Symington Family Estates: A tasting of Single Quinta Vintage Ports (1950-2006)

Despite its showman-style billing as “an opportunity to see the Douro terroir in a way that has not been seen before,” there was not an ounce of puff about this tasting of single quinta wines.

The people

Fronted by Paul and Johnny Symington, the line up of Ports from several quintas and eight different vintages, together with an illuminating powerpoint presentation, made for a compelling tasting.  As did the second cousins’ passion, some might say obsession, about the Douro.

Indeed, the tasting might just as well have been billed how the Symingtons (among others) tamed the Douro.  For grapes are the sole commercial crop of a region as wild, remote, mountainous and positively inhospitable as a spaghetti western backdrop.  As Paul Symington observed, “without Port, the region would return to nature” since, with an average annual rainfall of 380mm, it’s close to desert.  Organic matter is virtually non-existent, less than 2% compared with 12% for neighbouring Minho’s farmland.

And it’s a constant challenge to maintain it – vertically trellised vineyards lose an average 1.7t/ha of soil each year to erosion.  At 38,300ha this, the largest area of mountain vineyard on earth, is precipitously steep, with an average 30% incline.  Going forward, vineyards might just get steeper too.  Referring to “alarming”temperature trends (up 8% from an average of 15.2°C in the 1960s to 16.5°C today), Paul Symington reckons the likely answer is “we’ll just migrate up the hill.”

Not easy to work then, especially when the robotics industry (which produced a mechanical alternative to foot-treading) has yet to come up with a solution for vineyard operations.  Harvesting, pruning, spraying etc must still be painstakingly and expensively carried out by hand.  Yields are terrifyingly low, averaging 33.44ha (1995-2010).

Not that it has deterred the Symingtons (pictured).  Far from it.  The fifth generation Port shippers turned farmers account for 30% of all premium Port production and, with 26 quintas spread over 1891ha, of which 947ha are under vine have, in recent times, become the region’s largest landowners.  Saying “we’re completely bonkers,” Paul Symington adds every board member owns a vineyard; the family’s personal tally of vineyards amounts to 185ha.

It’s a big contrast with 30 years ago when the family was much more reliant on growers and, Paul Symington confided, “we didn’t say where the grapes came from” – one didn’t disclose one’s sources.  Today, the family are proud to showcase their quintas though Johnny is quick to point out “we’re always learning, whether it’s about root stocks, varieties or technology.”  It’s a learning curve which has steepened since the family started making table wine around a decade ago.  For Paul Symington, making table has given us “an even more profound knowledge of our vineyards and soils than Port, which is traditionally blended.”

The places

Magisterial in scale and grandeur, the Douro Valley tracks a 100km stretch of the Douro river and is split into 3 sub-regions:

  1. The western-most Baixo Corgo (Lower Corgo), whose rainfall averages 900mm and temperature averages 18 degrees centigrade (compared with Porto’s averages of 1,200mm and 14.4°C)
  2. In the middle, the Cima Corgo (Upper Corgo), whose rainfall averages 650mm and temperature averages 19°C
  3. Eastern-most, nearing the Spanish border, the Douro Superior (Upper Douro), whose rainfall averages 500mm and temperature averages 21°C.

And it’s not just one valley – it also encompasses the valleys through which its tributaries run, notably the Tua, Corgo, Torto and Pinhão.

As a rule of thumb, from west to east, it’s progressively warmer and drier (see the average rainfall and temperature figures above), but the reality is much more complex once you take into account factors like:

  • elevation range – from 90m-900m, very significant when, for every 100m of altitude, the temperature falls by up to 1°C (the Symingtons refer to a drop of 1.5°C for very 300m and their quintas range between 90-550m); and
  • multi-faceted slopes – south facing slopes are influenced by the dry southerly winds while north facing slopes are more exposed to the colder and damper northerly winds and, more shaded, receive less sun.

The tasting put the wines of seven quintas under the spotlight but, first, it was interesting to see an analysis of rainfall (R), average temperatures (T) and soil pH (S) for those quintas in the family the longest (rainfall based on a 20 year average):

  • Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha (94km from Porto), 1,300mm (R), 13.8°C (T), 5.24 (S)
  • Warre’s Quinta do Bomfim (98km from Porto), 777mm (R), 15.94°C (T), 5.67 (S)
  • Graham’s Quinta do Malvedos (107km from Porto), 606mm (R), 16.8°C (T), 6.64 (S)
  • Quinta do Vesuvio (124km from Porto), 423mm (R),15.9°C (T), 6.33 (S)

While the dramatic drop in rainfall as you move from east to west reflects the general rule of thumb, the impact of altitude on rainfall and temperature at Cavadinha is impressive, also the influence of continentality on Vesuvio (Paul Symington explained that winters are much colder here than at Malvedos, which accounts for Vesuvio’s lower average temperature, though it’s further inland).

