Grapevine: Portuguese wine is not just about port

Simon Symington and his vineyards

Simon Symington and his vineyards - Credit: Archant

Liz Sagues meets an evangelist producing quality reds in the Douro Valley.

Just occasionally, I meet a true evangelist for wine – and that happened the other day. Paul Symington is one of three cousins who jointly head the renowned family port house. But his message wasn’t about port. He was spreading the word about the table wines of the Douro Valley.

And the creed was simple: “We believe we can make really exceptional wines that are unique.”

Nowhere else in the world, he argued, has what the Douro Valley offers – its steep, steep slopes, for example, make hilly Burgundy “look like a billiard table”; the six principal red grape varieties (all, with just the exception of tinta roriz, the Spaniards’ tempranillo, particular to the valley) are blended together nowhere else; its rainfall equals London’s where the river meets the sea but is barely a quarter of that in the vineyards 100-plus miles inland; there are big variations in temperature and in the acid/alkaline levels and organic content of the soils; the yields of its vines are among the lowest in the world.

“Nobody has anything close to what we have in the Douro. The Douro will become as well known for its terroir and special regions as Burgundy is today.”

So far, so good. But why aren’t the world’s fine wine shops overflowing with this Portuguese liquid gold?

This is largely because the grapes have traditionally almost all been used to make the many styles of port. Their character as dry, unfortified wine has emerged properly only over recent decades, partly because growers and wine makers realised their potential and partly because the fall in port’s popularity left a lot of the harvest unwanted.

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But the proof is in the tasting, and it’s fascinating that while the older wines are generally excellent – and in one instance simply wonderful – there seems a noticeable step up in quality with newer vintages.

Experiencing these wines doesn’t have to break the bank. Altano Quinta do Ataíde, from Symingtons’ organically-tended vineyards in the upper Douro, costs £12-£13 (,,

The current vintage is 2010, which I haven’t tasted, but given the delights from 2011 and the pure and beautiful 2012, it should be a worthwhile experiment.

At the top of the Symington table wine pinnacle is Chryseia, from the P+S project begun in 1999 between the port producers and Bruno Prats of Château Cos d’Estornel in Bordeaux – a partnership rewarded last year with the 2011 vintage named number three in The Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines of the world list.

That is an extraordinarily intense wine, now a foetus rather than simply a baby, whose maturity will be well worth any wait. Will it surpass the sublime 2004, a wine recognised as of Bordeaux first growth quality and of which only a few cases remain unsold?

Last week, Hedonism Wines in Davies Street, Mayfair (, had nine bottles available of this precious liquid, £48.50 – a remarkably good price for such a special and immediate pleasure (the elegant 2012 is £58.70).

But if these are beyond reach, for just £10 at Waitrose you can buy the organic version of the wine with which the Symingtons began this journey,

Altano – tasty and enjoyable, but still a serious demonstration of Douro quality.

This story isn’t finished yet. “We have come a long way, but there is a huge amount to learn still,” says Paul Symington.