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Quintassential for the future

Published:  23 July, 2008

A grandfather's rusty old megaphone stuffed unceremoniously into the hedge of a quinta that had to be sold in the battle for survival - a poignant reminder of the bleak postwar years when the Port trade itself almost went under. But when the Symingtons recovered the megaphone in 1998, Dow's bicentennial year, they had bought back the estate, Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira, that Dow's had been forced to sell in 1954. They had already purchased (in 1989) and renovated the huge historic estate on the opposite south bank of the Douro Superior - Quinta do Vesuvio - and in 1999, three of the younger Symington partners took on the neighbouring Quinta do Vale de Malhadas. In the five years since then (2000-04), Symington Family Estates has invested a further e36 million in major capital projects.

The scale of the Symington investment may be unrivalled, but it is not the only Port company to be committing itself. As well as cultivating ever more successfully their Fonseca and Taylor single-quinta estates such as Panascal, Terra Feita and Vargellas, The Fladgate Partnership acquired the Croft and Delaforce houses in 2001, and since then it has been investing heavily in their flagship vineyards Roda and Crte. The 2003 Croft, entirely from Quinta da Roda fruit, is eloquent testimony to the impact of the improvements there, including the restoration of traditional granite lagares after an absence of 40 years. A decade and more investment by AXA Millsimes under current head Christian Seely has restored Quinta do Noval to its former glory, while Cockburn has been developing its prime Quinta dos Canais, and Roederer supporting Ramos Pinto. Such efforts are clear proof that many of the biggest, sharpest and strongest players believe that Port has a future. But they are also the best - the only - way to make sure that it does.

None of the key figures takes anything for granted. These famous houses may have lasted hundreds of years, surviving recessions, revolutions (as recently as 1974) and wars, but whether they have a future as long as their past is a question that they themselves raise. As Paul Symington, joint managing director of the family firm, says, Port is at a crossroads. There's no way on God's earth that you can have a future selling cheap apritif wines to France; that's why half of the Port companies have changed hands in the past 10 years.'

A brief glance at the fortified-wine sales statistics over the past few years also shows that not all of the key indicators are moving the right way. By comparison with Sherry, Port has been performing well in the UK, with increases in off-trade volume and value sales year on year for 2002 to 2005. But worryingly, the average price per bottle has been falling steadily: from 7.24 in 2002, to 6.99 in 2003, and 6.83 in 2004. Deep discounting in the major multiple retailers (at Christmas, of all times) has also caused confusion among customers for premium ruby and LBV, who regard price as an indication of quality. At the top of the category, higher production costs mean that recent vintages (1994, 1997, 2000 and 2003) have had to be offered at prices not so much lower than those for fully mature wines (1966, 1970, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1985), while many markets that sustained the trade in the past are shrinking. An Oxford don recently revealed that, at the current rate of consumption, his college had enough Vintage Port to last for the next 142 years, while several large London clubs continue to sell large quantities of stock.

Production reduction

As well as with changing consumption and production realities, Port producers have to contend with perverse and restrictive regulation. The benefcio needs radical reform (even if the 1940 classification on which it is based has stood the test of time remarkably well), since the system still compromises quality for the sake of a social subsidy. The decision by the governing IVDP last year to allow a higher proportion of production from A- and B-classified vineyards was a positive step, but The Fladgate Partnership and other producers would like to be able to transfer rights from E and F vineyards higher up the scale. Making matters worse, the IVDP has substantially reduced the authorised level of production this year, to 120,000 pipes of must (roughly 9.5 million cases of Port) - 5% below the equivalent figure in 2004, and 10% below expected global sales in 2005, putting pressure on prices. (The dubious reason for the reduction seems to be that there are still large Port stocks left over from the Casa do Douro's purchase of Royal Oporto, and these are proving painfully slow to sell through: at a recent sale, only about 80 of the 3,500 casks on offer were sold, partly because the quality is very mixed, and partly because the prices were far too steep.) Most intelligent Port producers recognise that the only way to survive is, in Paul Symington's words, to produce the finest possible wine and to convince consumers'.

Greater involvement

In the drive for ever-higher quality, and to ensure stability of supply, the leading Port shippers have become far more involved in viticulture and vinification than they ever were in the past. They have also brought vine growing and winemaking much closer together. As David Guimaraens, head winemaker for The Fladgate Partnership, emphasises, Grape growing is winemaking as well. Otherwise it's just fruit farming, and that's the last thing we want to be doing!'

