The Vintage Port Site

What was the 1945 season like in the Douro? What do the critics say about this wine? How do I decant it? See The Vintage Port Site for answers to all these questions and more.

Graham’s and Symington Family Estates are very pleased to announce the re-launch of The Vintage Port Site.

As owners and makers of Graham’s as well as many more of the world’s most admired Port brands, and with a family history in the Port trade going back 14 generations, the Symington family possess a collection of source material and knowledge about Port which is unique in the trade.

According to Paul Symington, Chairman and Joint Managing Director, “With this site, we can now share the stories, the details and our passion for superb Vintage Ports with the novice and expert alike.”

The heart of the site is our Knowledge Base.  In this archive, users can now search for more information about every Vintage Port we have declared or bottled since 1945 and the harvest conditions in which the wines were made. The tasting notes, gathered together from in-house tastings as well as international wine critics over the lifetime of the wines, provide a unique opportunity to understand how Vintage Port ages and flavours mature over an extended period of time.

For years the ultimate resource for information on Vintage Port, the site has been completely updated and features:

  • A fresh new look with simple, intuitive navigation
  • Fresh reference content on Port Basics, such as History, Blending, Declaring a Vintage and more
  • The articles about Viticulture in The Douro, written by Miles Edlmann, SFE’s Research Viticulturalist,  remain the best introduction to the unique conditions and viticulture of the region
  • A guide to Enjoying Port, including recommendations on how to buy, store, decant and serve your fine Vintage Ports
  • Finally, if you still can’t find the answer to your question, Ask The Expert.  We will respond to your query in two business days, on line.  All questions and answers will be retained in a searchable archive.

The Vintage Port Site will be much more than a static reference site, however.  Cynthia Jenson, the Graham’s blogger who has also been responsible for the re-design of the Vintage Port Site, will continue to expand the Knowledge Base, both back in time, and in the range of tasting notes for each wine.  Readers will also enjoy a steady stream of News articles from Cynthia about our brands, quintas, historical and technical subjects, as well as news of the latest releases.

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Port from Port to Port

Henry Shotton is accustomed to serving Graham’s ports in all kinds of venues, but one recent opportunity was a bit different.  The brief was not unusual:  please present tutored tastings to guests and host a dinner featuring Graham’s Ports and Symington Family Estates DOC wines.

Henry in front of the ocean liner / residence The World, docked in the Azores

But for the first time ever, Henry was asked to make these presentations at sea, aboard The World, a cruise ship which has been designed as a luxury residential community which just happens to be afloat and pursues a continuous worldwide itinerary, completing a circumnavigation every two to three years.

Henry flew out to join the ship in Ponta Delgada, on the island of São Miguel in the Azores.  The dinner and two tastings, one of Graham’s Ports and the other of Symington Family Estates’ Douro DOC wines, were part of an ongoing program of cultural and educational events offered on board during the cruises between ports, to orient passengers to the delights that await them on shore at the next destination.

Lining up wines to show at the Graham's tasting

One afternoon Henry offered a tutored tasting of Graham’s Ports, including Six Grapes, 20 and 40 Year Old Tawnies, Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage 1999 and two Graham’s Vintages, 1994 and 1980.  The 30 guests were quite knowledgeable about wine generally, and were familiar with Port to some degree, but clearly enjoyed and took advantage of the opportunity to learn more – they kept Henry for an hour and a half!

Another tasting featured SFE’s Douro DOC wines, including two vintages of Prats & Symington’s Chryseia (2003 and 2008) as well as a range of the Altano wines and the Quinta do Vesuvio Douro DOC 2008.  Again, the audience, though knowledgeable, were not familiar with many Portuguese wines and found the quality of our Douro wines very impressive, and particularly enjoyed the elegance of the aged Chryseia, which Henry said was showing just magnificently.

The dinner featured two dessert courses to close the meal, both of which sound fabulous with the ports:  a Blue Cheese Brulée with Graham’s 40 Year Old Tawny, and a Bolivia Dark Chocolate Mousse with Jellied Raspberries, which was served with Warre’s Vintage 1963.

The Blue Cheese Brulée was, according to Henry, “a match made in heaven.”  The complex and elegant 40 Year Old Tawny is a wine which can slightly defy food pairing efforts, and is usually enjoyed in solitary splendour, but Henry said the combination of the creamy Brulée and its accompaniments of caramelised walnuts and figs, worked beautifull to call forth and enhance all the flavour notes of the wine.

One more surprise was in store for Henry:  “I‘ve played a lot of Cricket but never thought I would get a game in the middle of the Atlantic between the Azores and Lisbon!”   It seems the ship has a deck laid out for tennis and other sports in the open air, and Henry was very pleased with his own performance, both bowling and batting.  Since “out” at sea means the ball went overboard, which is frowned upon, when Henry did finally go out, his team were penalised 10 runs.  Oh well.

