Over the course of five days in Portugal Rupert Symington, with his familiy and staff, gave our team an extraordinary tour of the Symington family business. There was so much to learn, absorb, and talk about that there it was a challenge to keep up. Nonetheless I tried to capture the key insights, surprises, and sights on the go! Our stateside host Sheryl Sankey, Premium Ports Western Regional Sales Manager, did a brilliant job of keeping us on our itinerary.
We started the weekend by meeting National Sales Manager, Paul Mugnier at Hotel Da Bolsa in the historic center of Oporto. Paul had just finished kayaking on the Douro. For Saturday and Sunday he became our tour guide of all things Portuguese. We walked to the river front area where a band was playing and where many people eat, drink, and relax. We wound our way to Don Tonho’s where we enjoyed some Alvarinho and dry Moscatel as well as local fare of marinated carrots, fresh octopus, tuna and beans. The most exotic but delicious entrée was the ‘black pork and clams’!
The next day – after a long sleep to adjust to the new time zone – we headed out to walk around the old heart of the city. We ventured up the boulevards by city hall, around the Santa Caterina shopping street, and across to the Se (cathedral). We noted the drying laundry, the mix of Art Deco and Beaux Arts architecture, and the Azuelos tile everywhere! After navigating the streets’ ups and downs, we retreated for naps and showers.
Sunday evening we headed off to the district Foz (fog) on the Atlantic for more Alvarhinho by the seashore. Afterward we walked to a new, hot neighborhood restaurant recommended by Rupert: Cafeina. We had a delicious meal in a sophisticated living room atmosphere where we passed plates of appetizers, entrees, and desserts. All of it was delicious, from the modern take on traditional duck (confit) and rice to the Portuguese crepes! Paul and Sheryl topped the evening with a treat – a bottle of 1969 Bual Madeira! It was a seamless experience with notes of smoky citrus peel, toasted nuts, and apricot.
Monday our port education began in earnest as we arrived at the Graham’s Lodge in Villa Nova de Gaia. There we met by Public Relations Manager, Jackie Thurn-Valsassina. She guided us through the aging casks and bottles to a very good screening of a Ken Burns style film of the Douro’s history. The extraordinary labor, persistence, and vision required to build, grow, and ship the wines is simply mindboggling. There was early footage of men shooting the rolling rapids in bobbing boats. The boats were heavy with port pipes and nothing but a large buttressed oar held by two or three men to swiftly guide them through the rocks. It appears death defying! Historical artifacts are scattered about the lodge to remind you how much was accomplished with so few tools and with much ingenuity over hundreds of years.
During the afternoon we weaved through narrow one-way mazes of streets to arrive at the Smith Woodhouse Lodge below the Symington offices. We wandered around the ‘tonels’ and barrels of various stocks of aging ports. While not as large or glamorous as the Grahams Lodge there is a clear sense of quiet purpose about the place. A chart of the progress of each vat adorns the wall and orderly notebooks of each vintage’s progress line the bookshelf below. The dark, dusty stacks of old barrels are charming, but do not let them fool you. For decades, the Symington family has had their own team of coopers that build and maintain their barrels. (Interesting footnote: in the effort to maintain the quality of the SWC and QDV ports through organic and sustainable practices they have also searched for organic brandy that does not adversely change the taste of the ports.)
We then ventured up to the winemakers tasting room that Peter Symington and his son Charles use to taste each vintage, varietal, block, crushing technique, brandy, etc. to determine the blends and the value of their ongoing experiments. There are row upon row of samples. We tasted through the current releases as well as three differently fermented Port lots: traditional foot trod, robotic crushing, and plunger-pump over techniques. We liked the fruit and floral range of the traditional, the smooth flavor and integrated texture of the robotic, and the depth and richness of the plunger method. The drive to improve has not slowed this century!
Next we enjoyed a three-course lunch in the formal dining room of their offices – a regular Monday affair. Rupert, Paul, Peter, and Charles Symington were in attendance along with their international sales director. Peter, the vineyard manager and winemaker confirmed that the Symingtons are the largest family owned and operated business left in the Douro. Their top wines of vintage ports and single vineyard ports are among the very few that are still made from the top A rated Estate vineyards. In fact, they own twenty-three A rated vineyards – more than any of their competitors. For their non-vintage ports, they still depend on many of the 28,000 growers in the Douro Valley. Both Vesuvio and Madalena are A rated (on a scale of nine site dimensions). By the time we finished the appetizers, the stuffed and wrapped chicken, and cheese plate, the conversation had naturally rolled around to soccer and American politics. We then hustled off to catch the train up the Douro. After an hour plus of crossing through rain showers in the Alvao, Marao, and Montemuro mountain ranges, we arrived in the Port region of the valley.
