James Mayor visits the cooperage at Cockburn’s with Paul Symington. Cooperage is the ancient craft at the heart of Port wine production.
Most Port lodges, as Port wine cellars are called, are places of peace, where Port serenely ages in row upon row of wood barrels or giant vats. Not so the cooperage at Cockburn’s, where I meet Paul Symington, the recently retired Chairman of Symington Family Estates, owners of Cockburn’s since 2010. The conversation begins with Symington shouting to make himself heard above the hammer blows being inflicted on a huge barrel by a burly cooper.
The cooperage is one of the most poetic moments of the fascinating process of Port production. Cockburn’s cooperage is spacious and high-ceilinged. Sawdust swirls in the light streaming in through its windows. Under the eye of the Master Cooper, Senhor Antonio, a man with a handshake not for the faint-hearted, a team of seven coopers work here, maintaining and repairing the barrels and vats for the Symington portfolio of prestigious Port houses. Many of these barrels and vats are over one hundred years old and need to be maintained in optimum condition, dismantled stave by stave with titanic mallet blows, repaired and then once again reassembled, to provide the best environment for ageing the wine.
Today, this is the only remaining working cooperage in Vila Nova de Gaia, the town facing the city of Porto where the Port wine lodges are located. Paul Symington recalls as a boy he would hear the sound of coopers at work all over town, but, with the exception of Cockburn’s, all the Port companies have now sub-contracted this work. Maintaining a cooperage is not an anachronism, however, and Symington explains with passion that it is at the very heart of Port winemaking. Cooperage expertise is an essential factor in the quality of the Port, providing the “envelope” within which the wine will age and develop its specific characteristics. If a Port house can control the upkeep and maintenance of its barrels, then it is closer to influencing the character of the Port these contain. Symington’s brands have one-third of the total premium Port market.
The cooper’s work is physically demanding, and highly skilled. The craftsmen here are using the same tools and skills that have been employed for centuries. An apprenticeship takes four years. Symington tells me the youngest member of the team, currently mid-way through his apprenticeship, is the third generation of his family to practice this trade. You get some idea of how much work there is to do, when you discover there are a staggering nine million litres of Port ageing at Cockburn’s. And that does not include the stocks at Graham’s, Dow’s and Warre’s.
At the entrance to the cooperage stands a Robey steam engine, manufactured in Lincoln, England in 1921. A beautiful piece of industrial design, until the end of the twentieth century it was used for making barrels, the steam shaping the wooden staves. I am reminded of the cooperage at Hennessy, in Cognac, where I once witnessed the dramatic spectacle of casks being built.
Vila Nova de Gaia is a coastal city with a maritime climate favourable to maintaining the Port at cooler temperatures in the days before modern cooling technology existed. The Cockburn’s lodge is built in granite, and this ensures that the temperature remains more or less constant throughout the year, providing a gentler ageing environment for the wine.
In July, Cockburn’s, the largest of the port wine lodges, opened its new visitor’s centre, creating probably Porto’s most exciting wine experience.
Founded just over two hundred years ago, in the same year as Waterloo – 1815 – the venerable port firm of Cockburn’s has opened a spectacular visitor’s centre in its warehouses in Vila Nova da Gaia, the Porto suburb home to the port industry’s lodges.
If you only ever get the chance to visit a single port lodge, I truly hope that this will be the one. The hour-long Cockburn’s tour not only explains most of what you need to know about the making of this prince of fortified wines, it also provides the visitor with visual drama and a glimpse of the workings of an extraordinary artisan process that includes the timeless craft of cooperage.
Cockburn’s was bought by Symington Family Estates in 2010 and has since been energetically relaunched alongside the other brands in the Symington’s port portfolio – Dow’s, Warre’s and Graham’s.
Before you begin your tour, I would suggest paying a visit to the ‘rest room’. This is not only for the usual reasons, but because here you will find a video of a deliciously hilarious 70s ad for Cockburn’s, the ‘Shipwreck’. I won’t say any more here, this ad has to be seen! Times have changed since the 70s, and today port is an aspirational drink drunk by cool wine lovers from Montreal to Berlin. Several of my more hipster friends have recently taken to drinking white port with tonic as an aperitif.