As for soil pH once you pass the Cachão de Valeira (pictured) – the serious granite gorge in which Baron Forrester met his maker (and which you can now safely navigate by train) – the soils become more granitic (not just schistous).  Apparently the more granitic, neutral soils at Vesuvio, also Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira (6.33 pH), allow the vines to extract nutrients better.

The following descriptions of each quinta are taken from the Port houses’ website (Graham’sDow’sQuinta do Vesuvio and Warres) and the tasting booklet, augmented by extra snippets of information which emerged from the tasting.  Click here for the Symington family’s generic website.  And click here for their very useful database of vintage reports.

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos

The Quinta embraces the steep gradients that mark the confluence of the Tua and Douro rivers. The vineyard’s north bank location provides its vine terraces with a south-facing aspect, ensuring prolonged exposure to the sun. This results in excellent ripening of the grapes during the growing season, essential to the production of first-class Port. The very consistent climate in this part of the valley is reflected in the supreme quality of the wines produced.

The vineyard covers 70 hectares, out of the Quinta’s total area of 108 hectares. A major replanting programme was carried out through the 1980’s and the average age of the vines now ranges from 20 years for the ‘modern’ terraces, to well over 45 years for the older walled terraces (according to Paul Symington, the average age of the vines is around 28 years old and the old vine (50 year old plus) component comprises around 5% of plantings).  In 2005, 8 hectares of old mixed vineyards were replanted with Touriga Nacional, one of the finest varieties for Port and especially important for Vintage Port.

Around 95% of the vineyard is planted in varietal batches, allowing each variety to achieve optimum ripeness and to be subsequently picked and vinified separately.

Tasting profile of Quinta dos Malvedos: floral characteristics, opulent black berry fruit aromas and super concentrated rich fruit, backed by well balanced tannins, these are the hallmark of this vineyard’s wines. They are therefore wines in the classic mould with the innate quality and potential for long-term ageing.

Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim

Bomfim is a classic ‘River Quinta’ with many natural advantages: it is south-facing ensuring ample exposure to the sun; its stony schist soil affords excellent drainage allowing water to reach the vines’ deep roots; the annual rainfall is near perfect at 800mm (15 year annual average); the altitude ranges from 120 to 340 metres above sea level, accommodating both gentle gradients lower down and progressively steeper slopes higher up the valley side, as well as offering a variety of aspects. A further advantage is the consistency of the climate, blessed with a favourable combination of temperate and Mediterranean influences, respectively from Portugal’s Atlantic coast and the Spanish hinterland.

The whole (49ha) Bomfim vineyard is ‘A-rated’, the highest quality grading conferred by the region’s wine regulatory body. The vineyards are now almost entirely planted in varietal batches, meaning each variety may be picked and subsequently vinified separately, thus allowing for each grape’s maximum potential to be tapped. The principal grape varieties planted are: Touriga Franca (14ha), Touriga Nacional (10ha), Tinta Barroca (13ha), Tinta Roriz (13ha), and old mixed vines (5ha). Two-thirds of the vineyard is now over 20 years old, whilst one third is between 30 to 40 years old.

Bomfim vintage Ports have distinctive aromas of mint and violets, they are purple-black when young, with intense concentration and show very fine peppery tannins, combined with the traditional Dow’s dry finish.

Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha

Located in the Pinhão Valley, this 30.6ha vineyard is book-ended by the Pinhão River and pine trees to the top. The late ripening cycle of this estate dictates the style of Cavadinha Ports; they are fresh, elegant and have very fine aromas.

Old vines make up a very high proportion of the vineyard (around 40%/9ha), consequently these wines are dark and concentrated, but the south easterly aspect and higher altitude (180-440m, which means it’s cooler and wetter than the other quintas) results in a very elegant style. The wines from the lower vineyards that border the Pinhão River are tannic, dark purple-red and concentrated but have superb aromas of tea-rose and violets.

