James Mayor talks to Douro wine producers
17 June 2020

Articles included in this series:

  • Wine production in the time of Covid-19 – interview with Joao Alvares Ribeiro
  • David Guimaraens, creator of premium Ports
  • Rita Marques, the changing face of Douro winemaking
  • Interview with Tony Smith
  • James Mayor in conversation with Paul Symington

Wine production in the time of COVID-19

During confinement due to COVID-19, I interviewed João Alvares Ribeiro, CEO of Quinta do Vallado, by Skype.

Ribeiro discussed how Quinta do Vallado is trying to maintain its normal viticultural and winemaking activities despite constraints of social distancing, while sales are down and wine tourism is closed.

Ribeiro also talked about Vallado’s membership of the Douro Boys, the winery’s contribution to the rise of Douro table wines over the last twenty years, the production of world-class whites, and the importance of organic farming for the Quinta do Vallado brand.

For the full article based on the interview, click here.

David Guimaraens, creator of premium Ports

I recently interviewed David Guimaraens, Technical Director and Head Winemaker of The Fladgate Partnership.

James Mayor interviews David Guimaraens of Fladgate Partnership

David Guimaraens, highly respected in the Port trade with three decades experience, is in charge of winemaking for a portfolio of well-known Port wine brands, including Taylor’s.

Guimaraens had fascinating insights into the complex art of making Port wine, ranging from philosophical to practical. We discussed the position of Vintage Port crowning the range of a Port house, labor shortages in the Douro Valley, the challenges posed by climate change, the economic sustainability of Douro grape farmers, and time, the magical key factor in Port production.

For the full article based on the interview, click here.

For the video of the interview, click here.

Rita Marques, the changing face of Douro winemaking

James Mayor of Grape Discoveries, interviewed Rita Marques at Conceito, in the Douro Superior.

Rita Marques of Conceito
Rita Marques is a member of the small but expanding circle of Portugal’s female wine producers and winemakers, in an industry that is traditionally male-dominated.

Rita Marques talks with humor about her profession. She has spent a considerable amount of time outside Portugal learning about wine: studies in Bordeaux, work experience in California, winemaking ventures in South Africa and New Zealand…. She believes it is important for oenologists and producers of the Douro to taste and see what is being made in other great wine regions.

Rita Marques readily expresses her indebtedness to Dirk Niepoort, with whom she worked, prior to creating her own wine label Conceito in 2006.

An innovator herself, Rita considers winemakers need to learn from their elders and, in turn, pass on that knowledge to the next generation. She reflects that the Douro wine profession has become better at sharing. “We don’t play against each other, and this makes the industry unusual.”

Conceito owns 86 hectares of vineyards, all of which are organically farmed. Rita Marques says, “as a consumer, I’d rather buy from someone who protects the environment”.

Interview with Tony Smith

In June, James Mayor of Grape Discoveries interviewed Tony Smith of Lima & Smith, an Englishman shaping Douro table wines on the international wine map.

James Mayor with Tony Smith of Lima & Smith

In 2011, reacting to shifts in the media industry, Tony Smith decided to step aside from a successful career as a foreign correspondent and editor, exchanging the dangers of covering conflicts in Bosnia or Rwanda for the risks of vineyard ownership. His career as a journalist had included a posting in Portugal, where Smith had bought a home and made friends. The next step was to realize Smith’s life-long yearning to own a business linked to his passion for wine.

Smith formed a business association with Brazilian businessman and long-time friend, Marcelo Lima. To get sufficiently up to speed on the rudiments of the profession and be able to converse with oenologists he attended an intensive wine course at the Culinary Institute of America in California, which he refers to as ‘the other CIA’.

The two associates had begun the search for a vineyard a few years earlier. Lima and Smith were looking for a property of cultural importance. Portugal was in deep trouble in the years following the 2008 financial crisis: this context offered opportunities.

Quinta de Covela was not only a beautiful property, it came with a seventeenth-century ruined manor house and chapel, was a recognized wine brand and once belonged to renowned Portuguese film director, Manoel de Oliveira. Under subsequent owners, however, the estate had gone into bankruptcy and been abandoned. In July 2011 Lima and Smith bought Quinta de Covela, after a two-year period of complete neglect.

