Imagine that you are born into one of the most famous Port Wine families; you are living in England and from early on you are surrounded by everything Port Wine. However, when you are still in school, a few years before you can start working, your family decides to sell the business… and with all your love to Port Wine you suddenly don’t have a company anymore to work with…
This happed to Johnny Graham. In 1970 his family sold the company and brand to the Symington Family – which was an incredibly lucky purchase, as the very next vintage (1970) turned out to be one really amazing Port and cemented (together with the 1977 Vintage a few years later) the stellar reputation of Grahams.
While Johnny didn’t have the opportunity to work in the company of his family, he decided anyhow in 1973 to move to Porto and to start working in the Port trade. He worked from 1973 to 1980 at Cockburn and was only 28 when he was made a director of the company (he also worked as a consultant for Taylor’s). He was passionate and driven and successful and… well, something was missing in his life… his own Port Wine company.
He decided together with his brothers Anthony (a trader on Wall Street in New York) and William (partner in an accounting firm in Brazil) to start a Port Wine company. This was nearly a sacrilege as for more than 50 years no new Port company had been founded. The regulations around establishing a new Port wine company were very prohibitive and made the formation of a new producer very difficult. One of the requirements was for example to have a stock of at least 150,000 liters of Port Wine – which is already an incredible amount of capital.
However, the same family-name that made it for Johnny relatively easy to find his way into the Port trade was now suddenly a disadvantage… he couldn’t use his own name, as “Graham’s” was already established as a brand.
Johnny knew that England would be one of the major markets for his wines… and he looked at his wife Caroline and they realized that she had just the perfect last name for the brand: “Churchill” (and she is indeed a distant relative to Sir Winston Churchill). In 1981 the company “Churchill Graham, Lda” was incorporated and the brand “Churchill” was established.
This happened all before Portugal joined the European Union. Back then the laws were still in place that forced Port Wine shippers to have the storage place in Gaia – Johnny had to rent a place from Taylor’s to set-up his business. As most start-ups, the company was relatively short on capital and couldn’t produce wine on a large scale – and this was also not was Johnny Graham envisioned. He knew always that he would focus on quality rather than on quantity – and from the beginning on he got it right. His wines were gladly accepted by critics and consumers.
As a Port Wine producer without an own Quinta the company was forced to buy grapes and wines from other growers. Quinta do Fojo, Quinta da Manuela and for example Quinta da Água Alta sold grapes to Churchill’s. An agreement was reached with the grower Borges de Sousa – and this relationship became incredible important to Churchill’s, as they were allowed to have first pick at the grapes that were produced by Borges de Sousa. These high quality grapes became the basis for the wines of Churchill’s and helped the company to strive from success to success.
But nothing good lasts forever – when Borges de Sousa died, his grandchildren decided that they want to get into the wine making, too – and suddenly, after nearly 20 years, the best grapes were no longer available for Churchill’s.
When life throws you a lemon, make lemonade… and Johnny and his brothers used this situation to evaluate the purchase of a Quinta… and in 1999 they found two that they liked and that would enable them to have absolute control over the whole process, from the growing of the vines to the treading of grapes in the Lagares.
The bought the Quinta da Gricha, a 50 hectares estate, located on the southern side of the Douro River between Pinhão and Tua in the Cima Corgo region. You can’t get much more into the center of Port Wine Country than this… the Quinta has a very famous neighbor: Quinta do Roriz (Symington). The grapes from this Quinta are all in a A-category of the Port Wine Institute – and Churchill’s uses anyhow only grapes of this category. The Quinta has some very old granite Lagares, which are supposed to be from 1852. All the wines of Churchill’s are made in the Lagares – which costs a lot of money but guarantees the best possible results. The average age of the vines is over 40 years – and as so often, old vines means also field blend variety of grapes… but we find here mainly Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Francisca and Tinto Cão.
Quinta do Gricha has become the main-hub for Churchill’s wine making – but they bought a second Quinta in 1999: Quinta do Rio, located in the Rio Torto Valley, not far away.
As all successful wine makers, Johnny Graham knows exactly what kind of wines he wants to make… a Port with the fruity flavor of the Graham’s brand… but not so sweet; he wants to create wines that are slightly drier… maybe something going in the direction DOW.
When you start a Port company from scratch, then you don’t have a huge stock of old wines… it takes time to build that inventory. In the beginning the company had to focus on Vintage Port and then on LBV’s… then came the Tawny with 10 years, then with 20 years and finally we saw last year the launch of the 30 year old Tawny. We can only hope that we will see in approx. 10 years the launch of the 40 year old Tawny…
There is sometimes the perception in the wine trade that the English are better at the making of Vintage Ports… and the Portuguese are better at the making of Tawny Ports… well, Johnny Graham is from England… and he seems to confirm the rule. The Vintage Ports are outstanding and don’t need to hide behind any other Vintage Port producer… The best Vintage Port from Churchill that I had the pleasure to try was the 2011 Port. If you find it, just buy it… it’s so good. However, it might not be the right wine if you want to drink it in the foreseeable future… Johnny mentioned that he thinks that Vintage Ports in general need around 35 years to mature… So you might need to wait a little bit for the 2011 to mature… However, I like also to drink Vintage Ports quite young – they are so fruity that I don’t mind to drink a wine that might be even better in 20 or 30 years…
Churchill’s is one of the few houses that declared a 2014 Vintage… but there are two fun factors around this declaration.
The first one is that this Vintage Port comes only either in half-bottles (0.375 l) or in Magnum bottles (1.5 l). I don’t know of any other Vintage Port that comes only in these two sizes.