As good as it gets, indeed: Port on the verandah at Malvedos, overlooking the Douro in May

The boat docked in Lisbon and the residents had several days to explore Portugal.  Clearly, the Port tasting was a hit – many of them took up an offer to visit the Douro, and met Henry again at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos, where he showed them over the winery and hosted another tasting and lunch.  The tasting was a mini-vertical of some recent Malvedos Vintages, not yet released, including 2001, 2004, and 2009, and the after-lunch port was the Quinta dos Malvedos 1999 (which is currently available).

Standing on the verandah, overlooking the Douro, one of the guests commented, “I’ve been everywhere in the world, and this is about as good as it gets.”

The group’s next stop, in Bordeaux, is sure to seem a bit flat after the spectacular mountain vineyards of the Douro and all our Portuguese hospitality and wines.

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Premium Port Wines Visits Graham’s

Think “sales meeting” and you think dreary sunless business hotel conference centres and endless slide presentations, facts and figures.

Luckily for Premium Port Wines, the Symingtons think differently.  We feel strongly that the best way to understand and appreciate our wines is to understand the family and traditions behind them, the attention to quality in every step of the production process, and the vineyards and region they come from.  With several new members on the team and so much to learn about the region, a week-long sales meeting in Porto, Gaia and the Douro was the obvious solution.

To that end, 13 members of PPW came from all over the United States to Porto, and were welcomed with a dinner at The Factory House, the 200 year old home of the British Port shippers in Porto.

The next day in Vila Nova de Gaia, the team saw for themselves how Graham’s uses the best of high tech where appropriate, as at our bottling plant, and low tech, for example in our cooperage, where centuries-old skills and procedures are still the best for repairing the old casks in which we age our wines.  PPW had the tour of our Lodge, as well as our head office, where they were tutored through an extensive tasting of a full range of our wines in the Sala de Provas, and enjoyed meeting the family and directors at lunch.

Next, they headed up to the Douro, to stay at Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos for three nights with Quinta do Tua taking up the overflow.  Days were spent visiting many of the Symington quintas, not just those which supply the grapes for Graham’s, but also Quinta do Vesuvio, Dow’s Senhora da Ribeira, Cockburn’s Quinta dos Canais, Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim and Quinta de Roriz which makes the Prats & Symington Douro DOC wines, Chryseia and Post Scriptum.

Arnold Trabb, Peter Scott, Drew Kligman and John Linklater take a morning walk through the walled vineyards of Quinta do Tua

And while there were in fact presentations and discussions of strategy and numbers, there was also lots of sun and fresh air, hikes through the vineyards to better understand Douro viticulture, and several wine tastings.

On Thursday morning Rupert divided the team into two groups, and challenged them to blend for themselves Graham’s 10 and 20 Year Old Tawnies from their component wines.  This is an incredibly difficult exercise, even when given the exact component wines that make up the current blend.  Rupert said one of the PPW teams did get respectably close – within about 80% of the correct blend – showing fine potential as blenders.  (You can read more about this type of blending exercise, conducted with another group during last year’s harvest, in another blog post)

PPW also enjoyed a vertical tasting of Quinta dos Malvedos vintage ports, including 1965, 1987, 1995, 2001 and 2006.  Rupert was very pleased with how the wines were showing, mentioning the 2001 and 1987 as particularly outstanding right now.   The group commented on how consistent the Quinta style had been over more than four decades, with most of the wines showing the signature esteva (gum cistus or rock rose) aroma and black cherry fruit.

Yummm....

Finally, lest there be any doubts they weren’t in Kansas any more, Rupert took the team to the Calça Curta – the local restaurant in Tua – and treated them to a dinner of local specialities including pike, perch and eels from the river Douro.

Another memorable visit by PPW to the Douro !

The full PPW team in the Douro:

Front and center:  Chili   Second row, kneeling:  Christine Solga-Bradburn, Vince McCarthy, Louis Charton, Peter Scott  Third row, standing:  Rupert Symington, Maria José Marques (SFE), Gloria Chow, Sheryl Sankey, Michael Donygan, Greg Murray, John Linklater, Arnold Trabb   Back row:  Paul Mugnier, Andre Pomp, Drew Kligman

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Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage 2009

Touriga Franca from Block 31. Full disclosure: this particular photo was taken in 2010!

We are very proud to announce that Graham’s has bottled our very first wine whose making was chronicled in this blog:  a Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage 2009.

