Tracking the Season

Alexandre Mariz watches the grapes enter the Malvedos winery

The legendary consistent quality of Graham’s ports starts in the vineyards, and our viticultural team do a tremendous job nurturing our vines year round to ensure the best possible grapes come into our wineries during harvest.  We have to work with nature and the climate – floods, droughts, pests, lightning strikes, mid-summer hail, you name it, the Douro has thrown it at us at some point in the past almost 200 years – but it is a testament to the skill and tenacity of our viticulturists that every year our winemakers are able to make good wines.  Not always declared vintage ports, not always in the quantity we could wish, but always wines of a quality to cellar in Gaia and ultimately blend into one of Graham’s port styles.

For this reason, in addition to our ongoing coverage of viticultural activity in the blog and the Douro Insider reports, we thought we would track the progress of the season in another way this year:  by regularly monitoring the progress of a single vine, and also the view across one of our key quintas.

At Quinta dos Malvedos 36% of the vineyards are planted with Touriga Franca (previously known as Touriga Francesa), which contributes wonderful complexity of aroma and flavour to Graham’s wines.  Miles Edlmann, our research viticulturist, explains that Touriga Franca requires lots of sun and good exposure to ripen fully, and its berries have quite thick skins which help it survive dry seasons better than some other varieties.  It retains its acidity well even in such conditions, and will bring lifted, exotic floral aromas and flavours of intense red fruit, rockrose and sometimes blackberries to our wines.

Touriga Franca at Quinta dos Malvedos 22 March 2012, 11:44

So quite naturally, we chose a Touriga Franca vine to monitor.  This one is located in a parcel near the entrance to the quinta, but set far enough away from the roadway and water line that its development should be fairly characteristic of the parcel overall.  These vines are mature, just over 25 years old, so produce high quality grapes and typically aromatic, complex wines. During harvest we posted a short video panorama of our Touriga Franca plots, and you can see this vineyard in the opening sequence.

Finally, with all the work at Quinta do Tua this past autumn and winter with the re-sculpting and re-planting of 5 hectares of vineyards, we will monitor the view looking upriver, east across those plantations as well as adjacent older vineyards.  You can also see earlier photos of this view in our article about the Vineyard Works at Quinta do Tua.

We hope you will watch with us the progress of the season at Malvedos and Tua.

View across Quinta do Tua, 21 March 2012, 18:35
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Graham’s Lodge Team 2012

Every year Graham’s gears up for the summer season by hiring and training additional guides for the Lodge.  Our guides are simply the best:  friendly and knowledgeable, and fully prepared to answer all your questions about Port wine, the Douro, Graham’s and Symington Family Estates.

The new team began work in mid-March and spent their first week simply watching and working alongside the veteran staff, and only began their formal training last week.  Paul Symington makes a point every year of personally welcoming the guides and getting to know them at an informal Monday morning breakfast gathering in our head office.  He spoke to the group about the long history and commitment of the Symington family to the Port trade, the Douro and to Graham’s and the importance of the Lodge guides’ role in conveying all of that to our visitors.  Afterwards Henri Sizaret of our Marketing department spoke to the team about the brand heritage and image, and how their role at the Lodge fits into and supports the messages we try to convey in all our marketing efforts.

After lunch and for the balance of the week, the group enjoyed – really enjoyed! – training sessions on a wide variety of subjects – anything, in fact, that our visitors may want to know.

João Pedro Ramalho at the Douro map explaining the sub-regions and climates to the Lodge Guides

Most important of course is learning about our wines.  João Pedro Ramalho and Pedro Correia of our wine making team each spent an intensive half day with the guides teaching them about Port and Douro DOC wines respectively.  This included detailed explanations of everything from climatic conditions in the Douro and their effect on the quality of our wines to the morphology of grapes, as well as a thorough review of the logistics and technicalities of harvesting, winemaking, blending, ageing, bottling and serving.  Finally – and most importantly – the guides learned to simply appreciate our wines.  To this end they were served samples of every Graham’s port style as well as a range of our Douro DOC wines.  The wine makers then talked through each of the wines and explained how the flavour profiles are a direct result of the specific winemaking techniques behind that particular style of wine.

