Symington Family Estates

After an unforgettable dinner at The Factory House the previous evening, our first visit on Tuesday morning was the Symington Family Estates (SFE) to spend some time exploring the Graham’s Lodge and learn from a tutored tasting with members of the Symington family. We were initially met by Jackie Thurn-Valsassina and Gustavo Devesas.

Jackie and Gustavo treated our guests to a brilliant visual display of the various vineyards held by the SFE and they really helped to put these vast vineyard holdings into perspective, both historically and geographically speaking. Discussion ensued regarding the three distinct sub-regions of the Douro: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo & Douro Superior. Jackie told us about the team of coopers who build and repair the balseiros, toneis and pipes, in which the Port is aged at all of the SFE lodges, (Graham’s, Dow’s and Warre’s) in Gaia.

The Symington’s use “Lodge pipes” which are a bit smaller at 534 liters (typically pipes are 550-600 liters) and utilize older and neutral wood. These casks won’t impart any oak flavors into the Port kept inside them, which is a plus. It is important to rack the Port off the lees to have a chance to inspect the Port and introduce a bit of oxygen, twice annually, which is the regimen used in all three of the Symington’s lodges.

Paul Symington joined us and unlocked a special section of the Lodge which houses the massive bottle storage cellar within Graham’s. These cavernous holding areas, some of which maintain a Lego-like construction project of Vintage Port bottles, are a most impressive sight. There are so many bottles it’s hard to imagine keeping track of them all, unlabeled (called “shiners”) but that’s why they have the bins labeled. Inside some of these segmented storage areas, there’s capacity for 17,000 bottles in a single hold, all from the same vintage no less.

Paul then brought our group into a newly designed area in which the real treasures of the Symington Family reside. Adorned with brick walls and partitions, this beautifully appointed vinous catacomb provides some outstanding photo opportunities, not to mention many an envious glance from our guests.

Next on the agenda was a focused vertical tasting of Dow Vintage Ports, led by Paul and Johnny Symington and a special guest, (from our previous night’s fun) Simon Berry, the affable owner of Berry Bros. & Rudd. I had selected these specific Dow Vintage Ports to provide a perfect depiction of “house style” and to reveal the exquisite nature of the fruit from the two main Dow’s vineyards of Quinta do Bomfim and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira. Given the continuity of Dow’s excellence during the string of 1970, 1977, 1983, 1985, 1991 and 1994 … all generally declared vintages, (except the split with 1991/1992) it was extremely beneficial for all that attended this tutored tasting.

We began with the oldest and made our way to the younger Vintage Ports, six vintages in all. By the start of the tasting the bottles had all been decanted for four hours. I did not get to the last ones for another hour and a half. This was much appreciated as these Dow VPs showed much better than if they had been just opened and poured upon our arrival.

1970 Dow Vintage Port – The long and hot summer assured that picking would begin early; August 21st and the quick rainfall on the 28th of that month seemed to help, but then it got really hot again. Overall, the growing season was outstanding for Port. Coincidentally, the cost of grapes doubled in this year. Medium dark garnet in color with a pink edge and tawny meniscus. Gorgeous aromatics with damson plum, almond and a hint of boysenberry. Resolved tannins, yet seemingly youthful considering its nearly 40 years of age; although beginning to show signs of secondary nuances at this point. Full, round and velvety in the mouth, nearly perfect texturally and wonderful balance even though at 3.4 Baumé this is a bit ripe for a Dow. It has always been one of my favorites of the vintage and I bought in when prices had just gone up, but still reasonable at $34 at the time. This provided a long, dry and slightly grippy finish, with exquisite complexity on the aftertaste. Possibly the best showing of ’70 Dow I’ve experienced and I sipped it slowly and returned often during the entire time we sat listening to Paul and others discussing this and other VPs in the lineup. A fabulous bottle with upside po; I have no doubt that others stored this well will be drinking beautifully for at least another 15-20 years. A great start to this vertical. 96 points 9/30/08

1977 Dow Vintage Port – Known as the “Silver Jubilee” to commemorate the 25th year of the reign of QE2. It exhibits a brilliant dark crimson color with pink-orange-tawny rim. Plum, licorice, tea leaf and cedar provide the wow factor aromatically. Compared to the 1970 this is quite dry, but understandably so, at just 2.9 Baumé. Dominated by dark cherry flavors, full-bodied with a silky smooth mouthfeel, the ample acidity keeps it bright and young, while a tannic edginess emerges late. Lovely, lush and a lingering long finish with chocolatey goodness. It’s a classy 1977, still very much in its prime today and with room to grow. Drink through 2035. 94+ points 9/30/08

