W & J Graham’s 1890 Port Lodge
Visiting A Legend of the Port Trade
Symington Family Estates
Earlier this year, I made my first wine-related work trip to Portugal and third overall. I had the chance to check out the newly renovated Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim in the Douro and the Graham’s 1890 Port lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the Douro river from Porto with the rest of the Port Lodges. Both were stunningly refurbished recently and designed for the visitor to leave impressed and quite frankly blown away by Portuguese and Symington hospitality.
When I first visited Portugal in 2013, the big producers, besides of course Taylor-Fladgate that just opened the gorgeous and successful Yeatman restaurant (2 Michelin stars) and boutique hotel, were somewhat behind regarding wine tourism. The Symington family must have received the memo, as they have since then moved up to the top of the list of the larger Port houses as far as hospitality offerings for wine tourism are concerned.
The Graham’s Port Lodge is a model of what a Port Lodge can be that can offer the visitor just about everything you would want from a great winery visit, walking out with a complete and satisfying experience no matter what your level of wine appreciation might be.
We were greeted warmly by a reception team that showed us around and taught us the history and processes of Graham’s, led by the fantastically charming and witty Isabela Monteiro. We started with the rich history of Graham’s, one of the earliest and most important Port shippers from the very early days of Port production that was founded in Porto in 1820. Photos and documents in the reception area stretched back through time with old shipping documents, paintings, and grainy photos. A real-life timeline shows the evolution of a bottle of Graham’s Port, starting with the flat, squat bottles that were some of the first to ever hold wine for sale in the world. The Port Lodge we were standing in was built in 1890, the same year that the Graham’s purchased Quinta dos Malvedos in the Douro Valley which today is the heart of the vineyards that make up the fruit sources for Graham’s Port wines. Interestingly enough, the first Symington in the Port trade, Andrew James Symington, came to Porto in 1882 and initially worked for Graham’s before moving on to become an independent Port shipper with much experience learned from his in-laws Port shipping company that spanned back to the 1650’s. From there Andrew Symington would go on to buy Warre’s in 1908 and then became a primary shareholder in Dow’s in 1912.
We descended to the blending and storage concrete tanks which were adjacent to the stocks of old vintage ports that went deep into the 20th century resting away in giant 550L wooden pipes (barrels). Another half level down took us to the cavernous barrel aging space where there were also enormous wooden casks used to blend the Tawny ports and age the LBV port. In neatly organized “coxias” (aisles) stacked four barrels high, throughout this level are stacks of pipes containing Tawny Port spanning every decade with some well over a century in age.
The Symington’s have a secret weapon, their own deeply experienced cooperage team that makes all of the pipes for all of the different brands they operate. This sets them apart not only because they can make their own barrels down to the exact specifications, they can repair any barrels on the spot. The majority of the barrels they use are older than 75 years of age, with many older than 100 years as they are reused. Practically antiques, these barrels will spring a leak from time to time and the team can remedy it immediately by deconstructing the barrel and rebuilding it with a new stave to fix the issue. To repair a barrel, it is completely deconstructed, each stave is numbered to keep the order to which the staves will be put back together so each stave is adjoined as it was originally as time has created a natural fit and seal between the staves.
Each Tawny Port is drawn from different barrels of different ages, that also contain wines of different ages, to comprise a blend of wine that is and has the ideal, typical, aromas, taste and feel of a 10, 20, 30 or 40-year Tawny Ports. For a Tawny labeled Colheita, we are talking about a single cask or set of barrels from one vintage that are bottled when the wines from those pipes show a spectacular and definitive individual character. To give you an idea of why and how the wines taste different without tasting them, think about the effects of oxygen and evaporation on the concentration of each wine. Tawny wine in a pipe for 10 years will reduce in volume on average by 22%, 40% for a wine in barrel for 30 years, while a 40-year-old barrel will have lost about 67% of its volume. This reduction in volume concentrates flavors, increases complexity, depth and further accentuates the effect of time on the reduction of color in the red wines to turn “Tawny” in color.
Each harvest, Port wines start their journey from grapes to wine once picking commences. The grapes are destemmed and then placed into large granite lagares (pool shaped vats) where they are crushed and macerated for 2-3 days. Each batch of wine made in a lagare is denoted as a separate lote (or lot). In many of the Douro Quinta, the grapes are crushed and macerated by foot treading. However, at Malvedos they use automated robotic lagares to process the initial, and very important, crushing and maceration of the grapes and wine must before it is fortified at about 6% natural alcohol strength with a brandy spirit of 77%, creating a wine that is about 20% of alcoholic strength. Wines are evaluated at that time and later to determine the quality so as to choose the path the wine will follow. It can be used right away in young, fresh, Ruby Ports, set aside for Vintage Port, or be set aside to age in Cask destined for a Tawny Port. In a given year, the Master Blender will taste and evaluate each lote, old and new. Trial blends are conducted and this helps the Master Blender plan out each barrel to determine what kind of wine it might end up being blended into (or not blended in rare cases of extraordinary quality). At Graham’s, no special scientific lab analysis is conducted, nor is there a set, secret recipe to create any specific kind of wine. The master skills and instinct of the Master Blender and his team are the only force that determines the fate of a Tawny Port wine at Graham’s.
