The name Symington is synonymous with producing high quality Port wine over several generations. Today, the family owns and operates 4 of the world’s most renowned Port houses: Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, and Cockburn’s. Quinta do Bomfim was purchased by Dow’s in 1896 and has the distinction of producing two of the most sought after vintage ports by collectors: the 2007 Dow’s Vintage Port (a 100-point wine as per Wine Spectator) and the 2011 Dow’s Vintage Port (ranked by WS as the best wine in the world in 2014).
Quinta do Bomfim sits in the heart of the Douro Valley on the north bank of the Douro River, a short walk from the Vintage House hotel in the village of Pinhão where we happened to be staying.
The Quinta adopted the name ‘Bomfim’ from the surrounding area originally known as “Vale do Bomfim”, which translated means “well-placed valley”. The Symington family entered the picture when Andrew Symington became a partner at Dow’s 16 years after Bomfim was purchased. Not long after, he moved into the winery lodge with his family making it his primary residence.
A visit to Quinta do Bomfim is a lesson in history where a combination of tradition is blended with modern techniques. We were greeted by our guide inside the onsite museum which provides a fascinating visual timeline emphasizing the Symington family involvement.
In addition to the black and white photos that adorn the walls alongside a few historical pieces of equipment encased in glass, there is some very rare footage of barrels full of port being shipped down the Douro River in the traditional ‘rabelo’ boats. It is fascinating to watch the rabelos attempt to navigate the treacherous currents in the days before there were dams—a far cry from our afternoon spent leisurely drifting along the same route 100+ years later!
Today, Symington’s is the largest landowner in the Douro Valley with over 1,000ha under vine across 26 Quintas (Estates).
Each brand owned by Symington’s is designated a set of Quintas that only produce for that brand to ensure each consistently maintains its own distinct personality.
For example, Dow’s only uses the grapes from Quinta do Bomfim and 3 other estates whose terroir produces more muscular, powerful wines with notable spice characteristics and a long, dry finish. Whereas for Graham’s, the wine produced from the fruit of their designated Quintas produce a more elegant, fruit forward wine where the sweetness is more pronounced.
Quinta do Bomfim has 99ha total with 75ha under vine planted to Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Borroca, Alicante Bouschet, and Sousão. The Symington family invested heavily over the past 6 decades initially updating the winery with modern equipment and then building a new winery both to maintain quality and increase efficiency.
In the 1960s, autovinificators were introduced to increase production and be less dependent on the manual labour needed to continue the traditional method of crushing grapes by foot stomping them in shallow cement tanks known as lagars.
The new modern winery was completed in 2015 next to the original winery warehouse and it features 6 modern lagars each with 16 pipes, replicating approximately the same size of a traditional lagar.
During harvest, the winery receives the grapes upstairs where selection and destemming is performed first. The fruit is then moved to the front of the winery by a tube along the wall which fills each of the modern lagars. The machine has little feet made of silicone that provide the same pressure as an average man (80kg) at a temperature of 56-57 degrees Celsius which they’ve calculated is the average body temperature while performing this task. The machine gently crushes the grapes over a 36-40 hour period in the middle of fermentation.
If the winery is producing a dry wine, they’ll let the machine driven ‘foot stomping’ happen until the end of fermentation when all the natural sugars transform into alcohol. For the Port wines, they add wine spirits made up of 77% alcohol that is completely neutral which kills all the yeast thus stopping fermentation.
Harvest typically begins mid to late September lasting about a month and the wines stay at Bomfim until the beginning of spring. Once spring arrives, the wines are shipped to Dow’s cellars in Gaia where any blending of varieties is done. The finished wines are then aged there until they are ready to be released to the market.
We concluded our fascinating tour of Bomfim with a tasting that included a Dow’s 10-year-old Tawny, a 2015 Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port, and our highest rated wine of the trip, the Dow’s 1985 Vintage Port. Sipping through that lineup on their patio accompanied by stunning views overlooking the Douro River provided the perfect finish to an afternoon well spent in the Douro Valley.
Dow’s Late Bottle Vintage Port
LBV is probably the gateway drug to vintage port. It has most of the plummy richness but at a fraction of the price. Just not quite the same intensity or complexity. This is a great introduction to the LBV style. There are enough tannins to keep definition as well as the dryness that shows the Dow’s style, but otherwise this is all about smoothness. Plum notes are joined by subtle hints of baking spices. LBV is generally drunk young, but this wine seemed to have aging potential as well and could be on the ascent for another 5 to 7 years.
Dow’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port
Showing the classic tawny traits of fig, caramel, and a hint of nuts this wine offered more acidity than the LBV and comes across as a bit more of a serious drink. Barrel notes are the signature for tawny and this is no exception with vanilla and hints of smoking adding to the complexity. We picked up dried cherry and dried cranberry which provided a nice fruity offset to the caramel flavours. More rich than smooth, this hit all the right notes of sensuality.
Dow’s 1985 Vintage Port
Very possibly the wine of the trip, this is everything a port drinker could want. 37 years after the vintage this wine is extremely complex and showing no signs of any impending senility. Plum and blackberry flavours are supported by a myriad of subtle secondary notes: dried cherry, dates, raisins, baking spices and walnuts to name but a few. Smooth as can be and decadently rich, this wine is a hedonists delight. Tannins are still present, though very much in the background. We bought a bottle, brought it home, and consumed it over Christmas. Every bit as good as the bottle drunk in Portugal. A magical wine.
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