1983  Dow Vintage Port – A poor fruit set in April 1983 led to rather small yields. Medium ruby with a pink edge. I was thrilled to buy in at $19/bottle for my first case. Dates, dried plums, anise and a stewed prune note are deceptive as this VP is decidedly in the red fruit realm. Chewy and full-bodied, I enjoyed this fruit laden Port, as I typically do. Soft and plush as a new bath towel and a pleasure to roll around in the mouth; the weight seemed to expand over the course of an hour in the glass. Rather dry with a black cherry and mocha nuance and dusty tannins which appear on the mid-length finish. This Dow is balanced enough to drink well at forty years of age and is one of the top contenders from the ’83 vintage. Drink now or through 2025 while at its best. 92 points 9/30/08

1985 Dow Vintage Port – Always one of my favorites from the 1985 harvest, which is one of the truly great vintages across the board for the SFE. Opaque garnet. Slightly austere at first, the nose opened to exhibit fresh violet fragrances along with blackberry and black licorice. In the mouth it was even more exuberant and extremely smooth … a bit primary and ripe initially, with waves of bright Bing cherry flavors, racy and concentrated and then the dry essence of this Dow became evident in the layered mid-section (2.7 Baumé). The tannins arrived late, ripe and round, leading to a prolonged and extremely drying, clean finish. It is hard to keep my hands off my stash at home because this Port always delivers and will continue to do so for at least another 3-4 decades. A decadent Dow VP. 94+ points 9/30/08

1991 Dow Vintage Port – From a wet winter to a very hot summer, the growing season fully cooperated and delivered a near-perfect harvest. I’ve had mixed results with this Port in the past, even though I bought mine pre-release. This bottle delivered the goods and was bright burgundy in color and fully opaque. Both the nose and palate had similar qualities, offering up a spicy red hot cinnamon character, red licorice and cherry flavors and intense, youthful spirit. Fruit driven but distracting heat which did calm down by the end of our tasting, this really needs a good eight hours in decanter if not more to come out of its shell. Excellent concentration and powerful astringent tannins. I noted the change from the first sip to my last taste and this showed significantly more balance and a bit less heat, which made for a far more enjoyable drink. On the sweeter side of the scale at 3.3 Baume, the finish was the strong point of this VP, providing extra horsepower and a nice warming, smooth aftertaste of kirsch. I would advise waiting another 3-5 years before drinking this Dow, allowing it to emerge with greater integration. The 1991 should drink best between 35-45 years of age. 91+ points 9/30/08

1994 Dow Vintage Port – I’ve had this early and often and have a special fondness for this particular Dow. It is one of the few Ports I’ve ever purchased in 375 ml, so I could check on it whilst young and not have to touch my cases of 750s. Dark and brooding scents of cassis, blackberry, fennel and earth. Reticent at first, I liked it a lot but can only imagine how much better it would have shown with another six hours in the decanter. Massively fruited with plum flavors and a minty-herbal character which I found exotic and refreshing. Sheer power structurally with a deep reservoir of acidity and brash, ripe tannins. Concentrated and full-throttle intensity combine to provide a lip smacking big-boned VP with extraordinary aging potential, a crazy long finish. This is a dangerously delicious Dow for the ages. 95+ points 9/30/08

What I learned: Dow’s house style is extremely consistent and delivers at a high level. It is typically about a half degree drier than other shipper’s VPs. Dow ranges from 2.7-3.4 Baumé, while most others tend towards an average of 3.8 or so. This lack of sweetness may hurt Dow’s ratings, as critics tend to like sweeter styles (going by the numbers) of Vintage Ports. There is no question that the Dow typifies a Vintage Port with long term aging prospects and from the few older (pre-1963) vintages I have enjoyed, they’ve seemed to hold up beautifully. At some point, I need to do a tasting of the early 20th century Dow VPs in a “vertical” setting, to compare and contrast the older versions. With two Symingtons present and Simon Berry (pictured below) the discussions were lively and our group really seemed to enjoy the interaction, almost as much as the great lineup of Ports before us.

What a fantastic and educational visit with the Symington Family and a memorable tasting with some of Dow’s excellent Vintage Ports. Our guests were ready for lunch and then we had a most unique visit planned, and a “first” even for some of our most seasoned returning guests.