The length of the train ride up the river through the heart of the valley gives you a clear sense of the scale. It is, well, of the charts as there is nothing else to compare it to. The heart of the wine country is 60 miles long by 20 miles wide. The slopes are as steep as black diamond ski runs and as rocky as Yosemite. The closet analogy that comes to mind is a combination of the Mosel in Germany combined with the Incan ruins of the Andes but with vineyards emerging from the scrub and olive trees. The stone terraces of the Patamares are several hundred years old. Some have been maintained and some have submerged in the landscape. They rise 600 meters from the river to the porous schist rock on the ridge tops. The terraces are only interrupted by outcroppings of granite - or by slopes that are too steep to work on. Rupert, his son Oscar, and Chili (their eight month old Spaniel) joined us at the Pinhao station. In this small town their vineyard and winemaking operations are centered for Bonfim and Dow.
Rupert is an invaluable guide, having grown up in the business. He points out the family’s many A rated vineyards during the course of the ride – Malvedos, Velha, Vesuvio, Ribiero, etc. He points out a number of sites they have replanted. Many of these less steep slopes at 25 degrees or less have been replanted to vertical rows instead of terraces, when appropriate. This allows them to better match varietal to site, have closer spacing, and better access the terrain with small tractors. They are also experimenting with cover crops in these vineyards to prevent erosion. Their favored Port varietals are Roriz, Nacional, and Franca. These are generally planted at the warmer sites on the lower slopes. Table wines are planted on the cooler upper slopes where the long ripening period gives rise to the desired complexities for dry wines.
Several hours later we arrive at the Vesuvio stop. No one gets on – we are the only ones to get off. In fact, the train is nearly empty as there is only one more stop on the line just short of the Spanish border. Rupert and his son Oscar load up the Land Rover Defender as we walk along the vineyard-surrounded driveway and then under the train tracks. The manor is impressive for its unusually large size in the Douro. The extraordinary frame of solid granite has weathered well for 200 years – and will for 200 more. We unpack our bags then repack them into a day bag and board a small outboard Dory. After the train-ride in 90-plus heat, the boat trip is welcome relief!
We headed further up river to Quinta do Coehlo. The Symington’s recently purchased and replanted it. Since there are only a few bridges, and dams that are miles apart, it was faster to cross by boat. The new vineyard looked barren at first, but as we drew closer the faint green of young vines became visible. In many replanted sites the stone terraces have been abandoned so long that they that must be reshaped by small bulldozers. (In most vineyards it is more economical to farm with equipment than by hand; however, all the fruit is picked by hand.) We clambered up the renovated house built in the late 19th Century. Old photos of the building of the house adorn the walls. The photos share the space with old maps and sketches of the site. There are also pictures of men in coats and ties – hunting parties Rupert says. He recalled his grandfather talking about hunting here in the 1930s.
As we relax in the stillness of evening we walk to the adjacent vineyards, cold beers in hand. There we realize that the dark weathered stakes are not wood but stone! In fact, most of the old vineyards are full of them as there is more schist than wood in the upper Douro! Incredible. They are mined and fractured with care – averaging five feet long by an inch or so by four inches. Rather than driven into rocky soil they are planted. Dinner commences in the twilight. We start with a traditional ‘grass’ soup Altana Branca (a traditional white blend of Rabigato, Malvasia, and Moscatel made by Rupert’s uncle that fast became a favorite of ours). The second course of grilled pork chops and salad with several vintages of Post Scriptum and Chryseia are delicious! Both wines are new table wines made by the family from new vineyard sites, usually at higher elevations. Most of these new planting are more densely spaced and if the slope is gentle enough then vertical rows are employed. The dry table wines are focused largely on Tinto Roriz, Touriga Nacional, and Touriga Franca, and they have earned 90 plus scores as well as Top 100 listings. The evening finished with a delicious array of Portuguese cheese and a Magnum of 1977 Smith Woodhouse vintage port – my description will not do it justice – simply put, it was very impressive. In the end we took our glasses to the vineyard to watch for shooting stars.
In the morning we walked to the new plantings. The soil is not really soil as much as schist rocks and clay dust. The only water that is allowed is for new plants – and they need it! New plantings are watered individually by truck as little pools are shaped around each stalk. There are usually a fair number of ‘misses’ (of vines and olive trees) in this harsh environment. The olive trees were a response to the decline of the port business nearly 300 years ago and during the phyloxera epidemic. The focus on quality and expression of history is the focus of the new vineyards and re-plantings. They take cuttings from their best vineyard sites to propagate for this process. The vineyards are established with one or two arms with six canes, depending on the ‘vigor’ of the site. To break even, each vineyard must produce 100 barrels of port – and that takes time. After our morning walk we piled back in the boat to head down river.