Advances in the vineyards - above and beyond the mechanisation and block-planting by variety made possible by the gradual shift from socalcos (old stone terraces) to patamares (earth banks) and vinha ao alto (vertically planted vines) - are slowly catching up with those in the wineries over recent years. In close collaboration with the Association for Viticultural Development in the Douro (ADVID), Miles Edlmann, the Symingtons' Roseworthy-trained viticulturalist, continues research into clonal selection, an area where the Douro had fallen behind other leading wine regions. At Quinta da Cavadinha's experimental vineyard, 16 different clones of Touriga Nacional are planted on four different rootstocks. Head winemaker Charles Symington has for some time insisted on bench-grafting rather than field-grafting, and he has been rewarded with a higher success rate as a result, while the return to cane-pruning rather than spur-pruning is proving well worth the extra work. The entire regime is supervised more conscientiously than ever before across all 15 of the Symington quintas, with an agricultural engineer overseeing a group of two or three estates, and a manager (caseiro) keeping a close eye on each property. A new generation of graduates from the University of Trs-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD) in Vila Real has brought greater enthusiasm, knowledge and professionalism to such positions of responsibility.

David Guimaraens reveals that The Fladgate Partnership is now using laser technology to build patamares with a backward-sloping gradient of 3%, to make sure that water runs backwards then round the sides, rather than over the front. They are also continuing their experiments with new training and trellising systems, such as Scott Henry and Smart-Dyson, which have been running at Quinta de Vargellas for several years, and extending environmentally friendly practices first trialled at Quinta do Panascal from the early 1990s. By avoiding herbicides, they encourage natural' weeds that die away over the long, hot summer, rather than the much more resilient weeds that develop a resistance to stronger and stronger treatments. By applying herbicides only directly under the vines, they have been able to reduce drastically the quantities they use. They also grow barley and oats between the rows, then cut them and leave them as a natural fertiliser. Such techniques are also recommended to the 72 large farmers with whom The Fladgate Partnership now works on a long-term basis, staying in regular contact throughout the year.

In the wineries, fruit sorting is becoming more common, and it is helping to improve quality, too. The Symingtons continue to install and refine their robotic lagares' - now in four quintas, with as many as six at Cavadinha - and to be pleased with the results (while pointing out that they are also producing as much foot-trodden wine, some 2,000 pipes, as they were 10 years ago). The Fladgate Partnership is equally satisfied with its Port-toes', though it has restored granite lagares at Roda and still uses them at other quintas such as Vargellas as well. It has extensively refurbished the wineries at Roda and Nogueira (acquired in 1997), so that they now have newer equipment and more space; as Guimaraens stresses, The biggest enemy of quality is peaks in throughput.' The extra space allows the fruit - better protected in small 180kg baskets than in large bins - to be processed in the order in which the winemakers want it. Adrian Bridge, managing director of The Fladgate Partnership, says that in addition to the lodge already at Nogueira, which has a capacity of 2,000 sq m and currently holds 8,500 casks, the company is building a new lodge on the same site to store its Aged Tawnies.

Marked improvements

While many of the advances in vineyards and wineries have been under way for some time, what is still underappreciated is the effect they have been having on the identity, quality and style of the wines. Guimaraens argues that anybody who can't make good Vintage Port nowadays should be shot!', claiming that the biggest challenge for most houses has been to improve the standard of the wines at the lower end of the special categories', such as premium ruby. Applying some of the modern, less oxidative techniques he used in Australia - which, he says, help to make the Douro the New World of the Old World' - he is producing white Ports and premium rubies that are fresher and fruitier than previously. Taylor's Chip Dry and Fonseca Bin 27 have never tasted better, and there is marked improvement in wines such as Croft Triple Crown and Distinction.

At the upper end, the better matching of clone and rootstock, site and variety has reinforced the identity and individuality of the house styles and strengthened the sense of terroir. As Paul Symington stresses, If ever there's a region that has terroir, it's the Douro. Every estate, every aspect, is different.' Block plantings and separate vinifications give today's winemakers far more flexibility than their predecessors had: the Symingtons have around 400 different wines after each harvest, the Fladgate Partnership some 250. With so many more blending options, it would be easier than ever before to contrive house styles so that the wines conformed to the stereotype (drier, sweeter, lighter, richer, spicier or whatever the defining trait might be). But although one or two details (the brandy, for example) may be different across the range, to highlight the defining features, the winemakers are resisting the temptation to make the wines the wrong way round; instead, they are producing them in roughly similar ways. And yet the wines are more stylistically varied than ever, as tasting through the 2003s clearly shows.

