Another Kind of Quality Control

Graham’s produces a wide range of ports, and ensuring consistently high quality across all our products is of course paramount.  For the wines which are unique to any given vintage, whether classic Vintage ports, single quinta Vintage bottlings, or Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) port, once the blend is agreed, it is re-tasted and double checked for quality when we prepare for a bottling run.  These wines are also tasted and checked for quality after bottling, at regular intervals.

But we also have another rather unique quality challenge when it comes to producing our “stock” non-vintage wines, such as Six Grapes or our tawny blends.  We have to ensure a consistency across bottlings despite the fact that every year the final wines will be blended from an ever-changing stock of component wines.

Assessments for quality and consistency often draw in the entire family as well as staff from the Sala da Prova (Tasting Room) and commercial teams.  This assessment is so critical, and requires such concentration, that Dominic took the photos for the blog himself, rather than introduce non-essential personnel to the room during this exercise.

Thursday they were assessing new lots of Six Grapes and also reviewing the Graham’s 2006 LBV again before bottling.  In each case the “new” wines are compared very carefully with previously bottled examples.  We must have perfect consistency not just of quality and style, but flavour and colour.  Ultimately, they should be able to taste blind and not discern any difference whatsoever between the wine from the previous bottling and the wine drawn from the sample cask.

From left to right, Euan Mackay (Sales Director), Charles Symington (Head Winemaker), Manuel Rocha (Sala da Prova), Rupert Symington, and Paul Symington in front, scrutinising the wine.  Dominic Symington is behind the camera and Henry Shotton, the Quinta dos Malvedos winemaker during harvest, is camera-shy and out of view.

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Six Grapes

A bottle of Six Grapes, with the original late 19th - early 20th century label

Graham’s Six Grapes Port is one of our longest standing signature wines.  Strictly – by IVDP standards – it is a Reserve Ruby.  In fact, it is something much much more.  Most Port producers’ Reserve Ruby ports are blended from the wines left over after the selection of the best lots from each harvest for vintage, LBV and other premium styles of port.  Not Six Grapes.

It is a common misconception that the Six Grapes name refers to six varieties of grapes in the blend, but in fact “Six Grapes” has always been Graham’s own in-house designation for its highest quality wines.  Before leaving the Douro, Graham’s wines have traditionally been classified in terms of quality level on a scale of one to six grapes, with “Six Grapes” being the designation for wines of the highest quality.   Upon arrival in the lodge in Gaia, the Six Grapes symbol has always been marked on the casks containing the best quality lots:  potential vintage wines.

Eighteen months after a harvest, we make our final selection of wines to be blended for our classic Graham’s or Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage Ports.  Wines de-classified from the final Vintage blends are then designated for use in Six Grapes.  This means all the wines are of the highest quality and originated in our own A-rated Douro quintas.  The wines will then continue to be aged for up to two further years in immense wooden balseiros to soften their tannins while preserving their intense fresh blackberry fruit character.

When ready to bottle, the wine is fined (to remove any sediment), but never filtered, in order to maintain the richness and complexity which characterises Graham’s estate grown ports.  The result is an extraordinary ruby port which tastes like a young Vintage:  intense aromas and palate of fresh fruit flavours, typically black fruit, plums, perhaps cherry, with a slightly exotic nose (aniseed, and the esteva, or rock-rose note typical of Graham’s) and incredible richness, sweetness and balance, which you can continue to savour on the long, clean finish.  Classic Graham’s flavour and quality.

The Six Grapes name and symbol made it first appearance on the bottle at the end of the nineteenth century and has been in almost continuous use ever since.  A notable landmark for the wine was its appearance on the first class wine list on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary in May, 1936.  This honourable selection was repeated when Cunard launched the Queen Mary II in January 2004.  Today, perhaps partly due to having successfully ‘crossed the pond’ so many times, Six Grapes has become one of the most popular Ports on top restaurant wine lists across North America.

Six Grapes port is the perfect accompaniment to very dark chocolate (70% is our favourite) or rich, dark chocolate desserts.  It also works fantastically well as a counterpoint to strong tangy cheeses such as Stilton or Aged Cheddar.  For this reason, you can often find it by the glass on restaurant menus – ask, and be sure they serve it in a large glass so you can properly savour those aromas.  It is also a favourite of wine critics as an affordable, every-day alternative to Vintage port, particularly at holidays, for example, Tom Cannavan has picked Six Grapes for Easter as his wine of the week choice to accompany all those wonderful chocolates this weekend.