You may recall that 2009 was a challenging year.  We had had 3 dry winters in a row, so in-ground levels of water were low.  On the up-side, we got some good rain in June, which helped the vines cope – most importantly, enabling them to put out good leaf cover, which served well to protect the grapes later in the summer from the very hot Douro sun.  The grapes were slow to reach phenolic ripeness, and even though we waited longer than many to start our picking, it was a generally earlier than usual harvest, and yields were generally down, particularly in the Upper Douro, where Malvedos is situated, near Tua.  More details are available in Paul’s full Harvest Report.

But, as Paul so frequently points out, with the really astonishing micro-climatisation of the Douro, and the many varieties of grapes we can blend into our Ports, we can just about always make some good wines.  Somewhere on those hillsides, there will be at least a few parcels that did reasonably well in this particular year’s conditions and will make good wines.

For the Malvedos 2009, two of the parcels that responded particularly well to the conditions and set the tone of the finished wine, were blocks 29 and 31 of Touriga Franca.

Touriga Franca is a grape that does well in conditions like 2009’s – it has thick skins, so it is particularly resistant to the desiccating effects of sun and heat, and it really only achieves complete ripening when and where it can enjoy full sunlight and exposure.

Parcels 29 and 31 are just above river level (around 100-120 m of altitude) and face full south across the river.  The vines get all the sun there is, and given a bit of a bend down river, they continue to get sun till quite late in the day, as the sun sets into a sort of notch in the hills to the west.

These were the first blocks of Touriga Franca we picked, on 24 September 2009, and Henry knew he was on to a good thing when he saw the first grapes come in, as you can read in the blog.

The wine was Henry’s 10th lagar of the vintage, and he recalls being pleased with the baumé of 13.2°, which may be why he chose it to star in our very first Video experiment on the blog.  You can see – and hear! – the robotic lagar punching down the cap of the fermenting wine here:

[youtube=http://youtu.be/uBcOcUaKBGE]

I asked Henry about this lot, and what exactly it brought to the finished Malvedos 2009.  He replied:

This Touriga Franca realized its potential (complete ripening requires lots of sunlight and good exposure), producing a wine robust and rich in colour and structure, with particularly lifted, exotic floral aromas adding complexity, as well as intense blackberry fruit flavours and velvety tannins.

As it happens, the blogger tasted a sample last weekend alongside the Graham’s 2007.  The Malvedos 2009 is incredibly rich with dense fruit – the family resemblance you find in all Graham’s or Malvedos vintage ports – but those floral aromas are extraordinary.

So, now you know what you can look forward to.  As with most of our single-quinta vintage bottlings, the wine, now bottled, has been laid down to age in our lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia, and we will release it when it is ready to drink, probably in 8 to 10 years’ time.  Mark your calendars.

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The Douro Environment

Quinta das Lages, Rio Torto Valley, which supplies grapes for Graham's Ports

Recently one of Graham’s readers commented on an article  to express concern over the future of the extraordinary natural habitat of the Douro, and asked if it was under threat, perhaps from too-great vineyard development.  Whilst there has been some loss of natural habitat in the past, there are now regulations in place which strictly control and limit the development of the region, and help protect the area for the long run.

Establishing and Maintaining Vineyards

The Douro demarcated wine region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and under this regime there are strict controls about what can and cannot be done here.  For example, the beautiful schist dry-stone walls which buttress the oldest terraces in the region are protected: they cannot be willfully destroyed for any reason, and if they are damaged – as some were in the heavy rains of winter 2009/2010 – landowners are obliged to restore them.

Quinta da Cavadinha, March 2011

If we re-plant a vineyard, we must respect those walls and work within them – for example at Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha this past winter we cleared and re-sculpted the soil within and then re-planted some old socalcos, which are the type of terraces typically planted with a number of rows of vines on a gentle slope between stone retaining walls.  With the soil freshly turned, and the infant vines newly planted,  those terraces will look a bit bare and raw for a few years till the vines mature, but the renewal of too-old vineyards is an important part of keeping the overall environment healthy and thriving.

Vineyards cannot be planted just anywhere, in any fashion.  There are stringent licensing regulations which define exactly how a vineyard must be planted, according to the gradient of the slope:

  • Up to 30 % gradient you can plant vinha ao alto (vines planted in vertical rows up and down the hill face)
  • 30 to 40 % you can have two-row patamares (soil banked terraces with two rows of vines each)
  • 40 to 50 % must be patamares estreitos (single row terraces)
  • Above 50 % you cannot plant a new vineyard, but you may replant an existing vineyard

In addition, whether re-planting old vineyards or creating new ones, farmers must not touch certain trees, particularly any cork oak – we have one at Malvedos growing in the middle of a line of vines alongside the access road to the winery and house.

