Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Meeting Rupert Symington from the Symington Family - One of the Oldest Families of Port Producers

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Rupert Symington

I am not a regular Port drinker, but when I heard that Rupert Symington was in town, I got very excited and had to meet him. Symington Family Estates is the leading producer of premium quality Ports, with the combined sales of the family’s Port companies making up over a third of all premium Port sold throughout the world. In addition, the group also produces Madeira and non-fortified Duoro wines.

Wine Producer Portugal

Portugal is a wine producer with a long history that is mainly known for its Port wines and the Mateus label. With 250.000 hectares of vineyard area, it is the 7th largest wine producer in the world, compared with the US with 400.000 hectares. Portugal possesses a large array of native varietals, many of them completely unknown in the rest of the world.

Picture: Wine map of Portugal, provided by www.cellartours.com

Vinho Verde, in the northwestern corner of the country, is the only region of Portugal where white wine dominates. Douro is the region where port wine is produced, but increasingly also red table wine. Continuing south of the Duoro into north-central Portugal is the Dao region, known for big, full bodied reds.
In the terms of classification, wines from the top regions are labeled D.O.C. (Denominação de Origem Controlada). Below that are the categories of Indicação de Proveniência Regulamentada (IPR, Indication of Regulated Provenance), regional wine - Vinho Regional Carries and table wines - Vinho de Mesa.

Port, Sherry and Madeira

Port, Sherry and Madeira are fortified wines produced in Portugal and Spain. Sherry, produced in southern Spain, can either be sweet or dry, unlike Port. Port wine is made sweet by adding alcohol to the fermenting must so the fermentation stops and the sugar of the grapes remains in the wine. What you get is a wine with lots of alcohol and remaining sweetness in the wine. Sherry, on the other hand, is made by letting the fermentation go its full way so that a dry wine emerges. Then, alcohol is added to boost the alcohol level. If the winemaker stops there, you get a dry Sherry. If he also adds sterilized juice, you get a sweet Sherry. Thus, Sherry can be sweet or dry, while Port is always sweet. Madeira is a fortified Portuguese wine made in the Madeira Islands. Madeira is noted for its unique winemaking process which involves heating the wine up to temperatures as high as 60 °C (140 °F) for an extended period of time. Furthermore, Madeira is deliberately exposed to air, causing it to oxidize.


Port is produced exclusively in the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. It is a sweet, red wine with an alcohol level of typically 20%. More than eighty different varieties of red and white grapes are permitted although in practice only seven are used on a regular basis. Port’s wine style was 'invented' by the British wine merchants for the British market in the 1600-1700s. They added brandy to the still wine to help preserve it on its trip by sea from Portugal to the British market. Typically, grapes are picked with about 13.5% - 14% potential alcohol and then fermented to about 7%, when brandy is added. This brings the fermentation to a halt, while retaining between 80 to 110 g/l of natural sugar in the wine.

Port is divided into two main styles: wood matured and bottle matured Ports.

(1)Bottle matured Ports spend a relatively short time in the barrel and mature in the bottle for many years. These are the wines that have made Port one of the greatest wines of the world. Wines that have matured in sealed glass bottles, with no exposure to air, have experienced what is known as "reductive" aging. This process leads to the wine losing its color very slowly and produces a wine which is smoother on the palate and less tannic.

Vintage port is bottle matured and made entirely from the grapes of a declared vintage year. While it is by far the most renowned type of port, vintage port actually makes up only a small percentage of production. Vintage ports are aged in barrels for a maximum of two and a half years before bottling, and generally require another 10 to 30 years of aging. Because they are aged in barrels for only a short time, they retain their dark ruby color and fresh fruit flavors.

(2) Barrel matured Ports Wines experience what is known as "oxidative" aging, as the barrels allow some exposure to oxygen. Wood matured Ports are bottled when ready for drinking and are not intended for further ageing. Aged Tawnies (10, 20, 30 and 40 years old) are a blend of Ports aged in cask, using the Solera process, exposing them to gradual oxidation and evaporation. During this time they lose their deep, youthful ruby color and become pale and eventually “tawny".

Pictures: Rupert Symington in Washington DC

The continued English involvement in the port trade can be seen in the names of many “port shippers” as port producers are often called: Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Gould, Graham, Osborne, Offley, Sandeman, Taylor and Warre being amongst the best known. Shippers of Dutch and German origin are also prominent, such as Niepoort and Burmester.

Douro DOC

While the Douro region is associated primarily with Port wine production, it produces just as much table wine as it does fortified wine. While table wine has always been produced in the region, for a long time little of it was seen outside the region itself. A few Douro wines made their appearance on the international market from the 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s when a large number of wines made their appearance.

Symington Family Estates

Symington Family Estates is the leading producer of premium Ports, with the combined sales of the family’s Port companies making up over a third of all premium Port sold throughout the world. They also produce Madeira and non-fortified wines. The group is easily Douro’s largest landowners with no less than 25 quintas (estates) totaling 1,769 hectares, of which 940 are under vine.

The company was founded by Andrew James Symington who arrived in Oporto from Scotland in 1882, and initially joined Graham's. By 1905, Andrew James Symington was a partner of Warre & Co and in 1912 he became a partner in Dow's Port. In 1970, the Symington family bought both Graham's and Smith Woodhouse. In 1989, the Symington family became a partner of the Madeira Wine Company. From 1999, dry Douro wines were added to the Symington range. Today no less than seven Symingtons (six from the 13th generation in the Port trade) work in the business.

The wineries and brands owned by Symington Family Estates are the following.


* Graham's (established in 1820)
* Warre's
* Dow's
* Smith Woodhouse
* Quinta do Vesuvio
* Gould Campbell
* Quarles Harris
* Martinez

Douro Wine

* Chryseia
* Altano
* Quinta de Roriz

Madeira wine - through the Madeira Wine Company.

* Blandy's
* Cossart Gordon
* Leacock's
* Miles

Rupert Symington

Rupert Symington, who I had the pleasure to meet, is joint CEO of the family businesses along with his cousins Paul and Johnny, and is specifically responsible for sales for the U.S. and Canada, as well as other smaller markets. Rupert was born and grew up in Portugal before going to university in Oxford, UK. Following a five year stint in the financial sector in London and upon completing the M.B.A. program at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, he joined the family business in 1992. As per tradition in the Symington family, he worked alongside his father, James, for five years prior to James’ retirement.

We had an animated conversation about his wines but also about the question whether Portugal would need an EU/IMF bail-out. He is great fun to talk to.

What Rupert Symington Poured

Picture: The Wines Rupert Poured

DOW’s VALE DO BOMFIM 2008 $ 9.99
Graham’s Six Grapes $ 19.99
DOW’s LBN 2004 $ 16.99
Graham’s Ten Year Old $ 29.99

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