The Legacy of Greatness: A Review of Colheita Port Wines from 1896 to 2014

By | 16 February 2024

A chronologically expansive tasting studded with remarkable, complex wines.


Richard Mayson

A style of wood-aged Port that has always been prized in Portugal, Colheita is at last earning the respect it deserves in the rest of the world, says Richard Mayson, after a tasting shared with Simon Field MW and Andrew Jefford.

For scores and detailed notes on all 32 wines included in the tasting, subscribe to The World of Fine Wine.

Colheita, among the various styles and categories of Port, remains the most misunderstood. Colheita, translated from Portuguese, means “harvest”. This term could cause confusion when used on the label by some Port shippers. The dated label (indicating the year of harvest) might lead one towards the notion of Vintage Port. Nevertheless, the character of colheita comes from the significant time spent in wood. Unlike Vintage Port, which ages in large wooden vats for approximately 18 months before it’s bottled, a colheita has to age for at least seven years to qualify.

Through extensive tasting trials of various colheitas available in the market, we discovered a multitude of wines aged 30, 40, or 50 years or even more. This extended maturation in small wooden casks develops the wine into an oxidative Tawny style. As clearly concluded by Andrew Jefford, previously perceived as a ‘hybrid version of Tawny Port’, his views have evolved after an extensive tasting trial of colheita ports. He now regards them as Ports tout court.

Colheita deserves to be recognized as a unique category of Port. For a long time, these wines have been popular in Portugal, being primarily produced by Portuguese shippers. In earlier times, before the presence of supermarkets, these wines were prominently displayed in premium grocery stores in Lisbon and Porto, adding prestige to the retailer.

In the 21st century, the gap between “Portuguese” and “British” shippers has considerably narrowed. Graham’s pioneered the concept of single-harvest wines in the 2000s. Taylor’s expanded the trend with the takeover of Wiese & Krohn in 2013, which had an extensive collection of old colheitas. They started marketing “single harvest” under the Taylor label. However, the names that were popular in old grocery shops include Niepoort, Dalva, C da Silva, Royal Oporto, Burmester, Barros, Cálem, and Kopke. The last three are now part of Spanish-owned Sogevinus, home to an impressive collection of aged Tawny and colheita Ports.

Carlos Alves, the winemaker of Sogevinus, suggests that for a wine to be a good colheita, it should have natural acidity, sweetness, and structure. He adds that initially, colheita shares characteristics with a good LBV or Vintage, but has a different aromatic profile as LBVs and Vintages tend to be more expressive than colheita. Another Port producer simplistically described the choice of wine for colheita as “the second best after that set aside for Vintage.”

A second selection occurs after about seven years of aging. The wine then either gets blended into a Tawny lot (losing its individual identity) or is kept aside as colheita. Simon Field MW eloquently describes the aging process: “As the color darkens, angels progressively claim their share. Even though the volatility increases over time, it gets countered by the texture and sugar content. A complexity arises from the interplay of privileged components—an unexpected characteristic for a category associated with the richness of indolence.”

This aging process needs meticulous and intentional oversight. Colheitas undergo regular tasting, racking and topping up to compensate for the losses due to evaporation, also known as the angel’s share. The topping-up is usually done with wine from the identical harvest or colheita, often from a garrafão – a glass carboy of 5-liters, to maintain freshness. Without standard refreshing, a colheita might start to appear fatigued, uneven, and even oxidized. Over-concentration of natural sugars can make the wine taste ponderous and unbalanced on the finish. Older colheitas often develop a lifted, volatile character, rather poetically described in Portuguese as vinagrinho (“little vinegar”). Volatility in an older wine, to an extent, is inevitable and not necessarily undesirable, as it enhances the aromas and gives the wine a resonant aspect. However, an excessive balsamic character is deemed negative, and the wines where I believes the vinagrinho balance was maintained received my higher scores. Where exactly to draw the line is a matter of personal preference: Andrew Jefford made note of the “soprano aromas” in one of his highest scoring wines.

This tasting comprised of 32 wines varying in age from 2014 all the way back to 1896 – a range that’s almost impossible to come across in any other category except for colheita and frasqueira (Vintage) Madeira. With such a spread of 116 years, it begs the question – just how old should a colheita be to taste the best? Excluding a 2005 from Cálem, a 2007 from Burmester, and a 2007 white colheita from Dalva, all the wines that averaged a score over 90 were above 20 years old. I feel that some wines were bottled prematurely and hadn’t yet formed the classic shape and character of colheita. This was also echoed by Andrew Jefford who wrote, “As they age, they become more intriguing and intricate. However, we could also observe excellence at different age brackets. Presumably, to really experience this category, one should seek out wines that are older than 20 years.”

