Symington Family Estates is a leviathan within the Port wine trade of the Douro valley: legendary marques, Warre's, Dow's and Graham's, the former production empire of Cockburn's, major interests in Madeira with Blandy's and winemaking partnership with Frenchman Bruno Prats, comprise an impressive fortified and still wine portfolio. Like the massive granite Pombal stones that rigidly denote the finest Quintas of the region, Symington stand alone as an individual beacon of integrity and the highest viticultural standards. Founded upon a long and great family tradition, S.F.E. has conquered the Port wine spectrum, with almost 1000 vine covered hectares and 22 Quintas, including the greatly revered Quinta do Vesuvio, their grade A and B grapes handsomely contribute to the region's impeccable winemaking record. Each respective property now has little to prove other than every successive vintage will be as good as the last. This solid reputation underpins the family firm's new generation of fine red table wines, strengthening the hands of two men whose discerning and meticulous approach have helped generate a new measure of respect for D.O.C. wines made in the world's oldest demarcated region.
Rupert Symington wields a cast iron fist within a seductively mellifluous Port wine glove. A great communicator, his eclectic personality offers a sharp wit akin to the Duke of Edinburgh, balanced by a thoughtful and responsible approach to business
Rupert Symington: reassuring and pragmaticethics and dedication to preserving his family firm's distinguished Douro heritage. Having perfected the art of the short sharp retort, over two corporate decades, encompassing city mergers and acquisitions in London and a spell at INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, he lends crisp forthright definition to the task of promoting his family's massive wine portfolio within a tough and discerning marketplace. Rupert Symington might not suffer fools gladly but he is no corporate bulldozer, he listens objectively and has that great ability to absorb multiple facts and figures before impressively offering concise analysis in a reassuring and pragmatic fashion. He is a wine professional whose business credentials would make any senior company executive feel the warm glow of a Tawny Port, secure in the knowledge that nothing would be left to chance. In his mid forties he is physically lean and trim with a head of tight curly fair hair, Symington's blue grey eyes are penetrating, emphasized by a frequently furrowed brow and strong laughter lines when amused, contrasting his rather inhibited aristocratic ventriloquist's smile. When animated or in conversation, he has an expressive face and illuminated countenance - though there is no hint of hedonistic tendencies or the broken veins of a devoted bon viveur, he is, in fact, reassuringly healthy with a passion for walking across the steep hillsides of the majestic Douro valley.
"a wine professional whose business credentials would make any senior company executive feel the warm glow of a tawny Port"
Rupert was born in 1964, a bad year for Port wine, but a good year for the Symington family lineage. Locally educated until the age of thirteen, he departed his native land for a boarding school life of cold baths and spartan conditions at the notoriously harsh Ampleforth College in north Yorkshire, an establishment noted for stretching and challenging its pupils to the limit. Thereafter, it was Oxford, followed by a five-year stint in the city of London as a breweries and leisure analyst with Nomura, where among many mega mergers, he reported on the unification of Grand Metropolitan with Guinness and the takeover of Irish Distillers by Pernod Ricard. Speaking of the latter, he mischievously says "I think we made Diageo and Pernod Ricard offer 20% more for Distillers simply by writing a provocative research note and placing it in the right hands"
This was clearly good training for Symington "it taught me to write concise financial reports in layman's language and because of this experience I am now largely responsible for a lot of the planning at Symington Family Estates." This ability to cut through the inconsequential and superfluous, while getting to the heart of the matter, is a distinctive character trait and though Rupert might occasionally be described as brusque, offering a fair impression a man late for his morning train, this directness of style holds a particular appeal for those he encounters. After leaving the city, Symington took six months off from the routine of work, during which time he headed for South Africa and Australia to study winemaking facilities. Making copious notes and building a comprehensive knowledge, which, he says, "nobody is ever likely to consult me on", nevertheless, he is well placed to make informed decisions and contribute to matters technical when it comes to winemaking - in short, he became very well informed on many levels. After this brief African sojourn he went to work for one of S.F.E.'s importers in San Francisco where he met his American wife.
'a great communicator.. with an eclectic personality'
After a year at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France's famed business school for high flyers, Rupert Symington returned to his native land with his new wife and the prospect of an exciting career in fine wine working for Symington Family Estates. He says "in a family business I think it is important to feel you have done something else - you need to stand on your own two feet. Though I was not a board member immediately, I was 28 when I arrived here and did come in at a senior position, rather than coming in as a ‘young son'. My only regret is not to have received formal training in wine tasting at an early age." Before going up to Oxford, Symington did spend nine months working in the Australian wine business with Seppelts, Bullers and briefly with Chambers. "I did some hands on winemaking at an early age and this kind of experience gives you a clear idea of what it takes to make dry reds." This was in the early 1980's, just before the explosion of interest in Australian wines and their ensuing commercial success internationally.
