Eating and drinking my way through life and learning all the while

Port Tasting with Symington Family Estates

A little while ago now, I was invited along to a WSET evening Douro tasting for consumers hosted by Symington Family Estates. These are great, educational classes aimed at wine enthusiasts offering access to wine experts and fine wines.
History & Family
Symington Family Estates is an impressive company. It is an invited member of the exclusive Primum Familiae Vini – a group of eleven leading wine families in the world including Chateâu Mouton Rothschild, Pol Roger, Vega Sicilia which all own vineyard estates, are among the most prestigious wine producers of their region and produce wines that enjoy an international reputation.
Symington Family Estates easily ticks all those boxes. It is one of the largest port shippers and the leading producers of premium quality port. Symington Family Estates owns several Port brands including Cockburn’s, Graham’s, Warre’s, Dow’s and Quinta Do Vesuvio.  The combined sales of the family’s Port companies make up a third of all premium port sold worldwide.
The Symington Family is very hands on and today seven Symingtons (six from the 13th generation in the Port trade) work in all areas of the company from wine making to marketing and finance. A Symington Family member is directly involved in every bottle of Port produced by the company.

The Symington family of Oporto are descended from Andrew James Symington who arrived in Porto in 1882 and married Beatrice Atkinson, a direct relation of Walter Maynard, English Consul in Oporto in 1659 and one of the first British merchants to ship Port.
The Douro
The Douro is surely a region of superlatives. It is one of the oldest demarcated wine regions in the world (1956). Granite posts mark the borders and 100 or so of them still exist today.
The Douro looks truly stunning, it was declared a Unesco Heritage Site in 1996, and from these pictures I can see why – I’d love to visit one day.

For one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world it is arguably one of the most challenging viticultural environents in the world.
So much so, I’m struggling to imagine why vines were first planted, here, don’t get me wrong and I’m very glad they were. For a start, the Douro is very remote and has hardly any soil. What it does have is wave after wave of steep schist slopes alongside narrow winding valleys.  You would need to break up the schist rock up to about 1.5m to give the roots any chance of finding the bedrock and a regular source of water. The schist is low in organic matter and results in low yields.

The sharp slopes, required old stone wall terraces, fitting only a vine on each terrace and would need to be picked by hand. These picturesque, but difficult to work terraces, have largely been replaced by wider patamares terraces planted vertically up the slops instead of horizontally, where possible. Half the region is planted on slopes with a 30%+ gradient, making it a ardous, costly place to work.

The climate is also harsh – the Douro suffers from baking heat in summer, 50°C in summer is not unheard of, and in winter the temperature can fall below freezing. There is also the risk of late spring frosts, which can damage young shoots and slash yields further, especially at higher altitudes.
That’s without mentioning the rain, the Douro gets more rain than Manchester (Oporto 1200mm rain, Manchester 800mm), and as a Mancunian, that’s saying something. The weather is down right unpredictable – a reason vintage is so important with Port and why it is best to visit in Spring (most of the rain is in winter).  Spring can bring long periods of unrelentless drought, the further West into the Douro you go the hotter and drier it gets and the more used to the occasional thunderstorms you inevitably become.
There are three main regions of the Douro from East to West these are the Baixo Corgo, the Cima Corgo and the Douro Superior.

Baixo Corgo – 900 mm rain
Centred on Regua, the Baixo Corgo covers 45,000 hectares and is the most intensively planted part of the Douro with 13,500 hectares under vine.
In shadow of Serra do Marão, the climate is influenced by the Atlantic and is the coolest, wettest, most fertile wine region in the Douro with 900mm rain a year. The Baixo Corgo produces large volumes of lighter, standard ruby and tawny blends.
Cima Corgo – 600mm rain
The Cima Corgo spans 95,000 hectares and has 17,000 hectares under vine. It is a little warmer and drier than the Baixo Corgo and known for creating premium Port, aged tawnies, LBV and vintage Ports.
Douro Superior – 400mm rain
The Douro Superior covers a sprawling 110,000 hectares only 8,000 hectares is under vine but is viticulture is hampered by poor access and isolation.
It suffers the continental extremes of frost and drought –but amongst this stress the Douro Superior can create fine, powerful, complex wines including Vintage Ports and premium Port blends.

Symington Family Estate uses four main black grapes for its Ports, although many more are permitted.

Touriga Nacional, thought of as the ‘Cabernet Sauvignon of the Douro’ it brings intense black fruit, excellent colour, firm tannins and natural acidity to a blend. It is beautifully aromatic and creates top quality, full bodied wines and vines are low yielding.
Touriga Franca, the ‘Merlot of the Douro’, it is elegant with velvety tannins, blackberry fruit and floral aromas and brings good colour to a blend.
Tinta Barroca – offers sweetness from the red berry fruit and brings weight and structure.
Tinta Roriz– attractive aromatic red berry fruit and thick tannins combine to create a wine of finesse capable of long ageing.

