Symington Family Estate table wines, revolution & evolution

Earlier this year, the Symington family announced that, following the reduction of their shareholding in the Madeira Wine Company, the Blandy family would regain a controlling share and run the business.  Speaking in June at a glorious tasting to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Blandy’s Madeira (reported here), Paul Symington explained that the move would enable his family to focus on their burgeoning Douro empire.  The Symington’s portfolio now extends to 25 quintas, the Cockburns brand (acquired last year) and Douro table wines which, he said,“take up an immense amount of time.”
Having visited the Douro last July to catch up on latest developments, there can be no doubting the Symington family’s considerable investment of time and energy in table wines.  In the Cima Corgo, Prats & Symington, a joint venture label with Bordeaux’s Bruno Prats, has been re-homed at Quinta do Roriz (pictured), a distinctly upmarket address which the partners acquired in 2009.  In the same year, the Symingtons released their first table wines from Quinta do Vesuvio (from the 2007 vintage).  And travelling well east into the Douro Superior, the Symington’s entire 146 hectare holding in the Vilariça valley has just been converted to organic farming.

My report below is based both on this visit (with winemakers Pedro Correia and Luis Coelho) and subsequent interviews with Paul Symington and Bruno Prats for a Decanter feature which explored the appeal of Portugal’s dynamic wine scene for leading wine cognoscenti like Prats (click here to read it).

Prats & Symington/Quinta do Roriz

Until chatting with David Baverstock a couple of years ago, I’d not appreciated that the Barossa born winemaker had started out in Portugal with the Symington Family.  Baverstock went on to make among the first wave of “New Douro” table wines in the early 90s at Quinta de la Rosa and Quinta do Crasto.  He told me he’d been itching to make Douro table wines with the Symingtons, but couldn’t persuade them.

Naturally, I asked Paul Symington what changed his family’s mind.  Looking back, Symington told me “when David was with us, we were not ready to embark on a Douro wine project. It was a pity because David would certainly have been a perfect person to have worked with us on such a project, but sometimes the timing is just not right.” 

Things gradually fell into place when the Symingtons joined Primum Familiae Vini, an international association of 12 wine families created in 1993, which included the Prats, then owners of Cos d’Estournel.  Symington reflects “the PFV opened our eyes to what people were doing in other regions, and them to us. Bruno was, as you know, one of the most innovative and respected winemakers of his generation in Bordeaux and he was clearly intrigued by the Douro when he came to stay with us. By that time, Prats had sold Cos and was looking for interesting new projects.” 

Symington says “there was a clear meeting of minds between my family and his…both families were convinced that the Douro was capable of producing a red wine of great distinction.”  Still, I was intrigued to know what motivated Prats to become involved as a joint venture partner, as opposed to simply consulting.  My question elicited a frank and knowing reply from Prats – “we have a saying in France ‘les conseilleurs ne sont pas les payeurs’(consultants don’t pay).  I believe you work better when your own money is in risk.” 

After, he says, “many experimental vinifications in 1999” maiden vintage Prats & Symington Chryseia 2000 was released, closely followed by a second, more approachable wine, Post Scriptum, in the tricky 2002 vintage (when Chryseia wasn’t made).  With the aim of producing a wine of great finesse as opposed to sheer power and extract, vinification and ‘elevage’ follow closely the Bordeaux method, with 100% de-stemming, fermentation in stainless steel (not lagares) with frequent pumping over of the cap followed by a long but gentle extraction before aging in French oak.

Symington points out “right from our first joint-venture wine, the Chryseia 2000, the wine was aged for only 8 months in new oak (we vary according to the year, some Chryseias have been up to 10 months in oak, but no longer). Also we chose to use 400l barrels in order to limit the influence of the new French oak….We believe that the Douro wines have naturally rich and strong tannins and that there is no necessity to add additional oak tannins beyond a certain point. We also want the vineyards to speak, not the wood too much.”  Post Scriptum sees no new oak.

While the sourcing of grapes has changed over the years, given the goal to produce  a refined Douro style, the varietal focus has been consistent.  As Correia puts it, “we’ve jumped on the more elegant varieties for finesse and texture.”  Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca are very much the backbone of Prats & Symington wines.  According to resident winemaker Luis Coelho (pictured below), Touriga Nacional’s very ripe tannins bring structure and density and, in Touriga Franca, which is not so high in sugar, it finds a perfect partner.