As we made our way out to the tasting area, there were multiple places to relax and meld into the wine in your glass, one, in particular, has a great view of Porto and the Douro River. For a more serious sensory experience of the Graham’s Port wines, one can taste to their heart’s content in the library room which is set up for total immersion and analysis of the Port and table wines. Isabel walked us through each of the wines, who was an encyclopedia of Symington wine knowledge, as well as many other aspects of the Douro, Porto, and Portugal.
Not only are current release wines available to taste, but also back vintages of the older Vintage and Single Quinta Vintage Ports. Impressively, the rectangular table is lit from the bottom up with a white glass portion in the middle so you can assess color intensity effortlessly. The room had the look and feel of a club, with dark woods, with riveted chairs and couches. This should set the standard of Port Lodge tasting rooms if there ever was one. We were extra lucky to have the entire lodge to ourselves, minus one other small professional group as the lodge was technically closed that day.
I did not eat formally at the Graham’s restaurant, but the kitchen did make us a few small plates that were excellent to enjoy an early lunch on the patio overlooking the Douro and Porto. From what I read and heard the restaurant is quite good and should be on a short list of top restaurants to visit when in Porto. We enjoyed the beautiful warm late spring weather in late winter on the terrace with a few of the dry wines from a new Symington project focused on delivering quality, no fuss drinkability, at an easy price (Altano brand). We wrapped up an excellent visit and headed over to the opening of the Essencia do Vinho for a marathon tasting of wines from literally every corner of Portugal.
Graham’s 10-Year-Old Tawny Port
This was still showing some flecks of red in the obviously tawny color. The nose, while mostly tertiary roasted nuts and caramel, also showed some hints of the red fruits of the younger wines that are used in the blend of this wine. On the palate, the finish is long, sweet, but fresh with the flavors extending through the finish persistently. A great entry-level Tawny.
Graham’s 20-Year-Old Tawny Port
Known as one of the best 20 Year Tawny on the market, this did not disappoint, leaving behind any youthful red color or fruit notes. On the nose this was full on candyland with fruitcake, dried red and orange fruits, with crème caramel lingering on the nose. The palate is rich, with a mellow and smooth mouthfeel and a long, tertiary and sweet finish.
Graham’s 30-Year-Old Tawny Port
A lighter, pale tawny color from the amount of orange and amber in the color. The nose was full on tertiary, with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, while salted caramel, toffee, honey, candied figs, and oranges rose from the glass. These wines are quite the kaleidoscope as you get into the older ages. The palate, while elegant, is deeply rich, fresh and very persistent, excellent acidity.
Graham’s 40-Year-Old Tawny Port
The lightest in color of the four blended Tawny Ports, the color was a vibrant and deep amber. The nose and the palate were more elegant, more complex, less obvious and more finely layered than the rest of the range. Notes of dried apricots, candied orange, and orange zest, with salted caramel and toffee. The palate was dry and rich, with a zesty and vibrant acidity that boosted complex flavors to life and into the long and energetic finish.
1972 Graham’s Single Harvest Tawny Port
A pale Tawny in color this had layers of pale orange and golden amber. Incredibly complex, incredibly fresh, the nose was savory, with loads of citrus fruit, dried, candied and zest, with some tertiary touches of smoky and woodsy notes, along with dried red and gold fruits. The nose and palate were intensely complex. The palate was elegant, with fine layers, a gentle and fresh acidity that finished long and clean. You can literally taste the decades unfold and roll back on the palate to the insanely long finish.
2011 Graham’s LBV
A dense and opaque ruby colored core. Vinous notes of graphite, herbal spices, with mulled and rich black, blue and red fruits. Both the nose and palate came across quite dense. The palate showed the richness the nose hinted at, with a firm and dense palate of medium+ grained tannin and fresh acids. Quite a vinous example of a filtered LBV from an excellent year, don’t miss this one. I might even age one or two, but fair warning, it goes against conventional wisdom as filtered LBV Ruby Ports are not meant to be aged.
NV Six Grapes Reserve Port
A deep purple and ruby core. The nose shows plump and juicy red and black fruits, licorice, and baking spices. The palate comes across as fairly basic with a medium intensity compared to the LBV with less density, more fruit, and lighter tannin.
2000 Graham’s Vintage Port
The color is just starting to lighten at the edges, showing a little lighter ruby in color, though the core of the wine is still a deep ruby. The nose was a gorgeously complex mix of tertiary aromas of sweet leather, cedar, olive, savory, rosemary, with fresh and dried cherry, anise, and sweet licorice. The palate was deeply flavored and full of energy and complexity. The tannin was a perfectly ripe medium grain, while the texture on those tannins, a velvety and viscous coating, helped smooth out the structure and create a long, satisfyingly vinous finish. This was one of my favorites wines of the entire trip.
2004 Quinta do Malvedos Vintage Port
A vibrant, young ruby red rim and deep red core. The nose was charming and well fruited with fresh red cherry, plum, and blackberry notes, spiked with some tobacco, licorice and a subtle allspice accent. This showed very young, with firm but polished tannin. The finish was long and intense, with some bright acidity adding balance to the finish. I’d even go so far as to say it was showing a little tight, but it does show great potential.