Drink Port for Warmth this Winter


Symington is an iconic name in wine. For over four generations the Symington name has been synonymous with high quality port. If the name is unfamiliar their port houses are certainly not; Graham’s, Cockburn, Dow, and Warre are among the best producers in the world. After spending week with the Symington’s I came away with a few observations: First, they are a kind, hospitable, and humble family; second, they fully understand quality port starts in the vineyards and they honor this with organic and low intervention practices; third, they honor their heritage and customers by marrying modernization with traditional practices to make the best port possible; and finally, I need to drink more port.
History of Port

Port wine owes its birth to England. Grapes have been cultivated in Portugal since antiquity, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that wines known as Port, or at that time Oporto, were shipped from Portugal to England. During this time England, a country until recently unable to produce its own wine, imported wine from France. When war broke out between the two countries in the 17th century England boycotted French wine, looking to Portugal to fulfill its wine needs. However, the Portuguese wines struggled to survive the long sea journey. To stabilize the wine a small amount of brandy was added. This fortified the wine, allowing it to survive the journey.

In 1703, England and Portugal signed the Methuen Treaty, stipulating Portuguese wines imported into England were subject to 1/3 less tax than French wines. This encouraged English and Scottish merchants to begin a long history of Port trade.  In 1756, the Marquês de Pombal demarcated Portugal’s Douro region. From that point “true” port wine can only come from this region. During the phylloxera outbreak in the 19th century the Douro, like other wine regions, was devastated. During this time many Portuguese vintners walked away from their vineyards in economic collapse. This marks the shift in vineyard ownership from Portuguese to British/Scottish, and the founding of many of today’s famous Port houses.

The Symington Family has Scottish, English, and Portuguese ancestry. Their lineage in Port traces back to the 17th century. In 1882, Andrew James Symington sailed from his home in Scotland to Porto at age 19 to work for Grahams. By 1905, he became a partner in Warre & Co, established in 1670, and the oldest British port house in Portugal, and by 1908 was its sole owner. Today the Symington’s have 2,461 hectares of land in the Douro spanning 26 estates. These quintas house more than 4,000 hectares of vines. These estates have been cared for by the Symington family for centuries and amount to the most significant vineyard holding in the Douro. This family owned and managed business is one of the leading port producers, responsible for 32% of the ports crafted in all premium Port categories.

What is Port

Port is a fortified red wine from grapes grown in Portugal’s Douro Valley. There are up to five grapes that are blended to make port. These grapes are Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Barocca, with the first three used the most. The production of port begins like any other wine. Grapes of the Douro battle low rainfall, high temperatures, grueling sun, and low-nutrient soil. After months of these conditions, the grapes are harvested in the fall, a difficult task given the Douro’s steep terrace vineyards. The difficult climate, rugged terrain, and transportation challenges combine to make the grapes of the Douro the most expensive wine grapes in the world.

Following harvest, the grapes are pressed using lagares. Traditionally this was done with rows of “foot treaders” lightly crushing the grapes in large open-air cement or stone tanks. However, in 1998 Peter and Charles Symington introduced the first modern lagar in the Douro. This modern lagar is a machine designed to replicate the gentle action of the human foot to crush the grapes, in a temperature controlled environment where the winemaker uses a computer to determine duration and frequency needed to produce the desired level of fermentation. These modern lagars are now used throughout the Douro. When the winemaker determines the desired amount of the grapes natural sugar has been converted into alcohol the neutral brandy fortification begins, stopping the fermentation and allowing the wine to maintain its youthful fruit notes. This allows the wine to reach up to 20% alcohol while heightening its sweetness.

The Symington Family are responsible for 9 wineries across the Douro. They utilize organic practices where possible while embracing limited intervention in all of their vineyards. Due to the extreme conditions in the Douro there is no need for pesticides and herbicides. As mentioned earlier the Symington’s’ are responsible for the modern lagar, and they are the only port company with their own cooperage. With over 55,000 oak pipes, having coopers on site at Graham’s Lodge allows them to actively maintain of these barrels essential to the aging of port.

The Douro is divided into three categories. The majority of the Symington’s vineyards are located in the Cima Corgo and Douro Superior regions. This allows them to grow the highest quality grapes to produce the best ports possible.

“We want to make serious port wines, but wines people can enjoy without waiting 20 years.” ~ Rupert Symington

Types of Port

As the wine ages in large oak pipes the winemaker has to determine what type of port it will become. This is where to fun begins.

Ruby Port

This style is fruit forward, approachable, full-bodied, young wine aged for a short 3 years’ time in oak pipes. This youthful wine is crafted into Late Bottle Vintage Ports or Reserve Ports. These wines are intended to be consumed young, are very food friendly, and quite popular in the US. Ruby port can be consumed upon purchase and served just below room temperature. Once open it will last if kept cool for several days or longer.