Sr. Emilio explaining how Graham's maintains our casks in our own cooperage

Additional sessions led by veteran guides covered the various kinds of tours and tastings we offer, the Lodge Shop and our wine shipping services.  The team also visited our bottling plant and the tanoaria – the cooperage – where Sr. Emilio showed them how we maintain all the wooden casks in which we age our Ports.

Finally, the team spent two full days in the Douro to see our vineyards and wineries for themselves and meet the viticulturists whose work is so critical to the quality of Graham’s ports.  Based at Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua for their stay, where Alexandre Mariz met them and showed them the Malvedos adega, they visited other key Symington properties across the region, including Quinta do Vesuvio,  Cockburn’s Quinta dos Canais, Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira and Quinta do Bomfim, and Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha where our research viticulturist Miles Edlmann gave them an intensive lesson in viticulture.

The team are now back in Vila Nova de Gaia and ready to make your visit to the Lodge a pleasure, and answer all your questions.  All our team are multi-lingual and as always we are able to offer tours in English, Portuguese, French, Spanish, German and Italian.  This year we have guides fluent in Russian and Polish as well.

Graham's Lodge team 2012

Kneeling in front, left to right: Serafim, Bruno, Yulia, Nuno, Markus, Ana.  Standing in back:  Luis, Rosalina, Raul, Jorge, João, Emiliano, Tom, Mariana, Cátia, Anastasia, Delphine, Dorota, Carolina, Herminio, Ana

The Graham’s Lodge begins its summer hours on Monday 2 April, and will be open seven days a week from 10:00 until 18:00 through October.  Note that we will be closed on Sunday 8 April for the Easter Holiday.

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The Douro Goes to Vienna

The start of the year is always an extraordinarily busy time for every one at Graham’s and Symington Family Estates, as we travel to share our wines at many shows and exclusive tasting events around the world.

Dominic Symington

Dominic Symington has been in Vienna, at the Welt WeinFestival at the Palais Coburg, which rightly bills itself as “the meeting point of wine connoisseurs, wine experts and viniculturists from all over the world.”  The four day event features a wine show of 250 fine wines from 50 makers across 12 countries, as well as Master Classes and fine wine dinners.

Dominic was one of a group of four winemakers whose Douro properties produce both Port and Douro DOC wines: Quinta do Crasto, Quinta do Vale do Meão, Quinta Vale Dona Maria and Dominic on this occasion represented Prats + Symington, which makes DOC wines under the names Chryseia, Post Scriptum and Prazo de Roriz, and Quinta de Roriz Port wines.  As neighbours in the Douro, well familiar with one another’s wines and estates – as were generations of all our families before us – it was an extraordinary opportunity to show visitors to the Welt WeinFestival what the region can produce.

Cristiano van Zeller presenting Douro wines at the Welt WeinFestival in Vienna, against a backdrop of Prats + Symington's Quinta de Roriz.

Cristiano van Zeller of Quinta Vale Dona Maria was asked by the organisers to present a selection of Douro wines, and among others showed the Douro DOC wines Chryseia 2008 and Quinta do Vesuvio 2008.  He knows our wines very well and had no difficulty presenting and discussing them with the group.

Dominic wrote in to tell us more:

Having four of the top Douro wine producers all together created a lot of attention and as a group we were one of the most sought after tasting areas.  This was fascinating for the visitors as they were able to cross taste at different quality levels and therefore better understand the nuances and unique flavours of Douro red wines.  The guests were at times a little surprised to see us picking up bottles from each other’s tables and suggesting that they do mini comparative tastings across producers.

In addition, I was one of six producers who did Tasting Lessons with small groups of just 3 or 4 guests.  We discussed with them how we the producers taste, what we look for ourselves.  As Port is so different from dry wine I also discussed and explained the various flavour stages in the maturing cycle of Vintage Port.

