Meeting Paul Symington at Cockburn`s: insights into the future of Douro wines
James Mayor, of Grape Discoveries, talks to Douro legend Paul Symington.
The bright light of a February day in Portugal pours through tall windows into the John Smithes Room at Cockburn`s, in Vila Nova de Gaia, opposite the city of Porto. Smithes was a great twentieth century figure of the Port world, responsible for pioneering work on Douro grape varieties. His photo hangs on the wall, alongside a giant bottle of Cockburn`s Port.
I am here today to meet another distinguished figure of the Port community. Paul Symington enters the room at an energetic pace. I am surprised to see that his arm is in a sling. Symington explains he has had an off-piste skiing accident, and I thank him for not cancelling the interview.
We meet a few weeks after Paul Symington stepped down from his sixteen-year stint as Chairman of Symington Family Estates, the owners of Cockburn`s and several other top Port brands. During this time, Symington became one of the most respected figures in the international wine community, playing a shaping role in the emergence of the Douro`s world class table wines, and equally the renaissance of Port. A crowning moment came in 2012, when Symington was nominated Decanter Man of the Year, the only person from Portugal ever to have been granted this accolade. With characteristic generosity he shared this distinction with the other members of the family team which runs Symington Family Estates: “I had worked with my brother and cousins and it would have been strange for one individual to take all the credit.”
Despite his eminence in the wine world, Symington is refreshingly informal and approachable, blending his wide knowledge of wine with humour. I always look forward to our conversations during which he communicates his passion for the Douro wine region.
We discuss the importance of families in winemaking, driven by a notion of caretaking and the transmission of a wine estate from one generation to the next. Paul Symington belongs to the fourth generation of the Symington family responsible for their business, and several members of the fifth generation already occupy key positions. With a twinkle in his eye he comments, “the sixth generation is running about in the vineyards.”
Symington is proud that, during his tenure of the family business, he has been able to strengthen family unity and reinforce the family`s wish to continue working together in the long-term. He speaks of their love for the Douro, reminding me that each member of the family owns their private vineyard. Passion for the terroir is a defining characteristic of this major wine company, the owner of renowned Port brands such as Graham`s and Dow`s.
In addition to their portfolio of Port houses, Symington Family Estates were one of the first large Portuguese wine producers to make the exceptional Douro DOC table wines which, since the beginning of this century, have been taking international markets by storm. Symington recalls that until the 1990s few people in the region had considered making fine reds or whites. He considers that these wines are currently still under-valued and looks forward to the day when they will command the same prices in the international market as great Bordeaux wines or Chiantis.
The Symingtons are members of Primum Familiae Vini, an association of leading wine producing families which shares best practices. It was on Paul Symington`s watch that a partnership was formed with the Bordeaux family Prats, to make Chryseia, a lighter, more elegant style of Douro wine. Symington has equally been an influential member, alongside Dirk Niepoort, of The New Douro, an association formed to promote the best Douro table wines.
The opening decades of our century have also seen the dramatic recovery of Port, in a market where most fortified wines have been at best struggling, and generally on the decline. Paul Symington has played a central role in the shift from volume to premium Ports, and in attracting younger consumers through drinks such as white Port and tonic. Symington is characteristically modest about this achievement and comments, “this is due to the extraordinary skill of my cousin Charles, a really brilliant winemaker.”
The Symingtons have recently opened two Port visitor centres. One of these is at Cockburn`s, where my conversation with Paul Symington is taking place, and the other at Graham`s. The centre at Graham`s also has an excellent restaurant, Vinum, where we will have lunch later, with a mouth-watering view across the River Douro to Porto.
One of the principal attractions at Cockburn`s (a delicious vintage ad in the restrooms explains that the name should be pronounced `Coeburn`s`…) is the cooperage. Today this is the only remaining working cooperage in Vila Nova de Gaia. Symington recalls the sound of the coopers` mallet blows resonating throughout the town when he was a boy. He insists that the cooperage is not an anachronism, explaining that maintaining the barrels in best condition is key to the quality of the Port and influences the wine`s character. Once again, expertise is transmitted here down the generations within families: a lad currently working his apprenticeship is the third generation of his family to use the ancient tools.
Paul Symington reflects on the prospects for Portuguese wines over the next few years. Symingtons are sponsoring six students to attend the first-rate oenology university course at UTAD in Vila Real, in the Douro. He believes that a new, professionally trained generation of Portuguese winemakers will soon take Portuguese wines to the very highest international level, pointing to Portugal`s unique grape varieties and rich terroir.
Not only the economy, but equally the sociology of the Douro are changing. Portugal`s interior is gradually becoming depopulated, and the Douro is no exception. Younger workers are leaving the land and seeking better paid employment in coastal cities. The Douro is an arid region where viticulture is extremely physically demanding and there is often little financial incentive to farm. The old-fashioned smallholdings will gradually disappear, to give way to larger, better equipped farms, operated by more professional winemakers. The Douro is also the last major wine region in the world where the grapes are hand-picked. Tourism, and in particular wine tourism, is increasingly a mainstay of the local economy.
Our conversation turns inevitably to climate change, and to the actions wine producers are taking to mitigate its effects. In 2014, Symingtons planted a research vineyard at Quinta do Ataide, to analyse the reaction to varying climatic conditions of over fifty local grape varieties. The aim is to be able to plan for the future and determine which varieties should be planted in the Douro.
Symington talks about increasingly erratic weather patterns, with hotter summers, earlier grape harvests and unexpected freak storms. On 28 May 2018, one of these storms destroyed 40% of his private vineyard, in just over an hour. I remember this violent storm well, as I was in Pinhão with a party of visitors that day…
Over lunch Symington discusses his latest combat to try and convince the authorities to modernize an antiquated regulatory system that takes no account of the emergence of Douro table wines. With his customary passion, Paul Symington continues to contribute to the Douro wine region`s sustainability.
Watch Paul Symington Interview with James Mayor in Video
This Guest Post was written by James Mayor of Grape Dicoveries exclusively for Social Vignerons.
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