Cockburn’s Special Reserve, the world’s number one choice of reserve port. This reserve is lively and easily approachable. Notes of concentrated black cherry, baked plums, dark chocolate, licorice, espresso, medicinal notes, fading red flowers, the aromas go on and on. This is a seductive port, a real crowd pleaser, with layers of flavors and a beautifully balanced palate. No wonder its number one. Serve it in a full wine glass at a cooler room temperature. Rupert Symington explains, “Cockburn’s is about Douro Superior. It’s not a terror based wine, but it’s about a terroir.”

Graham’s Six Grapes is a young and fruity port. This port is typically a blend of two different vintages from grapes sourced from Graham’s five mountain vineyards, and aged up to two years in season oak casks. It is designed to be enjoyed upon purchase rather than aged. Stewed fruit, balsamic, eucalyptus, dates, cocoa; seductive, layered, and highly enjoyable.

Dow’s 2011 Late Bottled Vintage is dark and jammy notes of black fruit dance with dried raisin notes of black and red fruit, rich dark chocolate, holiday spice notes of cloves, cinnamon, and added complexity of damp tobacco notes with violets; muscular in body and style, bold and rich through the finish.

Warre’s Warrior Reserve is the oldest brand of port in the world, having been shipped continuously since the 1750’s. Its traditional style remains today in the full body, rich wine. Notes of dried fruit, red berries, figs, balsamic, Asian five spice, dark chocolate, coffee, and licorice; full-bodied, more masculine, rich, and opulent. This is a meaty port in a traditional style.

Tawny Port

This style is a blend of older vintages. Its deep amber color is due to its time in oak. Tawny port has notes of dried figs, apricots, nuttiness, and even caramel or butterscotch. Aged tawnies are commonly designated as 10, 20, 30, 40 years. This refers to the characteristics of the wine, rather than its exact time aged in pipes. Aged tawnies are blended with other tawnies of various ages with the compilation of their age equally the number on the bottle. Think non-vintage Champagne. Each Port house has a style they seek to achieve with each designation of their aged tawnies. Tawny port can be consumed upon purchase, enjoy chilled. Once opened it will last if kept cool for several days or longer.

Graham’s 10 Year Tawny Port is elegant, striking a delicate balance between notes of a rich nuttiness, honey, and fig and deeper notes of spices with a hint of dark chocolate that develops due to its aging in seasoned oak casks until it reaches the peak of maturity.

Graham’s 20 Year Tawny Port offers notes of figs and dates, pumpkin pie spice notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice, orange peel, caramel, roasted espresso, roasted nuts, with a rich body that is beautifully balanced and lively acidity. It is elegant and sophisticated yet lively and energized. It feels like Coltrane’s notes dancing across the palate.

Vintage Port

This style is crafted of the best grapes from the best vineyards in the best years. Not every vintages produces a vintage port. Vintage ports can be crafted of a blend of grapes from a blend of vineyards (known as quintas), or it can represent a single quinta, this is up to the winemaker’s discretion. The decision to declare a vintage is made two years after harvest. If the winemaker decides the port meets vintage criteria the wine is bottled for further aging. Vintage ports can be enjoyed in their youth with an array of primary aromas and flavors, but to experience the full secondary notes of a great vintage port cellar it properly and it will last for many decades. Enjoy slightly chilled. Once opened it will last several weeks.

Cockburn’s 2011 Vintage Port offers layers of juicy cherries, raspberries, and blackberries, with red floral notes, dark chocolate, kirsch, leather, minerality; pure, powerful, masculine, refined, complex wine that delivers on every level.

Dow’s 2004 Quinta do Bomfim Vintage Port is decadence in a bottle. Notes of ripe berries, red flowers, raisins, baking spice notes of cinnamon and cloves; with firm tannins and balanced acidity provide many decades of cellaring for this beautiful wine. Bomfim is a classic river quinta with an A-rating that is the heart of some of the Dow’s best ports. Furthermore, Dow’s 2011 Vintage was awarded Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year. Rupert Symington explains, “Dow’s is a true craft port.”

If you can get your hands on any of the Symington’s 2011 ports do so quickly. Rupert Symington predicts, “We will look back on the 2011 vintage in 20 – 30 years and say ‘Wow.’”

Rupert Symington explains, “Port is driven by house style. Consumers graduate to a style they like the most.” Each of these ports is crafted in the individual style of the port house. If you are new to port I encourage you to get to know each of these four labels, their style and their charms. Each brand produces an array of port styles.

The Symington Family invites you to visit them. Cockburn’s Lodge is located across the river from Porto in Vila Nova de Gaia. Visitors are welcome for a fun tour and tasting experience; book your appointment online. Nearby is Graham’s Lodge. Here you will not only experience a wonderful tasting and tour, but as Graham’s is a working cellar, sounds of cooper’s hammers drift through the air, providing an authentic experience. Furthermore, Graham’s is home to Vinium Restaurant and Wine Bar, providing authentic local cuisine paired with only the best wines of the Douro. Book early for a spectacular view of the Gaia and Porto. Finally, travel into the heart of the Douro Valley to experience Quinta do Bomfim, offering tours of the cellars and vineyards, and tastings on the terrace overlooking the Douro River and vineyards.

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