For this lesson I showed Graham’s 1994 – currently at the secondary stage of maturity and showing quite superbly! – and the Post Scriptum 2009.  This was very interesting because I could show how (essentially) exactly the same grape varieties make two such distinctive wines.  The guests were intrigued to be taken through the wines in detail and to look for similarities of aroma and flavour within such distinctive styles, Port and dry Douro DOC wine.  Fascinatingly some people found it easier to identify a particular character in the Graham’s ’94 first and then find it in the Post Scriptum, while others went the other way.

One question posed was, “would it be easier if the Post Scriptum was more mature?” to which I replied yes, as I believe the richness of the Douro wines evolve as they mature and take on a more “port-like” aromatic.

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February 2012 Douro Insider

What actually happened in February is very easy to describe.  Why it occurred, and what the consequences will be, is very much more complicated.  So what did happen then? Basically, nothing.  There was no wind.  There were no clouds.  There was certainly no rain.  It warmed up nicely during the day under sapphire skies, but then it got very cold indeed at night.  Portugal, along with much of the rest of Europe, was held in the grip of a very stable cool spell for several weeks.  The lengthening days permitted quite warm maximum temperatures on occasions but the nights were bitter.

The absolute range of temperatures was therefore huge – with almost 30º C between the hottest and coldest recorded values at some quintas.  But the cold easily outweighed the warm, and the month came in well below average on balance. Read Full Report

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Viticultural Award from Revista de Vinhos

Vineyards looking northeast from house at Malvedos

Revista de Vinhos has awarded its Viticultural award for 2011 to Symington Family Estates, calling SFE a national leader in sustainable viticulture, citing the fact that all our vineyards are farmed under a “minimum intervention” regime and 130 hectares are farmed organically.  In addition they praise our advances in vineyard management, training, mapping and analysing the productivity of our vineyards with GPS and infrared technology, as well as our viticultural research (into matters such as cover crops, erosion, and pest control) and work on protecting and promoting native Portuguese grape varieties.

All of this is accomplished with an incredibly talented and focussed team of viticulturists who together are responsible for the largest area of vineyard farmed by any one producer in the Douro valley, 947 hectares.  In fact, as they also care for the olive, citrus and almond groves and entire quinta environment, they are responsible for almost double that area of land.

Charles Symington as head winemaker oversees the production side together with the head of the viticultural team, Pedro Leal da Costa.  Working with them is a team of just seven:

  • Alexandre Mariz (Malvedos, Tua, the quintas in Vale de Vilariça)
  • Miles Edlmann (Vila Velha, Cavadinha and adjacent quintas in the Pinhão Valley)
  • Paulo Macedo (Lages, Bomfim and quintas in the Rio Torto valley)
  • Mário Natario (Vale de Malhadas and Vesuvio)
  • Artur Moreira (mapping and special projects)
  • Ricardo Carvalho (Sra Ribeira, Canais and adjacent quintas in Douro Superior)
  • Luis Coelho (Prats & Symington’s Quinta de Roriz)

Each of these viticulturists has responsibility for the day to day management of specific quintas as well as playing a specialist role within the team, such as research, mapping, liaison with the regional authorities, etc.  In addition, each of our viticulturists turns winemaker at one of the Symington adegas during harvest.  The one exception is Alexandre Mariz, who vinifies the grapes from his own family’s quintas and is one of the very few farmers to supply finished wines to Graham’s, rather than grapes.

Congratulations to the team for this well deserved recognition!

This slideshow features the viticultural team who work on the Graham’s vineyards


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Port Wine and The Opera

Graham’s and Symington Family Estates will be teaming up with Decanter Magazine and the Royal Opera House the evening of Tuesday, 13 March, for an extraordinary Wine Gala event to benefit the Royal Opera House Foundation.