Do you enjoy Six Grapes?  Leave us a message and tell us where in the world you are, and what you serve with it – we would love to hear about your favourite food pairings.

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How’s The Vineyards?

Poppies at Vila Velha

The past two weeks or more have been incredibly warm and sunny in Gaia, and also up in the Douro.  Our vines, along with all kinds of plant and insect life, are flourishing.

Miles Edlmann, our research viticulturalist, maintains meticulous records of the progress of our vineyards, from one end of the Douro to the other.  At this point in time, the development of our vines is running about five days ahead of average.

The next key date in their progress will be flowering.  At Quinta da Cavadinha, the Warre’s flagship quinta roughly 3.5 km north of the Douro in the Pinhão valley where much of Miles’s research activity is based, has an average flowering date of 23 May.  For Graham’s river front quintas 8 to 12 km upriver, Vila Velha, Malvedos and Tua, he would normally expect flowering 5 days earlier than that, and at Malhadas, well to the east in the Douro Superior, flowering is likely to be fully 10 days earlier.

Miles is naturally out and in the vineyards as much as possible to do his job and generally see how things are going, and lucky for the blog, he has a new camera to take with him as he makes his rounds.

Click into the first thumbnail below to open up the photo in a full blog page, then use the hyperlinks at the foot of each image to scroll through the gallery and learn more about the vines, flowers and  insect life in our vineyards at this time of year.

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World Congress on Climate Change and Wine

Paul Symington attended the III World Congress on Climate Change and Wine in Spain, on the 13th and 14th April.  This event was organised by The Wine Academy of Spain and Pancho Campo MW.  The featured guest speaker was Kofi Annan, past Secretary-General of the UN and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2001.  Kofi Annan spoke eloquently at the conference about the responsibility that all involved in wine have to help combat climate change.

There were many speakers from all over the world, including New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, France, USA and Italy.  The overriding theme was the increased average temperatures that have been measured over the last 40 years in many of the world’s wine regions and the impact that this is having on the vineyards and the wine being made from them.  Increased sugar levels and earlier harvests are just two of several important factors resulting from this global warming.

Paul made a presentation on the family’s Douro vineyards and the data that the family has accumulated over many decades.  The measurements taken at the Symington Quintas confirm 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.  It is important to note that the average annual temperature has actually dropped over the last four years in the Douro, with three of the last four years having an annual average below 16⁰C, although the long-term trend remains upwards.  The family’s data mirrored that given by other speakers from Champagne, Bordeaux, Italy and elsewhere.

The Symington family have over 925 ha of natural scrub, olive groves, almond trees and indigenous pine woods in the Douro, as well as 935 ha of vineyard, which significantly contributes to C02 reduction.

Paul also spoke about the serious problems that are faced in the Douro from working in the largest area of mountain vineyards in the world and the measures that the family have taken to prevent the on-going threat of erosion.  The Symington viticultural team lead by Charles Symington, Pedro Leal de Costa and Miles Edlmann have carried out pioneering research on erosion in the Douro vineyards and Paul was able to present some of the results of this data.  Miles Edlmann has concluded, after extensive field tests, that vineyard rows planted up and down the valley side (as opposed to contour terraces) can lose 1.7 tons of soil per hectare per year in average Douro conditions if cover crops are not planted in between the rows of vines to help control erosion.

The indigenous Port and Douro grape varieties are well adapted to the Douro climate.  Touriga Nacional in particular will continue to ripen its fruit even in very hot conditions and with little water available even when other grape varieties would need huge quantities of irrigation water in order to survive and properly ripen their fruit.

Finally, Paul pointed out the fact that the Douro is a region of multiple microclimates, which is a key weapon in coping with climate change.  With vineyards at higher altitudes on the valley’s sides growing at cooler average temperatures the Douro has some answers to the serious threats the region, like all other wine areas, faces from global warming.

A member of the company’s commercial team, Gonçalo Aragão e Brito, accompanied Paul to this conference and during breaks between seminars Gonçalo gave delegates the opportunity to taste Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage 2006, Graham’s Ten Year Old Tawny Port and Quinta dos Malvedos 1999 Vintage Port.

PDS, 14th April 2011

Update:  The Climate Change and Wine website has now posted videos of all the presentations.  Paul presented during Session Three, which you can view here.

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Graham’s Goes to Vancouver

Last weekend Rupert Symington went to Vancouver, British Columbia, to show Graham’s wines at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival.  This event, which began very humbly in 1979 as a fund-raiser for the Playhouse has long since turned into one of the most important international wine shows, and Graham’s has been proud to participate for many years.  This year, the Festival had a special focus on Fortified Wines.

