It's the port that counts for first family of wine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2012, 12:00am

Paul Symington, chairman of Symington Family Estates in the Douro, Portugal, places great emphasis on family values. When told he was voted Decanter's Man of the Year 2012, he said he would accept the award only if he could extend the honour to his family.

The Symingtons have more than 350 years of history in Portugal and Paul is of the 13th generation. He runs the company with his two cousins, Johnny and Rupert, but it is the effort of all family members that makes Symington what it is today.

Symington believes in the synergy between wine and family. Wine is long term and fits well with the time horizons of a family, especially port and premium wines that can develop for half a century.

Big corporations, notably public ones, often focus on short-term profit, rather than long-term investment and heritage. To preserve and promote the moral values that are the backbone of family businesses, Symington joined with 11 other top international family estates to establish Primum Familiae Vini, the First Families of Wine, in 1993. Membership is by invitation only and is limited to a maximum of 12 families.

Being a family estate with a long tradition does not mean lack of vision. Symington knows the future of port lies with the premium sector - tawnies and vintages, categories in which the company has a 34 per cent market share - and new consumers in Britain, the US and Asia. He also knows the traditional image of cigars, port, gentlemen's clubs and copa (small port glasses) does not fit the lifestyle of today's customers. To modernise port's image, the three port houses under Symington - Dow's, Graham's and Warre's - partnered with Croft, Fonseca and Taylor's (the Fladgate Partnership) to establish the Vintage Port Academy.

Its purpose is to promote the appreciation and knowledge of vintage port among fine wine consumers, collectors and wine professionals. Some suggestions include pairing hairy crab and Peking duck with tawny ports.

To reinforce tradition and evolution, Symington launched Graham's 1952 Tawny Port to celebrate the Queen's 60th anniversary jubilee. The wine was served to overseas dignitaries at Windsor House. On the other hand, Symington daydreams about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie sitting in front of a big-flat screen television in their exclusive Manhattan apartment, enjoying port from a Riedel glass.

He understands the importance of keeping the family unified. All Symingtons start their careers undertaking basic work on the estates, then gain experience outside the Douro before returning to the company. He is not worried about not having enough successors. There are enough daughters and sons - 14 in the next generation - but it is up to them whether they want to join the family business. If you have a chance to visit the estates, keep an eye out for the youngsters cleaning the tables or serving you port - they may well be a future Symington chairman or Decanter man or woman of the year.

Here is a snapshot of the styles available in Hong Kong.

Vintage port: a blend of the finest wine from the best vineyards and from one single vintage. It is intended for ageing in the bottle, and is bottled without fining or filtering after spending about two years in wood. The wine is full, rich and tannic when young and can develop for 20 or more years in the bottle, resulting in a mellow wine with great complexity and finesse. It has heavy sediments and should be decanted before serving. It is made only in the best years: there are on average only three such 'declared' years in every 10. Foot treading is still practised for vintage ports.

Single Quinta Vintage port: made in exactly the same way as vintage port but with grapes from a single quinta (estate) only. It is only made in good years but not in 'declared' years as all the grapes will be used to blend the classic vintage port. It is the expression of a particular quinta, whereas vintage port is the signature of a particular house that may own many estates. Single quinta vintage port develops faster than vintage port and is often ready to drink at eight-10 years old but can also benefit from further ageing.

Late Bottled Vintage port (LBV): ruby port, the most basic of ports, from a single vintage and are aged for between four and six years in casks before bottling. The wine, with gripping tannins, is richer, rounder and more complex than a reserve ruby port.

Tawny port: russet or tawny in colour, this is a blend aged in wooden casks for at least seven years. Smooth and complex, with oxidative aromas of walnut, coffee and caramel. Most tawnies available in Hong Kong are better-quality ones with an indication of age, labelled as 10, 20, 30 or over 40 years old. The age is an average of components in the wine. It is ready to drink when bottled and does not improve with further ageing.

Tersina Shieh is a winemaker and educator

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