The quinta’s younger, block-planted vines include 8ha of Touriga Nacional and 6ha of Touriga Franca.

With age, the Cavadinha wines develop even more elegance and balance; the nose can give aromas of very fine old burgundy after some years in bottle.

Graham’s Quinta do Tua

In 2006 this Quinta, formerly part of the Cockburn’s stable, was acquired by the Symington family for Graham’s.

Quinta do Tua is situated on the east bank of the Tua River where this tributary joins the Douro river. All of the property is “A-rated”, the highest possible designation, with vineyards that are predominantly south facing and with an altitude of 150-350 metres. The soil’s main component is schist, a laminated slate-like rock. The consistent climate in this part of the valley is reflected in the very high quality wines produced in most years.

Of Quinta do Tua’s total area of 60 hectares, 29 hectares are under vine. Average annual production is 64 pipes (1 pipe = 750 Kg). Yields at the property are very low, averaging 0.74 Kg per vine. This is in part due to the high percentage of old vines. The average age of the vines ranges from 33 years for the ‘modern’ terraces to well over 60 years for some of the older walled terraces. A programme of replanting is currently underway, reflecting the Symington family’s commitment to Port and the Douro, and their efforts to constantly improve their vineyard holdings.  The vineyard includes among the first clonal selections of Touriga Nacional, which were made by Cockburn’s Miguel Corte-Real in the 1970s.  The grape accounts for around 24% of the vineyard.

Given the extremely old vines on the property and correspondingly low yields, the Ports produced have a fine degree of aromatic concentration and tannic structure, ideal for producing classic Vintage Ports.

Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira

Re-acquired by the Symington family in 1998, Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira is set in the remote, hot and dry Douro Superior, just 40km from the Spanish border.  The 10 year annual rainfall for the area is 448mm.  The quinta commands a magnificent north bank position, overlooking a broad sweep of the Douro, directly opposite another Symington family-owned vineyard: Quinta do Vesuvio.

The quinta’s high proportion of old vines (45% are over 25 years old) is of critical importance. The old vines are very low-yielding, producing on average less than 1Kg of grapes each, giving intense and concentrated musts which are ideal for classic Vintage Port. The remainder of the vineyard was replanted as follows: 21% in 2001 and 34% from 2004, the latter involving mainly Touriga Nacional vines.  This grape variety – very important for Vintage Port – now represents almost exactly a third of the total planted at the quinta. The entire vineyard has the maximum ‘A’ rating.

As with Bomfim, the consistency of the climate plays a key role, although the rainfall is only half of that experienced at Bomfim: 448mm is the 10 year average. This more extreme climate, hot dry summers and cold, equally dry winters results in wines with unique depth of colour and complexity.

The tasting profile is the essence of vintage Port, with opulent wild berry flavours, leading into rich black chocolate, and minty notes, the whole balanced by complex, attractive and peppery tannins.

Cockburn’s Quinta dos Canais

At 261ha, one of the largest properties in the Douro Superior, the quinta is located opposite Taylors Quinta de Vargellas on the north bank of the Douro River.  A vast amphitheatre it faces predominantly south allowing for long exposure to the sun.  However there are also sections with east and west facing aspects which contribute to variations in the style and character of the wines produced, as does the range in altitude (from 110m to 345m).

The principal grape variety planted is Touriga Nacional (30.5% of plantings); the vineyard is also planted to Touriga Franca (23ha), Tinta Barroca (16ha), Tinta Roriz (9ha) and has 20ha of old vines.

Quinta do Vesuvio

The quinta was purchased by the Symingtons in 1989 and is located in the Douro Superior on the south bank of the Douro River, opposite Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira.  The estate comprises some 325 hectares spread across 7 steep hills of different sizes and the elevation of the vineyards ranges between 130m-530m over a distance of only 1 km.

The old vineyards were concentrated on only 105 hectares, less than a third of the total property. Quinta do Vesuvio is one of the only Douro quintas to be privileged with vineyards over 25 years old that were planted by variety (most old vineyards are a mix of grape varieties planted side by side). The principal grape varieties are Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Nacional. The average age of the vines ranges from 10 years for the new plantings to 35 years for the old plantings, all of which are A-rated vineyards.

With an eye to the future, an extensive new planting of Touriga Nacional vines has been recently completed on the upper slopes of the estate, bringing the total area under vine to 132 hectares.

It is the last major quinta in the Douro Valley to make all its Vintage Ports by traditional treading in large granite lagares.