Rupert Symington and Roy Hersh

Rupert manned the tasting table himself, together with colleagues from Mark Anthony Wine Merchants, our Canadian distributor, pouring Graham’s Six Grapes, The Tawny, 10 Year Old Tawny, 2005 Late Bottled Vintage and the Quinta dos Malvedos 1999 Vintage Port for our visitors and answering their questions about Port.

In addition, for those who could not resist the promise of “Elegance, Power and Complexity” there was a special vertical tasting of eight Graham’s Vintages:  2007, 2003, 2000, 1994, 1985, 1980, 1977 and 1970.  For this, Roy Hersh of For The Love of Port joined Rupert to co-moderate the tasting.  The wines lived up to their billing and were showing superbly, the 1985 in particular just staggered the audience, as an example of Vintage Port in its absolute prime.

When it was all over, Rupert had his reward:  together with Dan Wildermuth of Rodney Strong Vineyards in  Sonoma and Chris Hoffmeister of Mark Anthony, he landed a 7’8″ (2.30 metre), roughly 300 pound white sturgeon in the Fraser River in British Columbia.  It was released again after the photo op, so no caviar that night, alas!

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The Most Beautiful 5k In The World

Graham’s Port Blog is hosted on WordPress, which recently issued a challenge to all its bloggers and employees worldwide: get out from behind your computer, get some fresh air and exercise in the form of a 5k walk or run, then come back and blog about it.

The Douro is, quite simply, the most spectacularly beautiful landscape imagineable.   So, your blogger decided to take a walk through our vineyards and bring you with her through the magic of the internet, as part of this worldwide initiative.

My first challenge was simply getting to the Douro; with wildcat strikes on the train services jeopardising travel plans I had to hitch a ride with colleagues who had business at Quinta do Vesuvio, another Symington property in the Douro Superior, 120 km east of Porto. Perfect: Quinta do Vale de Malhadas, which supplies grapes for Graham’s ports, is immediately next to Vesuvio, just upriver.

Armazen at Quinta do Vesuvio
Experimental vineyards at Vesuvio
Boundary wall between Vesuvio and Malhadas
Out of the wilderness, into the vineyards
Tinta Roriz plantation
Winery and olive press buildings
The Well
Vale dos Porcos
Esteva, or Rock Rose

My walk started at the armazen at Vesuvio, with its magnificent old toneis, each holding around 14,000 litres of fine port made in the last harvest.  In fact, your blogger’s own fair feet helped tread three lagares of that wine, so it seemed a particularly fitting place to start off.

I headed east and around .75 km came to some experimental vineyards.  The Symingtons engage in considerable research, both viticultural and enological.  This vineyard is set up to compare results between seven different trellising systems.  If you look closely at the photograph, the background vines are trained “Poda Minima” – minimal pruning – as you can see!  The mad tangle of those vines contrasts with the very tidy Smart Dyson pruned vines in the foreground.  (Note:  you can click on any of these photos to see them full size, then use your browser back button to return to the blog.)

A little over 2km brought me to the boundary wall between Vesuvio and Malhadas.  In the 1870’s when phylloxera had scourged the Douro and grape production was at an all time low, the then owner of Vesuvio, Dona Antónia Ferreira, kept her staff employed on other tasks, including the building of this beautiful dry stone wall which surrounds the property – bear in mind, it is over 300 hectares of land!

The area on either side of the wall, in both quintas, is wilderness now, so it wasn’t until I had walked about 2.7 km that I had my first view of the vineyards and olive groves of Quinta do Vale de Malhadas.

The vines are doing well, as you can see, leaves are already unfolding.  Later in the day I spoke with the viticulturalist, Mário Natario, who confirmed the vines are very forward this year, and doing well.  He is hoping to get their field grafting done at Malhadas over the next two weeks.  I should mention we have had spectacular weather, warm, even hot, and clear for almost a week now.  As I was walking through Malhadas, even the caseiro, who lives year round in the Douro and should be used to it, commented on the extraordinary heat.

I carried on past this vineyard of Tinta Roriz, and then turned down towards the river and railway line, 3.5 km.  Clearly there was once a dedicated stop at the old winery.  Rupert Symington tells me the old winery is amazing, and promised to give me the key some time to explore.  In that slightly lower-roofed extension to the back, there is an old olive press – each of those four doors opens into a section of the building dedicated to one part of the process, and press, storage jars and all are still there.  He tells me the olive oil they make from Malhadas is fantastically good (a previous blog post explains the harvest process, if you are interested, though now our olives are pressed at a nearby co-operative).

