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Touring the Douro Valley with the Symington Port Family

The Symington family honors the port trade in their business goals
Dow's Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira across the Douro River
Deborah Grossman
Deborah Grossman

Rupert Symington knows port. His family has run the Symington port business since the 1880s. Two hundred years earlier his great-grandmother’s family were port pioneers. Rupert is now laser-focused on quality of the company’s brands and innovation for the 21st century port industry.

During the 2019 harvest, I spent several days with Symington, his family and Symington Family Estates staff in the Douro Valley. From Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim to the home of Graham’s, Quinta dos Malvedos, we tasted the Symington’s four port brands and their newer dry wines, walked the vine rows, and explored the vineyard estates.

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos; Rupert and his son Hugh Symington 
Photo credit: Deborah Grossman

At our first dinner in Porto at O Gaveto restaurant, I sat next to Rupert, the CEO and marketing director for the U.S.  Our meal began with Post Scriptum, a well-balanced dry wine produced by Prats + Symington, a partnership with Bordeaux winemaker, Bruno Prats. Made with port grapes Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional, the wine is elegant with an expressive finish.

Post Scriptum with sea bass at O Gaveto in Porto
Photo credit: Deborah Grossman

When I mentioned to Symington that the pairing of red wine with sea bass worked well, Symington said, “We pick the grapes early to retain acid and freshness and only lightly oak the wines. I like oak to be the frame, not the picture.” That light touch facilitated the pairing with the white fish. During dinner I innocently asked Symington if he liked the white port and tonic cocktail, known in Portugal as “port tonic.” He quickly pointed out that the company likes offering dry wines to round out the meal, but his preference is port.

“Why make cocktails with white port? Would you make mimosas with Champagne—it all tastes the same when you dump in orange juice? I don’t like white port, but many people do. We’re pleased with our dry wine, but our family’s mission is fine port wine,” said Symington.

Nevertheless, the wine world appears to like the quality of both Symington port and dry wine. In 2014, Wine spectator awarded Dow’s 2011 vintage port as “Wine of the year” in the “Top 100 Wines of the World.” The top of the line Prats + Symington Chryseia was the third top wine that year. 

The next day we boarded the train for Tua near Quinta dos Malvedos. We beheld endless, steep rows of vines along both banks of the Douro River, quickly validating the oft-repeated notion that the region represents half of the world’s mountain vineyards.

Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira from across the Douro River
Photo credit: Deborah Grossman

The lure of the valley’s grapes began with the Romans. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its history and traditions of port production, the Douro Valley became the world’s first demarcated wine region in 1756. The soils along the 50-mile wide and 70-mile long region are mostly schist on the mountains—what Rupert called a granite seam of “fossilized mud with layers of hard clay—and clay near the river—ideal for growing grapes.”

With 2,530 acres, Symington Family Estates is the largest land holder in the Douro Valley. Rupert’s great grandfather, Andrew Symington, recognized the growing opportunities for the British port trade and left Scotland for Porto in 1882. Andrew soon founded Symington and purchased the Warre’s port house. In 1912 he acquired Dow’s. During the first half of the 20th century when fortified wines comprised nearly half of the world’s wine consumption, the company thrived in the hands of the second generation.

But the societal and economic devastation from World War II disrupted the entire wine industry. Rupert’s Uncle Peter Symington worked to reinvigorate the port trade in the 1960s and 1970s. “It took a lot of effort to develop the U.S. market, kick-start the Australian market, and open trade with Japan,” said Peter. 
Rupert added an underlying challenge of the port houses. “The cost of land per acre is equal to Napa, but we get one-third the number of grapes due to keeping the yield low.”
With careful growth for over 135 years, Symington now has 26 quinta or vineyard estates, 11 wineries including nine small, specialty operations. Graham’s was purchased in 1970; Rupert and his winemaker cousin Charles Symington added venerable Cockburn’s to the portfolio in 2010.

Innovation from the Symingtons
In addition to converting the largest number of acres to organic grape growing in the Douro Valley, the company practices “precision viticulture’ in assessing each vineyard. With 2D vineyard mapping via aerial infrared imaging, the viticulturalists have valuable data on when and where to pick for ultimate grape quality. Charles and his team focus on the micro-terroir of small vineyard blocks.

Climate change is a priority of the company.

With the increasing number of sudden, strong rains inundating the area, the team focused on how to minimize erosion. The use of lasers helped implement modern, earth-banked terraces called patamares. These configurations enabled more thorough drainage than the centuries old stone terraces.