We made one stop on the way back to Vesuvio: Cockburn’s Quinta Senhora do Ribiero. This was to see the proprietary automated lagars the Symington’s designed. It is quite impressive to see such large machines that can mimic the sensitive pressure of trodding the grapes by foot. That action replicates the motion, direction, and duration of human action without breaking the astringent pips in a flat tank with the same dimensions as a traditional granite lagar. This ‘robotic’ action is used with the self-contained/sustaining plunger method for Smith Woodhouse. Vesuvio is entirely crushed by foot. A short boat ride later we arrive back at Vesuvio for a filling lunch of a Portuguese specialty called bachalau - and another fun surprise, 1992 Quinta do Vesuvio Colheita. This wine had an exquisite silky texture with aromas of red berries and roses that also permeated the mouth and through to the long, long finish.
We regrouped after naps and packed ourselves into the Land Rover. We gripped whatever we could hold onto as we bounced across Vesuvio from one end to another, from top to bottom! We climbed through terraces, crossing the massive stone wall built in the early 1800s, to reach a neighboring Symington Vineyard which looked down onto the Coehlo vineyard. (Interesting footnote: at one site in this vineyard, Rupert was seemingly vexed because of vines that were too vigorous. There is no need and little experience here with aggressive pruning, competing ground cover, etc.) We crossed back to Vesuvio and drove to the top of the east side of the Quinta and then down and back up to the top of west side. We passed through beautiful stone terraces, earth terraces, vertical plantings – even old sites so steep that hundreds of years ago vines were planted perpendicular to the terrace so that the vine trunks grew horizontally out small window-like openings!
It is important to know that the modern era of Vesuvio begins with the replanting of 1972. At that time several sections at Vesuvio (and at two or three other Quintas in the region) were planted for the first time by varietal blocks. This very important step allows Peter Symington to ferment each block separately, and precisely blend Vesuvio. The varietals are first picked from the low, warm sites by the river and then picking progresses up the slopes. The harvest usually starts with Tinta Barroca, then Touriga Nacional, followed by Tinta Roriz, with Touriga Franca last.
We stopped at the western hilltop to look around and decided to walk down to the manor with Chili. . . walk and occasionally skid down the hill would be most accurate. We had bounced over the seven hills and jostled through some of the legendary thirty-one valleys and seven hills and now were ready to get our land legs back! When we landed at the house we jumped back into the Rover and drove a short distance to the lagars to view this piece of living history that has been in use since 1827. The simple gravity flow design was clear and the ageing tonels were full of the 2007. Vesuvio is aged one year in wood and one year in tank before bottling. To the side, we saw the ‘secret’ barrels of the Colheitas. . . We then tasted a selection of Vintage Ports
• 1994 - the dark ripe fruit is starting to develop interesting herb and eucalyptus layers
• 1999 - fresh, juicy, aromatic red fruits with undertones of earth and tea
• 2003 - remains soft and round with a good grip of green notes and tea
• 2006 - the new release is a revelation. It starts with a dark purple color with glints of violet. The wine-like nose is full of black fruits, earth-spice, and black pepper. Similar flavors follow on the palate with a dark fruit leather finish that lingers. As the port opens the mineral note increases and the lush mouth feel grows. 2006 is a very impressive port that continues the great tradition but has taken another step forward. (Interesting footnote: the 2006 vintage represents the 250th Vintage of the demarcation of the Douro Region in 1756 - the oldest wine appellation in the world.)
We retired to the house for showers and to prepare for dinner. Fresh salad and Portugese chicken rice eased us into the twilight with a reprise of the past few days’ wines. We were not sure how the fresh artisan cheeses followed us but we were appreciative! Our favorite became the Serra cheese of the mountains. It has rich, creamy texture with light dry grass and almond like notes. The Serra and cheddar-like cheese from the Azores were our favorites with the Ports. It was an early evening as we had a 7:05AM train to catch! Oscar retired to his room with a book and Chile retired on Rupert in a deck chair. Everyone was full of water and dust, stories and questions, food and wine. For me this visit made clear how incredibly important the human dimensions of terroir are; the Douro and the Symington’s are inseparable. Perhaps the clearest expression of that sympathy and linkage is at Quinta do Vesuvio
We boarded the train one last time and napped our way back to Oporto. We settled into our hotels and reconvened for a final dinner together with Sheryl. We ventured to the Casa de Musica – a musical performance theatre designed by Rem Koolhaus. The restaurant, Kool, is named after the architect. This metropolitan restaurant’s design transported us back to coastal California – yet the view was pure Oporto. The Escher-esque space of the deck seemed to echo the endless terraces of the Douro. It was the perfect setting to decompress and have another delicious meal together!
It was an extraordinary five days in Portugal. It is easy to see why the Douro River Valley and Oporto are world heritage sites. Our hosts, Sheryl Sankey of Premium Ports, and the Symington Family walked us through the unique landscapes of the region – literally grounding our understanding of Vesuvio, Smith Woodhouse and the Symington family of Ports. We greatly appreciated their warm hospitality and generosity. Their commitment to Port is inspiring. A member of the sales team said it best, ‘thank you for the most civilized supplier visit ever!’