My second-floor room in the Carris hotel was a mere bottle’s throw across a cobbled street from the historic Factory House, a de facto clubhouse for the British port shippers in Oporto, northern Portugal. When I woke at 7am, I could see the Wedgwood-blue ballroom swarming with people hard at work decanting the three bottles of each of the 19 great vintage ports we were to taste that morning. When the tasting started at 11.30am, we were warned that this exercise was a one-off. That morning half of the world’s stock of Cockburn 1896, for example, would be opened, and there would be only four bottles of the 1912 left after our predations.

Cockburn’s is the best-known name in port, thanks to Cockburn’s Special Reserve, a wine I would guess is hardly ever drunk by the tight-knit group of port producers in Oporto and the Douro Valley upriver of the port city. But in the first half of the last century Cockburn vintage ports were regarded as the finest in the world and Cockburn’s new owners and erstwhile competitors, the Symington family, who officially took over in 2010, are determined to restore the company’s reputation from mass market to fine wine.

A Reserve ruby selling at about £10 a bottle all over the world, Cockburn’s Special Reserve was launched in 1969 as a sort of red sister to the then hugely successful Harveys Bristol Cream sherry. Until then the isolated port trade had pottered along hand-selling top-quality vintage ports perhaps three times a decade and satisfying the mass markets in France and the UK in particular with bulk shipments of young ruby and tawny.

But as Cockburn’s owners stormed world markets, their reputation for fine wine waned. Cockburn’s vintage-port-producing record was eccentric to say the least. The company decided to ignore 1977, an incomparable year “declared” as a vintage by virtually every other port shipper, releasing a lacklustre 1978 instead. The story goes that when the team in Oporto contacted head office in the UK, by now part of Allied Domecq, to suggest that a given year was good enough for a vintage port to be declared, they would be instructed instead to put all their efforts into ramping up production of the precious baby Cockburn’s Special Reserve.

The owners had particular faith in the upper reaches of the Douro, way upstream of the Cima Corgo where most of the other top shippers bought their fruit, and accordingly in 1978 bought 169ha of land in a side valley at Vilariça, now 126ha of vineyard. They also bought a further 261ha in 1989 when they acquired Quinta dos Canais, an upper Douro estate that had always made a major contribution to Cockburn vintage port and now has almost 100ha of vines, mainly Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca.

When Allied Domecq was dismembered in 2005, Cockburn was handed round drinks conglomerates like a hot potato, first offered to Pernod Ricard then to Beam Global, a company best known for its bourbon. Beam’s knowledge of and interest in fortified wines was skeletal but it was convinced that the Harveys Bristol Cream and Cockburn’s Special Reserve brands were worth something. Accordingly, the offer of the Symington family, already responsible for Dow, Graham and Warre ports, to make the wines for them was welcomed. In 2006, the Symingtons took over all the vineyards and the lodges of Cockburn, and, in 2010, acquired the brands and all the remaining stock, including the precious old bottles we were about to try.

The acquisition boosted Symington’s proportion of total port production from 16 per cent to 20 per cent, grew their vineyard holdings to nearly 1,000ha and ensured that Cockburn did not fall into the hands of their arch-rivals, the Taylor Fladgate Partnership. But the problem was that, with only the disappointing vintage ports of recent vintages in general circulation, the Symingtons didn’t really have a clear idea of how Cockburn vintage port tasted in its heyday.

Hence the recent retrospective tasting of Cockburn’s most admired vintage ports, tactfully omitting the disappointing recent years but starting with bottles from the small trial of undeclared 1977 that the Oporto team could not help making, way back to the famous 1896 vintage. Several dozen of us from all over Europe gathered in the Factory House in a valiant attempt to help the current generation of five Symington cousins to discern the style of wine they should aim for in future vintages.

The Symingtons were all a bit nervous in advance of this “voyage of discovery” because none of them had tasted any Cockburn older than 1950, but they need not have worried. I’d been lucky enough to enjoy a slightly similar retrospective tasting put on in London in the 1980s and the 1908 was every bit as glorious as I remembered it.

“We can’t flick a switch to change the wines overnight,” admitted joint managing director Paul Symington, “but with this tasting we want to see what was the essence that made Cockburn great in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” For Peter Cobb, who attended the tasting and had worked for Cockburn, his family firm, from 1960 until his retirement, the secret was in the 1967, a vintage declared almost exclusively by Cockburn instead of the 1966. “They sought finesse, which is why they also favoured 1935 over 1934 and 1947 over 1948.”

I asked Paul Symington after the tasting to describe the Cockburn house style he felt had been revealed and he suggested “a slightly austere dryness and bitterness like orange marmalade”. Certainly the debut Cockburn vintage port produced by the Symingtons, the 2007, has a lift and freshness that distinguishes it from the more massive ports dominated by grapes grown in the Cima Corgo – and the family are presumably bucked by the fact that, after winemaker Charles Symington’s fine tuning of the Cockburn’s Special Reserve recipe, it was the only Reserve quality port to be garlanded in each of the three major UK wine competitions this year.

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of

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