Premium Port: Douro Deep, Mountain High

Feb 27, 2018

It often has been said, “Show me a great wine region and I’ll show you a river.”

shutterstock_656541559Portugal’s Douro River, one of the major waterways of the Iberian Peninsula, is a perfect example. It runs for a few hundred miles across the high plains of central Spain before crossing the Portuguese border near the isolated village of Barca D’Alva. From there it flows west for another 350-miles to the sea exposing a blanket of rich terroir as it cuts its way through the rugged valley’s schist laden hillsides. Against all odds the great river has spawned a great wine region in one of the world’s least hospitable and most remote locations.

The climate in the Douro is pleasantly Mediterranean but the landscape is decidedly unforgiving, featuring irregular rocky outcrops sprinkled along twisted hillsides punctuated by awkward looking man-made stone terraces. Were it not for these primitive foundations holding the hillsides, it would be impossible to establish vineyards along the dramatically sloping terrain. Even with their help literally keeping the land from sliding down the hill, the labor involved is punishing. But then there’s the results and that’s where the Douro stands apart. There is no other wine like Port and there’s no other wine region even remotely similar to the Douro.

The Douro DOC has enjoyed a lot of media attention lately both for new discoveries and ownership developments in the vineyards. Following a sustained period of innovations in processing (the Symington’s famous robotic lagar for crushing grapes, thermo-regulated fermentation equipment, etc.) the focus on new developments in the Douro has segued to the vineyards where better tools have led to a keener understanding of plant material and viticultural practices.

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Along the way there have been a few surprises. What were believed to be one grape varietal in some cases turned out to be another, thanks to DNA typing, and what once was thought to be five different grape varietals, upon closer inspection, has turned out to be quite a few more.  Understandings like this have led to advances in site selectivity, with the Symington’s the Douro’s most influential family, leading the way. Add to this “massal selection,” or propagating new vineyards from the healthiest existing plants rather than nursery vine material, and even the essential “big five” traditional Port grapes are stronger and better.

Under the mergers and acquisitions heading, the Symington family is now the lead dog.  As the clan has grown, so too have their holdings. The Symington’s Douro Empire is now larger than any other producer or alliance of producers. More significantly, these holdings are platinum quality and include a roster of the Douro’s most famous quintas. This combination of exceptional
terroirs and a wider spectrum of plant material to work with has opened a new door. Through it has stepped one of the wine business’s truly larger than life personalities traveling all the way from Bordeaux, France and bringing with him an exciting new Douro wine venture.

Prats and Symington is a recently launched joint project between the Symington family from Portugal and Bruno Prats, former owner of leading Bordeaux estate Château Cos d’Estournel. Bruno Prats is the epitome of innovative thinking and a respected elder statesmen in the international fine wine business. He’s made wine in both hemispheres and is considered one of the world’s most accomplished vignerons.  The Symington family, with Scottish, English and Portuguese ancestry has been present in the Douro for five generations — since 1882 — and through the current generation’s great grandmother, the family’s link to wine business in the Douro spans 14 generations going back to the very beginnings of the trade.
These days the Symingtons are the first family of the Douro. They own almost 2,500 hectares encompassing 26 individual estates, known as quintasAlmost half of the family’s holdings are terraced.  All of it is split into smaller parcels and distributed via inheritance through successive generations. At this point in time, between their ownership of multiple Port brands (Graham’s, Dows, Gould-Campbshutterstock_715353037 copy
ell, etc.) the Symington’s can accurately claim responsibility for one out of  every three bottles of Port produced in the world.

It’s the Symington family’s combination of top sites, varied terroirs and overlapping family interests that spurs ongoing exploration driven by the development of new ideas like making top quality Bordeaux style wine from native Douro grapes, which is where Mr. Prats comes in. The P&S project began in 1999
with a few experimental lots of wine.  In 2000 the first vintage of Chryseia, the primary wine of the estate was produced in minuscule quantities. In 2002, the partners released a second wine called Post Scriptum.

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