“Two years in the life of an untreated vine is a long time, it’s touch and go whether it will survive,” recalls Smith. The partners took two strategic decisions that were to prove vital for the future. The first, to embark on extensive replanting of Covela’s vineyards. The second, an inspirational move to bring back Rui Cunha, the gifted consultant winemaker responsible in the past for many of the property’s vintages.

Smith asked Cunha if there was something he had always wished to do at Covela, but had never had the opportunity to put into practice. Cunha’s reply was decisive: a one hundred percent Avesso monovarietal. “We must plant more Avesso, this is the cradle of Avesso.” Covela has now become the standard-bearer of pure Avesso, a distinctive Portuguese grape variety which produces wines stronger in structure and alcohol. Smith believes that Portugal’s exceptionally wide palette of grape varieties is the country’s “secret weapon”. “We need to make native grapes important in our wines and communicate this strength to the world.” This strategic positioning with more characterful wines coincides with the emergence of better-informed wine consumers, willing to experiment and look further than the “Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon shelves”. Covela demonstrates Vinho Verde as a geographical appellation which embraces far more than its fizzy young wine moniker.

Quinta de Covela is in the south-eastern-most corner of the D.O.C. Vinho Verde region, perched on the north bank of the River Douro. Smith notes this area is drier than most of the rest of the Vinho Verde, and that the term ‘Douro Verde’ is beginning to gain currency. Lima and Smith decided to axe production of the estate’s red wines, “we took out the Cabs,” as Smith puts it, and give a new direction to planting to switch the balance of the portfolio to whites. In addition, the partners asked Cunha to create the gastronomic Covela Rose, made from Portugal’s emblematic Touriga Nacional grape. Through experimentation, trial and error, and despite extreme weather incidents such as devastating hail, the vineyard was gradually regenerated, with production focused on whites and roses, that were granted time to age and develop before being placed on the market.

The revival at Covela was now well underway. The grounds and orchards of this paradise-on-earth were restored to their former glory. When not traveling to promote the new wines, Tony Smith offered hospitality and tastings on the quinta’s terrace. The new wines were well received, and the company has achieved notable export successes in Germany, Brazil, the US and UK. The combination of Cunha’s winemaking talents and Smith’s marketing skills were building the business and accumulating industry awards.

Eager to go further, the two associates decided to look around for a property that would add some quality reds to their range.

Lima and Smith struck lucky a second time. One of the jewels of the Douro was up for sale. Venerable Quinta da Boavista, west of Pinhão in the Cima Corgo sub-region, has some of the best vineyards in the Douro. In the nineteenth-century, it had been rented by a remarkable Scotsman, James Forrester, created a baron by the Portuguese monarchy in gratitude for his services to the Douro.

In the same week that Lima and Smith acquired Quinta da Boavista, another opportunity presented itself: to take on the lease of Quinta das Tecedeiras, a property on the south bank of the River Douro between Pinhão and São João da Pesqueira with a mix of olive groves and old vines that would provide some beautifully structured entry to mid-range wines.

Boavista is approached by a winding road that eventually loops down through the vineyards to the estate buildings and farmhouse that cluster above the River Douro. It is a remote, incredibly beautiful place, where you long to linger and contemplate. On the day of my visit, there was not a soul in sight, the only sound birdsong.

I meet Tony Smith in the elegant living room of the farmhouse, where an engraving of Baron Forrester occupies a position of honor above the fireplace. A vigorous defender of the concept of terroir, Forrester promoted purity in winemaking while combatting the industry’s charlatans and meddlers. Smith describes his predecessor at Boavista as a Renaissance man. In addition to his wine activism, Forrester was a gifted painter and photographer, creator of the first maps of the Douro region, and owner of a luxury ‘rabelo’ yacht on which he gave fantastic parties. “Forrester was an admirable historical character who deserves his place in the Douro pantheon,” Smith enthuses, adding, “he was a man I feel I could have worked with and learned from.”

To assist in building a new range of reds at Quinta da Boavista, Lima and Smith brought in the expertise of one of the great figures of contemporary winemaking. After several decades at Chateau Petrus, in Bordeaux, there is little that Jean-Claude Berrouet does not understand about making fine red wine. Moreover, Berrouet has always firmly believed that great wine should be an expression of its terroir.

“Portugal is a blending country, the best wines are always blends,” Smith reflects. The famous ‘Oratorio’ vineyard at Boavista, a series of steep terraces arranged like an amphitheater facing the main house, is a notable example of the traditional Douro field blend concept, where any number of grape varieties mingle in a single vineyard. The vines here are one-hundred-years old and the terracing permits absolutely no mechanization: these low-yielding vineyards are still ploughed by horse.