That being the case, unlike many top Douro reds, grapes are sourced from younger block planted vineyards (as opposed to the region’s traditional mixed old vineyards).   In fact, following the partners’ joint purchase of the 23 ha Quinta de Perdiz in 2004, Bordeaux experts were brought into top-graft mature vines at Perdiz because, Symington says, “we were not happy with the varietal mix.”  For me, in consequence, the wines lose something of the Douro’s fruits of the forest wildness, but the trade off is a glossy, modern style with great international appeal.

Perhaps because Prats and Symington initially harboured doubts about whether the Douro could do finesse (for Prats, “the big question mark”), today they’re building more structure into the wines.  Prats observes “the first vintages were made to be very seductive when young. Now that we have confidence in the aging potential, we make the wine more structured (and maybe less seductive in its youth).” 

In terms of winemaking he explains “it’s a matter of extraction, continuing the pumping over a little further during alcoholic fermentation, doing one delestage on some vats. Also incorporating a little more press wine in the final blend. But avoiding any excess; moderation is the key word, in wine making as well as in drinking!”  Describing the separately vinified press wine as “la crème de la crème of pressings,” Correia attributes Chyseia’s soft, creamy mouthfeel to gentle extraction and the Bordeaux veteran’s blending prowess.  He observes “just 1-2% pressings makes a difference…it’s the small details.”

Here are my notes on the wines, which were tasted at Quinta do Roriz:

Quinta do Roriz Prazo do Roriz 2008 – fermented by Cristiano Van Zeller and, following the change in ownership, blended by the Symingtons.  Quite fresh, mineral, dark and spicy with red and black fruits on nose and palate.  Fresh red cherry and spicy raspberry linger on a juicy, mineral nuanced finish. Very good.  Classic Douro.

Quinta do Roriz Reserva 2004 – this blend of 55% Touriga Nacional, 35% Touriga Franca, 5% Tinta Roriz, 5% Tinta Cao was made by the Symingtons on behalf of the Van Zeller family – the first wine made in the new Roriz winery.  It was fermented in stainless steel with regular pump overs and aged (with malo) in 100% new oak for 10 months.  Showing spicy, gamy development, this deep plum coloured wine, is quite charry with savoury pain grillé notes to its generous, slightly confit, black fruits.  Drinking very well now, it’s quite evolved – lacks a touch of elegance and lift.

Prats and Symington Chryseia 2008 – a restrained nose with a savoury edge showing liquorice and, as it opens up, violets.  In the mouth, it’s plusher than the Roriz without being heavy, showing good depth and purity of fleshy, ripe plums, blackberry/currant and sweet raspberry, supported by fine grained tannins.  It finishes long and fluid with well defined fruit, violet creams and just a hint of minerality.

Prats and Symington Chryseia 2007 – richer, riper and rounder in this still mild, but not so mild vintage, with sweet but succulent black cherry fruit and a charry, black pepper and lactone savoury edge.  Though the finish is juicy, the tannins are a touch angular and need time to integrate.

Prats and Symington Post Scriptum 2008 – a soft, almost silky mouthfeel, with round and juicy black and red cherry fruit and a hint of salt lick minerality to the finish. Attractive and unusual with its combination of restrained fruit and seductive texture.

Prats and Symington Chryseia 2009 (barrel sample) – this wine was due to be bottled in December 2010 after one more racking.  A hot, dry year cried out for a higher percentage of Touriga Franc for freshness and aroma.  Looking very creamy with sweet,  bouncy black cherry and raspberry, a lick of vanilla on the attack and schistous, salty minerality on the finish.  Promising.

Prats and Symington Post Scriptum 2009 – with 70-75% Touriga Nacional, this is ripe and plush with no shortage of sweet black cherry fruit and a dash of cinnamon spice. More exuberant than the 2008, it’s forward and full on fruity.  Glossy.

Quinta do Roriz Vintage Port 2007 – a whiff of eucalypt to the nose.  In the mouth, its fleshy core of sweet black fruits is underscored by minerals and well supported by firm but ripe tannins. Violets bring fragrance and lift the finish.  Very good.

Quinta do Vesuvio

The dedicated railway station serving Quinta do Vesuvio serves as a clue to its historic importance (click here for details).   The Symington family purchased the renowned 325ha estate in 1989.  North-facing, like Quinta do Roriz, Vesuvio is a located on the south bank of the Douro river in the Cima Corgo.

