Port: why the Symingtons didn't declare in 2009

Following up from my write-up of the 2009 Vintage Port declaration, Paul Symington contacted me to explain why the Symingtons didn’t make a widespread declaration of the 2009s, which I’m reproducing below:

I see on your website that somebody has commented that we are nor declaring “for non qualitative reasons”. This is entirely untrue. I have no idea where this person got this idea from and would like to set the record straight.

We are not declaring the 09s, apart from Warre’s 2009 with 500 cases (every bottle numbered, so there will be very little available) because in 1809, 200 years before this harvest, the Oporto-born William Warre was 25 and a soldier in the army that liberated Oporto in May 1809. He was just 25 years old and after the battle he tried to hold a bridge alone with some local farmers against the entire French army of 20,000 men.

But just as important is that Quinta de Cavadinha, where the majority of the Warre 09 wine comes from (with a few selected casks from Warre’s Telhada near Vale de Meao and Warre’s Retiro in the Rio Torto), is higher than the riverside Quintas and cooler and wetter, so it made really lovely wines in 2009. The Warre 2009 is dark and rich, with a powerful structure and is perfumed and elegant. It is a great wine.

We are making a very substantial donation of £48.00 per case (12x75cl) on every cases of the Warre 2009 sold to charity (Help for Heroes in the UK and Liga dos Combatentes in Portugal), two important soldier’s charities and appropriate we feel, at a time when soldiers are again fighting some fairly desperate battles in Afghanistan and taking serious casualties.

We will also be offering en-primeur the Quinta do Vesuvio 2009 and the Dow’s Quinta de Senhora de Ribeira 2009 Vintage Ports, again in very small quantities, 600 cases (9lts) of the Vesuvio and only 300 cases of the Dow’s Senhora da Ribeira. These are truly rare wines. As you know, we bottle small quantities of these wines in every year between the major declarations, apart from the poor years.

The reason for not declaring a Graham’s or Dow’s 2009, or even a Cockburn’s 2009, now that we own this company as well, is that 2009 was a year in which we had very little rainfall throughout the Douro: 31% less than average at Pinhao and 14% less at Vesuvio. And 2008 had been very dry too, so the vines had little water deep down. August and early September 2009 were hotter than average, with night-time temperatures slightly higher than average. The vines were therefore under considerable stress in August and early to mid September. The result was very, very high sugar graduations in the grapes and in the musts and in many cases unripe tannins in the pips and stalks. In many cases graduations actually increased in the lagares after a few hours as the dehydrated grapes released the sugars that were not measurable at the crusher stage because of lack of juice. The lack of humidity meant that the vines simply could not ripen the tannins and much of the high sugar was coming from dehydration.

Graduations were actually increasing in the lagares after a crushing, as more sugars were released from the grapes. So this was a difficult year. I doubt that we will see some great DOC Douro wines from 2009.

Average rainfall in the Douro over the last 20 years: 771mm

Agricultural Year (Nov to end Oct)

2006/7: 562.0 mm

2007/8: 493.6 mm

2008/9: 528.8 mm

2009/10: 932.6 mm

So 2009 had 31.4% less than the average rainfall. And this followed two very dry years. So ground water was very short.

The temperatures in August and September 2009 were high:

2009 August average min at Pinhao: 18.2⁰C. 20 year average 17.6C

2009 Sept average min: 15.9C. 20 year average 14.8C.

In both these months the average maximum was higher than the 20 year average. We recorded the same range of temperatures and rainfall variation at our other Quintas in the Eastern end of the Douro and elsewhere.

As you know, we have vineyards situated in the all the key sub regions of the Alto Douro and the Douro Superior as well as operating 7 small specialist wineries as well as two larger ones, so our experience across the region is extensive.

We have no problem whatsoever in declaring a Vintage Port into a difficult economic climate and selling small quantities, as long as the wines are outstanding. After all the 2007 was declared in the spring of 2009. Our criterion is simply the quality of the wines, nothing else. So apart from the 500 cases of Warre 2009 and the small quantities of Vesuvio and Sra Ribeira 09, we will therefore not be making a general declaration.

4 comments to Port: why the Symingtons didn’t declare in 2009

  • Alex Lake

    Can someone summarise this, please – my brain hurts trying to make sense of it!

  • Many thanks for posting this Jamie.
    It is a very thorough and illuminating comment from Paul Symington.
    However I think it to a degree proves my point: declaration or lack thereof at the Symingtons appears to be a mixture of different factors: sheer wine quality, wine quantity, circumstances (the Warre anniversary) and certainly a bit of market calculation. That’s absolutely natural and it’s the way it’s always been.
    Yet Paul Symington’s restrained opinion about the vintage’s quality make you wonder why Dirk Niepoort can declare 2009 ‘the best vintage he ever made’, almost all of the independent Portuguese quintas including Vallado, Vale Meao, Vale Dona Maria, Pintas, Crasto declaring it’s a great vintage and intending to bottle vintage port, and even a large commercial group such as Fladgate having no problems in declaring 2009 for their various brands, even though their vineyards often neighbour those of the Symingtons.

  • Jem

    Rather than set the record straight I am just as bemused as Alex.

  • mahmoud ali

    “….that we are not declaring “for non qualitative reasons”. This is entirely untrue.’

    I think it means that they are not declaring FOR qualitative reasons. Despite being long and circuitous reasoning, Mr Symington is saying that the lack of rainfall and moisture had adversly affected the sugars and tannins and hence they had very little good quality port to declare. And isn’t that a sign of a responsible port house?

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