And we're off!
As the starting point of last month's Port Wine Day 2016 festivities, our group of journalists invited from all over the world, were divided up into small groups and sent off with a host from one of the amazing Port houses to their respective Quintas to tour, taste, and lunch. I was scheduled originally to go to another, smaller Quinta, and was secretly hoping I would end up at the Symington Family Estates...and I got the golden ticket! My group's host was Euan Mackay, sales director for Symington Family Estates. We were off to Quinta do Bomfim in the Upper Douro, situated on the bank of the river near the village of Pinhão.
The group took a bus from our hotel in Porto to the Museu do Douro to meet up with our hosts. There is a point where the highway came through the famous 6 km tunnel, the Túnel do Marão, where the mountains suddenly open up to reveal the most beautiful wine country I have ever seen. The Douro Valley is covered with ancient grape terraces, some carved out hundreds of years ago in horizontal, vertical, and honeycomb-like rows in the hillsides.
No museum visits for us! It was all business (on my agenda for next time). We were quickly divided up and were personally driven to our host's Quintas. In Euan's car on our way to Quinta do Bomfim, we were treated to a detailed insider's guide to the history of the Symingtons and their place in the world of Port. Especially interesting was Euan's perspective on the acquisition of Cockburn's in 2006 and the subsequent rebirth of Cockburn's Special Reserve to award winning status in 2011 after years of mishandling. While the actual viticulture feeding the Cockburn's brand remained top-notch during the years Cockburn's was owned by Allied Domecq(owners of such brands as Harvey's Bristol Cream and Maker's Mark) the wine was cold-filtered for stabilization and subsequently lost it's soul. Glad to hear the Symington group was able to give Cockburn's its mojo back.
Go! Visit Porto and the Douro Valley!
Over the last 150 years, there has been a lot of consolidation in the world of Port, and while I can't profess to be an expert after one visit to the region, I can say with confidence that if you have limited time to visit the valley, it's a good idea to visit one of the visitors centers associated with a group of Port producers. The Symington group owns Graham's, Cockburn's, Dow's, Warre's, Quinta do Vesuvio, Altano, and Pratt & Symingon. Their multi-brand tasting room is a great place to learn both a lot about the history of the region as well.
We had a unique opportunity to taste in their stunning new tasting room overlooking the Douro, focusing on gaining an understanding of the "house style" of Dow's, Warre's, and Graham's by comparing their respective 20 Year Tawnys.
Euan MacKay's quote of the day will always stay with me: "10 year Tawny is on the way somewhere. 20 year Tawny is where it's going".
I would add that 30 and 40 year Tawny shows deeper and deeper into the past, with sometimes ancient vintages being added to the 30 and 40 year offerings.
We started in the museum, which traces the history of both the Quinta and the Symington family back 14 generations, then off to see where Dow's is made. Lots of Portuguese grapes are still crushed by foot in wide concrete lagars, including some of the best Symington wines like Quinto do Vesuvio, but finding enough experienced grape trodders is getting more and more difficult, and like all wine, timing is everything. So at Dow's Quinta do Bomfim, they use a mechanical robotic lagar made of stainless steel, with neoprene "feet" that squash the grapes with the same pace and pressure as human feet. Fermentation is calculated to the minute, and at the right time, the side of the steel lagar lifts up and pours the must over the side of the lagar to awaiting containers below --truly an engineering marvel. In traditional lagars, the must has to be removed by hand --backbreaking work. Several of the Symington houses use these awesome mechanical lagars.
Another great step forward is that the Symington group has 126 hectacres of organic vineyards, primarily at Quinta do Ataide. On land where the schist is so dense, organic farming is challenging, but they are committed to the practice where it's practical.
Our tasting started with some un-fortified wines from the Doruro, all of which are worth seeking out.
2012 Altano from Quinta do Ataide
Has a bit of American oak. Dusty tannins are tamed a bit by black pluminess. '12 was not a super-ripe year so though the wine has a plush style, it's still has a lovely lift to it. Lots of fresh red fruits(cherries/currants).
2014 Post Scriptum
'14 is also lighter than '11 or '13. Post Scriptum is the second label of the famous Chryseia label and is a great thing to look out for in restaurants around Portugal for about 25 euros. This has a bit of salinity to it but lovely fruit to compliment.
2012 Quinta do Vesuvio
Clearly the most serious wine of the bunch, Vesuvio was bought in 1989 and home to some great Port as well. Euan's description of this was "Tweed, but not Herringbone." Serious, but not precious. Round and full of amazing cocoa scents. Screaming for a nice piece of beef.
On to the Tawny Ports
20 Year Tawny is the perfect way to compare styles. And think about what it must be like as the Symington Family, trying to maintain many different historical styles and marketing to different audiences, it is a real study in brand management. Each brand needs to carry with it a marketing personality which fits the wine.
Warre's Otima 20
(Profile: Feminine), elegant, floral.Picked later. Fresh herbs, delicate pear, apricot jam, more red wine freshness.
Dow's 20 year Tawny
(Profile: Powerful) Drier, more complex, Serious. Fermented 30 minutes longer, more complex than the Warre's. A bit hotter on the palate and more concentrated.
Graham's 20 year Tawny
(Profile: High roller. Note the new scotch whiskey bottle shape (no accident)
Lush and citrusy. Very elegant. My favorite of the three.
Next came single Qunita Ports, which may be new to most readers. These wines are treated like vintage ports, held only briefly in cask before bottling, in mostly non-declared years. These wines are meant to drink a bit earlier usually, and give you a sense of the single property where the grapes were grown. Keep your eyes out for all of these special ports! They are terrific values.
2005 Quinta do Bomfim Vintage Port
Racy freshness on the nose, lots of black fruit, menthol/camphor, fresh tannins.
2004 Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Port
Clean red fruits, more fresh grapes come through on this and it feels a little sweeter than the Bomfim. Balanced and rich.
2001 Warre's Quinta da Cavadinha Vintage Port
Delicate floral aromas, great texture, plums and blackberries. A steal at less than $40US if you can find it.
The Good Life
When it was time to retire to lunch in the Victorian-era family house's lovely terrace, we had delicious Porto Tonicos made with Dow's White Port. We then spent the rest of the afternoon slowly dining on delicious Portuguese dishes of rice and pork with a fine salad paired first with Altana White Douro wine, then more Graham's 20 with superb Portuguese farm cheeses. Taking in the spectacular view, snacking on cheese, sipping Port, I was reminding myself how fortunate I am to have these kinds of experiences. I hope you readers make the effort to get to Portugal, get out to the Douro Valley, and take it all in yourself.
Huge thanks to Euan Mackay of Symington Family Estates and of course, the I.V.D.P. for the opportunity to attend this excellent weekend celebrating the 260th anniversary of the region's demarcation.