The story goes, that two British merchants travelling through Portugal’s Douro Valley in the seventeenth century came across the monks at a monastery near Lamego drinking a local wine with grape spirit added to it early in its fermentation so that the wine kept its natural sweetness. They decided to start shipping this wine back to Britain. The fortifying spirit helped to preserve the wine on its long sea voyage as well as giving it a unique sweet taste.
This was embryonic Port. The same production methods are, more or less, still used today. In 1756 the Marquis of Pombal (Marquês de Pombal) drew the limits of the Douro region, creating the world’s first officially demarcated wine region. It is a region sculpted both by nature and by humans over centuries and is for this reason now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Cockburn Family
In 1815, the Scotsman Robert Cockburn and his brother John, already successful wine merchants in Leith near Edinburgh, set up a branch of their firm in Porto: R & J Cockburn’s. They had many business partners through the years. And like all of the early Port companies the name changed. Eventually coming to be known as Cockburn’s & Co: the name that survives today.
The Cockburn family continued to run the company until well into the twentieth century. Other families though joined the extended family of Cockburn’s & Co during this time. The Wauchopes, the Smithes, the Teages and the Cobbs were amongst them. The Cockburn’s & Co family thus gradually swelled to include some of the finest winemakers and Port tasters that the trade has ever known.
Together, the Cockburn’s & Co family built themselves a remarkable reputation for fine Vintage Port. The records at the London auction houses show that in the early twentieth century, Cockburn’s Vintage Ports commanded the highest prices of any Port house.
The Symington Family
The latest addition to the Cockburn’s & Co family is the Symington Family. The Symingtons’ ancestry in Port goes back 5 generations and can also be traced, through their great grandmother, back 14 generations to the birth of the Port trade. They have owned Cockburn’s since 2006 and are responsible for all its winemaking. With the Symington family, Cockburn’s has come back under the ownership of one family. As one of the most important families in Port and the largest owners of vineyards in the Douro region, Cockburn’s could not be in better hands.
When the family acquired Cockburn’s the natural thing to do was hold a celebration. So they arranged a vertical tasting of all Cockburn’s Vintage Ports dating back to the late 19th century at the Factory House in Porto. Many of the world’s top wine journalists came. The idea was to get back to Cockburn’s roots, for the family to discover what made Cockburn’s great. And guess what – they found the secret in a bottle of old Vintage Port.