On Thursaday night, I attended the Decanter Man of the Year dinner held in honour of this year’s recipient, Paul Symington.
Right from the outset, when Paul was rung with the news of the award in December, he maintained that this is a family award. Paul heads up the family business: they are the leading shipper of Port, including brands such as Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, and most recently Cockburn’s.
His initial reaction, he says, was ‘I think they’ve made the most appalling mistake.’ But aside from these humble misgivings, he was delighted that this is the first time the award has been given to Portugal, and the Douro.
‘To grow up in the Douro as a child is a great privilege,’ he says. ‘The smell of the Douro soil after it has just rained is something very special.’
Among the guests were many members of the Symington family, including Paul’s 87 year-old father. Paul paid tribute to his father’s vision. ‘In the late 1940s, Britain was on its knees and things were difficult in Portugal. Many British families decided to leave.’ But Paul says that his father and his colleaugues who stayed, ‘believed in the future of the Douro and of Port. Our generation owes our luck to their foresight.’ Paul also pointed out that his father was a hands-on person. The end of one of his fingers is missing, taken off by a crusher in 1970, and probably in a bottle of 1970 Vintage Port somewhere.
Today, the Symingtons have 2300 acres of vineyard, 355 employees and 173 rural workers. Paul describes this responsibility as terrifying. But he is doing a pretty good job.
The dinner was held at The Square, one of London’s top restaurants. The food was up to its usual high standards. The wines? We started with the fresh, aromatic Altano white 2010, and then stepped up a gear with the 2004 Chryseia, served in lovely Zalto Burgundy glasses. This was spicy, minerally and a bit tarry, with a savoury dimension that this wine lacks in its sweetly fruited youth.
Then it was Port time. First up, the 1952 Diamond Jubilee Colheita. Thrilling in its complexity with notes of raisins, cedar, spice and herbs. Good acidity.
The next Port was a bit younger: the 1998 Senhora da Ribeira. Deep coloured, fruit driven and slightly minty with lovely black fruits and some earthy, spicy savouriness.
But the highlight? 1945 Graham’s. A truly majestic wine. 17 bottles were opened for us, so we made a big dent on remaining stocks. Of these, two were out of condition. The remainder? They differed slightly. I drunk from three bottles, of which one was super-elegant and pure, and the other two a little more dense and robust.
The 1945 is a superb port, showing elegance and focus. Until 1970, many vintage Ports were bottled in the UK. Since then, all vintage ports have been bottled in Portugal. The 1945 and 47 vintages were exceptions: these were all bottled in Portugal. I drank quite a lot of it, falling asleep on the tube home. Fortunately, a kind girl awoke me just before my stop. A memorable evening.