Now this leads to another question: just like an aged Tawny, is there an ideal spot at say, around 20 or 30 years old? Well, the answer is, these wines are unique. The colheita that scored the highest was a captivating 1896 from Taylor, trailed closely by a 1937 from Kopke and a 1974 from Barros. That said, some older wines received lower marks for their pronounced rancio character, high volatility, or a hint of drying out on the finish. Just as in the case of a mature Tawny, the ultimate balance between all elements is key.

As far as colheita goes, we all agreed there’s minor point in searching for a particular vintage’s signature (even though I did note firm tannins in a 1983, characteristic of that year). Andrew Jefford stated that he’d choose a great colheita from the ’60s or ’70s over a great Vintage [Port] from the same decades. These wines surely follow a pattern, but it’s has more to do with the maker, their attention to detail and diligence, often across multiple generations.

This tasting prompted our tasters to conjure up new descriptions, somehow reminiscent more of Vintage Madeira rather than the usual Port. Jefford likened the 1896 colheita from Taylor’s akin to the finest Madeiras. Similar to a Vintage Madeira, Taylor’s label bears two dates: the year of harvest and the year of bottling. This signifies the length of the time the wine has spent maturing in the wood. At times, the same wine undergoes multiple bottlings. Once bottled, and upon uncorking, colheita Ports carry an uncanny resemblance to Vintage Madeira. As long as the cork remains intact, these wines do not seem to alter or depreciate in the bottle, however, do not expect the wine to further enhance once deprived of oxygen. Once uncorked, an old colheita can stay fresh, preferably in the refrigerator, for several months without noticeably deteriorating. This allows the pleasant experience of savouring a fine colheita Port repeatedly, offering a luxuriously contemplative experience. By the end of this tasting, all were in consensus that despite comparisons to Tawny Port, Vintage Port, and Madeira, colheita Port deservedly holds a prestigious category of its own.

Taylor’s Single Harvest Port Douro Valley Portugal 1896 |98

SF | A profound depth of colour; exquisite mahogany and a deep green border reminiscent of Madeira of comparable age. The aromas vaguely resemble Madeira too, influenced by a subtle acidity and a central fruity core that has delicately evolved over time. An astounding texture and body… After the angels have had their fair share, a quality core that is untampered with remains. A rare, precious gift, underlining the incredible ageing potential of these extraordinary wines. | 95

AJ | A wine dating back to the 19th century. A dense, translucent, ebony colour that has survived time so as to offer us a glimpse. Savouring the privilege, we take a sniff. The essence of time itself: molasses, leather, a wintertime forest, pipe smoke, charred raisins, caramelised apples, old medicine bottles, aged rooms, ancient books, historical libraries. An enticingly textured, creamy and alluring wine with years on its side. A tiny sip reveals an explosion of flavours. Clearly discernable acidity and extracts yet void of harsh austerity; the raisin sweetness adds to the harmony. This wine makes a lasting impact on the palate, lingering, drawing you deeper into its sensory experiences. Expectedly, one would not spit but swallow, and the act of swallowing almost feels transformational as the wine seems to merge with your tongue and mucous membranes. This wine exceeds all 19th-century table wines I have tried before, equalling the best Madeiras in comparison. If it’s still available for purchase, kudos. The score is hardly significant. 2024-40. | 98

RM | Deepest mahogany in hue, with an olive-green rim. Wonderfully lifted and scented on the nose, the quintessence of colheita, with its profound figgy intensity and concentration. Words fail me. Similarly and gloriously intense on the palate, with spellbinding textural depth and richness, dried figs, spice, and old saddle leather leading to a lovely, long, reassuring, warming finish that goes on for ever. A wine to sip and with which to meditate, and in this context, there can only be one mark. | 100

Kopke Colheita Douro Valley Portugal 1937 (20% ABV) | 97

SF | Burnished walnut color, lignified, discreet, still deeply pigmented after all these years. Oxygen held in check somehow. How? Quality of oak… intensity of fruit… the clarion call of piercing acidity… the gentle tannic balustrade…? All of the above, surely, all reverberating to the sound of a finely tuned nonagenarian who refuses to leave the dance floor. Composed and lucid; energetic and focused. Be prepared for a testing discussion, if you take on this one. | 95

AJ | Back to the ebony here; dark, glinting, and brooding. The nose is almost oily, smooth with the grease of the years, though there is treacle and syrup of raisins beneath to lend it dimension and depth of field. Impressive and … old! On the palate, it is very sweet, very acid, very concentrated and scouring, laden with sugars and extract; very everything, truly an essence from a dark decade. I feel guilty spitting; this should only be swallowed: the preciousness of these messages from the past. Critically speaking, perhaps the most useful thing to say here is that anyone who procures a bottle and opens it with her or his oldest friends will not be disappointed; it is riveting, spellbinding stuff. 2024–34. | 96