Anybody into wine has heard the name Amorim before, but not one of us had ever visited this company. They’re best known as the world’s largest producer of natural cork products and of course, wine cork closures. They also produce the wine bottle capsules too, as an ancillary product.

I was actually hoping to see the cork forests and production directly from the bark harvesting itself. We did not get near the cork forests and unfortunately, we only had a brief presentation on how the trees were harvested although the production process was explained in great detail. We did learn that the special (cork) oak trees must be around twenty five years of age the first time they’re stripped of their bark and then the trees rejuvenate and subsequently can be harvested every nine years. Pretty amazing. We listened to the story of how the bark is then boiled and punched out to get the natural cork and we had the opportunity to find out just how far reaching cork products are and their versatility, being utilized in so many types of products and diverse industries.

We put on special gear including hats, shoe protectors, etc. to maintain sanitary conditions on the production floor. The massive quantities of corks being made for wine bottles in every conceivable size, was actually pretty fascinating to see. We were shown the difference between an inexpensive cork and a superior quality cork that would be used for Port or Claret, etc. as well as corks that had fissures which would eventually lead to seepage. The plant did not use robotics and there were actually people there to visually check the corks as they came out of the large and loud machinery.

There was a lively debate later in our visit in which we discussed TCA and why the cork industry and Amorim in particular (the industry leader) had not been able to effectively eradicate tainted corks from existence. We were told that many tests and new technologies have been employed since the cork industry finally admitted responsibility for this issue, only 10 years ago (in 1998). This was absolutely baffling to hear; as TCA is a much older problem than just a decade. The discussion grew a bit more aggressive at that point, as I really wanted to hear why the cork industry thought it was an “acceptable tolerance” as it was put to us … that the failure rate of their corks was higher than the tolerance for just about any other industry standard in the world. I asked what if car manufacturers had the same percentage of “lemons” coming off of their production lines? The response was that Amorim hoped that they’d “eventually” come up with a breakthrough that would permanently rid wine bottles of TCA that emanated from cork. When I pushed on, trying to get an answer as to how long that might take, I could tell some of our guests were uncomfortable with the direction this dialogue was heading in, so we veered towards the discussion of “alternative closures.”

We learned that Amorim believes that screw caps are the second best type of closure and far more reliable than plastic or conglomerate corks. We discussed the use of aluminum and other materials including glass for wine bottle stoppers and learned what the potential is for the various substances.

Then we headed back to chat about the types of tests and advances that were out there to detect TCA early on. I asked about irradiation, and other processes that I’ve either read about or seen used in tours of cork production facilities in other countries. Fascinating to some, boring to others … I don’t think we will venture back to see this plant again, although I would still love to see the cork forests and the actual harvesting of cork directly from the trees. And someday we will do so.

It was getting late and we headed back to Vila Nova de Gaia for dinner at Tromba Rija, where we enjoyed some delectable treats and some fine wines. The standout red was a 2004 Callabriga Tinto from Sogrape. We also had bottles left over from a previous visit and so we proceeded to finish off bottles of 1952 Barros Colheita, and three 1937 Colheitas: Barros, Burmester and Kopke. None were corked and this was the perfect ending to a wonderful dinner. After these scrumptious dessert wines, we went back to the hotel and had a well deserved sleep.


After breakfast the following morning, I could tell the group was anticipating the trip from Porto up to the Douro. Actually, so was I. Our bags were loaded and the drive seemed very quick and a couple of short hours later, with remarkable views that kept our heads turning right up until our arrival in Peso da Régua, we were all raring to go.

We walked through the town and after getting a feel for this old and rustic village type of atmosphere, we made our way to the Museu do Douro" at the IVDP’s Solar da Régua. It was a museum that had distinctive and disparate displays of some of the most obscure and colorful Port bottles imaginable. We checked out the other areas of the museum replete with historic photographs and paintings, all related to the Port wine trade and ancient artifacts used in the Douro at local quintas (as seen below).

After the museum, we ducked in to the DOURO IN

This was part of the plan of course, and as it was now lunch time, we met with José Serpa Pimentel, the owner of this trendy eatery. Douro In is one of the region’s best kept secrets, a dining Mecca with an innovative menu that delivers upscale, authentic Duriense cuisine with a flair but without any hint of pretentiousness. They also have a phenomenal wine list with top notch offerings including some of the really hard to obtain Douro gems and Pimentel (not coincidentally) happens to be part of the family which owns nearby Quinta da Pacheca.

