Graham’s is known as a family business, with a tremendous family heritage – it was founded in 1820 by two brothers, William and John Graham, whose direct descendants turned it over in 1970 to the Symington family, who now are in their own 5th generation in the wine trade, and 14th generation through their great-grandmother.
But many of the employees at Graham’s are themselves from old port-trade families, and our winemaker at Quinta dos Malvedos is one, Henry Shotton.
Henry’s family connection to Port also began in the early 1800’s, when members of the Teage family from Dartmouth, in Devon, England, came to Portugal. As with so many of the early port shippers, they engaged in a variety of commercial interests, including the Newfoundland cod trade, and were originally based in Viana do Castelo, north of Porto.
His great great grandfather, John Land Teage Sr was born in Oporto (as it was called by the English) in 1829 and died in Devon 1898. He ran the Port company named Hunt, Roope Teage in the 19th century and his brothers William and Rolland were involved in another firm, then known as Cockburn Smithes.
His son, John Land Teage Jr, known as Johnnie Teage, was born in Oporto 1860 and died there in 1926. He also was a partner in Cockburn Smithes, retiring in 1913. He married Alice Tatham Smithes and had 3 daughters.
As it happens, the Quinta do Tua, now owned by Graham’s, was once part of the Cockburn Smithes holdings in the Douro, and a photo of Henry’s great grandfather, Johnnie Teage, hangs on the wall of the house, where Henry recently met him again.
The saying goes that behind every great man is a woman. Well, behind Graham’s great ports there are 8 great women who work behind the scenes to keep us all going during harvest.
First off, there are 5 women who prepare and serve 3 meals a day for more than 35 hungry men (and this hungry blogger) and keep up with the laundry for them all too during the three or four weeks of harvest. Every day Dona Fatima (far right in photo), Arlindo’s wife, prepares breakfast at her house at Malvedos for that winery team, whilst the other three women serve it up for the Quinta do Tua winery team at Tua. At lunch and dinner time, Fatima comes with the Malvedos gang over to Tua and helps serve up the meal to the two teams together. Missing from the photo is Dona Sonia who is housekeeper at Quinta do Tua, where four of us are staying during harvest, and who also helps at mealtimes in Tua.
The food is home cooking, plentiful and good – typically fish, chops or chicken is grilled, or there will be some kind of meat stew, accompanied by bread and rice or pasta or potatoes (very often two or three of those at one meal). There is salad before, and a vegetable soup afterwards, then a plate of apples and pears, and coffee. Water and wine are on the table, and a bottle of aguardente is available to those who think the small cups of strong Portuguese coffee still aren’t quite strong enough.
Meanwhile, over at the house at Malvedos are Branca and Prazeres. Fundamentally, this is a private home, which Rupert and his family as well as other Symington family members use throughout the year. However, it is also used as a base for the many VIP or trade visitors who want to see where and how Graham’s ports are made, and as you may have noticed in the blog, we entertain a steady stream of guests during harvest. Branca and Prazeres keep the house in pristine order, very often cleaning and making up all nine bedrooms (and nearly as many bathrooms) after breakfast, in time to start making lunch for a dozen or so. It’s not uncommon to entertain different groups at each breakfast, lunch and dinner, and dinner is nearly always preceded by tea and/or aperitifs with something to nibble, if not a formal tasting of Graham’s wines organised by Rupert or whichever family member is hosting the current batch of guests.
The food served to guests at Malvedos is the apotheosis of home cooking. Branca is a truly gifted cook, who can turn out bacalhau, grilled pork chops, or a roast beef cooked and carved to perfection, with meltingly tender slivered green beans and perfectly pan roasted new potatoes, preceded by a soup and followed by the most divine desserts intended to complement the fine ports served after dinner. One favourite is called “Cream in Heaven” which is exactly what it sounds like, and is best enjoyed with Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny, another is the intense dark chocolate mousse served with either Six Grapes or a Quinta dos Malvedos Vintage port. Finally, an immense cheese board of 7 or 8 cheeses and a bowl of fruit are placed on the table, to accompany whatever range of ports is on show that evening for the visitors. Branca and Prazeres are both very camera shy, as you can see, Rupert had to capture Branca to make her take credit for the wonderful cabrito (roast baby goat) she served that night, while Prazeres resolutely stayed behind the photographer.
