The UK might be back to being shut in its houses and apartments again, and travel might be off the agenda. But our latest Discovery Tasting with Symington Family Estates provided an escape in both place and time.
Fifth generation family member, Anthony Symington, showed off a stunning range of ports and table wines that transported our lucky tasters not just from Lockdown Britain to the unmatchable beauty of the Douro, but back through the decades as well.
The Symington Family have been making ports in this part of northern Portugal for over 150 years, and with 26 quintas (estates) in the valley, are the biggest producer of premium port in the region. Every sommelier will be familiar with the great names of their portfolio: Dows, Warres and Grahams, plus the Douro’s ‘first first growth’ Quinta do Vesuvio.
But the tasting began with a couple of table wines, with Symington showing off their top wine, Chryseia, and its second wine, Post Scriptum, made in association with Bruno Prats, former director of Cos d’Estournel.
In fact, the latter is the reason why the wines were ever created. Visiting the family as a fellow member of the Primum Familiae Vini, he took a look at the Douro and asked bluntly, ‘why don’t you make red wine here? You’re crazy! You have this incredible unique terroir and varieties that aren’t used anywhere else.’
The two families teamed up to make Prats + Symington in 1999 and have been making Chryseia in the best years ever since, and Post Scriptum in the others.
The wines come from the Quinta de Roriz vineyard, which is the site of an old tin mine, and has an incredibly high mineral content.
‘You can taste this in these two wines,’ said Anthony. ‘Obviously they are Douro in style, but they have a fresh, graphite minerality running through them. From 5-10 years old it still has youthful fruit, but from 10-14 years it gets more secondary characteristics.’
Our tasters sampled the 2015, which is now starting to show really well and clearly has many decades ahead of it.
From here it was on to Port. All of the wines were from Grahams which celebrated its 200th anniversary this year. Though Covid scuppered any actual celebrations.
First up our tasters had a real treat with two single-vintage tawnies (aka colheitas), from two of the best port vintages of the last century: 1963 and 1994.
‘A colheita is a snapshot in time,’ said Anthony. ‘We don’t release the wines to coincide with an anniversary – just where we feel they are showing incredibly well.’
The ‘snapshot in time’ was particularly poignant for the older of the two. Not only were none of our tasters or panellists born in 1963 but the Douro was still incredibly isolated – a rural backwater six hours from Porto, with sporadic electricity. It was a wine with a finish that was measured in hours.
Yet the star for most tasters was the 1994. At 26 years old, it was at what many observers consider the peak age for tawny port. Food matches flooded in for these wines, from myriad desserts and cigar styles to beer-battered oysters.
They’re clearly a really useful style for restaurants, since once opened they can last happily for a month, so there’s little pressure on teams to sell them fast.
Speed of sell-through is more of an issue for bottle-aged ports, such as our final two vintages. But Anthony suggested three really great tips.
Three sell-through tips
- Decant the bottle on a Friday and sell it as a ‘special’ throughout the weekend – vintage port is fine for three days.
- Take advantage of their ‘half bottle’ presentation set, which features 37.5cl of vintage port, a decanter and a wooden presentation board. ‘It can sit on a list around £35 or £15 a glass.’
- Employ a Coravin using the same process as for ordinary table wine. ‘There’s no need to decant in advance. When you start getting near the bottom of the bottle sediment can sometimes partially block the needle but simply moving the bottle slightly dislodges this. When you near the end of the bottle you can decant the remaining few glasses out.’
Interestingly, Anthony also suggested that the traditional ‘Stilton’ match might need a rethink.
‘The older ports are more delicate wines,’he said. ‘I don’t think you’d want a blue cheese with them, even though that’s the tradition in the UK. We often have it with a creamy sheep’s cheese.’
While the magnificence of the 1983 Grahams was not a surprise – it’s a top port from a great year – the quality of the Quinta do Malvedos raised eyebrows – particularly for the price. Though this wine is made to be drunk slightly younger (and really starts to drink well from ten years old) some tasters had examples from the millennium which they said were still fantastic.
All in all, it was a spectacular tasting of myriad wine styles, united only by their age and excellence. After all, how often do you get to taste six wines with a combined age of 150 years?
As voted for by The Sommelier Collective members that attended the tasting.