Though some distance further east, grapes always ripen some 3 weeks later at Vesuvio.  Perhaps because Roriz is a natural amphitheatre, while Vesuvio takes its cue from Rome.  Seven hills (a few pictured!) form a suitably grand backdrop for Vesuvio’s 19th century manor and, from a viticultural perspective, offer a range of microclimates ripe for exploitation by the winemaking team.  Since their ownership, the Symingtons have been doing just that – improving the soil through the addition of organic material and replanting and parcellating the vineyards as part of an extensive renovation programme.   Since 1989, the number of vines has quadrupled from just under 100, 000 to around 400, 000 today.

Of the estate’s 325ha, 136ha are under vine of which 30% is planted to Touriga Nacional.  Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz each account for around 20% and plantings of Tinta Amarela and Sousão are significant.  Vesuvio’s oldest vines are 30-35 years old and, unusually, even they are block planted (planted by variety, as opposed to a mixed field blend).  With a sunny exposition and improved canopy management designed to allow better light and air penetration, Correia says the quality of wines is almost as high from the youngest vines (around 10 years old) as the old.

Table wines are sourced from the highest point of the vineyard which, at around 450m (rising from 150m), enjoys cooler nights.  This elevation extends the ripening period and helps retain freshness.  After trials in 2005 and 2006, Quinta do Vesuvio DOC Douro and a second wine, the Pombal do Vesuvio DOC Douro, were launched in 2007.

Vesuvio is the Symington family’s last bastion of traditional foot-treading (elsewhere, top Ports are robotically “trodden”) so grapes for table wines are despatched by refrigerated truck for vinfication at the Symington’s modern facilities at Quinta do Sol, three hours away.   Correia observes cold pre-fermentation maceration is important for “more interesting” water soluble tannins and here, temperatures can be carefully controlled.

Though I love Quinta do Vesuvio Port, consistently a favourite, I’ve yet to experience the same consistency with the table wines, albeit it’s early days yet and these concentrated wines have yet to hit their stride.  Here are my notes, two sets for those wines which I subsequently tasted with Paul Symington at London Wine Fair this year who accurately describes Vesuvio’s table wines as “more gutsy than the more delicate, elegant Prats & Symington style.”

Quinta do Vesuvio Pombal 2008 – this deeply coloured blend of 55% Touriga Franca 35% Touriga Nacional and 10% Tinta Amarela was aged for 9 months in second use 400l French oak barrels. It’s darkly spicy on the nose with currant, black currant and berry fruit and an underlying minerality to a longish finish, carried by suave tannins.  Well made if lacking a bit of lift for my taste – just sulky now [in July 2010]?  13%.  At London Wine Fair [May 2011], though the flavour spectrum remained dark, it looked much fresher, elegant even, with cinnamon-edged blackberry fruit, slightly creamy on the mid-palate.

Quinta do Vesuvio Pombal 2007 – a blend of 60% Touriga Franca, 30% Touriga Nacional and 10% Tinta Amarela aged for 10 month in 400l French oak barrels, again second use. A fresher, more lifted nose and palate with a mocha note to its bright red fruits, as well as the darker, sweeter, figgy quality that I associate with Tinta Amarela/Trincadeira.  Supple tannins make for a well rounded wine.

Quinta do Vesuvio 2008 – this blend of 80% Touriga Nacional, 10% Tinta Franca and 10% Tinta Amarela was aged for 12 months in 70% new French oak 400l barrels.  Spicy, menthol/dried sage-edged ripe but juicy red cherry fruit fleshes out a firm backbone of tannins. Good freshness, line and character.  At London Wine Fair (since when it had been bottled), while it showed more oak on the nose, in the mouth its chiselled minerality reminded me of Vesuvio the Port.  The tannins remain bony, but there’s a little more flesh, with it raspberry and black and red cherry fruit.  Very promising.

Quinta do Vesuvio 2007 – 70% Touriga Nacional, 20% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Amarela aged in 100% new French oak 400l barrels.  That menthol note brings lift to a core of ripe and sweet but earthy raspberry and plum fruit, but there’s a sulky, stale (reduced?) note to the finish.  Needs air or time?  At London Wine Fair, similarly, I detected a stale quality.  I’ve yet to get on with this vintage, though it’s had some terrific reviews.

Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port 2007 – deeply coloured, this fragrant, violet and orange blossom accented Port has a lovely depth and purity of black and red berry fruits – a real blast of sweet raspberry – layered with minerals, cracked black pepper and, on the finish,  eucalypt.  Ripe and powerful tannins bode well for the long term.  Aromatic, svelte and elegant.  Terrific.

