Port sales have been slipping over the past few years. So what, if you are a large producer with extensive vineyard holdings in the Douro region of Portugal, do you do?
If you are Symington Family Estates, owners of the Dow’s, Graham’s, and Warre’s brands, among others, the answer, as any business school freshman will tell you, is to diversify. And in the case of port, that means you have to begin making table wine.
But, as in most winemaking situations, that’s not as simple as it seems.
Symington started serious experiments with table wine in 2000, and I asked the president, Rupert Symington, if the company originally tried to make still wine in a port winery. "We did. For years we were making table wine as a byproduct," he said. "But you ended up with a lot of tannic extraction. And as the wine aged, the fruit would dry out, and all [that] got left was a mouthful of leathery tannin."
So he really had to start from scratch. "Everyone learnt the same lessons at the same time: don’t make dry port," Symington continued. "This is a project you have to look at on an independent basis. You couldn’t just do it as an afterthought; you have to think of it as a completely different business area from port. So we’ve learnt a hell of a lot over 10 years."
The business now has a winery exclusively dedicated to producing table wines, and the results are spectacular, as this week’s Wine of the Week, the Vale do Bomfim 2008 ($12), glowing demonstrates.
Soft and approachable with layers of subtle, appealing earthiness, the red fruit is touched with hints of pepper and spice. Chewy and juicy, it’s a wine pungent with the heat of the Douro high country.
As Symington describes it, "It’s a wonderful combination of very old vineyards, with good, correct, modern winemaking—which is a magical combination."
The Duoro’s attempt to move beyond port is hampered by high unit costs. Precipitously steep vineyards and low yields drive up production costs and make the wines expensive compared with the competition from Chile or Australia. And the Douro has still to develop a reputation for table wines, so there is a definite upper limit to what producers can charge.
This is a conundrum for Symington but a great opportunity for the consumer. "We don’t sell this wine at $7, because we can’t afford to. Luckily there’s enough of a quality market in the States, with people who are prepared to go a little bit higher to find something different, and that’s working in our favor right now."
And in the favor of the savvy wine drinker, too, the sort of drinker who’s looking for a well-made, modestly priced wine with more than a touch of Old World personality.
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When to Drink: Now
Breathing/Decanting: 1 hour’s breathing helps
Food Pairing: Red meats, stews, casseroles, soft cheeses
Grapes: Tinta Barroca 55%, Tinta Roriz 22%, old mixed vines 17%, Touriga Nacional 3%, Touriga Franca 3%