Caught In The Port Machine

By Robert K. Stephen (CSW)

(PINHAO, PORTUGAL) – Symington’s is a huge Port machine with the Graham’s, Cockburn’s, Dow’s and Warre’s labels caught up in its corporate cocoon. The Symington family has had their hands in the Port business as far back as 1652. That’s 14 generations! Each brand has its specific image, identity and marketing strategy.

The Symingtons are the largest vineyard owners in the Douro with 964 hectares of vines at 26 Quintas. In addition to Port production they produce D.O.C. Douro table wines most notably through the Quinta de Roriz label.

I have been invited to the Symington’s Quinta do Bofim on the outskirts of Pinhao. The Quinta has a modest exterior and we are greeted by Gustavo Devesas, Market Manager for Symington Family Estates who beckons us to relax before a crackling fire to take the chill out of our bones. After this brief break and before the sun sets we take a walk in the vineyards admiring the diverse colours of the vines, purple, lavender, gold and brown and as we head back to the Quinta with the sun setting the surroundings become surrealistic like a Claude Monet painting. The Quinta has 12 private rooms for “privately invited” guests i.e. not open Grahams Destaque Tawnie 1982to the public. Gustavo proudly remarks once you are invited to Quinta Bomfim you are not only a guest but a friend. And that is how we are made to feel.

Still bearing the chill of the damp Douro Valley air we are invited to a huge dining room to try an array of Ports. They are all very good but no better than many of the other Ports we have sampled on this 5 day blitz. This is no slight against Symingtons but a compliment on the consistent and high quality of Ports amongst the producers we have visited. I find the Graham’s to be rich and silky while Dow’s Ports are much more austere. Gustavo reminds us that if Ports are not served chilled there may be a smell of spirits that detract from the overall aromatics of Port. He further explains that Canada is very much of a Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) market. The United Kingdom is a Ruby Port market and the French like younger Tawny Ports.

Gustavo proudly points to the new bottling for the Graham’s Tawnies. More of a rounded spirits shape bottle than the traditional long necked port bottles. I prefer the 20 year old Graham’s Tawny Port with its garnet colour and aromatics of orange rind, tar molasses and raisins. It’s a little bit more firm and less silky than the Graham’s 10 year old Tawny Port. I give it an 87 and the 10 year Tawny Port an 85.

My favourite though is the Graham’s 2001 Quinta dos Malvedos which is from grapes produced at a single Quinta. Gustavo’s belief is that single Quinta Ports are very terroir driven and represent the future of vintage Ports. The Malvedos is an imposing Port full of coffee, blackberries, black cherries and prune concentrate in the mouth and on the nose full of chattering and happy black fruit. It has a purple and black colour and a great way to introduce a newbie to Port because unlike the Tawny Ports which feature orange and honey notes Vintage Port is wine on steroids and clearly recognizable as wine. This beauty deserves a 91. It proves its divine affinity with chocolate as some sample it over a chocolate mousse at dinner.

Prior to the rich dessert we dined on Cream of Spinach and Pumpkin Soup followed by steak cutlet with mushroom gravy and mashed potatoes. The wait staff grimaces with how little food I take only breaking out into a smile when I snap up more steak and gravy. They are then rudely shocked by my not taking any of the chocolate mousse. I avoid chocolate strange person that I am. Some fruit is quickly rushed to me lest I perish of starvation. What personalized hospitality!! By the way the Altano Douro 2011 D.O.C. red with its traditional lavender/blackberry/coffee aromatics and its broad/brackish and dusty taste suits the steak cutlet and mushroom gravy to a tee. In addition to the Altano we are also poured a Quinta do Ataide 2009 Reserva, D.O.C. Douro which has delightful aromatics of rhubarb, earth and raisin pie with pomegranates and rhubarb on the palate. A bit too sour for the beef. The Post Scriptum de Chryseia 2011 D.O.C. Douro is all around full of black fruits with hints of chocolate and raisins but is just too fruity for the beef.

After dessert the obligatory cheese platter and apple paste with Tawny Ports. Gustavo lets loose with a big confidential story that might just shake the Port industry silly. A small change in our wine world but for Portugal monumental. Speaking of tradition Gustavo opines that the old foot stomping of grapes in lagares is still used in an extremely limited manner. Modern mechanical crushing in lagares is more efficient and faster.

I query Gustavo if there is a market for Port in China and he replies it is a very challenging market to be in. Consumers are hardly familiar with wine let alone Port. Chinese society has a different social reality and gastronomy so sales and marketing efforts have been very limited and directed at the upper end. Gustavo says that Symington’s has joined with Taylor Fladgate (its competitor) to “tell the story about Vintage Port in the Asian market. The Asian market is a very immature market and may require synergy as opposed to competition.”

The biggest visitors to the Graham’s port tasting centre are Russians which represent a rapidly expanding Port market. In fact they are the “ugly Americans” of the 1960s. Loud, brash, heavy imbibers and travelling in groups with garish clothing and lots of camera equipment! Brazil is mentioned by Gustavo as a big market for red Douro table wines. Believe it or not Angola is also a huge market for Douro reds. Poor storage and wine handling in Angola has led to too many spoilt white Portuguese wines hence the popularity of Douro reds in that former Portuguese colony.

Gustavo realizes that the Port drinking crowd is an older one and Symingtons would “optimistically” aim at the 35 year old and older market. “We have a lot to explain about Port without having to make it more complicated” quips Gustavo. He also adds Port has been hurt by an after dinner/dessert categorization. The fire has died out. Glasses litter the table. It’s a bit drafty and chilly. Time for bed!

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About the Author

Robert Stephen (CSW)
Robert K Stephen writes about food and drink, travel, and lifestyle issues. He is one of the few non-national writers to be certified as a wine specialist by the Society of Wine Educators, in Washington, DC. Robert was the first associate member of the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada. He also holds a Mindfulness Certification from the University of Leiden. Be it Spanish cured meat, dried fruit, BBQ, or recycled bamboo place mats, Robert endeavours to escape the mundane, which is why he loves The Square. His motto is, "Have Story, Will Write."Email Robert Stephen
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