The evening will feature recital performances by soprano Ekaterina Siurina and mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, a dinner and charity auction.  Guests will enjoy an extraordinary array of wines selected by Sarah Kemp of Decanter magazine and presented by their producers, including Paul Symington with Warre’s Vintage Port 1983.

The auction will be conducted by David Elswood and Anthony Hanson MW of Christie’s and will feature three magnums of wine donated by the Symingtons and best of all, an extraordinary opportunity to visit Graham’s in Vila Nova de Gaia and the Douro.  The winning bidder, together with 3 friends, will enjoy a private tour and tasting at Graham’s Lodge and lunch in the Director’s dining room with one of the Symington family.  Afterwards they will be escorted up to the Douro to stay one night at Quinta dos Malvedos or another of our quintas and tour our vineyards and winery.

Learn more and order your tickets for the Wine Gala evening on the Royal Opera House Special Events page.

Update 15 March

Paul Symington reported in after the Wine Gala:

The Wine Gala auction raised £87,000 for the Royal Opera Foundation that supports young musicians.

The auction was comprised of many rare wines, including Champagne Ruinart, Ornellaia, Louis Jadot Clos des Ursules, Clos de Tart, four Imperiales (6 litres each) of Chateau Haut-Brion and 3 magnums of Warre’s 1983 Vintage Port.

The Symington family also offered a visit to the Graham’s lodge in Gaia, a lunch with the family and a visit and overnight stay in one of their Quintas in the Douro for 4 people.  The Warre magnums and the visit were auctioned for £10,500, one of the highest bids of the evening and 100% of this will go to the Royal Opera House Foundation for young musicians.

Finally, the family also donated the Warre’s 1983 that was served to the 120 guests during the gala dinner.  It was much appreciated and commented on for its elegance and finesse.

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Decanter Man of the Year Award

Paul Symington in his own vineyards near Provesende

Decanter magazine has named Paul Symington Man of the Year, but he accepted the award conditionally: “It’s really a family award, which I’m very happy to accept – but only on behalf of everybody.”  The magazine´s cover refers to “the man upholding a wine, a region, a legacy” and has chosen Paul because of the company’s extraordinary championship of Port wine and the Douro region.  In fact he is the first Decanter Man of the Year from Portugal or the Port trade.

When Paul joined the firm in 1979, in the rather chaotic years after the 1974 revolution, he was a little reluctant – he would have liked to continue his independent career a little longer and compared joining the firm to having to go back to school, but he put his head down and learned all he could.  One of his contributions in the early years was a series of reports, both internally and for publication, analysing  conditions in the Douro and in the Port and Portuguese wine trade generally.  Perhaps it was the research that went into those reports that turned Paul into such a passionate advocate of the Douro and Douro farmers.

The biggest change undertaken by Paul and his generation of Symingtons has been in the company’s relationship to the Douro wine growing region.  Whereas prior generations were Port shippers with a relatively small area of Douro vineyards, Paul proudly points out that his generation have become vineyard owners on a substantial scale.  The family owns 947 hectares of vineyards – and almost double that area when you count all the non-vineyard land in our 26 quintas.  Significantly, many of those quintas are owned privately by family members, not just by “the firm.”  In addition, SFE has 8 wineries, most of them small specialist adegas producing the wines for our top Ports, which means our own team is making our wines, whether the grapes come from our own quintas or are bought in from neighbouring farmers.

L to R: Johnny, Dominic, Paul, Charles and Rupert Symington at Quinta dos Malvedos

Like his brother Dominic and cousins Charles, Johnny and Rupert, Paul knows personally not just the firm’s employees in Vila Nova de Gaia and the Douro, but many of the seasonal workers and the farmers who supply us and who are our neighbours across the wine growing region.  As a farmer himself at Quinta das Netas who sells his grapes to Symington Family Estates, Paul fully appreciates how tough life is for over 38,000 small farmers in the Douro.  Whilst our quinta holdings enable us to produce a very substantial part of the grapes we need to produce Graham’s and all our brands of Port and table wines, we continue to buy in grapes from 1,800 farmers who have supplied us for years, and often for generations.