Finally, there is Jackie Thurn-Valsassina, our Public Relations Manager based in Gaia, who plans and organises all the visitors’ itineraries and travel arrangements, advises the house-keeping staff whom to expect and when, what foods and wines should be served, and when no family member is available, comes up to the Douro to entertain and guide the visitors herself.
Ladies, from the bottom of our hearts, we salute and thank you.
For almost three centuries, it was common practice for port shippers to buy wines made by the thousands of small producers in the region. Graham’s was one of the first major shippers in the 19th century to buy their own quinta, Quinta dos Malvedos, in order to ensure the quality of grapes and wines produced under their own name, whilst still continuing to buy in wines from selected small producers. The wines bought in were all made in very traditional ways, including treading by foot, right up until the 1970s.
In the late 20th century, as shippers became more focussed on quality control and invested in their own wineries, the practice shifted to buying in the grapes, rather than finished wines, so the shipper could control the vinification process to best suit their own requirements and style.
At Graham’s, we now have five quintas from which to source our grapes, and the wineries to vinify them all ourselves, however we continue to work with over 200 small farmers in the region, most of whom bring us their grapes.
One of the exceptions to this rule is Senhor Albino, who has a quinta in the Riba Longa, an area east of Tua which has an outstanding microclimate, recognised for hundreds of years for the quality of its grapes and its wines. Like many of his generation, Sr Albino emigrated from Portugal as a young man to find work, and returned when he retired, to settle here in the Douro and make wine. Unusually, he has quite a large holding, almost 40 hectares, of which 10 was recently re-planted with Touriga Nacional.
Sr Albino’s vines are very good, and the location is one of the best in the Riba Longa area. In recent years he has invested heavily in his winemaking equipment, and takes meticulous care of it all. During the year our viticulturist is often at Sr Albino’s quinta, discussing all aspects of his vineyard and helping him with advice and suggestions. We provide him with the aguardente (grape brandy) for the fortification during harvest. Charles will also stop by to say hello often through the year and see how the season is progressing. Here, Sr Albino has just opened a tonel, ready to receive his 2010 wines, and Charles was very pleased with the scent, always an important indication of good hygiene in wooden vats.
Sr Albino makes excellent wines and we are pleased to buy them. His wines will become part of Graham’s stock of lotes for blending into our premium port wines. In this way, Graham’s maintains a great old tradition and sources some fantastic wines.
While this blog is primarily about Graham’s, its various Quintas and our wine making, the Symington family also own and manage Dow’s and Warre’s Port.
Here is the wine making team at the beautiful Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira (The Lady of the River), which is one of Dow’s finest properties. This is one of our most remote Quintas is the far eastern end of the Douro valley. We have several traditional lagares in use here as well as three robotic lagares.
Carrazeda is the nearest ‘civilization’, and that is some 15 kms away, so quite a long way to go if you run out of beer. The team in this photo make some of the best Ports for the Symington Family Estates group, but they have not seen their wives and girlfriends for a few weeks now… We appreciate the dedication, guys!
Whilst leading visitors through the vineyards recently, Paul Symington stopped to chat with several of the team cutting grapes. I asked him about his conversation with one woman, and he told us:
This lady has been picking grapes at Malvedos at every harvest for many years. She lives in the nearby village of Tua and comes over every day from her house near the river just below the railway station. She knows the Symington family well, and especially Paul, because a young neighbour of hers called Cristina used to work for Paul’s family, helping to look after his 4 children when they were very young. Cristina now lives in Lisbon, like many young people she has moved from these remote Douro villages to the big cities on the coast.
This morning we had a visit from Marta (Environmental issues) and Monica (Health and safety) from the head office in V.N. Gaia who are doing a round of the company’s Douro wineries making sure we are all meeting environmental and health and safety standards.
I had a meeting with Marta to discuss our water consumption at the winery and how best to reduce the effluents we send to the water treatment plant at Quinta do Tua. We are very conscious of these environmental issues and each year try to find new ways of reducing our winery effluent.
As much as we like looking at our lagars and Roriz grapes their visit made a welcome change!
As winemaker for Graham’s and all the Symington wines, responsible for the safe harvest of 950 hectares of vines across the Douro, Charles Symington has a slightly hectic few weeks every autumn. Tuesday, 21 September was a fairly typical day, and Cynthia had a chance to meet him at Malvedos and shadow him for the rest of the afternoon as he made his rounds in the Douro.
