Visiting the Symingtons
Ports, table wines and impressive Quintas from one of the Douro Valley's leading players

Paul Symington

There’s something a little boyish about Paul Symington. And I mean that in a good way. I spent three days with him and a few other journos as he took us on a tour of the Symington family properties.

He’s enthusiastic throughout, keen to show us what he’s been up to. And as well as working hard, you get the impression he likes to have fun. He’s recently brought a powerful off-road motorbike, and has taken to driving around the steeply sloped Douro hillsides with some buddies, including the local Catholic priest. It sounds like a blast.  


Our three days included vineyard tours, treading grapes, messing around in boats on the Douro, lots of eating, watching winemaking in progress, jumping in lagares and even a couple of chances to swim in the river. It was tremendous fun, as well as being a chance to learn lots.  

The Symington family is one of the two big Anglo-Portuguese players in the Douro, the other being the Taylor-Fladgate partnership (who I visited in September 2009—you can read the report here). Representing the bulk of the British Port trade, these two family-owned companies have been very important in the history of Port wine in the Douro.  

In the past there were a lot more British-owned Port houses, but one by one these have had to sell up. They have mostly been acquired by either the Symingtons or Taylor-Fladgate. The best known Port houses include Dow’s, Graham’s and Warre’s with the Symingtons, and Taylor’s, Croft and Fonseca with Taylor-Fladgate.  

Significantly, the Symingtons have recently taken the major step of acquiring Cockburns. In 2006 they bought the vineyards and wine stocks, but continued to sell the grapes to brand owners Beam Global. Then, in 2010, they purchased the brand as well.  


‘As a family, we have to make sure we have a viable business,’ says Paul Symington. ‘In my 30 years in the Port trade, several families have gone out of business. Some sold well, others didn’t. So making sure we have a viable business is important.’ He points out that just 4–5% of Port sales are through independent merchants (40 000 cases). The Port industry is around 1 million cases over all. ‘So we have to work with the supermarkets and big retailers or I would have to sack 80% of my staff,’ says Symington. ‘I want this family business to go on. We have 360 full time staff and 160 vineyard workers.’ One third of the staff are now based in the Douro, and increasingly the centre of gravity of the business has shifted to the region, away from Vila Nova de Gaia.  


‘Taylors bought Croft and Delaforce, and do Royal Oporto Port. Adrian [Bridge, MD of Taylor-Fladgate] worked out that you have to have a certain size, or you disappear,’ he explains. So the Symingtons understand that to carry on doing business, they need to be big enough to work with the largest retailers, and that buying Cockburns would give them an edge. ‘In Cockburns we saw a fantastic brand that hadn’t been well treated in recent years. If we bring quality back to the fore, we have a great brand,’ says Symington. His view was that the Cockburns vineyard were in great shape, but the wineries were poor.    

Under Beam in 2009, Tesco delisted Cockburns over a price disagreement and Cockburns was out for about a year, an event which actually assisted the Symingtons in their attempt to buy the brand. Cockburns was at the time responsible for 35% of UK Port sales and 26% of the UK branded Port market, so it was a big player. ‘We reported ourselves to the OFT [Office of Fair Trading, responsible for consumer protection and competition law in the UK] when we bought Cockburns,’ says Symington. It took three months for them to authorise the purchase, which eventually happened in December 2010.  ‘It’s the biggest deal I will ever do,’ he says.

This purchase includes 150 hectares of vineyards in the Douro superior on the Vilariça river. During the 1980s, when demand for Cockburn’s Special Reserve Port grew, they planted three quintas up in this warm, dry part of the valley. A significant proportion of these plantings were Touriga Nacional, a grape that represents only 3% of Douro vineyards but 20% of the Symingtons grape intake, and 40% of plantings of the vineyards actually owned by the family.

It’s flatter here, and these vineyards are planted in rows up and down the slope. This makes organic viticulture much easier, because one of the challenges is weed control, and mechanical weed control needed for organics is near to impossible in the standard terraced Douro vineyards. This has allowed the Symingtons to be able to launch an organic table wine—a rarity in the Douro.

It’s always magical visiting the Douro, and especially so at harvest time. 100 km east of Porto, the Douro valley runs for a further 100 km up towards the Spanish border, with the climate getting drier and warmer as you travel eastwards. The Symingtons own 947 hectares of vineyards, and 1008 hectares of land. Most of this is owned by the company, but around a third is owned by family members and leased to the company.

Some thoughts about vintages. The idea of a declaration year is now less of an issue than it was. ‘The declaration came from way back,’ says Paul Symington, ‘When you had a really bad year like 1993, nothing could save you. But the valley is 100 km long, and someone can usually make something great.’

‘The only real correlation between weather and vintage is that shit weather during harvest gives you bad wine,’ says viticulturist Miles Edlmann. ‘No two terraces are the same: you can’t write a script for the perfect year.’ Symington adds, ‘The Douro is anything but homogeneous as a region.’

Charles Symington

So what about 2009, which the Taylor group declared as a vintage year, but which the Symingtons chose to pass on (known as a ‘split declaration’)? ‘2009 was a hellish difficult year,’ says Paul Symington. ‘The vines were in trouble.’ It was a very dry summer, with very little rainfall. In these hot conditions the vines are stressed and start dropping leaves. ‘They sacrifice the older leaves first,’ says Miles Edlmann. ‘Then the bunches are exposed and so you get green raisins.’ But the wines I have tasted have been surprisingly good. Perhaps this is testament to the resilience of the older vines in the Douro; despite hot, dry conditions, good wines still resulted.

So what are the differences between the various Symington Port houses, according to Paul Symington?

Dow’s: austere, like a nervous racehorse. Jumpy and edgy. A difficult wine in a dry, austere style.

Graham’s: rich and structured with layered fruit. It’s rich and sweet. Malvedos, the key Graham’s quinta (usually 40% of the blend), has mint and eucalyptus notes. There’s 20 g more residual sugar in Graham’s than in Dow’s.

Warre’s: more feminine in style. Elegant, pretty and attractive. ‘Warre’s is not about muscle and body building; it’s about feminine elegance.’


Part 1, introduction
Part 2, Warre's and Quinta da Cavadinha
Part 3, Graham's and Malvedos
Part 4, Cockburn's and Quinta dos Canais
Part 5, Dow's and Senhora de Ribeira
Part 6, Vesuvio, foot-treading and mechanical lagares
Part 7, Quinta de Roriz and the table wines
Part 8, Photographs  

Wines tasted 09/11  
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