Our charming and impeccably trained guide, Inês, explained that the ports spend the first two years of their lives in the Douro Valley, before being transported for ageing to Cockburn’s warehouses in Vila Nova da Gaia, where the climate is cooler. Although we are in an environment that is essentially pre-industrial, some of these breathtakingly beautiful warehouses have the scale of a car factory. Row upon row of oak casks, sometimes piled four-high, vanish into the distance beneath ‘cathedral’ roofs. Rounding a corner, we encounter a group of huge, squat vats, the largest of which, we are informed by Inês, can contain a mind boggling 150,000 litres of wine! The wood ‘drinks’ between 1 and 2% of this wine each year, a loss which has to be topped up. As they age, the casks begin to seep and the olfactory senses of the visitor trailing his finger across this sticky, sweet leakage, are stimulated before tasting.
But I’m racing ahead … we are not yet at the wine tasting! I must tell you about one of the most poetic moments of the tour: cooperage, the ancient craft of cask making and repair. Cockburn’s are the only port firm to still maintain an in-house cooperage, which also supplies the needs of the other Symington Family Estates port brands. In a video, Paul Symington explains that cooperage expertise is a key factor in the quality of the port itself, providing the ‘envelope’ within which the wine will age and develop it specific characteristics. All the casks used by Cockburn’s are old – the oldest nearly a century – so unfortunately we no longer witness their making. Senhor Antonio, the Master Cooper, presides over his team of seven coopers, each of whom has undergone four years training. Their work is to maintain the stock of casks in optimum condition, an extremely physical task which requires much skilled hammering and levering.
This memorable visit ends, as I said, with a tasting. Among the various options proposed, we went for the Classic tasting which included an excellent dry Ruby Reserva made with grapes from Quinta dos Canais, a property in the equally dry Douro Superior.
On your way out, don’t forget to take a look at the drawings by James Forrester, the Scotsman who, in the 19th century, was made a Portuguese baron for his pioneering cartography of the Douro Valley.
In ‘Porto’ two young foreigners, Jake and Mati, cross paths for an intense one-night stand, before continuing along their separate ways. Jake, a 26-year old loner – and we are sometimes inclined to feel looser too – catches a first glimpse of Mati in the train and from then on, she’s under his skin.
Fortunately for Jake, he bumps into Mati again in the magnificently lugubrious modernist Café Cuento. Fixing him with her confident gaze, a slight smile on her lips, Mati draws Jake across the café floor towards her, like a magnet.
The film is divided into three chapters. First, we have Jake’s point of view, then Mati’s and finally a joint perspective which attempts to focus the two. Gabe Klinger’s beautiful film is somewhat short on dialogue – in fact the two lovers don’t seem to have a lot to say to each other – and even shorter on explanation. We are for instance given little background on where these two characters come from and few clues as to where they might be heading.
“Porto” is about the moment and the intensity of a fleeting encounter. This film will resonate with anyone who has briefly met and loved another person in a magical city. The two characters experience extreme passion, but the reality is that they hardly know each other.
Mati, a 32-year old academic who confides in Jake that she has had mental health problems in the past, comes with a not yet concluded relationship with her Portuguese professor, with whom she has apparently had a child. Jake comes with his dog and a love of literature. Mati is played by the French actress Lucie Lucas who brings an engaging sensuality to the role. Jake is interpreted by the regretted Anton Yelchin, whom we see here in one of his final roles.
Both actors give their best, lending an intensity and erotic tension to a scenario that is at times a little weak. The third protagonist in “Porto”, is, of course, the city itself. By turns mysterious, decadent, enigmatic or edgy, the city is enchantingly filmed. With Jake and Mati, we wander the romantically lit night-time streets and climb the stairs to a huge, empty apartment – which needless-to-say has a spectacular view over the River Douro. The next morning the dawn is truly “a bela aurora”, with the sea gulls already circling in the sky. The camera caresses a granite block, lingering on a wooden door, to capture the city’s textures. Like the city itself, “Porto” has vats of style, but no intention of revealing everything to a fleeting acquaintance.