Churchill’s Port: the story of the last fully-independent British port house

The Porto-based winemaker turns 40 this year and is inviting visitors to the banks of the River Douro to discover a story that’s been far more than four decades in the making

10 June 2021 | Rowena Marella-Daw

T

hey say that ‘life begins a 40’. In the case of Churchill’s, the last remaining fully-independent British port house, life actually gets better at 40 – that’s according to Johnny Graham, at least, who founded the company in 1981.

Wine and port making runs deep in Johnny’s blood – four generations of Grahams made sure of that. Graham’s Port had been a family enterprise since 1820, until Johnny’s father sold the business in 1970.

Three years later, Johnny poured his energy into learning the trade, working in the terraced vineyards of Portugal's Douro Valley and honing his skills under port master John Smithe of Cockburn’s. By the time he reached 28, Johnny was a company director, and had already built a reputation as one of the best tasters in the trade. 

Simply working for one of the world’s top port brands, however, wasn’t enough. Johnny’s dream was to produce a distinctive, quality port of his own. So, 40 years ago, along with his two brothers and wife Caroline, he established Churchill’s, naming the business after his wife’s maiden name. He then managed to secure an official port shipper licence in Porto’s ancient entrepôt of Vila Nova de Gaia – the first person to do so in more than 50 years.

Quinta da Gricha

The terrace at Churchill's The Lodge, Vila Nova da Gaia

From the very start, Johnny wanted to produce only the best quality Grade A port, and in 1999 he acquired Quinta da Gricha, a 50-hectare vineyard on the Douro’s south bank in the highly acclaimed sub-region of Cima Corgo, the heartland of port production. Here, steep slopes give way to glorious vistas over the meandering river against a backdrop of hills quilted with verdant vineyards. The spot provides excellent conditions for growing Grade A grapes for producing vintage and reserve ports. By 1982, Churchill’s had already produced its first vintage, even before officially qualifying as a registered port shipper.

In 2002, Johnny joined forces with Portuguese vintner, Ricardo Pinto Nunes, paving the way towards creating a range of still Douro wines harvested from the Quinta da Gricha vineyard. Together, Ricardo and Johnny endeavoured to integrate the discipline and tradition of vintage port making with a more experimental approach – an attitude that is gradually spearheading a new Douro wine movement.

Individual style

The Quinta da Gricha vineyard, which Churchill acquired in 1999

The style of port produced at Quinta da Gricha is influenced by two main factors. First is the minerality of the soil in the region, where a wolframite and quartz mine once operated. The second is its location facing the north, where the climate is fresher and cooler.

Foot treading in granite tanks (lagares) is an old tradition used by port makers to extract juice from the grapes. Churchill’s adheres to this tradition because, according to Johnny, “treading is still an extremely effective way of vinification, particularly for top quality port”. He explains that this method results in gentle maceration, “which prevents the risk of damaging the pips, and getting the bitter elements which you might do when you use mechanical means”.

The individual character of Churchill’s port is also down to the fermentation process, using only natural yeast that comes off the grapes. This type of yeast is said to slow down the fermentation at a lower temperature, preserving the aromatics and flavours of the port. Minimal intervention also helps to prolong the fermentation, resulting in a more natural wine with better structure, balance and natural acidity – attributes that are reflected in Churchill’s full range of ruby and tawny ports. Ultimately, it is the dry and fresh style that distinguishes this port from others.

Gricha Vineyard House

Gricha House

In the course of a two-hour scenic journey from Porto, the pace starts to slow, and by the time you reach Quinta da Gricha, the stress of being cooped up indoors for over a year turns into a distant memory. Not just a working vineyard, this is also home to Grincha Vineyard House, an elegant, four-bedroom retreat where guests can saturate themselves in the region’s authentic winemaking heritage and traditions. Reflecting the blend of old and new methods used in wine making, this former 19th-century farmhouse has been sympathetically renovated to retain its character and charm while also introducing modern luxuries.

In between laps of the infinity pool, sipping a glass of chilled white port while soaking up stunning views of the sloping vineyard is highly recommended. A languorous lunch under the shade of an orange tree quiets the mind until it’s time to stretch the legs for a tour of the winery, and more wine tasting. Getting to know the team behind the hard work that goes into making Churchill’s port – the farmers, viticulturists and enologists, and, of course, the Graham family – undeniably adds to lasting memories of Quinta da Gricha.

The Lodge

Churchill's 1982 Bar is currently decorated by a mural by Portuguese artist Kruella d’Enfer

More wine tasting awaits at The Lodge, Churchill’s working port base in Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto’s ancient customs zone (the area of the city at the south end of the city’s landmark Dom Luís bridge). Learn about the world of port at the visitor’s centre, which showcases the brand’s world-class port and table wines. As you’d expect from a working lodge, passing forklifts and rows and rows of barrels containing ageing vintage tawny are all part of the experience. Daily tours offer an introduction to the port-ageing process, before culminating in a tasting session.

There’s plenty to try: Churchill’s White Port Dry Aperitif and Churchill’s 10-, 20- and 30-Year-Old Tawny ports. In the Ruby family, there’s the Reserve Port, Quinta da Gricha Vintage Port 2017, Churchill’s Crusted Port bottled in 2006, Churchill’s Vintage Port 2017 and Churchill’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2015.

Let the celebrations begin

Illustrator Kruella d’Enfer

Four decades of winemaking is a milestone that deserves a toast. At The Lodge in Porto’s Gaia riverfront, the entire wall of the 1982 Bar is covered in a bold, colourful mural by Portuguese visual artist Kruella d’Enfer. “We wanted to kick off our 40th anniversary in a way that speaks to several of our passions,” says Zoe, Johnny’s eldest daughter and director of sales and marketing, “wine, art and our home city of Porto.”

The brand’s summer celebrations include an artist residency and ‘Independent Sounds’, a series of small outdoor concerts honouring Porto’s artistic legacy. Elsewhere, along with sibling James, manager of partnerships and digital activation, Zoe has launched Port.Club, a direct-to-consumer digital club that hopes to introduce younger people to the pleasures of drinking port through port-inspired content, cocktails and bespoke experiences. During the September and October harvest, there’s a rare opportunity to pick the vines and stomp the grapes. VIP tastings at Churchill’s private tasting room in Porto and a virtual port-tasting group session with Johnny are also on the cards.

By merging the old and the new, much like the port-making process itself, Churchill’s hopes to safeguard its future. In the meantime, the much-awaited release of the 40-Year-Old Tawny port is scheduled for September. Perhaps it will prove that things really do get better at 40 after all.

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