As originally, when house characteristics first emerged and were recognised, the style of the wines is being set by the vineyards. And, interestingly, the make-up of the vineyards is not as different between then and now as we might suppose. It is not generally known', explains Jim Reader, general manager and head winemaker for Cockburn's, that, certainly up to the end of the 19th century, the practice of mixing grape varieties was nothing like as prevalent as it became in the 20th century. And whereas varieties were probably not grafted rigorously in blocks, particular areas of vineyards had a very high proportion of particular varieties. With the small-scale winemaking methods of the day (exclusively in granite lagares), this meant that many base wines produced were close to being single varietals.'

Classic Vintage Ports are normally blended, of course, from several different quintas. (The analogy, therefore, in terms of terroir and the level at which it is working, is with Bordeaux rather than Burgundy.) The origin of the 2003 Symington wines is given in their notes: Quinta do Bomfim, Quinta da Cerdeira, Quinta do Santinho and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira for Dow's; Quinta dos Malvedos, Quinta das Lages, Quinta da Vilha Vela and Quinta do Vale de Malhadas for Graham's; and Quinta da Cavadinha and Quinta do Bom Retiro for Warre's. Moreover, it is often the same vineyards that have formed the backbones of the wines over many years. The Symingtons have only recently taken out a 25-year lease on Quinta das Lages, but along with Malvedos it was Lages that made up many of the great Graham's vintages of the past, such as the superb 1948, still going strong, which helped to secure Graham's lasting reputation.

A small but growing number of classic Vintage Ports, however, are produced from only one estate - not only Quinta do Noval (the exception for much of the 20th century), but also 2003 Croft (from Quinta da Roda), Cockburn's Quinta dos Canais (produced even in full vintage years from 2000 on), the Symington's Quinta de Roriz (co-owned with Joo van Zeller) and Quinta do Vesuvio. Then there are the single-quinta' wines released as such only in years when there is no full vintage wine. Here the translation of the terroir is more direct, especially when most of the wines are made with indigenous yeasts, and the wines fully reflect the A-grade classification of the vineyards.

To declare or not

Rather than making all of their wines at larger wineries such as Bomfim and Sol, the Symingtons continue to make those from single quintas at specialist wineries' on the estates themselves. Financially and logistically this makes little sense, yet the Symingtons think it is worth the greater individuality that shows through in the wines - Cavadinha, Malvedos, Roriz, Senhora da Ribeira and Vesuvio. Tasting through several vintages of these, one is struck by both the clarity of the identity and the high quality of the wines, often in years that are not declared as full vintages and seriously underestimated as result - wines such as Bomfim 1996 and 1998, Cavadinha 1996 and 1999, Malvedos 1996, Senhora da Ribeira 1998, 2001, 2002, Vargellas 1991 and 1996, and the sensational Noval Nacional 1996. When the wines are from full vintage years, they are also among the very best - Noval, Noval Nacional and Vesuvio 1994, 1997, 2000 and 2003.

Even if 2005 should prove to be a single-quinta year rather than a full vintage year for most producers (though at least some are suggesting they will declare; see box), the wines should by no means be overlooked. As with Champagne, so with Port, we should not go round and round in circles trying to establish the superiority of blends or single-vineyard wines, but rather savour their respective strengths.

In the two, three or more years between vintage declarations, single-quinta wines - along with other special categories such as Crusted Ports and Colheitas - can come more to the fore and help sustain interest in the category as a whole. Their special qualities do, however, need to be communicated - not only to consumers but also to many in the trade.

As well as hitting the road with their own products - as the Symingtons did in October, visiting several UK cities with Vintage Ports from 1963-2003 - the leading players are able to act together for the greater good, as when The Fladgate Partnership, the Symington Group and Noval rallied together for the UK launch of the 2003 vintage in London in May. And if this was all the more necessary because of a certain lack of urgency at the generic level, the arrival of Filipe Neves - a former winemaker at Ramos Pinto, and marketer with Maisons Marques & Domaines - to head up the UK office of ICEP promises even more informed involvement there.

The potential of the Douro vineyards, proven over hundreds of years, but being realised in ever more thrilling ways, and the intelligence, persistence and resilience of the leading producers who run them, are such that Port surely has a future as a fine wine. Even if there are crises along the way, and a mobile phone is discovered in a hedge at Senhora da Ribeira half a century from now, it will probably be a Symington who recovers it.