‘We had to let the wine speak’ says Taylor’s CEO on Port release during Covid crisis

“We had to let the wine speak,” said head of Taylor’s Port, Adrian Bridge, as he chose to declare a third classic vintage in a row for the first time in the producer’s 328 year history, and right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

During the release of the 2018 ‘classic’ vintage of Taylor’s Port last month, which was done via an Instagram live stream from Portugal, Bridge explained the rationale for launching the wine following two previous consecutive vintage declarations – 2016 and 2017 – and during the Covid-19 lockdowns in Europe.

“We have debated the decision to release the third [classic vintage Port] in a row, because this is the first time we’ve done this in Taylor’s history – which spans over 3 centuries – but we felt that we had to let the wine speak,” he said.

Continuing, referencing the timing of a release when bars and restaurants are closed and people across Europe have been told to stay at home, he said that current circumstances, however dire, would not affect winemaking decisions.

“We have to follow the wine, not the economy,” he stated. Continuing, he said, “It would not be true to our quality standards if we don’t make the wine because of the coronavirus. We want to make these wines when they come along and we don’t know when the next one is coming along,” he added, speaking about wines that were good enough to make classic vintage Ports.

Looking back, he said that a number of great vintage Ports have been released when socio-economic situations were far from ideal.

In terms of recent vintages, the 2007 was launched in April 2009 (the USA S&P bottomed in early March following the Lehman crisis/mortgage backed securities), and the 2009 was launched in 2011 when we had a global crisis on economies, and the 2011 was launched in April 2013 when we had the IMF/ECB/ running Portugal’s economy – we were one of the PIGS,” he recorded.

However, he also commented that due to the current economic situation, Taylor’s will bottle in July as usual, but will not offer the wines until early 2021.

Although the release of three consecutive Taylor’s classic vintage Ports is unprecedented, Bridge said that it takes the total number this decade to four, which is the same number of vintage declarations made by the producer in the previous decade, although the average across the Port trade is three. 

He also suggested that it was “unlikely” that there would be a further consecutive declaration using wine from the 2019 harvest, even though it is “very good”, while the 2020 vintage could be adversely affected by physical distancing measures in place in Portugal now – mainly relating to the difficulty in observing distancing guidelines when foot-treading the grapes, which, according to Bridge, boosts wine quality by around 2%.

As for current weather conditions in Port country – the Douro – he commented that the vine’s life cycle was already so advanced that the region could be on course for the earliest harvest start date on record.

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More generally, he said that the ability to make classic vintage Port – which is the region’s fortified wine quality pinnacle – was related to perfecting lots of small details at all stages of production, from the vineyard management to cellar practices, and the quality of the spirit used to fortify the wine.

Comparing the preparation for vintage Port making to the British cycling team, he said that you needed to break things down into components, and improve each one, pointing out that it’s the sum of those improved parts that makes the difference.

However, it’s still the nature of the climate during the growing season that will dictate whether the grapes will be ripe and good enough enough for vintage Port making.

He concluded, “Attention to detail increases the possibility of more classic vintage declarations not necessarily the probability.”

Taylor’s classic vintage declarations: quantities made

1994: 11,600 cases
1995: –
1996: –
1997: 10,500 cases
1998: –
1999: –
2000: 14,900 cases
2001: –
2002: –
2003: 17,700 cases
2004: –
2005: –
2006: –
2007: 10,000 cases
2008: –
2009: 804 cases
2010: –
2011: 11,000 cases (+310 cases of Taylor’s Vargellas Vinha Velha)
2012: –
2013: –
2014: –
2015: –
2016: 6,200 cases
2017: 11,500 cases (+467 cases of Taylor’s Vargellas Vinha Velha)
2018: 7,800 cases

NB: According to Bridge, the average quantity of Taylor’s Classic Vintage Port that is made in any single release in the last decade is around 9,000 cases. Historically, this was higher, with the average post-war quantity hovering around 16,000 cases, meaning that today Taylor’s is releasing vintage Port with a bit more frequency, but a bit less volume. Bridge recorded that the last really large release in volume terms was the 1985 declaration, when Taylor’s made 27,000 cases of vintage Port.

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