and the LBV. Like all my colleagues in the wine industry, we often overlook the basic wines, like Special Reserve, that kept the company alive for numerous decades and have, to a degree, subsidised the production of the company’s top wines. That day at Gleneagles made me come away with a new respect for an old product.