RM | Mid-deep mahogany, with a thin green glint on the rim. Distinctly lifted, high-toned but totally under control, with a gentle vinagrinho, balsamic richness and a crystallized fruit character on both the nose and the palate. Glorious richness and concentration, stopping just short of unctuousness, bittersweet in its depth and intensity, with a finish that goes on forever. Remarkable wine that leaves one with a sense of wonder, given its age and evolution. | 99

Barros Colheita Douro Valley Portugal 1974 (20% ABV) | 95

SF | Amber russet, going on chestnut in color; very bright and composed. A hint of caramel and white chocolate; still seems quite sweet but also young, the volatility held in check. That is not to say that the acidity is not in charge—in this instance, it is—but it is not to the detriment of the architectural integrity of the ensemble. Subtle and impressive. | 94

AJ | Translucent amber-russet. A grand harmony of aroma here—serene and refined, settled, the calm after life’s storms. Very pretty and sweet, in burnished, glowing style. It is so harmonious that there barely seems any point in straining after allusions, but you will find all the moist vanilla pod and array of dried fruits that make for classicism. A little less undergrowth and mushroom, by contrast. Succulent and poised on the palate, and very complete and satisfying; everything you strain after in the aromatic profile you’ll find duplicated on the palate later, in grand harmony and serenity. A treat. 2024–28. | 93

RM | Lovely amber-tawny hues, with delicate, lifted aromas that are enticing, and savory mocha complexity, but relatively subdued by comparison with some of its peers (not overtly balsamic). Lovely, seamless, dried-fig richness, with leathery complexity and great finesse all the way through a long, fine, linear finish. Very fine indeed. | 97

Taylor’s Very Old Single Harvest Port Douro Valley Portugal 1968 (20.5% ABV) | 94

SF | Bright, translucent color; impressive intensity of hue; a narrow rim, which belies its venerable age. The nose has a ludic charm: gingerbread, sake, and a hint of tofu—all very enticing. So, let’s see. The toasty, buttery aromatic persists, enticingly, with soft spice behind it, a balsamic backdrop, a honey-cake character—all very unusual, all very attractive. Softer than some of its peers, but with an undertow of acidity that informs the ensemble and underlines both its individuality and its potential. | 92

AJ | A translucent, clear walnut through and through. Very refined and sublimated aromas of striking complexity. No fruit now—everything is turned into a kind of message of time—but it’s very harmonious and very lovely: an aromatic time capsule. Nonetheless, a poise and a sweetness that contrasts with the very oldest wines in the tasting. On the palate, it is deep, driving, searching, now not as sweet as it once was, since the extractive forces liberated by the angels and their share are on the move, drying the wine. It’s a conversation wine or vino da meditazione, but outstanding as such. A ton of licorice in the finish, by the way, but I expect you could find almost everything in here somewhere. 2024–30. | 93

RM | A deep, mahogany-tinted tawny colour graces this wine, complimented by a glint of green at its rim. The scent is profound and rich, with a lifted quality that does not cross over into a high-toned or balsamic style. The palate mirrors this splendour, revealing a richness resembling syrup of figs, balanced by a lingering freshness. The finish is beautifully bittersweet with black olive depth. A remarkable wine for its age and a shining example of the finest in the colheita category. | 98

Taylor’s Very Old Single Harvest Port Douro Valley Portugal 1966 (20% ABV) | 94

SF | This charming amber and tawny hued wine shows a gentle fade at its rim, both acknowledging the passage of time and defying it with the vibrant intensity of its nose and palate. Impressive even after all these years (and sharing a birth year with this correspondent gives it an extra special charm), the acidity augments rather than overwhelms, and the hint of fruit unites an ensemble that echoes across the decades with a strong note of undiluted quality. | 94

AJ | The wine presents a bright clarity, though the colour leans more towards brown than deep ebony tones seen in its peers. Flecks of russet suggest perhaps a longer stint in the bottle and less in the cask. Despite this, the nose is exceptional. It exhibits great aromatic charm, but not to the point of tyranny by age. Dried fruit, mushroom, fresh-cut wood, leather and roasted nut scents radiate warmth. The drink remains fresh, lively and in bloom; rich flavours of toffee and caramel, rounded out with citrus and plant essences, surge smoothly across the tongue. Rating such top-tier wines becomes an almost impossible task due to their unique excellences. After all, who gets to decide which method is the best? | 92

RM | Good, mid-deep amber-mahogany, with an olive-green glint on the rim. Gently lifted on the nose; green-olive fragrance, with sublime richness and depth. Fine, rich, profound, dried-fig and quince-marmalade intensity on the palate, still with an element of freshness and vivacity after more than half a century in wood and then in bottle. Outstanding for its era. | 97

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