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May 11, 2023

Graham’s Bicentenary: Evolution of Tradition

It was a little over 20 years ago that I first visited Port producers in the Duoro Valley, and, after having talked with so many winegrowers elsewhere who stressed authenticity and going back to the Garden, at least symbolically, I was surprised by how readily Port owners and winemakers discussed the changes they were in the midst of making in vineyards and in wineries – and not just minor changes of a tweak here and a twist there.  These were historic changes to the substance, history and image of what it was like to make vintage and tawny Ports in the Douro.  

Neither were the changes being made reluctantly or timidly.  In fact, I had the feeling they were embracing these changes, but not change for change’s sake or because there was a gun to their head or because their product was bad.  They were making changes because they accepted that the culture and economy along the Douro were in a period of historic transformation.  They didn’t want to alter their classic product; instead, they wanted to ensure it would have more consistency and reliability vintage after vintage.  

These memories returned shortly ago during a vertical tasting and dinner for the trade in New York, a delayed bicentennary celebration for Graham’s, founded in 1820, and now the centerpiece of the Symington family’s Port brands.  The setting was equally momentous – the Manhatta restaurant, 60 floors above the Financial District with views of the city and the harbor as dusk turned into evening.

The tasting, not surprisingly, was spectacular.  Beginning with the current 2020 vintage, we tasted our way back 100 years, through the 2011, 2003, 1994, 1985, 1983, 1977, 1970, 1963, 1955, 1948 and 1924 vintages, the last of these now being a bit wan in color but very flavorful with lots of dried herbal notes, almost like a liqueur crafted among the garrigue in the South of France.  Noting the 1924 date, Rupert mused, “It’s almost irresponsible, drinking a 99-year-old wine when we could have waited another year.”  During dinner, we also had a blend of Symington’s portfolio, old and new – a 1966 Graham’s vintage and a 1976 single-harvest Graham’s tawny as well as two Douro table reds – a Vesuvio and a Chryseia – plus a branco from the family’s new Quinta Da Fonte Souto in Alentejo.

But what caught my attention was the presentation made by Charles Symington, head winemaker and master blender for the family, during the tasting of the 2020 vintage it not only succinctly summarized the changes those of us who have regularly visited the Douro have been seeing during our adult lifetimes, but also putting them into context.  “We’ve had an evolution over the past 30 to 40 years,” Charles began, “and the trade has changed enormously” during that time.  Then he and his cousin Rupert, who now heads the family enterprise, outlined three major shifts.

First, they noted the trade had until the latter part of the previous century depended on getting some of their base wines from small farmers who tended their own vineyards and made raw wines on their properties and then sold them to Port houses.  In fact, I remember a few years ago how this or that Port house would announce special cuvées that had come on the market when a farmer’s family would discover a cache hidden away for a rainy day.  Today, Port producers rely primarily on their own historic farms or quintas though still buying some grapes.

The second change was shifting from field blends to varietal plantings.  Field blends brought with them a romantic image – vineyards planted in a hodgepodge of varieties of those 80 approved to help ensure a crop even if one variety fell prey to frost or some other damage.  And, when a vine died or was no longer productive, a new one could be planted in its place with little thought given to what variety it was.  “At Symington’s, when we started planting mono-varietal [plots] a few years ago, we learned a lot about the individual varieties,” Charles said.  “Today we concentrate on only five varieties for our blends.”

The final change was in the lagars that once were centerpieces at every quinta.  Traditionally, after the workers finished a day’s picking they returned in the evening to stomp – more properly tread – the grapes in gigantic, rectangular stone tanks filled up to their knees with raw grapes.  At first, treading began like a military parade to ensure everything was turned into a purple sludge, then music began, and the treading would turn into a communal dance.  Picturesque?  Yes.  Effective?  Yes.  Efficient and sustainable with dwindling labor forces?  Hardly.  

Wine producers love to have writers try their hands – or feet – at duplicating what they do for a living, from picking grapes to making blends of almost-finished wines.  I have usually resisted because I feel more comfortable observing and recording than trying on someone else’s shoes.  But one night at Symington’s famous Vesuvio quinta, after a Port-tentous dinner, Rupert shamed me into donning the traditional plaid shirt (the Grahams and Symingtons are of Scottish descent, and a pair of borrowed gym trunks, climbing into the lagar and dancing knee-high in grapes with the locals like an outsider on a Saturday night in a townie bar.  I’m told photos still exist.

I’ve also watched over the past decades as Symington’s and other houses have grappled with inventing Rube Goldberg mechanical treading machines, now located at central wineries and not at individual estates, that have increasingly become not only more efficient but also more effective than doing it by foot.  “With the use of modern lagars,” Charles says, “we can ferment at lower temperatures, and the wines have become much more aromatic.”  Once, raw wines came down the Douro in small boats to the lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia for blending, aging and, more recently, bottling.  Later, this was done by truck – another tradition gone with the times.

The tasting proved another thing – as is the case with Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Napa Valley and elsewhere, that producers back in the bad old days when there were few technical amenities could still make fabulous wines that lasted for decades on a vintage-by-vintage basis.  The difference is, with the Douro and all the other regions, modern technology and winemaker education means that more producers are making good to great wines and that weather-related vintages that were devastating back then can in most cases be successfully worked out with today’s well-equipped, well-financed winemakers.

Tradition is not something that happened only a long time ago.  Tradition is being made now, evolving before our eyes and within our glasses as we become a part of it.

Posted by Roger Morris at 10:56 AM