The tasting profile – incredibly rich and concentrated Ports with quite exceptional balance and length.  The wines are uniformly excellent, with superb inky purple-black colours when young, the nose is always intense, with strong notes of violets and wild spring flowers.  The taste is complex and opulent, with layers of flavours that persist on the palate.

The Ports

As you’ll see, the specific traits of each quinta translated beautifully into the glass.  But most of all, I was struck by the longevity of the best wines, especially the Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos.  Retaining the quinta’s signature sweet fruit, older vintages of Malvedos from the 60s and 50s well demonstrated why this quinta forms the backbone of Grahams Vintage Port, not to mention why it so thoroughly deserved its own turn in the spotlight.  It’s a win win each way bet, approachable relatively young but capable of ageing for decades too.  Possibly the best £30 you’ll ever spend on wine…

The 2006 vintage

A difficult year.  Though good winter rainfall (1800mm) replenished the soils, thereafter it was a very dry year until the harvest when the weather became unsettled. It was important to pick around the unsettled weather.

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos 2006 – a deep hue with sweet, rich and vivid fruit – cassis, black plum and framboise – to nose and palate.  A hint of leaf too.  Very primary and youthful, but quite elegant too – a good reflection of the vintage – with its freshness, purity, floral lift and schistous undertow.  Ripe but tapering tannins bring structure.  Lovely.

Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim 2006 – a deeper colour than the Graham’s and darker and seemingly drier on the nose with a tight schistous/slatey quality.  In the mouth, though there’s a rectitude and linearity to its brooding dark chocolate edged black berry fruit, black pepper and a hint of eucalypt top notes add lift and complexity.  With 2006’s signature freshness and its firm but powdery tannins, it’s a drier, well-structured style, true to the house style.  Johnny Symington says this quinta’s wines have always been highly esteemed because they always go for 30-40 years.

Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha 2006 – wonderfully perfumed, this violet scented Port is the epitome of iron fist in velvet glove.  On the attack and mid-palate, succulent black cherry and plum, warm gingerbread and liquorice flesh out a firm, sinewy backbone of tannin.  Going through the finish, it shows a little more spirit, though no doubt this will readily integrate with time as it opens up.  Impressive.  A keeper.

Graham’s Quinta do Tua 2006 – this deeply coloured Port is relatively forward – soft, silky and fleshy, it doesn’t have the depth or concentration of its predecessors.  With a stewed edge and touch of earthiness to the fruit, it’s not as vivid or pure either, though there are attractive dark chocolate and violet notes to its berry fruit.  Johnny Symington explained that, some time after the purchase it was decided that its luscious style was well suited to the Graham’s brand and the Port was made at Malvedos.  On this showing, it was the weakest link in an otherwise very strong field.  Just 1000 cases of the 2006 were made as an experiment; it’s not been made since.

Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira 2006 – a very complete, fleshy, dark wild berried wine, with an unusually pronounced salty minerality on nose and long, layered palate.  The tannins are fine and powdery.  Sumptuous and beautifully balanced – no mean feat.

Cockburn’s Quinta dos Canais 2006 – a complex nose and palate shows a concentrated core of dark berry and black plum fruit with lifted top notes of blossom, gingerbread and eucalypt underscored by a seam of minerality.  Long, persistent and relatively dry with just a touch of warmth/spirit showing on nose and finish.  Though Johnny Symington said “we’re still learning about this vineyard” he reckons that the 2011 shows “unbelievable” promise.

Quinta do Vesuvio 2006 – Paul Symington says he’d place a substantial bet that Vesuvio would be in the top 3 or 4 Vintage Ports in every year from 1994 onwards.  I’m sure he’d be delighted to hear from anyone brave enough to pick up the gauntlet! This violet-scented, sensual, seamless wine is plush and lush with its juicy black currant, berry and cherry fruit.  Yet it’s also possessed of a cool minerality.  Hints of spicy gingerbread and dried herbs add nuance.  Washes over you in delicious waves – terrific.

The 1999 vintage

1999 was the largest vintage since 1996 and turned out to be a useful vintage for the trade with some small quantities of outstanding single quinta wines. Not a general declaration.

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos 1999 – a plush and expressive nose and palate of fleshy sweet  plum shows eucalpyt, spicy gingerbread, chocolate violet creams and liquorice.  Good vigour yet poised.  Very good.

Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim 1999 – both samples corked.