Symington Family Estates is one of four pan-European countries taking part in the VineScout robot project. Driven by electric batteries and using GPS, the robots provide real-time measurements of key vineyard parameters from water availability to variations in plant vigor.

As emigration and an aging population brought labor scarcity to the valley, manual harvesting, like manual grape foot treading, become increasingly challenging since the 1990s The beast-like crawler tractor that Symington developed is multi-faceted for pruning chores and picking with optical sensors to enable in-the-vineyard grape selection.

Cockburn’s Quinta dos Canais mechanical harvester

Another major innovation for port production propelled by the Symingtons was the transformation from foot stomping to auto-treaders. The Symingtons developed specification for machines with pedals that emulate foot action. Peter described this transformation in a precise way. “We went from treading manually for centuries in the lagares (fermentation tanks) to treading ‘pedally.’”

Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira auto-pedals rising
Photo credit: Deborah Grossman

The fermentation process in the granite tanks or lagares, was unpredictable. Automation ensures better temperature and tread pressure control, improved hygiene with stainless steel tanks, better skin-to-juice contact, and 24/7 availability.

Symington’s Quinta do Vesuvio hosts on-estate housing for workers during the long harvest days and is the only Symington winery with foot treading.

Grape stomping the old-fashioned way
Quinta do Vesuvio was purchased by the Symingtons in 1912 with one of the largest vineyards—and most stunning views of the river in the portfolio.

Quinta do Vesuvio estate vineyards
Photo credit: Deborah Grossman

We had the opportunity to stomp grapes with the Symington crew. Before we entered the lagare, I watched the workers tread to the traditional melodies from the musicians.

Quinta do Vesuvio grape stomping in the lagare

The grapes and cool juice felt like mini-massagers on our legs. One of the leaders, nicknamed Monkey Man, enjoyed his version of dance-treading with the visitors. Getting up close with the touriga nationale was a highlight of the trip. Rupert seemed pleased to join us in the lagare—he first treaded at age five.

Quinta do Vesuvio Rupert Symington and the author in the lagare
Photo credit: Deborah Grossman

A sustainable future
Since the mountainous Douro Valley region doesn’t have biodiversity of agricultural crops, the future of the port trade may depend on sustainable practices.
The Symington Mission 2025 led by Rupert’s cousin Rob has already achieved significant sustainable milestones with receipt of B-Corp certification. The company demonstrated social and environmental performance, transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and sustainability objectives. Fewer than 30 wineries and only 2,000 businesses worldwide have received this certification.

As an example, Warre’s quinta has advanced weather station capability to study the impact of climate change. The many old terraces are maintained, and the company uses low-impact, recyclable packaging.

We tasted the Symington’s port brands and savored port and still wines with excellent local foods at the quintas.

The Dow’s versus Graham’s tastings were especially enlightening. One discovery was my preference for Dow’s 20-year to Graham’s 20-year with its tighter, more powerful structure and dry finish compared to the sweeter and richer Graham’s. But they were all taste-worthy. And did I mention the pairing of Tawny Port with leite creme à portuguesa (caramel custard)?

Yet true confessions, my favorite meals in the Douro Valley were home-style such as the special rice and sausage dishes served at an alfresco lunch at Quinta do Bomfim paired with Vale do Bomfim red blend. The wine label highlights an early photo of founder Andrew Symington, one of his sons and a family friend. 

Vale do Bomfim Lunch with rice and sausage
Photo credit: Deborah Grossman

The family members’ ability to work together on company goals is a key success factor for the business. They bond together with other multi-generational wine families in the prestigious Primum Familiae Vini such as Antinori, Drouhin, Beaucastel-Perrin, Torres and Mouton Rothschild families. The Symingtons are optimistic about the port trade as a whole as evinced by their well received, back-to-back declared vintages of 2016 and 2017. 

As a member of the fifth-generation, Hugh and his cousin Tom Symington are working in the U.S. and at Graham’s respectively to contribute to the company’s mission. Hugh shared his vision for the future: 

"A family motto I’m particularly fond of is about passing the business onto the next generation in better shape than when it was inherited. I get incredibly excited thinking about how we might pull that off, whether it be through growing our portfolio as my father’s and grandfather’s generations did in acquiring Cockburn’s and Graham’s or continuing to work to improve on our business’ social and environmental sustainability."

Fifth generation cousins Hugh and Tom Symington
Photo credit: Deborah Grossman

Deborah Grossman is a Bay Area culinary journalist whose specialty is writing about people and places that craft unique beverage and food.  Her gastronomic travel articles depict experiences at the global dining table. Always partial to port wine, she fell in love with the steep Douro Valley vineyards though not a fan of heights.

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