Paul Symington on giving Cockburn’s “more heart & soul” & focusing on premium Port sales

I’m working on a feature about Portugal for Decanter at the moment and about to start the annual update of Hugh Johnson Pocket Wine for Portugal, Port and Madeira.  In that context, I’ve been liaising with Paul Symington of Symington Family Estates and took the opportunity to ask him about the Symington’s recent acquisition of the Cockburn’s Port brand from Beam Global Spirits & Wine.

Since the Symington family (pictured) had already acquired Cockburn’s vineyards, wineries, cellars and stocks in 2006, he told me that the move was “a natural progression,” adding “[w]e look forward to bringing Cockburn’s back to its roots. This is one of the great names in Port, the pioneer of vineyard development in the Douro Superior, far beyond what any other Port house ever did in this remote region. It is also a much loved brand in the UK. We look forward to giving it more heart and soul.”  By back to its roots, Symington clarified “I have  a lot of respect for what Cockburn’s did, but I do believe that largely families do Port better than international groups.”  

Certainly the importance of taking the long view  has been underwritten by the Symington family’s acquisition of 27 Quintas totalling over 2,300 acres, some of which are owned individually as well as jointly through the family Port company.  At any rate, the Symingtons are, by a long chalk, the Douro’s largest vineyard owners.  And going forward, Symington reckons this stands the family in good stead, because a challenging future lies ahead for Port production in the Douro.  This is what Symington had to say on the topic:

“For Port in general we  believe that the future for Port will be different. The Douro, with its very specific geography and its low yields, can no longer sustain the production of ‘entry-level’ Ports for huge volume sales. We are concerned however that the authorities (those in the regulatory bodies such as the Port Wine Institute and in the Ministry of Agriculture) are not aware of the changes that need to be made in many aspects of the region to meet these new challenges. The social consequences will be extensive. There are over 30,000 farmers in the region. Together with dependants, there are over 100,000 people involved in Port. This is a fact that is unknown to consumers and to most in the wine trade across Europe.

Our view is that Port sales are likely to be less but better in the future. It is for this reason that I, my brother and my three cousins, who together manage our family business, have continued to invest in prime vineyards. With a family history in Port that dates back to the 17th century, we are very unlikely to see the current difficulties in the wider wine market or more specifically in the Port trade as something that cannot be overcome.  With Graham’s, Dow’s and Warre’s, we own three of the leading Ports, these give us leadership of the Port trade’s premium sales. This is where the future is.”

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