In accepting this award, Paul and the Symington family are now numbered among some of the wine world’s most distinguished personalities who have been awarded in previous years, including Marchese Piero Antinori, Emile Peynaud, Robert Mondavi, Georg Riedel, Angelo Gaja, Jancis Robinson, Miguel Torres, Christian Moueix, Anthony Barton, Jean-Michel Cazes, Marcel Guigal and last year Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romaine-Conti.

Read more on Decanter’s website, and in the April issue which is on newstands now.

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Birds of Prey in the Douro

A young eagle pauses at Graham’s Quinta da Vila Velha

Graham’s and all of the Symington Family Estates’ quintas in the Douro – some 944 hectares (2,300 acres) – are on average only about 50% planted with vineyards, with the rest of the land being a mixture of olive or citrus groves and natural vegetation.  This creates a richly varied natural habitat for wildlife, and over the years the Symington family have observed a gradual increase in birds of prey in the Douro – a sure sign that other birds and animals in the food chain are  thriving and increasing.

So it was with some interest that Paul Symington read an article in the local Douro newspaper about a Birds of Prey recovery unit at the University of Tras-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD) in Vila Real, and asked António Filipe, SFE’s general manager, to learn more about the program for us.  What he learned so impressed the family that last week they visited UTAD to tour the facility and to make a donation on behalf of SFE to help sustain the extraordinary work of the program.  The Dean of UTAD, Prof Carlos Alberto Sequeira, welcomed them, and introduced  his colleagues who are directly involved with the Birds of Prey program.

L to R: António Filipe, Paul Symington, Dr. Filipe Silva, Dr. Roberto Sargo

UTAD has an extensive program of agrarian sciences, including a school of Veterinary Sciences, headed up by Dr. Filipe Silva, and a veterinary hospital which is open to the public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  The staff receive and treat up to 4,500 animals per year, including domestic and exotic pets, horses, farm animals, and any injured wild animals which people have found.  The hospital is well designed with extensive facilities for the reception, treatment, surgery and rehabilitation of all these different kinds of animals.

The Centro de Recepção, Acolhimento e Tratamento de Animais Selvagens (The Centre for Reception, Refuge and Treatment of Wild Animals) (CRATAS) is an additional facility which includes areas specifically designed for the rehabilitation of birds of prey.  The Centre receives an average of 200 wounded birds each year from right across the Trás os Montes region.

Scops Owls
Eagle Owl
Peregrine Falcons

Dr. Roberto Sargo, head of CRATAS, lead the tour through the facilities, explaining the program and showing the family and António some of the current residents, including a trio of Mochos de Orelhas (Scops Owls) the symbol of SFE’s Altano table wines, two magnificent Eagle Owls and a group of Peregrine Falcons, the fastest animal on earth, which can reach speeds over 325 km/h (202 miles per hour) as it dives to hunt.  With all the time spent in the Douro, the family are all familiar with many of these birds – and have been known to forget the grapes for a minute to point out an eagle or falcon overhead whilst leading visitors through Quinta dos Malvedos during harvest.

Most of the birds brought in to the centre have been shot, though some have been electrocuted by high tension cables or hit by cars.  After any necessary surgery has been performed in a dedicated facility, the birds are housed in a series of spaces of differing sizes, according to their capacity for flight: as the birds regain strength and it is safe for them to begin to fly again, they are moved to progressively taller and longer tunnels with more space to practice, the last being 25 metres in length.  In addition, their diet is gradually modified so that in the final stages of recovery they are hunting again within the tunnel, as they would in the wild.  The goal is always to return to the wild all birds that can survive again, and their recent release of a black vulture was featured on the news here in Portugal.

We are very pleased and proud to support the work of UTAD and the CRATAS program and the preservation of the birds of prey in the Douro region.