On this particular afternoon, José was able to break free and join us for lunch. An astute young man, well versed in the ways of the restaurant biz, but equally comfortable in his role working at his family’s winery, we were immediately served a delectable assortment of treats from the kitchen to whet our appetite. Although it might sound mundane, the tuna paté was a standout and the bread … to die for.

Along with our lunch, our table was graced by the wines from his family’s quinta. I have watched the vast improvement in Quinta da Pacheca’s table wines over the past few years and although underwhelmed early on, the quality has taken an exponential leap forward. In addition to José’s winemaking sister, Maria Serpa Pimentel, Pacheca has hired a consulting enologist to help the family perfect their enological techniques and viticultural practices. The progress is worthy of praise.

2007 Quinta da Pacheca Branco Douro White – A suave cuvée of Sercial, Malvasia Fina, and Gouveia. At 13% alcohol, this is a truly food friendly DOC white. Given that there are 65,000 bottles of this produced, I was stunned (after drinking it) to learn that the price was set at … are you ready for this … € 3.50. I love when that happens. Luscious lemon peel and pear flavors meld beautifully and the acidity creates the symmetry between the bold fruit and my scallop appetizer. The citrus essence and creamy texture carry the torch and the 2007 growing season deserves some credit too. 91+ points  10/1/08

2005 Quinta da Pacheca Reserva “Vinhas Velhas” Douro Red – This old vine reserve red is a blend of Touriga Nacional and Franca with some Tinta Roriz tossed in for good measure and a bit of complexity too. 25,000 bottles produced and this is far more expensive than the white wine above costing a whopping € 9.50 per bottle. Perfumed blackberries and dark cherry flavors, in a medium weight frame with plenty of acidity and modest tannins. This 2005 delivers a reasonably priced, easy to enjoy, somewhat simple but very tasty wine that will pair well with most hearty dishes. Drink now to 2013. It offers excellent QPR. 88 points 10/1/08

2006 Quinta da Pacheca Touriga Nacional Douro Red – That’s what I’m talkin’ about! This is the single best DOC wine I’ve ever had from Pacheca (not including our 2009 visit). Aged 14 months in French oak, this is a world-class red wine and a mono-cépage at that. Enticing aromas of smoky dark cherry, tar, a hint of cedar and spice box. Medium-full bodied, with a multifaceted mid-palate, this opened up and featured red currant and raspberry flavors with a kiss of oak, neatly integrated along with supple acidity and round, subdued tannins. Seamless, concentrated and complex, the finish is drying and long with a cassis aftertaste. 5,000 bottles produced and it sells for € 35 and is very enjoyable today but I’d cellar this and drink it over the next dozen years. 92+ points 10/1/08

2005 Quinta da Pacheca Vinha Do Mourão Douro Red – A blend of Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional, from a 1.5 hectare parcel containing vines averaging 48 years of age. 2.500 bottles produced (did not catch the selling price) from 100% foot trodden grapes. Possessing serious old world charm, the nose is earthy and elicits immediate recognition of Douro, with raspberry fruit, creosote and tobacco aromas. Smoky plum and boysenberry flavors are complex, concentrated and delicious. This has serious weight, yet has a lighter presence in the mouth due to the soft texture and gentle tannins. The oak is present but does not overwhelm and will integrate further as it is already a subtle seasoning. I really liked the finish which showed great depth and length. Drink now or through 2018. 91+ points  10/1/08

Along with the fantastic dessert served, Jose treated us to a cask sample of the latest Vintage Port.

2007 Quinta da Pacheca Vintage Port – Cask Sample. Violet color with full opacity. José mentioned that this was not the final blend. Fresh fragrant scents of violets, sage and rose buds with blueberry and raspberry fruit overtones. The strong suit here is the bold and bodacious primary plum and boysenberry flavors which are sweet (almost syrupy without going there) and explosive in the mouth. Wow! Light bodied and somewhat simple at this stage (to be expected THIS early on) and the finish was a bit on the short side. Let’s wait and see how this play out. 88-90+ points 10/1/08

We thanked José for an outstanding lunch and I told him that it was really nice to see the great strides the Pacheca wines had made. I can only imagine how good they will be in another year or two! Our afternoon appointment at Quinta do Crasto awaited and we bid farewell to José and the Douro In. The vinous travelogue continues next month in Part III, with our visit to Crasto & the Roquette family.