Viticultural Methods

Graham’s quintas and all the Symington properties have been managed for the past ten years according to the standards of the Modo de Produção Integrado, a strict regime of minimum intervention and integrated pest management which relies on the minimum use of the least disruptive products to prevent or manage disease or infestation in the vineyards.  The only exceptions to this regime are fully organic vineyards.  The Symington family have 126 hectares in the Vilariça valley in the northeastern corner of the region, which are certified organic (Modo de Produção Biológico).  These vineyards produce the grapes for the Altano Douro DOC wines as well as some port wines.  Additionally, Quinta das Lages, which produces grapes for Graham’s ports and is situated in the Rio Torto, has an organic vineyard.

Insects thrive in the cover crops of our vineyards

Another very important aspect of our farming which supports the ecology of the Douro is our use of cover crops between rows of vines, which help control erosion, conserve water in the soil, contribute to our pest and disease management regimes and increase organic matter and nutrition in the soil.  They also provide precious habitat for insects, which are the basis of the food chain for a great diversity of birds, reptiles and mammals.

Graham’s and Symington Family Estates invests substantially in viticultural and enological research and Miles Edlmann, our research viticulturalist, has been nurturing experimental vineyards for over a decade, investigating a wide range of subjects including the cover crop regime, soil erosion, a variety of measures to minimise pest attacks, and identifying optimum grape varieties, clones, root stocks and trellising systems for different terrains and altitudes, to name just a few.  The aim of all this research is to find ways to produce the best possible grapes and wines, of course, but importantly, we are trying to find the ways which best suit and support the unique ecology and extreme conditions of the Douro.

In addition, Miles is responsible for collecting and analysing the meteorological data collected at the weather stations located in five of our quintas across the Douro.  Drawing on more than 40 years of temperature and rainfall data Miles confirms that the temperature in the Douro has increased by 1.2⁰ Centigrade in the period 1967 to 2010 on a ten year moving average, to just under 16.5⁰C.  Though the past few years have shown a slight drop, the long term trend continues upwards.

Family Commitment

Left bank: Senhora da Ribeira, Santinho, Vale de Coelho, right bank Vesuvio and around the bend Vale de Malhadas - all owned by SFE or family members

The Symington family have a very strong sense of stewardship for the land we farm in the Douro, some of which was planted by our grandfathers and great grandfather at the beginning of the 20th century.  Today, as a group, we are the largest land owners in the region, responsible for 1,860 hectares (4,596 acres) of which only slightly more than half is vineyard (934 ha), the balance being olive, almond or citrus groves, or wild habitat – natural scrub or even sheer rock in a few places.   The fact that a large percentage of that land is owned by individual family members, not by “the firm” is a huge statement of personal commitment to the region.

Paul Symington, together with his brother Dominic and cousins Johnny, Rupert and Charles, is passionate about the region and the protection of the Douro environment, and recently spoke at the Third Annual World Congress on Climate Change and Wine.  He has also written about sustainability and organic viticulture in the Douro for Fugas, the weekly magazine of Portugal’s Publico newspaper, last 27 November  (no on-line link to this article, unfortunately).

So, whilst the Douro is protected to a great extent by its UNESCO status and DOC regulations, Symington Family Estates is also working to raise awareness and support for the protection of this extraordinary landscape, both through the example of our own practices in our properties, and through engagement in the debate through public channels.

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March 2011 Douro Insider

After a pleasant end of February, the start of a new month immediately brought a return of the cold weather.  Temperatures were very low for the first few days of March, and sub-zero in some places at night.  The morning frosts thus made a crisp comeback, especially on the high ground.  This is always slightly worrying for a viticulturist, when the vines are getting so close to budburst, but the cold weather slows down the awakening of the vines and prolongs dormancy as a form of natural protection.  In the end the cold spell was short-lived, and it was still very sunny nevertheless.  As so often seems to happen, we were hit with some pretty bad weather over the long first weekend (it rained on the Carnival parade) and then stayed cloudy and drizzly for another couple of days.  There was a brief up-perking around the 10th before conditions reverted to uninspiring and wet.  It also remained cold, with some hail coming down in the Alentejo and, surprisingly, there were even snowfalls in Madeira getting on for mid-month. Read Full Report

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Further re Tasting Glasses

A reader asked about the tasting glasses Charles uses in the tasting room.  The other day I was able to get a photo of his technical glass alongside one of our standard Graham’s glasses which we use to serve Port to our visitors at the Lodge.

As you can see, the Sala da Prova glass is very narrow, quite a closed tulip shape – look at the size of the rim versus the Lodge glass!  Charles commented that it was not actually easy to drink from, and your blogger can attest to that.  But it does concentrate the aromas fabulously, which is what Charles needs when he is working.

If you are interested in more technical discussion of wine glasses, read about a comparative tasting of Vintage Port from a wide range of Riedel glasses, and about Charles’s discussion of that tasting and the differences he experienced in the glasses.

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