James Mayor talks to Paul Symington about his time as Chairman of Symington Family Estates, the family company which has played a leading role in the renaissance of Port and the emergence of world class Douro table wines.
Most Port lodges, as Port wine cellars are called, are places of peace, where Port serenely ages in row upon row of barrels or giant vats. Not so the cooperage at Cockburn`s, where I meet Paul Symington. The conversation begins with Symington shouting to make himself heard above the hammer blows being inflicted on a huge barrel by a burly cooper.
Cockburn`s cooperage is spacious and high-ceilinged. Sawdust swirls in the light streaming in through its windows. A team of seven coopers work here, repairing the barrels for the Symington portfolio of prestigious Port houses. Today, this is the only remaining working cooperage in Vila Nova de Gaia, the town facing the city of Porto where the Port wine lodges are located. Paul Symington recalls as a boy he would hear the sound of coopers at work all over town. Maintaining a cooperage is not an anachronism, however, and Symington explains with passion that it is at the very heart of Port wine making. If a Port house can control the upkeep and maintenance of its barrels, then it is closer to influencing the character of the Port.
The cooper´s work is physically demanding, and highly skilled. An apprenticeship takes four years. The youngest member of the team, currently mid-way through his apprenticeship, is the third generation of his family to practice this trade. You get an idea of how much work there is to do, when you discover there are nine million litres of Port ageing at Cockburn`s. And that does not include the stocks at Graham´s, Dow´s and Warre´s.
The visitor centre at Cockburn´s is remarkable. The lodge is cavernous and extremely beautiful, and the visit informative. In my opinion, this is one of the best Port lodge visits available in Vila Nova de Gaia. In a private tasting room, the John Smithes Room, named after one of Port´s legendary figures responsible for pioneering work on Douro grape varieties, Paul Symington talks about the affinity which he believes exists between families and wine. Winemaking is a long-term affair, “you do not get anything very good out of a vineyard before five or six years.” A mature vintage Port may only be at its best, after a generation… or two.
Symington himself is a member of the fourth generation of the family to run their business, and our discussion takes place a few weeks after he stepped down as Chairman of Symington Family Estates. He is visibly delighted that today five members of the fifth generation are working for the business, while “the sixth generation is already running around the vineyards.”
He takes particular pride in having strengthened his family´s unity and given it a desire for continuity, explaining that each family member owns their Douro vineyard. “We have a profound love for our region. We always reinvest our dividends in the Douro, and I think this level of commitment is unique.”
Paul Symington´s sixteen years as Chairman coincided with the emergence of the Douro as one of the world´s great table wine regions. Until the early 1990s, no one had really given much thought to making fine reds or whites here. With a twinkle in his eye, he remarks, “I always had a sneaking suspicion there might be something there.”
The first two decades of this century has seen a spectacular renaissance in the fortunes of Port, in a market where most fortified wines are on the decline. Symington describes the successful shift from the production and sale of simpler Rubys to more complex old Tawnys, LBVs and Vintage Ports, predicting that this movement from volume to premium Ports will continue in the coming decade. When I point out that Symington`s Port brands have recently scored some spectacular prices at auction, he comments, “this is deeply satisfying and due to the great skill of my cousin Charles, a really brilliant winemaker.”
In 2012, Paul Symington was nominated Decanter Man of the Year, the first time a person from Portugal had been distinguished by this award. Symington is characteristically generous in his comment about this achievement: “I had worked with my brother and four cousins and I saw this as a team effort. It would be a bit odd for one person to claim all the credit!”
We discuss prospects for the development of Portuguese wines over the next few years. Symington talks with enthusiasm about the new generation of professional winemakers and mentions the excellent oenology course at UTAD in Vila Real, in the Douro. In his view, Portugal is now producing world class wines. For Symington, the challenge is these wines now need to be affirmed at the highest international level. He thinks this will happen, due to Portugal`s unique grape varieties and soils.
The Douro is a region where viticulture is extremely physically exacting, and many young people today prefer to leave the land and seek better paid jobs in the coastal cities. Symington remarks that the Douro is the last great wine region on the planet where almost all the grapes are picked by hand. “This is not sustainable,” he exclaims. “Tourism is taking people away from the land and it´s difficult to find people to work. The old-fashioned smallholdings will inevitably disappear, and we now need a new generation of young professional farmers.” Symington´s are consequently sponsoring six students to attend the viticulture and winemaking course at UTAD.
Agriculture, and viticulture is no exception here, is facing an additional challenge from accelerating climate change. Paul Symington refers to hotter summers and increasingly erratic weather.
Symington´s are adapting to these changing weather patterns and, in 2014, the company planted an experimental vineyard at Quinta do Ataide, a long-term project to analyse the reaction of over fifty Douro grape varieties to different climatic conditions, alongside control samples of international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. The objective is to gain some insight into which grape varieties should be planted in the Douro in the future.
Symington´s are also investing heavily to combat vineyard erosion, a serious consequence of what Paul Symington refers to as “these outrageous storms that seem to hit us more frequently now. I will never forget the storm on 28 May 2018, when 40% of my own private vineyard was obliterated in an hour and a half by massive rain and hail.”
Canopy management, to provide more shade for grapes on vines during hot summers, is another option being developed. Symington points out that the Douro possesses the advantage of altitude, offering the possibility to plant more vines higher up the slope, where conditions are cooler.
We continue our conversation over lunch at Vinum, the restaurant just down the road at Graham´s, another Symington Port lodge. Vinum overlooks the River Douro and must have one of the best possible views of Porto, particularly if you are enjoying an Altano Branco Reserva 2016, a star in the Symington range.
Looking towards the future Paul Symington remarks, “I won´t be going very far, as this is my home. I would like to spend more time in my vineyard in the Pinhão Valley. I´m also determined, however, to try and change the regulatory system in the Douro.” He describes the antiquated rules that take no account of the emergence of Douro table wines, thereby performing a disservice to both Douro wines and the region´s farmers. He is pushing the Secretary of State to initiate the changes he believes are necessary. This is essential as the Douro is heavily dependent on its wine economy.
After lunch, we have time to visit the atmospheric small museum at Graham`s. We linger in front of a family tree of the Symingtons. Paul Symington shows me how, through his great-grandmother, he descends from a 17th century Port shipper. That was around the time Port was invented.