The Corkscrew

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


When I look at a label, I often wonder how long that particular wine brand has been around. That is especially true when it comes to port; some bottles have been around for hundreds of years. The Douro (Oporto) region of Portugal is the oldest defined wine region in the world, having been given its appellation in 1756.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to bump into Paul Symington, the head of a family of port makers whose labels include Graham's, Warre's, Dow's and Cockburn's - all names that are familiar to wine geeks such as me. The Symington family has been in Oporto for more than 350 years - an unbroken lineage of 13 generations. I found him in a shop, browsing through a selection of wines, and recognised him from an issue of Decanter magazine, which featured him on the cover as its Man of the Year 2012.

We started chatting about port and I got a sense that Symington was remarkably humble, with an enormous sense of responsibility and duty, and a tremendous work ethic. And patience, it must be said, is another of his virtues; the wines he bottles this year won't be released for 10 to 15 years. One of his current releases, a 20-year-old tawny port, was made by his father. Every time he took a sip, he said, it brought back memories of watching his father at work.

Tawnies are lighter in colour due to the additional time they spend in the barrel, and a 20-year-old tawny really has been in a barrel for that long.

Symington said he could not imagine a life outside Douro because every member of his family had been involved in wine. Currently, seven siblings and cousins are committed to various aspects of the ports made by the family firm. He said he remembered quiet conversations around his parents' and grandparents' dining tables of how the family had struggled after the second world war, when it was thought there would be no future for port. His own children are now involved in the business.

I asked him a question I like to put to all winemakers - 'What is your favourite match for Cantonese food?' - and the response was a pairing I had not considered before. Symington claimed tawnies worked better than ruby ports, which are blends of barrels and vintages. I mentioned that I had recently tasted a tawny port with Peking duck - a surprisingly delicious match. If a tawnie were not at hand at a Cantonese feast, Symington would suggest an LBV (late bottled vintage) port, as those also see a fair bit of barrel (about four years) and bottle ageing (three to four years). One of these, he said, would be enjoyable with dishes that had a bit of spice and soy sauce.

What about white port? A refreshing style made only from white wine grapes, when served over ice, it would be an excellent pairing with Cantonese seafood dishes, suggested Symington.

The poorest match, he thought, would be a vintage port (only produced in the best years), as these were too tannic and were meant to be enjoyed on their own, perhaps with a bit of blue cheese.

When asked what he missed most when he travelled, Symington's answer was surprising in its simplicity: the smell of the vineyards after the first rainfall of the year, once the vines had blossomed. His description was so evocative, I imagined myself there.

Nellie Ming Lee is a freelance food stylist and part-time sommelier, and is studying with The Court of Master Sommeliers.