We were talked through the typical winemaking process at Graham’s Quinta Malvedos. They would regularly visit the vineyards to see how the maturation of the grapes is progressing and assess the colour and extraction and take sugar readings – you want quite sweet grapes for Port production, not so much for still wines of the Douro. Picking will take place between 7am and 5pm, with pre-selection taking place in the vineyard.
The grapes are destemed and crushed and allowed to ferment for just 48 hours before fortifying with brandy. It is therefore key to extract colour and flavour quickly.

Traditional extraction will be by human foot- the grape pickers will march in low, wide lagare for two hours and then dance among the grapes for a further two hours. This method is romantic and still used at some premium estates such as Quinta Do Vesuvio but is espensive due to labour costs and difficult to temperature control.
The modern way, Graham’s created was the robotic lagare, which is a made of silicon and mimics the pressure and action of a human foot, but with the added benefit of being able to control the temperature.

When the must has fermented to 6 degrees, grape brandy at 77% is added to fortify the wine to 19-20% abv.
The wines are fermented by variety and the wines let to rest over winter until it falls bright at which point it is racked off the lees, quality is accessed and the process of blending starts. The young Port is generally transported down the Douro Valley to Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from the city of Oporto for aging.

The production of port is controlled by the producing body, the Benéfico who regulate the amount of Port that can be produced in any one year and issue the grape spirit for fortification, which must be from the EU. The amount issued to each Port producer is based on their previous year’s sales and current stocks of Port.
Ageing Styles
Graham’s divides Ports into Wood Matured and Bottle Matured.
Wood Matured include young ruby, tawny, white, premium reserve, LBV, and aged tawnie Ports. They are aged in oak and released when ready for drinking and are not intended for further ageing.
A standard ruby port may be aged for 2-3 years in large oak vats, a reserve 3-4 years. Graham’s style of LBV port, spends 4-5 years ageing in large oak vats, and is very full bodied, sweet and opulent, it is billed as an everyday Port for a Vintage Port drinker.
Tawnies ports are a blend of Ports aged in 550L oak casks, where you have an aged tawnie, a 10 year old, 20 year old etc, the age is the average age of the wines in the blend.
Bottle matured Ports include Vintage Port and Single Quinta Vintage. Vintage Port is only produced in really outstanding years (roughly three times a decade), they account for just 2% of Port production. Aged in wood for two years and bottled without filtration it can develop in bottle for decades and will need decanting before enjoying.
Quinta is the Portuguese word for vineyard or wine estate, Single Quinta Vintages are produced from great vineyards in good but not declared vintage years. These will also be bottled without filtration after around 2 years of wood ageing but will mature in bottle earlier than a declared Vintage Port.
Around the world
Graham’s as a producer creates Port to a ratio of approximately 80% premium and 20% standard which funnily enough is the polar opposite of the Port market as a whole which is 80% standard Port, 20% premium Port.
25% of all port is consumed by France. The UK buys less but better, as does US and Canada – who are all obsessed by vintage. Graham’s is expanding into South America, Brazil, Russia and the Far East.
My faves from the tasting:
Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Port 1999 – Tanners Wine Merchant £30.00

A south facing single estate Port, set down by river, Quinta dos Malvedos is Graham’s hero estate.
The quality of the wines from the Malvedos vineyard is such that in Vintage declarations these wines provide the main structure for Graham’s classic Vintage Ports. In most of the interim years, the wines from Malvedos will merit bottling as a single estate, or ‘single quinta’ Vintage Port – from a single harvest.
The Malvedos style is rich and full bodied with bags of fruit – black currant and black plum plus a hint of mint/eucalyptus.
Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port 2009, Berry Bros & Rudd £34.99

The Symington’s acquired the outstanding Quinta do Vesuvio estate in 1989 and have invested a significant sum in one of the most famous, arguably finest, and definitely historic quintas in the Douro.
Vesuvio still offers all the romance of Port, being one of the few estates in the Douro where all of the wines are made using the traditional treading method in granite lagares, among the largest in the Douro valley, and offered exclusively as a single Quinta Vintage Port.
The 2009 represents a brilliant explosion of fruit – blackcurrent and violet, although it is almost infanticide to drink just yet. I bought two bottles of the 1997 Vintage from The Whisky Exchange as presents this Christmas – both were very well received and I’m been informed are drinking beautifully,

Graham’s 20 year old Tawny Port NV, Hawkshead Wines £28.99
Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny is made from high quality wines and matured in seasoned oak casks of 534 litres.
The result is a beautiful harmonious Port with both power and finesse it packs a punch with intense caramel, fig, dates flavours and the unmistakable hit of orange and vanilla. It works magically with Crème Brûlée, Pecan Pie and Cheese.


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