There are currently seven family members in charge of running the company, each has his or her own area of special interest or expertise, Rupert explains: "Peter Symington has an extraordinary palate and is in charge of blending and stock management. Charles, his son, is in control of viticulture - basically looking after the vineyards and wineries. We are now at a crossroads with Peter, his retirement is only eighteen months away as we have compulsory retirement at age 65 within S.F.E. Charles will probably move more into blending and find someone to help out with viticulture, it is simply too much work for one man with nearly a thousand hectares of vineyard under our ownership. There is a lot of wine to be made and consequently a lot of blending. Dominic Symington has a strong background in sales at Fells (S.F.E. now own this leading UK based wine importer) and is an important brand ambassador for the company. He handles important developing markets as well as helping me in the U.S.A. In addition, there is a U.S. based CEO and sales manager, Peter Scott helping to co-ordinate business. Our D.O.C. wines are handled by three distinct organizations: our own company, Premium Port Wines Inc, Vineyard Brands for Altano and the negociant place in Bordeaux for Chryseia and Post Scriptum."
" ...I learnt the other day that most family firms do not survive past the 4th generation"
Paul Symington looks after the U.K. and respective marketing issues associated with this, Johnny takes care of the larger European customers and vintage Port planning and development, while Clare Symington, based in the U.K, keeps a watchful eye on Vintage Port sales at auction - so we all have our own sphere of influence." When asked if he is a tough guy in business, Rupert answers by saying he is more of a ‘back office man', who is not aggressive but strongly opinionated and intolerant of commercial stupidity. "I generate a lot of noise if I see something I vehemently disagree with and make my opinions felt. In a family business one has to be respectful of other people's positions, I am a reasonably large shareholder in the company and will not tolerate losing money" Symington Family Estates is now in its fifth generation and when the subject of longevity is raised, Rupert says "I learnt the other day that most family firms do not survive past the 4th generation!"
Charles Symington: self effacing and modestCharles Symington's self-effacing and somewhat reticent demeanour, offers a distinct and pronounced contrast to his cousin Rupert's self assured style. The two men compliment one another well, each having gained an impeccable academic record and a relatively broad range of wine experiences, before eventually settling into their respective positions within the family business. Charles was born in Portugal and at 39 years of age is the youngest member of the Symington board. Educated in his native country until age 11, he transferred to the UK for prep school at Farleigh in Hampshire followed by Downside, the noted public school near Bath, then a first class university education at Kings College London, where he studied chemistry. Taking a degree in food science, a course from which many graduates move on to major food companies including Rowntree Macintosh, Mars, Tesco and Sainsburys , Symington was trained to work on the technical side of the food industry, a grounding he firmly believes has helped him to understand just how food works with wine. "What is perceived as a ‘tedious' side to the trade and the part that many people prefer to forget about, is something in which we are heavily involved at all times. Health and safety requirements play an important part in facilitating business with major companies like Tesco and Sainsburys. If you are studying food chemistry you understand what happens when food is cooked or frozen, the changes that occur. Known as HACCP, the analysis of hazards and critical control points. Most people do not know what these are, but if you want to do business with the food giants you will need to have all of these systems in place - clients expect you to know what they are talking about when it comes to issues of food safety. If you do not know then you will not be doing business, it is as simple as that!"
After gaining his degree, Charles went briefly to South Africa for the harvest and once back in Europe, began work in Rioja studying for his MSC in oenology and viticulture, "it was close to home and I was familiar with some of the same varietals which we were already using in Portugal". Additionally, respected viticulturist Iain Richardson, of the acclaimed Mouchão estate in southern Portugal's Alentejo region, offered encouragement by recommending Rioja as a suitable place for Charles to complete his formal wine education. After Spain came London for a two year period in marketing with wine importer Fells. "I am so glad I did this, it was a marvellous experience and I got to know all of our clients." Before moving back to the Douro in 1995, he flew out to Chile for more hands on experience working the long harvest within the South American wine empire of Miguel Torres.
Back to the Douro
Since Charles Symington assumed his position at S.F.E., the majority of his time has been spent in the vineyards of the high Douro, rather than Vila Nova de Gaia next to Porto, where the company's Port Lodge headquarters are situated. When speaking with Charles it seems perfectly clear where his heart lies, his passion for working amid the vines in an outdoor laboratory brings him the greatest personal satisfaction. "Since 1995 I have spent much of my time transforming the viticulture at Symington estates and this area of the business has now changed beyond recognition. Labour costs have increased and social evolution has taken place... one of the big changes at Symington is the complete move away from employing individual estate managers, known as ‘Caseiro' at every Quinta. When I first joined the company one of the biggest problems was excess labour, today we have perhaps only thirty percent of our original workforce. The Douro had been isolated for so long and many people were entrenched in their ways - ‘things have always been done this way and this is the way it must remain'... it was extremely difficult for a young chap to come along and say it was all going to change" Symington estates consolidated their infrastructure with vineyard acquisitions and new plantings, while continuing to grow the business. "When I began we were in a position to produce table wines but did not have the infrastructure to do the job." During the 1980's Symington had grown significantly and during the 90's had to consolidate the internal framework to permit continuation of their port wine business... "there really was no free capacity in terms of people or the physical ability to do more" Within three months of Charles Symington's arrival in the Douro, the firm began to build a new winery at the recently acquired Quinta do Sol near Régua. "From day one I was concerned about our capacity which is why we built the new winery, it was a major investment for us at the time..." thinking for a second he adds, " and I think we have built a new winery every two years since."
