Discovery Tasting: Symington

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

  1. Decant the bottle on a Friday and sell it as a ‘special’ throughout the weekend – vintage port is fine for three days.
  2. 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.’
  3. 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?

Star wine

As voted for by The Sommelier Collective members that attended the tasting.

Tasting sheets to download

White Port: what it is, and why and how to serve it

Usually as kids when we went on holiday back to Portugal my dad would order a sparkling Portuguese white as an aperitif before dinner. But once, visiting a friend’s restaurant in the Algarve, they didn’t have any chilled so they suggested a drink with some ice while we were waiting for the espumante to chill down.

It was 7pm and 40 degrees so we were all thirsty and hot. The drink that our friend recommended arrived and I dived in. ‘God that’s good,’ I said. ‘What is it? ‘It’s a white port – Nicolau Antonio de Almeida,’ he said. I was 15 and I was hooked.

Back then, when I was starting to learn about wine, books and magazines were all Bordeaux or Burgundy and I remember thinking that my new friend white port seemed to be something of an outcast – rather unloved and unappreciated.

Sadly, it still is today. Porto branco makes up less than 10% of total port production and there are only around 30 brands to look out for.

The beauty of being a somm is that you have the power – the same as any great chef – to put a huge amount of joy into your customers’ lives by what experience you give them, and white port can bring something seriously different.

The amazing thing about white port is that it has a great breadth of styles to choose from, from very dry with single figure residual sugar to lagrima which can have around 50g of RS. This means that it can genuinely be used for the entire meal.

The drier styles pair really well with charcuterie, salads, shellfish and hard cheeses. Sweeter and older versions can match with duck with blackberry and red wine sauce, goat curry, rack of lamb, spicy chicken, octopus and then foie gras. Dessert wise, you’re looking at creme caramel, chocolate and blueberry trifle, chocolate and orange cheesecake and sachertorte.

Interestingly, there is no critical point of temperature when serving. You can serve it anywhere from 6-14 degrees Celsius depending on the environment and food choice. So try experimenting with it at different temperatures and see what you like.

Graham’s No 5 is designed to be mixed with tonic

White Port is a great bottle to have in the bar, too. Personally I still have a dry white with a few cubes of ice pre dinner but I like to offer customers white port and Mediterranean tonic with a sprig of mint leaf.

For aperitif purposes, I tend to use Churchills dry white 10 year old, Dows dry white which I serve with ice or, for tonic, Grahams blend no 5, which was specially created for that purpose.

Dalva golden white, Andresen Porto Branco and Kopke are all worth a look too. You have a gamut of styles from very dry and 10, 20, 30 or 40-year-old versions to colheita which comes from a single vintage. The oldest I have tried was 1895 and if your list can take something special I’d suggest looking out for 1935, 1952, 1963, 1971 and 1989.

Kopke are masters of aged white port. I’ve tried their Very Old Dry White which was a blend of rare wines from the last century, cask aged for at least 50 years in 300-litre casks. It was, quite simply, mindblowing. They still have some small batches of white port going back over 380 years.

White port is a wonderful, flexible and fascinating wine style that totally deserves to be more widely appreciated, listed and used. It might not be the next big thing, but maybe you could make it your next new thing. Saude!

SEVEN FACTS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WHITE PORT

Esgana Cao: Canines beware

1 Grape varieties – there are 46 (!) approved varieties for white port, but the most common are Malvasia, Rabigato, Codega, Viosinho, Arinto, and Folgosao (Terrantez in Madeira). Esgana Cao (aka Sercial in Madeira) isn’t used much, but since its name means “dog strangler” we thought you’d want to know about it.

2 Ageing – all white port is aged for a minimum of three years; colheita for at least seven years – though many houses age for a lot longer than this.

3 Barrels – are crucial to white port, since these are barrel-aged, not bottle-aged wines. Containers vary from 225-litre casks to 7,500-litre vats.House style, on all ageing matters, is crucial.

4 Age statements are 10, 20, 30 and 40-year-old, plus Very Old White Port. The age statement is an AVERAGE age of the wines in the bottle. Colheita wines are barrel aged from a single vintage.

5 Preservation – because these are an oxidised style they don’t depreciate once opened. Young white ports can last for a couple of weeks; colheitas (under 15 years) for a couple of months. Older colheitas and aged whites can last 2-4 months. Obviously, this is great news for restaurants.

6 Sugar levels – Extra dry – 17,5 to  40 gr/l; Dry – 40 to 65 gr/l; Semi-dry  – 65 to 90 gr/l; Sweet  – 90 to 130 gr/l; Very Sweet or Lágrima – >130 gr/l

7 Flavours – younger ports are quite forward, with flavours of citrus, tea, white flowers, honey and preserved fruit. Older ones move into dried fruits, figs, walnuts, almonds, orange peel and spice.