The 1998 vintage

A year of tiny yields which, on account of the unsettled weather over vintage, Paul Symington described as a “dodge the bullet vintage.”

Dow’s Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira 1998 – the vintage started early on 14 September and harvest was completed before the rains.  Like the 2006, I pick up a salty minerality on the nose, a touch of blood/iron too.  In the mouth, the 1998 is warm, expansive and well upholstered with swathes of plush dark berry and cherry fruit and emphatic floral notes – dried lavender and chocolate violet creams.  Long and deeply satisfying – eminently broachable now.

Quinta do Vesuvio 1998 – while the Senhora da Ribeira is warm and plush, the Vesuvio is cool and precise, with a tightly coiled mineral nose and palate crammed with sweet, ripe but oh so well defined blackcurrant fruit.  Very youthful.  A keeper.

The 1996 vintage

A wet winter resulted in bountiful yields; broachable wines.

Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha 1996 – a deep aubergine hue and markedly less bright than the 98s, it’s a mid-weight, relatively developed spicy wine with soft, slightly baggy plum fruit, that signature liquorice note and ripe, chocolatety tannins. Not for the long haul.

The 1979 vintage

Following (another) wet winter and spring, yields were high, though fruit was healthy thanks to a dry summer.

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos 1979 – though pale ruby, the 79 retains a wonderful intensity and brightness to its red cherry conserve on nose and palate.  Delicate sweet cinnamon spice notes lend lift and finesse, as do finely wrought tannins.  Simply lovely – you almost forget it’s a Port!  And drinking beautifully, I’d enjoy it now while it retains that youthful flush of fruit and delightful balance.

Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim 1979 – though a deeper colour than the Malvedos, this bottle seems to have lost its charm/fruit.  It’s a touch stalky on the nose and firm and spirity on the palate.

Warre’s Quinta da Cavadinha 1979 – savoury, developed and flagging a little, though it retains Cavadinha’s liquorice and plummy core of fruit.  Smudgy chocolatey tannins bring sucrosity and a bit of depth/breadth.

The 1965 vintage

A very hot, dry year.

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos 1965 – the Symingtons acquired Graham’s in 1970, so did not make this wine, but it’s very much in the model of the 79, albeit I reckon it must have started out with a good deal more intensity given this wine is 14 years older! Pale garnet, a lacy but long palate is intensely spicy with liquorice and caraway notes to its delicate red jammy fruit.  Lovely complexity, persistence and balance.  Very harmonious and smooth of delivery, I’d enjoy this now.

Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim 1965 – once again, I find the Dow’s lacking charm, with edgy green notes, spirit and volatile acidity…

The 1958 vintage

A year of sunshine and showers – perhaps like 98, a dodge the bullet job!

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos 1958 – and bullet well dodged here.  The 58 Malvedos still retains some lovely milk chocolate edged sweet red cherry fruit.  There’s a delicate patina of age with its hints of cafe crème, leather and dried herbs to the finish.    Lovely mouthfeel.  Very much still in the game if, perhaps, nearing the edge of the plateau.

The 1950 vintage

Apparently known as the “Lady’s Vintage” for its delicate and subtle Ports. Declared by some but not all Port houses.

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos 1950 – Johnny Symington confessed he’d not tasted this vintage until two weeks before the tasting when, of the handful of bottles left, another was broken.  I reckon tears were also spilled. This is very much into tertiary mode with its panforte dried fruits, angelica, nuts and kid glove leather.  A trace of violets too.  But it’s still well balanced and sure-footed in its delivery.  A real testament to the vineyard!  Deeply impressive.

The potential – 2011

Back to the future, though it’s obviously very early days, Paul Symington was moved to observe that 2011 is one of three “sensational” years during his time in the family business.

Samples of Malvedos and Canais were inky in hue and impressively hewn, with concentrated fruit and excellent structure.  The Malvedos showed exuberant, sweet, ripe framboise while the Canais was grippier with peppery tannins.

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  1. Paul Metman

    Thank you very much for the detailed report, a great read! Looking forward to a report about 2009 Douro wines (Douro Boys ) and/or other 2009 Portuguese wines.

    • sarah

      Many thanks Paul. I’m in the Cape next week and the following so miss the London New Douro tasting however, I’ll catch up with many if not all the wines in Porto in the first week of December so watch this space! From a sneak preview in March I’m expecting plenty of lovely ripe fruit.

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