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Blog: Anne Krebiehl on Symington Family Estates

Published:  25 October, 2011

Anne Krebiehl tastes Symington Family Estates' Single Quinta Ports

Just like single-vineyard Champagnes are the antithesis to the blended house styles of the grandes marques, Single Quinta Ports are the antithesis to blended Vintage Ports, showing quite markedly the character of just one property. Single Quinta Ports are made in non-declared years, and are thus different from the extremely full and sumptuous Vintage Ports, nevertheless, they are treated in the same way: bottled after two to three years in barrel to mature in bottle. 

On Thursday, October 20, Paul and Johnny Symington in the classical surroundings of Chandos House in London presented recent and older vintages of the famous Single Quintas in their portfolio: Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta do Tua; Cockburn's Quinta dos Canais; Dow's Quinta do Bomfim, and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira; Warre's Quinta da Cavadinha and the wonderful Quinta do Vesuvio. 

The 2006 vintage (wet but hot) of all these Quintas already showed their individual traits:  the luscious, richly sweet fruit of Malvedos described by Paul Symington as "sweet opulence", the grippier, less obviously charming but really lifted Bomfim, always with a hint of menthol, and the ethereal, intensely aromatic Cavadinha with a texture of starched velvet and alluring notes of bay leaf, smoke and pepper. The Vesuvio shone with deep fruit, a liquorice edge and an incredibly supple, defined body that seemed slender and elegant despite its power.

Paul gave a spirited introduction to the region in general, emphasising the extremes of weather in the inland region of the upper Douro, the mountainous terrain, the scarcity of water, the resilience of the grape varieties which over centuries adapted themselves to this uniquely harsh environment where neither olives nor almonds will yield a commercial crop and only the vine can survive. While winters are cold and summers hot, the "dramatic differences" in rainfall, so Paul Symington said, interspersed with periods of drought, "explain vintage variation". All these aspects are brought into additional focus by the naturally extremely low yields: an average of a mere 33hl/ha (compare that to the usual 50 hl/ha of decent Burgundy and 100hl/ha for Champagne).

Paul stressed that the differences between the Single Quintas, the wine estates, are even more striking, producing comparative charts detailing average temperature data, rainfall, soil pH, organic matter, varietal composition of the individual estates. Noting a 67% reduction in rainfall within a 124km distance he asked: "How could that not have a dramatic impact on the wines?"

The wines attested to his speech and the older vintages were a marvel: a thoughtful reminder that we are apt to miss a lot by just concentrating on the 'finest' vintages or the highest scores. These wines showed immense complexity and true beauty - they spoke of soil and season and convinced with authenticity. Here are some favourites:

Warre's Quinta da Cavadinha 1979 (a wet winter and a hot, dry summer without rain)
Bright, medium mahogany colour and a nose of hayflowers, conifer and truffle. On the palate a caramelised richness with lifted notes of pine resin and still a core of ripe fruit with just the slightest oxidative edge of roasted nuts. Alluring.

Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos 1965 (a very hot year)
Medium mahogany colour, lovely minty lift, and a nutty, truffly character on the palate with an almost floral edge of rose. Wonderfully complex notes of development and intense length, enhanced by the mellow sweetness.

Dow's Quinta do Bomfim 1965
Dark mahogany colour, still rich, still fruity, still incredibly fresh with hints of menthol. On the palate a melange of caramel, undergrowth and an earthy, power: precise and linear at first, and really expansive much later on.

Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos 1958
Pale mahogany, menthol-scented with darker hints of charcoal and dried bay leaf. A charming sweetness on the palate, mineral and almost elusive. What remains is a lovely hint of earth, coal, smoke, recurrant and caramel.

Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos 1950 (after tasting a mere three bottles are left)
Medium mahogany colour. Notes of truffle, chanterelle and sweetly floral hints. This very intense wine seemed fresher than the 1958 vintage and still had its lovely, rich Malvedos fruit. This was like an elixir.

Speaking after the tasting Paul Symington said "these are wines which really talk about the soil. Port has always been a blended wine; the great vintage Ports are from different properties. Increasingly people want to know about terroir so this tasting is all about terroir. The Douro has so much to offer because we have the most diverse region, high vineyards, low vineyards, south, north; what we are showing today is incredible diversity."

The room was also treated to three just fortified barrel samples of the 2011 vintage which according to Paul had an "unbelievable summer".  He said "1994 was like this and 2011 may be better". Beyond the obvious barrel notes, Bomfim 2011 came across as meaty and savoury-sweet with hints of bacon and smoke. Malvedos 2011 was incredibly raw and difficult to approach while Cavadinha 2011 was already true to its elegant, scented character.