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Graham’s Lodge Renovations: The Floors

Taking up old concrete paths to be replaced with granite stones and earth

The building works to re-design the tourist spaces at the Graham’s Lodge are progressing well, and we look forward to welcoming visitors to the new space later this year.  Between now and the grand opening, we thought you might be interested in learning more about some of the challenges and details involved in the modification of this historic building.

To start from the bottom up:  what about the floors?  On the one hand, the lodge is an important working space, where we age all our wines for anything from 18 months to 50 years or more, both in cask and in bottle.  We must be able to receive the new harvest’s wines from the Douro each winter into casks, and remove wines from cask when we are ready to bottle.  On the other hand, it is a space where we welcome our guests, last year over 60,000 of them, and their visit includes a walk through of the armazém, or warehouse, where our wines are held in cask. We need to balance the ideal conditions for ageing and handling the wines with considerations of traffic and safe footing for all our visitors.

The wines above all need cool conditions and fresh, slightly humid air.  As the wines age in cask, there is actually a process of respiration going on:  oxygen enters through microscopic pores in the wood and mellows the wine, and the wine evaporates through those pores slowly over the months and years.  The wine lost in this process is known as the “angels’ share.”

A row of pipes, small 550 litre casks, of Port ageing in the Graham's Lodge, and bare earth floor

To maintain the optimum environment for this micro-oxygenation, the floors of the Lodge have traditionally been bare earth.  As a general rule, conditions here in Vila Nova de Gaia, on a corner between the Douro River and the Atlantic Ocean, are temperate and gently humid, but if we experience a particularly dry or hot spell we literally hose down the floors, and let the water soak into the earth.  The subsequent slow evaporation of that water from the bare earth helps to cool the Lodge and restore the humidity levels needed for ageing the wines.  But bare earth floors, particularly if they have just been wetted down, are not a good surface on which to entertain thousands of visitors, and additionally, that volume of traffic would quickly tamp down the floors so the earth could barely breathe or absorb water.

The solution was to create firm, paved walkways in the main corridors of the lodge where our guests will walk through as they learn more about how we make and age our wine, and see for themselves the different casks used to age different styles of wine.  What sort of pavement, though?

One of our lodgemen rolling a cask off the old concrete pavement - which will be removed - onto a section of the new granite paving

Again, we had to think in terms of the working life of the Lodge, which involves moving pipes – long narrow wooden barrels which hold 550 litres of wine – by rolling them along.  Our architectural team actually laid down samples of different paving materials in a back passage in 2010 when we began planning these works and asked our lodgemen to try them out, and let us know which material and paving pattern was best for moving the pipes around.  All involved laying down stone into the bare earth, so we maintained a natural, breathing surface.  We tried several different arrangements of blue schist, thinking we might have a new use for these traditional stone vineyard trellis posts, as well as a sample of the granite micro cubo (small cube-shaped) paving stones that are traditional in streets all over Portugal.  The lodgemen opted for the micro cubo.

The granite visitor pathway and the gravel areas under the balseiros - finished on right, still in progress on left

So the main visitor pathways will be paved with small granite cubes deeply embedded in the earth, whilst the rest of the paths between the long rows of pipes will remain terra batida (bare earth tamped down – see photo above of the alley of pipes).  Another change will be the areas under the giant balseiros – the vertical wooden casks that hold tens of thousands of litres of wine.  These areas will be boxed and filled with gravilha – light coloured granite gravel stones.  The boxing means we can, if need be, soak the area under the casks with water to cool the lodge without getting water on the the visitor walkways, and the light coloured gravel will make it easier for us to see if any balseiro should be leaking – something that can be hard to detect on the bare earth floors.  This doesn’t happen often, but naturally we want to know as soon as possible so we can repair the cask and not lose our precious wines.

The works at Graham’s Lodge are ongoing, even as we remain open and continue to welcome our visitors, and you can already see some of the completed paving in public areas now.  We are working hard to minimise the disruption to visits, but ask your tolerance for a little dust or occasional noise.

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