Just up from the winery is a beautiful old well – notice the stone shelf-like steps which descend into the well.  There is a small brook which runs along the outside edge of that surrounding wall – just the sound of the running water was refreshing on such a hot day.

I carried on, past the quinta house (where the caseiro, the property manager, lives) and all its surrounding outbuildings, and on past vineyards to another area of wilderness.  At 4.9 km I came to Vale dos Porcos (yes, Valley of the Pigs – wild boar were and still are quite common in the Douro).  This is a deep stone-lined ravine which holds water cascading down the hillside – from that crevasse in the photo it passes under the roadway where I am standing, and carries on down the hill through more wilderness – I have no idea where it comes out, I think it is too far east to feed the little stream next to the well in the prior photo.

As I reached the 5km point, I was surrounded by Esteva, Rock Rose.  If you are familiar with reviews of Graham’s ports, particularly our Vintage ports, you will often see tasting notes of Esteva.  This is an intense floral scent but with a distinctly herbal edge to it – imagine rose with something like menthol or eucalyptus blended in.  One thing I noticed over and over again as I walked was the incredible fragrance of the air – and it reminded me of our Vintage ports.  The wilderness landscapes of Malhadas are covered in gorse, rock rose, lavender, and more flowers and herbs and shrubs than I can possibly name, besides all the olive, almond, and citrus trees.

I did walk just a little further, to 5.4 km from the start, to reach a particular spur of land and enjoy the spectacular views:

First, the view across the river, to Quinta do Vale do Coelho (coelho means rabbit), which is one of the key properties for Smith Woodhouse ports, another Symington brand.

And then, looking directly upriver:

Vale de Coelho on the north bank of the Douro, and on this side of the river, more of Vale de Malhadas.  This quinta stretches along 2 km of river front, and extends up the surrounding hillsides and valleys over 145 hectares.  These photos are taken from a little more than midway along the river frontage and a bit less than halfway up the height of the property.

Admit it, that’s the most beautiful 5k walk you’ve ever taken.  But we still have to turn around and walk back!

Wilderness hillside, covered in gorse
Almonds, already!
Caseiro’s rooster
Road back through Vesuvio
Almost there – Quinta do Vesuvio

Of the 145 hectares at Malhadas, only 32 are under vine.  The rest, as you can see, is largely wilderness, but there are also considerable olive, citrus and almond groves.  I should have mentioned, besides the haunting fragrance I noticed throughout the day, I also enjoyed the birdsong.  With almost no man-made noises, I was aware of the constant chatter and music of the birds.  I saw only a few darting about, but the music was continual.  I should add that the insect life is also thriving – bees certainly were enjoying the habitat (we have hives and most of our quintas make their own honey) and at one point I had so many butterflies around me it was a little dizzying!

The almond trees bloomed back in January and February, and have already set – nice crop coming along here, with their fuzzy green skins.  They need to be picked in September – hopefully before the grape harvest begins!  Again, at every quinta I have enjoyed the local almonds lightly toasted and salted, and generally served alongside a cold tawny or port-and-tonic.  Very nice.

These quintas in the Douro Superior are particularly remote – the roads are incredibly long and winding before you reach a village, so the properties need to be self-sufficient to a fair degree.  The caseiro at Malhadas has a great vegetable patch planted on some abandoned stone-walled patamares, and keeps both a hen-house and a separate rooster-house next door.

By 6.4 km I had re-entered the Vesuvio property, and the view was of another beautiful stone wall alongside the road, and a mortuario on the hillside ahead of me.  The word means graveyard, and is used as well for the stone-terraced vineyards that were abandoned after phylloxera.  Some were converted to olive groves, others were left to go wild.  If you click on that photo to see it full size, you can see the walls nearly buried under all the vegetation (use your browser back button to return to the blog).

Finally, 9.5 km, I had a beautiful view of the quinta house at Vesuvio.  I mentioned the need for self-sufficiency – that open ground in front of the house, with citrus trees on either side and clustered around a well in the centre, is the kitchen garden, freshly cleared and ready to re-plant.  Just two weeks ago, when I visited with the Lodge team there was still kale standing in the garden, and I have seen it at harvest time, bursting with tomatoes, cabbages, herbs, you name it, all of which go to feed the harvest team as well as the family and visitors to the quinta.

I got back to the house at just under 10k, tired, happy, and luckily just in time for lunch with my colleagues.  I hope you have enjoyed this walk as much as I did, and like me, you will enjoy a glass of chilled tawny port afterwards.

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