The second thing that I thought interesting is the fact that the label bears Johnny Graham’s signature… and for me this is a sign that history repeats itself and the history of Johnny’s ancestors and his new company comes full circle… because also the bottles of Symington’s Graham’s Vintage Ports bear the signature of a Graham: William Graham, one of the brothers that founded “Graham’s” back in 1820…
The company has launched Single Quinta Vintage Ports “Quinta da Água Alta” and “Quinta da Gricha”. Whereby I have the feeling that the quality of the Quinta da Gricha Ports are better than the wines from the Quinta da Água Alta… so yes, if you see one of the older Ports, feel free to sample it… but in general I would go with a Port from Quinta da Gricha.
If you are looking for a mature Vintage Port from Churchill’s, then you might want to look at the 1985. However, back then Churchill’s didn’t own the Quinta da Gricha and the Quinta do Rio – and I personally think that the quality of their wines has improved very much since they bought the Quintas in 1999. I would go with a 2000, 2007 or 2011 Vintage Port… but I really think that they should have much more storage time.
However, Churchill offers us a great solution… a Crusted Port! For me, Crusted Ports are an underrated gem and whenever I see them I get a few bottles. While the Vintage Port has to use only most that comes from the grapes of one single year, the Crusted Port is a blend of Port from 2 or even 3 different years… but the process is very similar to the process of making Vintage Ports.
The wines store 2, 3 or maybe even 4 years and barrels, are then blended together, go for another 6 months into a barrel to “marry” and then they are bottled… and as they are also unfiltered they develop – like the Vintage Ports – in the bottle. Wine makers have more possibilities to “tweak” Crusted Ports and to make them more approachable from the get-go. What surprises me over and over again are the prices for Crusted Ports… the Crusted Port that was bottled in 2005 (which means it contains most likely wines from 2001, 2002 and/or 2003) costs roughly EUR 20 – and is therefore cheaper than the LBV.
Also the LBV’s are interesting and very nice to drink… they are wine from a single year (like the Vintage Ports) but they have spent more time in large oak vats and are therefore already a little bit more matured. They are also unfiltered – so you can keep them in the bottle for a few years and they will hopefully improve… however, they lack the tannin-structure of a “true” Vintage Port and should really be drunk latest somewhere between 3 and 10 years after the bottling.
You should try to get your hands on the White Port, which surprised me positively. Contrary to most White Ports – which are quite young – this Port consists of wine that is roughly 10 years old – and it makes such a big difference. This is an amazingly well made White Port – and please promise me that you don’t use it for Portonic or similar drinks… this wine deserves better.
The best Tawny is (of course) the 30 year old… it’s such a delicious wine. But as it is quite pricy (a small 0.5 liter bottle costs currently around EUR 120 in Churchill’s online shop) I personally get rather a few bottles of the 20 year old – which is also a very decent wine.
But the 30 Year old Tawny will always have a place in my heart – because of the amazing video that Churchill published when they launched the wine in 2016. Yes, we don’t see chic people in sports cars or on yachts enjoying the wine – we see the workers of the Douro Valley instead. It was them that made this wine possible. Great stuff.
Speaking about beautiful… for Christmas 2016 the company launched also something very special… A hand-made wooden box with a magnum bottle of the Vintage 2011, a marvelous crystal decanter, 5 Port Wine glasses and…5 locks with 5 keys. The philosophy behind this is that each family member gets a key… and only if all come together, the box and therefore the bottle can be opened. A beautiful idea.
After speaking so much about Port we shouldn’t forget that the company also offers table wines of very high quality.
We find the usual entry level wines (White, Red and Rose) that are solid quality and very affordable (around EUR 10 – 12). From this group I find the Rose quite interesting – it’s made from 100% Touriga Nacional, my favorite grape).
A level higher we find a red wine made from 100% Touriga Nacional – and just smelling the aromas of this wine teleports me back into the Douro Valley. A very good wine for a decent price.
“Grande Reserva” is a red wine, made from grapes of wines with an average age of more than 50 years, coming from different parts of the Douro Valley … the wine was aged for 12 month in new French Oak casts. While this wine is very good, I was just blown away by the high-end wines of Churchill: “Gricha Douro”. As the name says, the grapes are coming all from the Quinta da Gricha. We find the usual suspects here: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Francisca and Tinto Cão. A very nice finish and a wine strong enough that you can enjoy it to very intense dishes like roasted lamb or duck breast. These are special wines – and that is reflected in the price. Not a wine for watching a football match in the TV… but a wine for your Christmas dinner in 5 or 7 years. These wines are only slightly filtered – I would store them for a few years and then visit them again… maybe 7 – 10 years after the harvest.
So, how can the tourist learn more about these wines and the company? There are two ways to do that. There is a lovely lodge in Gaia, where you can take part in a very individual tour. The staff is friendly and very well educated. The tasting room feels incredibly cozy and you don’t want to leave here ever again… here is the link to the location and the details about the visit:
Should you visit the Douro Valley then I suggest that you arrange a visit to the Quinta da Gricha. You can stay in one of their 3 beautifully restored and decorated guestrooms –or you visit just for a tour and a wine tasting. However, you will have to arrange these things quite some time prior to your visit… the Douro Valley becomes more and more crowded with tourists and the best things are often booked months in advance.
It was quite risky to start “Churchill” back in 1981 – but the company has done well and is now optimally positioned to take advantage from the increased tourism, having a lodge in Gaia and a Quinta in the Douro Valley. They produce very nice wines – and I am sure that the Graham-Ancestors would be very pleased if they could see how far this company has come over the last 3 decades and what Johnny Graham and his family have achieved.
Churchill Graham Lda
Rua da Fonte Nova, 5
4400-156 Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal
Tel: + 351 22 374 4193 and + 351 22 370 3641