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 great Port wine brands have their ‘lodges’. 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 the Symington’s other Port wine brands, 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.