Graham’s & Dow’s
The Symington Dynamic Duo
Graham’s Port Lodge, Porto
Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim, Pinhao, Douro Valley
In February 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 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, outside Taylor-Fladgate that just opened the gorgeous and successful Yeatman restaurant (2 Michelin stars) and boutique hotel, were pretty far behind in wine tourism. The Symington family must have received the memo as they have, in my eyes, since then, moved up to the top of the list of the big guys as far as hospitality offerings and service 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 team that was happy to show us around, led by the fantastically charming and witty Isabela Monteiro. We started out a little Graham’s history, a rich one having been an important shipper from the very early days of Port production back to the 1600s. Photos and documents in the reception area stretched back through time to the 1700s with old shipping documents, paintings and grainy photos from the early 1900s. 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. Most wine was sold in cask and distributed from cask to serving devices until these times.
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. Another level down took us to the cavernous barrel aging space where enormous wooden casks are used to blend the Tawny ports and age the LBV port. Deeper still into the cellars were the stacks of pipes, or barrels, used to age the Tawny Ports spanning decades to well over a century old. Stacked 4 high this formation is known as “Caixas”.
The Symingtons have a secret weapon, their own deeply experienced cooperage team that makes all of the barrels for all of the different brands they operate. This set then apart not only because they can make their own barrels down to the exact specifics, 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. 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 were originally.
Each Tawny Port is drawn from different barrels of different ages also containing wines of different ages to comprise a blend of wine that is and has the ideal, typical even, aroma, taste and feel of a 10, 20, 30 or 40 year Tawny. 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. For the Tawny 10 the wine is reduced on average by 20%, while the 40 will lose about 60%. 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.
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 with a great view of Porto and the Douro River. For a more serious look at 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 wines. Isabel walked us through each of the wines, an encyclopedia of Symington wine knowledge, as well as many other aspects of the Douro, Portugal and Portugal. I found her assessments quite honest and spot on for what I was tasting myself.
Not only are current release wines available to taste, but also back vintages of the older Vintage and Single Quinta Vintage Ports. Impressively, the table is lit from the bottom up with a white glass portion in the middle so you can assess color intensity. The room had the look and feel of a club, with dark woods, and riveted chairs and couches. This should set the standard of Port Lodge tasting rooms if there ever was one.
I did not eat formally at Graham’s restaurant “Vinum”, 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 spring weather in winter on the terrace with a few of the dry wines from a new Symington project focused on delivering high quality, no fuss, drinkability at an easy price. 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.
At the recently renovated Quinta do Bomfim, you are nestled along the river in the old Port processing buildings of Dow’s where many great Port wines have been made from the vineyards high above the Quinta in the hills of the Bomfim vineyards. Bomfim is at the center of the Douro Valley in what you can consider the core village of the Douro, Pinhao. Still a sleepy and quiet town, Pinhao has a few nice hotels and restaurants and is where most boat tours on the Douro depart from. If you are considering a visit just to the Douro Valley this is a great place to consider as you can get to the 3 subregions of the Douro Valley easily: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior.
At Bomfim there are some great things to see in the museum and the processing sections to get a better understanding of what life was like in the Douro Valley in the early days of Port processing in the 18th and 19th centuries. A demonstration of the synthetic foot treading machine is shown in person if you are lucky to see it during harvest, or on video, the first of its kind to mimic the pressure of a human foot on the grape. The idea here is that human treading does not break the grape seeds and extract bitter tannin that could be extracted from some seeds. There is also a benefit to the right degree of oxygen input into the grapes for ideal maceration and fermentation. Below ground are the centuries-old tanks and casks used to finish and blend wines before being blended and sent down river to Porto for aging in pipes. This section feels 200+ years old with the dowel-like pine supports for the roof.
Again here you can taste to your hearts content the entire range of Dow’s wines, as well as Vesuvio and some of the other Graham’s properties. The entire tasting room is well lit with large panoramic windows to take in the view of the Douro River and the surrounding mountains. Fortified Ports and the excellent dry table red wines are available to try and should absolutely not be missed. There are wines and Ports at all price points so again this too is a place for everyone to enjoy and experience.
My hats off to the Symington Family, and many thanks to my new friend Isabel for showing us such warm hospitality. This makes it three Symington property after Vesuvio that I have visited so far. Cockburn will be finished with its renovations by the time I go back, so that will be high on my list of places to see next.
20 Year Tawny Graham’s
Sweet, but elegantly so with pana cotta, creme brulee, an interestingly good cheese note like aged comte, dried oranges and roasted nuts. Delicious, persistent and a jovial tawny.
30 Year Tawny Graham’s
More serious, elegant, orange rind, dried star anise spice, lighter roasted nuts, slated caramel, elegant and toasty molasses, dried oranges. Good acidity and super long on the finish.
40 Year Tawny Graham’s
Lighter caramel brown, pure and elegant nose and a dry, zesty and vibrant, palate with excellent acidity. Orange rind, caramel, dark chocolate, dehydrated citrus, excellent sweetness and acidity balance.
1972 Colheita Graham’s Colheita
Gorgeous! Savory, citrus, smoky, woodsy, dried red and golden fruits, caramel, toasted almond, warm dark chocolate. The density of this is pretty special, similar to the 30 and 40, but with its own individual character being a single vintage bottling. A great birth year wine!
2011 Graham’s LBV Port
Graphite, herbal, mulled black, blue and red fruits, dense, nose. Fresh acids, firm and fine tannin. Long, lush vintage, this is a great LBV considering the excellent reputation of the 2011 Vintage Ports.
6 Grapes Reserva Port
Red-fruited, higher acidity, softer, more polished tannin, long and elegant red fruit and chocolate finish.
2000 Graham’s Vintage Port
A gorgeous nose that is about 25% tertiary and the rest primary, lush, sexy, red lifted and savory fruits of cherry and plum, raspberry too. Showing wonderfully with hints of maturity and refinement. Savory notes are picked up of olive, rosemary, thyme, ripe and delicious red cherry, anise spice and licorice. Plenty firm, but relenting tanning and a long, persistent finish. Excellent.
2004 Vintage Port Quinta dos Malvedos (Single Quinta)
Young ruby Red, fruitier, super young still, firm but polished tannin, very dry with very good acidity. A baby so give this a fe wmore years to settle down.
1995 Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port
Floral, light spice, red fresh fruits like cherry and raspberry, light mocha notes, sweet leather and sweet tobacco, and a hint of minerality. The palate is figgy and plum, chocolate, spice, cedar, a light smoky finish with a long, tight finish.
1985 Dow’s Vintage Port
Awesome, so vinous and complex, very dry, subtle intensity that grow on the palate. Mocha, cherry, currants, plum and spices galore. Elegance in a Port, refined with excellent acidity.
2012 Quinta do Vesuvio Tinto (Red Table Wine)
Excellent, 75% Touriga Nacional, 20% Touriga Franca, 5% Tinta Morella
100% French oak
50% malo in barrel
Beautiful and pronounced nose, very open and inviting, Great acidity, black cherry, sweet spices, sweet and we’ll integrated oak.
2005 Quinta do Bomfim Vintage Port (Single Quinta)
Excellent, cassis, blueberry, pencil lead, with sweet pepper spices, savory slight herbal notes (in a good way), a mineral beam core adds energy and freshness, love this.