Altano

The Symington family launched their everyday Douro table wine brand, Altano, in 1999 since when the range has been augmented by a Reserva, single quinta organic red and  white wine.  As I discovered, they’re not stopping there.  The family’s acquisition from Beam Global Spirits & Wine of three vineyards, Quinta do Atayde (94 ha), Quinta de Assares (29 ha) and Quinta da Canada (23 ha), in Vilariça valley (pictured) in 2006 makes sure of that!

Located away from the river Douro in the Douro Superior, after the Cima Corgo’s vertiginous terraces, you almost feel like you’re in another country.  In fact the valley’s traditional focus is cereal, fruit and olives (hence the impressive original olive press pictured).  But its warmer, drier and flatter terrain is ideally suited to Altano’s more approachable style, while quality remains high thanks to the vineyards’ naturally low-yielding, schistous soils plus the maturity of the vines – the Douro’s first substantial single-varietal plantings when they were planted in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

So, in 2008, the Symingtons decided to dedicate most of their Vilariça fruit to the Altano brand.  At the same time, though it increased labour costs, they also determined to seek organic certification for the entire estate (7 ha at Quinta de Assares, the source of the organically farmed Altano, was already fully certified).  Collectively, the Vilariça vineyards represent Portugal’s biggest organic holding.  Drip irrigation was another key investment which the family installed in 2010 in order to combat hydric stress following the pitiful rainfall in 2009 – just 200mm (annual rainfall averages just 300-400mm).

Touriga Nacional, which comprises 31% of the total number of (clonally diverse) vines on the three neighbouring estates, accounts for a hefty proportion of the Douro’s total planting of this variety (it’s just 3% of all the vineyards planted in the Douro).  Other varieties include Touriga Franca,  Tinta Barocca, Tinta Roriz, Malvasia Preta and Mourisco Tinto, the latter of which Beam valued for Cockburn’s tawny Ports.  Like the (white) Malvasia, it’s likely to be grafted over.

The predominance here and general popularity of Touriga Nacional has encouraged the Symingtons to experiment with two 100% Touriga Nacionals in 2008, a premium wine at Reserva level and a super-premium single block wine.   Here are my notes on the range:

Altano Branco 2009 – Vilariça is too hot for white varieties, so the Malvasia Fina, Viosinho and Moscatel Galego are sourced from elevated sites around Favaios, Alijo and Lamego (Peter Symington’s property), which range up to 500m. In pursuit of a fresh, crisp style, only the free run juice is used which, after clarification, is inoculated with yeast and cool fermented in stainless steel.  In its youth, the aromatic Moscatel is the dominant partner, lending this citric (early picked) wine its familiar fresh grape, musk and orange water notes.  12.45% abv.  It’s a clean, fresh, fun quaffer.  Correia tells me plans are afoot to make a more serious white wine in the future when, he says “we have our own grapes in the right place, rather than relying on farmers.”

Altano Red 2009 – this blend of Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca was initially made only with bought in grapes but, following the acquisition of Vilarica, it’s increasingly made from own grapes which Correio says has uplifted quality.  With an attractive hint of dried herbs and dust to its succulent plum and black cherry fruit, it’s a well made easy drinking red with a bit of character to boot.  As Correia points out, it doesn’t rely on sugar for roundness, which he says is quite common at this price.  12.9% abv.

Altano Organically farmed vineyard 2008 – very successfully launched in 2007, this wine, a blend of Tinta Barocca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca has been sourced from Quinta de Assares.  Expect volumes to increase now the entire vineyard has organic certification.  Aged for 9 months in French oak, some new, some 2nd use, ripe damson and plum fruit mingles with smoky bacon/oak on the nose, following through on the palate with dried herbs, bay leaf spice, minerals and toast.  14%

Altano Reserva 2008 – this blend of estate grown Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional was aged for 10 months in 400l American oak barrels and 225l French oak barrels. There’s an aromatic, coconut edge to its rich, ripe nlackberry and currant fruit.  A well made, modern red with a toasty finish.

Altano Quinta Ataide 2008 – attention to detail – working with a range of different fermentation techniques and a selection of blocks – makes for a classy 100% single vineyard Touriga Nacional with bright, elegant red and black cherry fruit and fragrant violet notes.  The oak is well integrated.

Altano Quinta Ataide Block 29 2008 – this experimental barrel sample is made from the best block of Touriga Nacional.  It’s a deep colour and, aged in 100% new 400l French oak barrels, has a rich seam of vanilla to its ripe and concentrated sweet raspberry, black and red cherry fruit.  An opulent, showy wine if a little rich for my blood!  But I’m very sure it’ll find an appreciative audience if it’s released.



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