Stomping with the Symingtons Slideshow
October 19, 2012
Our put-in point is the lovely city of Porto, located where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean — the namesake of one of the world’s most famous fortified wines (the other is Spain's sherry).
We have a first-evening dinner at Porto's O Gaveto restaurant, hosted by Rupert Symington, one of the gang of brothers and cousins who run Symington’s.
Dinner at O Gaveto
Portugal is well known for its seafood, and before us is an array of dishes such as clams, octopus, squid, and lobster rice. Most are prepared simply, with olive oil and garlic and perhaps some vegetables of the season. With the meal, we drink a vinho verde, the fresh, vibrant white made from the alvarhino grape, grown along the coast just north of the city, and then several red wines from the Douro Valley. One of the reds is Post Scriptum, a product of a joint venture between the Symingtons and the Prats family of Bordeaux. It is not a complex wine, but it has good cherry flavors and a pleasant freshness.
We finish the evening with an oversized bottle of 1977 Dow’s vintage port, decanted in advance. It has aged amazingly well, with lots of ripe, red fruits but also with the nuttiness of older wines and with tannins that have mellowed to a gentle bite.
Nova de Gaia
The next day we tour the Symington warehouses in Nova de Gaia, the hillside enclave across the Douro from Porto where Port wines are blended and aged after having been made into basic wine among the vineyards in the wilder, country upriver.
Then we stop by Graham’s for an in-depth tasting of vintage ports and tawnies from various estates, and then have lunch there — including a marvelous duck rice with large chunks of rich breast and leg buried in a sea of creamy rice, served with a 2010 Vale do Bomfim, another Symington red partially aged in American oak. We grab our bags for the journey up river.
There are no good highways up the Douro — just tortuous mountain back roads — so we take the small train upriver past such fabled wine towns as Regua and Pinhao before we arrive two hours later in the small village of Tua. A few minutes away is Quinta dos Malvedos, the single-vineyard estate that is the jewel in Graham’s crown and where we will be staying the next few days. Fresh figs are gathered for the evening table.
Our lovely country dinner prepared by the quinta staff starts with a cabbage and chorizo soup…
… and ends two hours later with an amazingly fresh 1970 Graham’s vintage port. Cabbage is a mainstay of Portuguese cooking, especially for hearty soups, and, on our journey, we see dozens of backyard plots with cabbages growing on tall stalks that climb waist high.
Quinta dos Cainas
Beginning the next morning, our visits to various Symington estates, or quintas, involve long journeys via 4-wheel-drive vehicles across single-lane mountain and vineyard roads. Our first stop is Quinta dos Cainas — a Cockburn’s property — with its high-angle vineyards.
Quinta do Tua
The following day, it’s on to the ancient terrace walls of Quinta do Tua, now a Graham’s estate.
Quinta de Roriz
To get to Quinta de Roriz, which produces both ports and table wines, we travel by boat down the Douro from a dock at Malvedos.
Everywhere we go on our four-day adventure, pickers are working the steep slopes harvesting grapes bunch by bunch.
Quinta do Vesuvio
The highpoint of the adventure, however, takes place at Quinta do Vesuvio, where we have a candlelight dinner on the terrace, featuring bacalhau, or salt cod, blended into a creamy casserole with potatoes — one of the many ways the fish is served in Portugal.
It's foot-stomping time. We dress in the traditional flannel shirts and shorts for the trek through the drizzling darkness to the brightly lit winery where the pickers are already treading the grapes in giant stone basins called lagars.
For centuries, the best vintage ports have been stomped in lagars for gentle color and flavor extraction before brandy is added — but now the custom is slowly dying out. I join the pickers and we dance arm-in-arm up to our thighs in crushed grapes and juice, while music from an accordion and a drum fills the cool night air.
Quinta do Bomfim
After a stop next day for lunch at Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim — we have been enjoying these fresh, layered salads somewhere almost every day and the Portuguese are justly proud of their fleshy, beefy tomatoes — we again catch the train downriver for the last night in Porto.
There we feast on roast goat, the meat almost falling from the bones, and more port. The next day, goodbye Symingtons, goodbye Douro, goodbye Porto.