Historically, Quinta da Boavista was reputed for its Ports. Smith considers however that the estate should focus in the immediate future on dry reds. He mentions the huge investment required for making Port wine, commenting, “with Port, you are basically condemned to be a follower of the main players”.

Our conversation turns to the current position of Portuguese wines in international markets. Smith points to the need to raise the perceived quality of Portuguese wines and shake off a persistent ‘cheap and cheerful’ image. Vinho Verde has been instrumental in opening up markets to Portuguese wines, but the marketing narrative now needs to lever Portugal’s extensive choice of indigenous grape varieties and focus on the perceived image of quality. Smith is encouraged that major Portuguese producers are beginning to segment the market and produce more value-added wines. “Quality has improved enormously and it’s now almost impossible to find a bad Portuguese wine”, he remarks. Today, Lima & Smith, with their string of properties along the Douro Valley, export 60% of their production, a high figure for a wine producer in Portugal.

Smith believes that Portugal’s current boom in tourism has made an important contribution to placing Portuguese wines on the map. “People used to wonder if Portugal was part of Spain. These days, the River Douro is Europe’s third most popular river cruise destination and people return home to their countries talking about the Douro. The Douro has become a brand.” He adds that one of the principal international locomotives for Italian wines has been the omnipresence of the pizzeria, and suggests that Portugal needs a comparable, defining food concept.

When I ask how he thinks wine consumer behavior will evolve in the next few years, Smith replies that consumers have become far more open in their choices, with women more involved in buying decisions, accompanied by a shift towards wines with lower alcohol content, lighter bottles and better-designed labels.

The rosy picture of rising quality and sales needs, however, to be weighed against at least two major challenges to the future of winemaking in the Douro. Smith is one of several producers in the region who have recently talked to me about the increasing difficulty of finding seasonal workers to pick the grape harvest, physically demanding work in temperatures that are rising. One solution is to offer people year-round work, but this comes at a financial cost in a region where the raw material price is high and yields per hectare extremely low.

The other significant challenge is, of course, the need to adapt farming everywhere to climate change. Smith & Lima have reduced the company’s carbon footprint by extending the woodland at Covela, and woodland now outnumbers the hectarage under vine. The estate has also invested in sustainable farming methods and practices solar energy production and intelligent water management. In January 2018, Quinta de Covela vineyards were certified as organic. Smith suggests that some standards or guidelines are needed here to nudge producers towards sustainable farming methods.

James Mayor in conversation with Paul Symington

James Mayor talks to Paul Symington about his time as Chairman of Symington Family Estates, the family company which has played a leading role in the renaissance of Port and the emergence of world-class Douro table wines.

James Mayor talks to Paul Symington

Most Port lodges, as Port wine cellars are called, are places of peace, where Port serenely ages in row upon row of barrels or giant vats. Not so the cooperage at Cockburn’s, where I meet Paul Symington. The conversation begins with Symington shouting to make himself heard above the hammer blows being inflicted on a huge barrel by a burly cooper.

Cockburn’s cooperage is spacious and high-ceilinged. Sawdust swirls in the light streaming in through its windows. A team of seven coopers work here, repairing the barrels for the Symington portfolio of prestigious Port houses. 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. Maintaining a cooperage is not an anachronism, however, and Symington explains with passion that it is at the very heart of Port winemaking. If a Port house can control the upkeep and maintenance of its barrels, then it is closer to influencing the character of the Port.

The cooper’s work is physically demanding, and highly skilled. An apprenticeship takes four years. 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 an idea of how much work there is to do, when you discover there are nine million litres of Port ageing at Cockburn’s. And that does not include the stocks at Graham’s, Dow’s and Warre’s.

The visitor centre at Cockburn’s is remarkable. The lodge is cavernous and extremely beautiful, and the visit informative. In my opinion, this is one of the best Port lodge visits available in Vila Nova de Gaia. In a private tasting room, the John Smithes Room, named after one of Port’s legendary figures responsible for pioneering work on Douro grape varieties, Paul Symington talks about the affinity which he believes exists between families and wine. Winemaking is a long-term affair, “you do not get anything very good out of a vineyard before five or six years.” A mature vintage Port may only be at its best, after a generation… or two.