There seems a continual quest for renewal at this family firm and since the original capital outlay of 1.5 Million Euros in 1996 for Sol, the family have continued to plough in funds. By building such a massive facility with room for expansion, they are able take on new projects at relatively short notice, providing them with a great deal of flexibility and the invaluable facility to grasp new opportunities. In the late 1990's when Bordeaux winemaking giant Bruno Prats appeared over Portugal's northern horizon, the Symingtons were able to adapt quickly, "we said to Bruno, ‘we do have the space' - the walls and roof were already in place, so we installed the tanks and equipment, and got on with the job of making wine"
"when I began we were in a position to produce table wines but did not have the infrastructure to do the job"
On a personal level Charles Symington's modest disposition makes him reluctant to examine his own virtues and abilities. He is not an impatient man and values commonsense. He says, "in a company like ours production probably absorbs sixty percent of capital investment, therefore, I am effectively responsible for managing all of that and decisions on that scale have to be taken by the board members, though when it is obvious something must be done, we do not drag our feet and get on and do it... our decision making is based on logic." He reveals he is extremely practical and the more romantic Symington genes probably rest with his cousin Paul. "I think running a family firm is a bit like managing your own household from day to day... it is knowing what you can afford and making ends meet. Good housekeeping is based on a lot of commonsense." Speaking of ambition..."I am ambitious to make very good wines - making good wine is in the detail and I certainly will not settle for second best"
In his first year at S.F.E. Charles laid out an experimental rootstock vineyard at Quinta da Cavadinha near Pinhão... "we tried to determine the best rootstocks for differing varieties of grape. Recently we have been experimenting with different clones of the same varieties, on a single rootstock. Each clone responds with very particular characteristics according to the individual terroir of each estate. Rootstock used for all Douro gape varieties in the past was very vigorous and hardy, but not necessarily the most interesting in terms of quality. I think we have now determined two or three which are far less vigorous, but more appropriate for the grape varieties we have, as a result, they will help regulate our production."
A passion for viticulture
Prats & Symington at Quinta do SolCharles Symington is a very strong believer in viticulture and that work in the vineyard determines everything. He continues, "what happens in the winery has changed little over recent years, in terms of winemaking techniques, they are pretty much standardized, a lot of fine tuning takes place, but it does not make so much difference to the finished product." He ventures that a correctly laid out vineyard, in the right place with the right exposure, is the most important element. "If you look at Port wines, these are the most fantastic wines we have ever made, I fully appreciate that wines from the past were very good, but I have no doubt those we make today are even better. Douro wine making is less hit and miss than it used to be - I believe people now tend to drink a lot of vintage port at a younger age because it is so floral and full of fruit. The structure is still there but the modern wines are more fragrant... as they age their subtle characteristics will begin to show through - a twenty year old vintage port will not have those showy aromas, but for short term drinking these fruity, floral notes are important. I think it is clear that D.O.C. wines are a perfect compliment to Port wines made in the Douro... there are synergies within the commercial area. We only became seriously involved in Douro D.O.C. from 2000, before this, the Douro did not have sufficient grape production. During a great many vintages there was a shortage of grapes for Port wine, so table wine was never really an issue and its value was nowhere near that of Port ... if it was necessary to make a choice for the use of your grapes, it had to be Port."
"I fully appreciate that wines from the past were very good, but those we make today are even better"
Due to increased grape production in the Douro, Symington have enough quality fruit to service both areas. "I think it is important to say this because some people think we were sleeping in the past... to market a commercial brand you need to be certain of grapes every year. I feel passionate about table wine and think the Douro has been very fortunate to have several good vintages in succession, therefore, we have had a lot of opportunities to make good table wine. Though there is definitely room for improvement - we have vines of exceptional quality and our wines are made to an extremely high standard - what we need more than anything else is recognition. If you put some of our top wines from the Douro alongside those from anywhere in the world, I do not think we need to worry about hitting the mark."
I am excited about the new Vesuvio D.O.C. wine, it has actually been a big objective and taken a few years to develop. We did a lot of planting at Vesuvio which now allows us to begin producing a premium table wine - up until now we have been using grapes from Quinta do Vesuvio for Port wine and Chryseia. Having planted nearly 30 hectares of vineyards at the Quinta between 2000 and 2001, this new vineyard is giving us more material to work with. This has been quite a long process but we are going through the necessary steps... it has not been as immediate as we would have liked, but it is necessary to have the right grape varieties. We are also likely to produce table wines from our estate in Vilariça so are definitely not sitting still, but looking at a whole raft of different ideas."