Port: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

Jan 05, 2017

Port: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

When you’ve been around for hundreds of years not much gets left unsaid. More often, a lot gets repeated. Such is the case with the Symington family, owners of W. & J. Graham’s Port since 1970, but with roots in the Port trade (and Portugal!) for 13 generations.

The family’s arrival preceded the founding of Graham’s by over 150 years! The Symingtons have been in the headlines throughout their long tenure in the Port trade, as one would expect to be the case with an important category’s leading family. Their story is a good one, it’s well known, full of merit and often told. Or is it?
You might think after all this time the Port story itself is complete – from beginning to middle to end, there’s little left to tell and we’ve heard it all before – the five native grapes, the rugged Douro terrain requiring extensive terracing, the foot stomping at harvest and fortifying during fermentation along with the different styles (Vintage, LBV, etc.) and types (Ruby, Tawny, etc.) of Port. Plus the colorful British families that founded and built the early trade. That part of the story is complete. Sort of. I guess.

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Anyone fortunate enough to visit Douro likely will have seen the schist formations which parallel vineyard plantings, the Port lodges housing sleeping wines, as well as the old stone lagers that recall the region’s history.

Chances are if you’ve been there you’ve seen too the newer Robotic lagers that have replaced their stone forebears almost completely. By the way, the Symingtons were the first to develop and utilize the robotic lager way back in 1990. That one (not so) little thing rescued the entire community of Port producers from dependence on a diminishing local labor pool and, “saved their bacon,” so to speak.
The latest part of the story (maybe you haven’t heard yet?) takes place outside the lodges, up and then down the riverbanks, where thick veins of schist run through the local soils that now are being planted with a razor sharp focus on precise plant material with specific site requirements. Yesterday’s hip, big, five grape varietals, Touriga Franca, Tinto Roriz, Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cao, and Tinta Barroca, have given way to today’s DNA-identified range of “other” indigenous native varietals, almost all of which had been improperly identified for generations. The recipe is under constant revision and the Symington family, the Duero’s largest land-owner (5,000 planted acres and expanding) is leading the way in this key science.

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Drilling down more deeply into the land part of the story are the great individual or “single-vineyard” sites in the Duero, called “quintas.” Back in the day, ownership of these precious patches was spread among the leading grower families rather than the producers. The Grahams were among the first producers to purchase individual quintas about 125, five years ago. Their acquisition of the esteemed Quinta do Malvedos was a bold and forward thinking move in 1890.

Soon other producers followed suit and before long all the better quintas were swooped up, the best of which ultimately became identified with the houses that owned them and the signature style of Port they produced. Over time, consolidations occurred that steadily reined in these valuable holdings under a shrinking umbrella of fewer and fewer owners. The Symingtons consistently emerged from these industry consolidations with purchases of high quality quintas. Their most recent acquisition of Cockburn not only continues this direction, but significantly enhances the family’s already impressive treasure trove of prestige holdings by adding Cockburn Vintage Port source, Quinta dos Canais, to a string of already superb Symington quintas, including Quinta do Vesuvio and Quinta da Vila Velha. In poker that’s called a full house. In the Port trade it’s called being the quality leader.
Although it’s a small percentage of the overall Port bottle business (estimated at 3%) Vintage Port is the part of the trade where most of the acclaim and lots of the “rain making” can be found. In a crucial way, a Port house is only as good as its Vintage Port (can you say Ramos Pinto?). In this respect an irrefutable statement can be made about Graham’s: they are the number one quality producer of Vintage Port and their overall reputation as a top house is based on this accepted fact. Graham’s Vintage Ports are the best of the best. They are better, vintage after vintage, than the other leading houses including Taylor, Fonseca, Noval, Dow, etc…

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Graham’s is the best because they set out to be the best—not the biggest—Port house and to focus expressly on Vintage Port.

This is what drove the acquisition of Quinta do Malvedos in earlier days and the gestalt of what the Symingtons knew they were buying when the last of the Grahams family faded from activity. The Symingtons have accelerated this upward trend and today Graham’s is the number one producer of quality vs. standard Ports with a sales and production ratio of 80% to 20%.
Someone has to be the best and like I said there’s more to the story. A lot of it can be summed up in Graham’s single vineyard equivalent, vintage dated Quinta dos Malvedos, a hyper expression of the house style sourced entirely from one superior site. Quinta dos Malvedos is better than many Vintage Ports and drinkable upon release. It may be the most direct representation of the famed Graham’s house style, one that emphasizes a richer, more textured mouth feel based on riper fruit, freshness and balance.
Speaking of Vintage Ports, check out our ever evolving and rotating but constant stock of Graham’s Vintage Ports. We try to cover all the recent top vintages as best we can based on availability. Check with your rep for up to date details. While you’re doing that consider Graham’s Six Grapes, a Vintage Character style of Port I always associate with the Graham’s house flavors so abundant in their Vintage Ports. Six Grapes is the #1 selling restaurant Port wine in the country for good reason – the Graham’s flavor formula is gold plated. So much so that at this point that Six Grapes is market-driven and folks expect to see it when they go out or shop for Port.

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Then there’s the part of the story about Graham’s Tawny Ports, not to be under-estimated in the overall quality sweepstakes. Graham’s reputation for best of show is upheld and magnified in their remarkable aged Tawny Port selection.

Graham’s 10-Year-Old Tawny and 20-Year-Old Tawny both are category leaders. Again, flavor is the key. They simply taste delicious, unique on the palate with fresh, authentic, savory Tawny Port flavors. They can be enjoyed either solo or mixed, sipped at room temperature or over ice. Any way you serve Graham’s Tawny Ports, the flavors come through loud and clear.
Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage is the sleeper of the pack, or the surprise ending to the story. Often called “poor man’s Vintage Port,” LBV is a handy category of currently drinkable Port from a single year. Unlike Vintage Ports that will develop in bottle for a long time, LBVs are bottled after aging and will not develop further. They’re ready to go when you buy them. What a thought!
Which brings me back to the initial point. Even though you know the Port story and have heard it before, it’s worth revisiting through the offerings of the Symington family’s Grahams Ports, whose ever-evolving quest for quality shines through in a reliable, contemporary collection of Port wines that represent a brilliant coalition of both cutting-edge science and age-old savvy. The story is by no means over. The best parts are yet to come. So stay alert. Developing.

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GRAHAM’S 20 YEAR OLD TAWNY
93 POINTS Wine Spectator

 “A complex and full-bore tawny, with deep, intense flavors of orange cream, glazed apricot, baked peach and roasted pineapple that are balanced by concentrated chocolate and toffee notes. The bright finish is filled with spice and supported by fresh acidity.”

GRAHAM’S SIX GRAPES
91 POINTS WINE ENTHUSIAST

“This special edition has been made to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the familiar Graham’s Six Grapes reserve Ruby. Selected from old vines in the Graham’s vineyards, it is dense and impressively ripe. Concentrated fruit dominates, cut with acidity as well as a dark texture. Rounded and rich, it’s made to drink now.”

GRAHAM’S 1994 VINTAGE
96 POINTS WINE ADVOCATE

 “Tasting Graham’s is akin to chewing on a big, rich, succulent Merlot after a group of blockbuster tannic Cabernets. Sweeter and more obvious than many ports, the opaque purple-colored 1994 is fruity, powerful and rich, with an addictive hedonistic quality. A great Graham’s.” Robert Parker Jr