Posted on | October 4, 2013
Written by | W.R. Tish
Balancing history with present-day markets is one of the challenges classic brands face. For Cockburn’s Port, the challenge has been complicated by shifting ownership in recent years, yet the brand seems now perfectlypoised for the future.
For most of the 20th century, Cockburn’s was the name in Port—famous for deferring on vintages that others declared; crafting gems in some years that others passed over; and fetching prices 10 to 15% above the going rate of their Oporto peers. Cockburn’s also singlehandedly redefined the sub-category of ruby Port by introducing Cockburn’s Special Reserve in 1969.
Ownership changes brought some turbulence to the brand. After being sold to Harvey’s in 1962, Cockburn’s became part of Allied Domecq, which was broken up in 2005, and the Port house was sold to Beam Global. Beam smartly called upon the Symington family—Port producers since 1882—to handle the winemaking. It did not take long (2010) before the Symingtons purchased Cockburn’s outright, acquiring the brand, the lodge, the inventory and the vineyards.
Joining Symington Family Estates has proven to be just what Cockburn’s needed—an all-star player finally getting a chance to join a championship-caliber team. Cockburn’s is now in a position to reaffirm the Port house’s leadership role in the 21st century.
Cockburn’s brand equity is anchored by Special Reserve, the product that suddenly bridged the quality gap between everyday Ruby Ports and the rare and expensive Vintage Ports. Top-shelf Port was no longer the preserve of formal dining rooms; Special Reserve made Port accessible and enjoyable at varied occasions, both formal and informal, suiting a new era in which people enjoy fine wines in a far more relaxed environment.
Matured in seasoned oak vats—for longer than most other Reserve Ports—Cockburn’s Special Reserve has always been the benchmark for all Reserve Ports, staying on top even while other houses followed the same path (Bin 27, Warrior, Six Grapes, Founder’s Reserve). Special Reserve also enabled Cockburn’s to define its house style—a unique dryness attributable to the extended time in barrel.
“Special Reserve has always been the backbone of the brand, both historically and today,” says Peter Scott, President of Premium Port, U.S. Import Division of Symington Family Estates. Of late, there has been added excitement thanks to a redesign. Cockburn’s original award-winning silk-screened Special Reserve label was way ahead of the time back in 1969. After an aggressive move under Beam, putting Special Reserve in a more vodka-like bottle, faltered, the Symington group has now brought it back toward the original shape and feel.
“The redesign was/is incredibly successful,” notes Premium Port Marketing Manager Louis Charton. “It has shown us that you have to remain true to yourself. The idea of a package is to keep your base customer while enticing a new customer, and the redesign has done that perfectly.”
2011 Vintage: Return to Greatness
Optimizing Cockburn’s Vintage Ports has also been a priority for the Symington family since taking over the house. Cockburn’s is known for its independent approach to Vintage declarations. For instance, the company did not make a Vintage Port in 1917, 1920 and 1924, all years widely declared by other houses. Cockburn’s sound judgment has often been vindicated, as demonstrated by their outstanding Ports made in 1908, 1927, 1935 and 1963.
Amid consensus that the 2011 vintage is one of the finest in recent memory, Cockburn’s has been singled out as one of the very best wines of the declaration. Jancis Robinson MW called Cockburn’s 2011 “stunning.” James Suckling, one of the world’s leading authorities on Vintage Port, tasted 49 2011s and gave the Cockburn’s 98 points, calling it “The greatest ever Vintage Port from here!” And Neil Martin of The Wine Advocate scored the 2011 94-96 and wrote: “The 2011 Cockburn harks back to those classics of yesteryear. Cockburn’s is back.”