Graham’s Sales Director, Euan Mackay, had come up from Gaia to spend the day with Charles, so they had already had some discussions about the overall state of harvest, the wines being made, and commercial affairs before arriving at Malvedos at 11:00. First order of business was of course a visit to the winery, where he greeted the workers, all of whom, except Carlos our oenological student, he has known and worked with for years.
Henry then updated Charles on what parcels of grapes have been picked so far, how the wine in Lagar 1 is shaping up, and findings about the grapes coming into Lagar 2. Together they checked the wine and grapes, and then Fonseca and Charles checked over the robotic lagar to ensure all was in perfect working order after its first night’s treading. We are pleased to report it wan’t a bit tired, and was deemed fit and ready to work the second lagar, which it did later that afternoon and evening.
Next, a photographer was visiting to shoot at Quinta dos Malvedos for a story which will appear on Bloomberg soon, and of course he wanted a glamourous photo of Charles in his vineyards, wine glass in hand (not his usual modus operandi, by the way). This is not so easy as you might imagine: there was some discussion of which grape variety made the best backdrop, and Masai, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, was undecided whether to join the photo shoot or not.
From there, together with Henry again, Charles took a walk up through some Touriga Nacional vineyards below the caseiro’s house which are progressing steadily, and the decision was made to start with that vineyard first of the Touriga Nacional. The weather outlook is very good for the next ten days or so, the grapes continue to mature well on the vines so there is no rush, and we are in a good position to take things at steady pace as the grapes reach perfect ripeness. In Charles’s words, we are sitting pretty.
Next to Quinta do Tua. Again there was a discussion with the winemaker, Paulo Macedo, about the state of the work at Tua, where Graham’s vinifies the grapes brought to us by about 200 local small farmers. Many of these farmers have been supplying Graham’s for years, in many cases as their fathers did before them. The cachement area, the Riba Longa just east of Tua, is an excellent region. Our viticulturalist at Malvedos, Senhor Mariz, often visits the farmers during the year to ensure the quality of the vineyards and harvest and offer advice if necessary.
At Tua, Charles tasted the first lots of wines destined for Graham’s – there were two toneis of wines made from the old vine plantations at our own Quinta doTua which had been harvested on the 16th and 17th of September, and another wine, fortified only 90 minutes earlier, blended from incoming farmer’s grapes. So far, so good, and all three showing distinct characters already.
After Tua, the itinerary went roughly like this: drive to Senhora da Ribeira, stopping en route to visit one of our farmers in the Riba Longa. After lunch at Senhora da Ribeira took a launch across the river and back, paying a visit to Quinta do Vesuvio (another Symington brand), then visiting three more quintas in the area before returning to Malvedos by about 6:30 pm, where he again checked in with Henry on the progress for the day. Throughout the day, he and Euan kept up a steady discussion about vineyards, winemaking and commercial matters. Euan himself has twenty years’ experience with the firm, and this annual visit to Charles during vindima is invaluable to him, so he can keep our sales team, distributors and customers apprised of developments, conditions and outlook for harvest and wines.
At every quinta, Charles takes a walk through the vineyards, and watching him is an education itself. He has an eagle eye for the state of the grapes, and as he walks down the terraces he plucks and tastes grapes as he goes. The flavour and sugar levels of the grapes really do change tangibly as they ripen and the different varieties show clear flavour qualities even on the vine – Euan remarked on one that tasted distinctly like a Christmas cake, others a few rows away were equally rich and intense, but had a completely different flavour character.
Another test is to crush a grape with his fingers and start rubbing the skin to break it up and extract colour, just as treading would do in the lagar. From that, and the maturity of the pips (have they changed from green to brown, are they soft or crunchy?) Charles can assess phenolic ripeness.
Where there are wineries, he spends time with the winemaker to review results so far, discuss next parcels of grapes to be harvested and vinified and any equipment or logistical concerns. As he checks lagars and vats he leans in for a deep inhalation of the aromas, plunges his arm in up to the elbow to feel the grapes and assess the colour extraction, and where wines have been finished, taste samples. Based on all of this, he may revise plans so far – every step of the process is basis to re-assess next steps.
Whilst we rely on our labs to gather precise scientific data for our research and viticultural database, the fact is, who needs a lab when you’ve got the experience and instincts of Charles?
