Portugal’s refined & luxurious Symington’s Port, Douro Valley is a perfect destination to mix a touch of style, culture and beautiful scenery.
Autumn in the British Isles is often the finest time of year for many of us, with the evenings fast drawing in and the changing colour of the leaves. It is also hectic. Work is back in full swing, children are in school and at university. Others have been creating in their workshops or labouring elsewhere, yet more holding the fort at work whilst others rested, some slavishly preparing for the autumn conference season which rejuvenates itself around the globe for another cycle of presentations and knowledge exchange. There’s a good deal for everyone to cram in before Christmas dusts off its jingle bells and the office decorations get a polish! However, during this rush perhaps thoughts of a few days’ respite have not eluded you, away with a close friend or perhaps with a small group. There are the Christmas markets of course but these are two or three months from now and you may have a few days’ holiday that should be taken before then.
Lisbon is just a short flight from me in Hampshire. But I was in ‘exploratory mode’ recently so headed to the lesser-known city of Porto, north of Lisbon but with its own international airport; connections were not difficult and I arrived there with a full day in Porto ahead of me. Similar to its coastal sister, Lisbon, Porto too defends the mouth of a river – the River Douro – but it snuggles on hilly shores and has immediate appeal with its colourful townhouses, stockpiled warehouses and busy streets and local restaurants. It is the river that has given the city much of its life-blood over the past few centuries, a city that has become world famous for its liquid commodity, Port, as its name suggests, as the ruby liquid was formerly transported by boat from the vineyards to the east. The city is a bustle on the water that divides the two towns of Gaia (Vila Gaia de Nova) to the south and Porto to the north and it is from this conjunction that ‘Portugal’ derives its name. The outskirts of the city we see today are a centre for manufacturing and industry, increasingly connected with textiles and shoes, but historically and currently it is heavily influenced by the production of Port which has been plied twixt this city and British ports since before the early 1800s.
You may have poured an occasional gin and tonic over the summer months but I have recently been introduced to an aperitif that was a surprising treat and I am keen to spread the word – crisp white port (I prefer Graham’s Extra Dry White Port) topped with tonic water, ice and a generous wedge of lemon. Port-Tonic – cool, clean and refreshing – is definitely an aperitif for sharing and I feel sure it is something we should all be looking out for in bars this autumn.
Looking inland on a hillside overlooking the harbour of Gaia sit the laden warehouses for Graham’s Port, restored and now open to visitors but do note that booking is encouraged; they pride themselves on service and prefer to ensure you are not kept waiting. All the guides are local and excellent linguists with a wealth of knowledge about port production and their environs and, having taken you around the old buildings, you will of course have the opportunity of sampling! The icing on the cake is their new restaurant ‘Vinum’ which adjoins the buildings on a terrace overlooking Gaia’s harbour. Opened in 2015, this fine restaurant was a taste and visual treat of local Portuguese dishes which were accompanied by their Altano DOC, the dry white and rich red, both of which immediately make me re-examine my preconceptions of Portuguese wines that I may have tried years ago.
Symington Family Estates based in Porto is owned and run by descendants of the first Symington to arrive in 1882 and it owns such prestigious names as Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and more recently Cockburn’s – with each of these families the Symington’s have shared a common history in Port production and they are passionate about the heritage they will be handing on.
Andrew James Symington left Glasgow in 1882 to work for W & J Graham’s in Porto which had already established a fine reputation for its port and after 125 years in the region Paul Symington is at the helm with Charles Symington as head winemaker for the Family Estates which are still privately owned and run by the family. They run a tight ship, requiring incoming family members to have experienced a period of working life outside its own sphere; everyone is also required to lend a hand from grape-picking to operating a forklift truck from time to time. Paul Symington is very welcoming and dedicated, he expects an egalitarian approach from all staff and he is also keen on advancing new technologies when needed; quite how he’ll manage retirement when it approaches, I’m not sure!
The coopers workshop, a hive of activity maintaining the Estates oak barrels, is now based at the warehouses of the Cockburn’s lodge and evidence of the Scottish roots of the original workers was evidenced by a wall plaque from the Guild of Coopers of Glasgow from those times.
There are other historic links to Britain, the core market place for port sales since production began, demonstrated in the display of templates showing British place names:
With us was Joao Vasconcelos who has worked for Graham’s and Symington Family Estates for the past 10 years. He is a mine of information, so be prepared – there really is so much more to the history of port production than one ever imagines! As is the way, the more we delved, the more fascinating the story of this region and more complex the production of port appeared.
Journeying further inland, due east of Porto, our train journey kept close tabs on the Douro River and in just three hours we pulled into the sleepy heat of the late afternoon sun and stepped out onto a near deserted platform at Tua on the banks of the river. We were to be guests at the nearby Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos, a much-loved farmhouse and winery belonging to the Symington family, which was suitably bathed in early evening sunshine.
One of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, it is not hard to see how the Douro Valley has earned this protected status – immaculate vineyards stretch the length and breadth of the valley, dotted with Quintas and stone shelters. It does, however, have its skeletons. Following serious floods over past decades five towering dams now make staging posts along the river’s path and a sixth is 2 years from completion after 8 years in the making. Although these structures have received mixed reactions from locals they contribute significantly to Portugal’s impressive hydroelectricity output and their physical presence does not appear to dominate the landscape.
But my trip was not holiday – there was another full day ahead so down past the ancient gates we descended the dusty slope to the winery below where workers were in the midst of pressing the first of the day’s grapes.
Attended by the local workforce, the bunches of grapes are tipped into a machine which strips the berries that pass into the spotless stainless steel tanks which are then slowly mechanically pressed over 4-5 hours, the same amount of time learnt from countless years of treading grapes by foot. That traditional process still takes place, of course; it has diminished but it is certainly not something the family is likely to relinquish. Immediately after, brandy is added and thereby port is made. Sounds easy? This, I assure you, is just the beginning. The port is transported to the family’s cavernous warehouses in Porto where it is stored in oak barrels; Porto’s Atlantic climate allows for more constant, cooler temperatures than up in the Douro hills which are protected from the temperate maritime climate by two ranges of mountains – the Serra do Marao and Serra de Montemuro. Although many other specialist winemakers are involved it is Charles Symington who is currently Head Winemaker – decision on whether the different ports are destined to become a young ruby or laid down as a tawny or vintage before bottling are not easy and calls upon a wealth of expertise.
Much of this gives tawny and vintage port a romantic image, preciously guarding the golden liquid until the moment when it can be released to the market … one of the secrets of port is ‘age’. The younger ruby port, soft with berry fullness, is not one to forget though and also appears to offer its own characteristics. Chilled tawny is a treat too … but this Christmas I shall be kicking off the celebrations with a Port-Tonic! All the port produced at the Estates Quinta do Bomfim is available to try at the newly-opened visitor centre (online booking required); strolls around its vineyards offer the chance to view the ‘nursery’ in which different varieties of vine are nurtured. Pre-ordered picnic baskets of delicious Portuguese food are available and can be eaten on the terrace amongst the vines offering beautiful views down to the river.
As for the Douro Valley itself, this surprising tranquil valley appears untapped, though boats do ply its waters, with charming hotels and bed & breakfasts dotted along its banks. Whether some of the Symington Quintas open their doors as guest accommodation, only time will tell, but if Quinta dos Malvedos does so one day this is what you might see from your window …
This visit provided me with a fascinating insight into the subtleties of making port and learning more about the Symington dynasty that is so passionate about its Portuguese history and British heritage. This is not the last time I hope to explore the region of the Douro Valley – it has formed a lasting impression on me and I will endeavour to unravel some more of its secrets again soon.