Symington himself is a member of the fourth generation of the family to run their business, and our discussion takes place a few weeks after he stepped down as Chairman of Symington Family Estates. He is visibly delighted that today five members of the fifth generation are working for the business, while “the sixth generation is already running around the vineyards.”

He takes particular pride in having strengthened his family’s unity and given it a desire for continuity, explaining that each family member owns their Douro vineyard. “We have a profound love for our region. We always reinvest our dividends in the Douro, and I think this level of commitment is unique.”

Paul Symington’s sixteen years as Chairman coincided with the emergence of the Douro as one of the world’s great table wine regions. Until the early 1990s, no one had really given much thought to making fine reds or whites here. With a twinkle in his eye, he remarks, “I always had a sneaking suspicion there might be something there.”

The first two decades of this century has seen a spectacular renaissance in the fortunes of Port, in a market where most fortified wines are on the decline. Symington describes the successful shift from the production and sale of simpler Rubys to more complex old Tawnys, LBVs and Vintage Ports, predicting that this movement from volume to premium Ports will continue in the coming decade. When I point out that Symington’s Port brands have recently scored some spectacular prices at auction, he comments, “this is deeply satisfying and due to the great skill of my cousin Charles, a really brilliant winemaker.”

In 2012, Paul Symington was nominated Decanter Man of the Year, the first time a person from Portugal had been distinguished by this award. Symington is characteristically generous in his comment about this achievement: “I had worked with my brother and four cousins and I saw this as a team effort. It would be a bit odd for one person to claim all the credit!”

We discuss prospects for the development of Portuguese wines over the next few years. Symington talks with enthusiasm about the new generation of professional winemakers and mentions the excellent oenology course at UTAD in Vila Real, in the Douro. In his view, Portugal is now producing world class wines. For Symington, the challenge is these wines now need to be affirmed at the highest international level. He thinks this will happen, due to Portugal`s unique grape varieties and soils.

The Douro is a region where viticulture is extremely physically exacting, and many young people today prefer to leave the land and seek better-paid jobs in the coastal cities. Symington remarks that the Douro is the last great wine region on the planet where almost all the grapes are picked by hand. “This is not sustainable,” he exclaims. “Tourism is taking people away from the land and it´s difficult to find people to work. The old-fashioned smallholdings will inevitably disappear, and we now need a new generation of young professional farmers.” Symington’s are consequently sponsoring six students to attend the viticulture and winemaking course at UTAD.

Agriculture, and viticulture is no exception here, is facing an additional challenge from accelerating climate change. Paul Symington refers to hotter summers and increasingly erratic weather.

Symington’s are adapting to these changing weather patterns and, in 2014, the company planted an experimental vineyard at Quinta do Ataide, a long-term project to analyze the reaction of over fifty Douro grape varieties to different climatic conditions, alongside control samples of international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. The objective is to gain some insight into which grape varieties should be planted in the Douro in the future.

Symington’s are also investing heavily to combat vineyard erosion, a serious consequence of what Paul Symington refers to as “these outrageous storms that seem to hit us more frequently now. I will never forget the storm on 28 May 2018, when 40% of my own private vineyard was obliterated in an hour and a half by massive rain and hail.”

Canopy management, to provide more shade for grapes on vines during hot summers, is another option being developed. Symington points out that the Douro possesses the advantage of altitude, offering the possibility to plant more vines higher up the slope, where conditions are cooler.

We continue our conversation over lunch at Vinum, the restaurant just down the road at Graham´s, another Symington Port lodge. Vinum overlooks the River Douro and must have one of the best possible views of Porto, particularly if you are enjoying an Altano Branco Reserva 2016, a star in the Symington range.

Looking towards the future Paul Symington remarks, “I won’t be going very far, as this is my home. I would like to spend more time in my vineyard in the Pinhão Valley. I’m also determined, however, to try and change the regulatory system in the Douro.” He describes the antiquated rules that take no account of the emergence of Douro table wines, thereby performing a disservice to both Douro wines and the region’s farmers. He is pushing the Secretary of State to initiate the changes he believes are necessary. This is essential as the Douro is heavily dependent on its wine economy.

After lunch, we have time to visit the atmospheric small museum at Graham’s. We linger in front of a family tree of the Symingtons. Paul Symington shows me how, through his great-grandmother, he descends from a 17th century Port shipper. That was around the time Port was invented.

Watch the video interview with Paul Symington here.