The winemaking team from Malvedos drive over to join the winemaking team at Tua for lunch and dinner every day. The food is straightforward, hearty regional cooking.
This is one variation of the dish that named residents of Porto “Tripeiros” – Tripe eaters.
Beans, bits of pork and chouriça (a smoke-cured pork sausage) and tripe. If you don’t already know what tripe is… you may not want to know. We will leave you to look it up for yourself if you dare. Suffice to say, the few flies that strayed into the dining room took one fly-by and broke for the window as fast as they could. On the other hand, the eight men at my table happily tucked away two big platters of it, and started on this third one. Personally, I can vouch for the beans and chouriça being excellent, and I doubt I will be hungry again today.
Every year Graham’s hosts oenological students who start their school year not in a classroom, but in a winery, getting hands on experience and guidance from our veteran winemaking team. Only after harvest will they go to their universities and start the textbook based curriculum of their training.
This year our student is Carlos, who hails from the Bairrada, another wine region in Portugal, south of the Douro. Here he helps in the unloading of the last of yesterday’s Tinta Barroca.
Bem-vindo Carlos, e boa vindima! (Welcome Carlos, and good harvest!)
This is Abílio. He is a master stonemason. He has worked for us on and off for many years, and we are lucky to have him because he is one of the most skilled artisans plying this endangered trade in the Douro. But the fact that his skill is the culmination of an uninterrupted chain of expertise dating back to Roman times does not in any way make him obsolete. On the contrary, the recent recognition of the Douro as an UNESCO World Heritage Site has given his work renewed relevance today, and means that his labour is in considerable demand since existing walls are now protected and must be maintained.
These impressive schist walls are without a doubt the defining characteristic of the Douro landscape; the terrain is contoured by countless hundreds of kilometres of ancient walled terraces, many of them dating back to the days before the phylloxera epidemic devastated the region’s viticulture in the late 19th Century. Much of the almost unimaginable workforce that built the walls was made up of desperately impoverished Galician migrants who favoured this work as food and accommodation were also provided with the job. Many never returned home and their descendants still live here.
To give an idea of how long it takes to build one of these walls, Abílio and his assistant might be able to produce about two metres of a low wall in a nine-hour day. But as he points out, low walls are easy since the top metre of any wall is usually only around 50 cm thick. Higher walls require thicker bottoms to hold back the weight of the soil so they become exponentially more voluminous and time-consuming. Of course the outer face is always flat but the inner face must therefore be stepped back as its depth increases. It is obviously an extremely laborious process but that is the price that must be paid for Abílio’s brand of perfection. Well-constructed dry stone walls will last for much more than a century. Indeed, many of the pre-phylloxera terraces are still standing today, often now hidden under olive groves that were planted after the vines had given in to this terrible disease. These semi-abandoned terraces are poignantly known as mortuários, or graveyards.
Traditionally the Douro stone walls evolved for two reasons. Firstly, they were a by-product of the surriba, an operation that is essential before planting can be carried out in soils as rocky as ours. This process involves digging out the worst of the stones and breaking up the earth that is left behind. In the past, the stones that were dug out were placed on top of any rocky outcrops that were too big to remove, and thus formed the base of a new terrace. The second reason is of course that these walls effectively reduce the gradient of the steep hillsides, and therefore allow vines to be planted more densely and tended more easily.
Abílio’s equipment has not changed for millennia; his tool box contains just a hammer, a chisel, a plumb line and a measuring tape. The latter is the only concession to, well, not really modernity, but it does at least have a spring-loaded retraction mechanism. He uses the chisel to cleave the relatively soft schist with such precision that when he stacks one stone on top of another there is no room for a sheet of paper between them. And that is it: no cement, nothing but stones he picks up off the ground around him. Every so often he may leave deliberate drainage channels in the wall to prevent the build-up of outward pressure caused by water accumulating behind it.
Note that these holes should not be confused with pilheiros, which are similar-looking spaces through which vines could be planted horizontally and trained onto a sideways trellis that overhangs the terrace below. Should the drainage holes become blocked by mud and debris, the weight of the water retained on the terrace can cause a section of the wall to ruin. Additionally, wet weather also speeds up the rate at which this soft stone erodes and crumbles away. As a result, this winter’s torrential and incessant rainfall has been particularly destructive across the Douro, with hundreds of localised wall collapses. It is something of a blessing for Abílio, however, as he has never been busier.