World of Wine

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Rupert Symington

Premium Port Wines

Editors’ Note

Rupert Symington is a fourth generation member of the Symington family, Port shippers in Portugal since 1882. Symington is joint CEO of the family businesses along with his cousins Paul and Johnny, and is specifically responsible for sales for the U.S. and Canada, as well as other smaller markets. Additionally, he is the acting Vice President of the Madeira Wine Company and oversees the family’s investments in Prats & Symington (Chryseia). Symington first attended school in Portugal and then at Ampleforth in the United Kingdom before earning a degree in Mathematics at Oxford University in 1985. Following a five year stint in the financial sector in London and upon completing the M.B.A. program at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, he joined the family business in 1992. As per tradition in the Symington family, he worked alongside his father, James, for five years prior to James’ retirement.

Company Brief

Symington Family Estates (www.symington.com) is the leading producer of premium quality Ports, with the combined sales of the family’s Port companies making up over a third of all premium Port sold throughout the world. Seven Symingtons work in the family business, six from the 13th generation in the Port trade via their great grandmother, Beatrice Atkinson. From managing the Douro vineyards through the winemaking, aging, and tasting, a member of the family is directly responsible for every bottle of Port they produce. Today, Symington Family Estates owns and operates several of the premium Port houses in Oporto, including such esteemed brands as W. & J. Graham, Dow, and Warre.

Can you give a brief overview of the structure of the business and explain how the family environment and culture has led to the success of the brand?

The family model is ideal for the wine business because wine, and particularly Port, is a long-term business. It takes a long time to grow vineyards and to mature wines, and we feel that the know-how that can be passed on from father to child is very important to the whole culture of our company, including the way we interact with our suppliers and farmers, and how we interact with our public, our consumers, and our trade customers. The way we’ve set it up is that two of us look after the winemaking and production, and five of us are involved in the sales and commercial side, so we can be in touch with the two most important areas of our business.


The Douro vineyards of Symington Family Estates

With regard to the product, what are you offering today, and do you foresee any changes or extensions for the company?

Our chief business has always been Port, and that is 95 percent of what we do. In the late ’80s, we took an investment in a Madeira producer, which we do alongside the Port. It’s a different wine altogether, but it gives a nice counterbalance to our regular business. More recently, we’ve branched out into dry reds from the Douro vineyard region, so the region now has two appellations: one for Port and a parallel one for Douro DOC, which is a dry red or white wine.

Can you provide an overview of the recently declared 2007 vintage, and the significance of it?

The Vintage Port declaration only happens about three times a decade, and we only do it when we’re quite sure the wines are of exceptional quality. In fact, we’re one of the few wine regions where we let the consumer know ahead of time which wines to really buy. The 2007 had exceptional conditions. We’ve been looking at those wines quite critically for the past 18 months, and early this year, we decided to declare the vintage, which is a difficult decision to make. We’ve got to make sure the wines are up to the standard to which they aspire so they’ve got the staying power. Obviously, the economic conditions aren’t ideal to be selling wines for around $80 or $90, but we’re optimistic that the wines are very good and if people don’t buy them today, then they’ll buy them when there is a recovery.

Does technology play a role in either production or elsewhere in the winemaking process, or is it still done the way it’s been for years?

Until the 1960’s, we made a significant amount of our Port by foot treading, because mechanical methods would crush the seeds while breaking the skins, which would often result in a much more tannic wine. But in the late ’90s, we developed a robotic treading machine, which has replicated the human process of foot treading and it adds temperature control. We’ve now applied this technology to nearly all our top quality wines. It’s still a more expensive process than generic Port making, but it brings extraordinary results.

Have environmental concerns been a focus for Symington Family Estates, with regard to both sustainability issues and in terms of what you’re doing out in the field?

Very much so. We now have just over 900 hectares of vineyard. And we run those vineyards on a very strict minimum intervention basis. We minimize the use of any sort of pesticides, and we don’t really use herbicides anymore. We try to hoe back all the weeds into the vineyard using a tractor rather than using any weed killers. We have about 17 hectares and two different parcels under fully organic treatment, and we have a project to increase that to another 150 hectares of vineyard.

Do you foresee new areas and categories for Symington Family Estates in the future, or are you in the right places for you to be producing?

There is enormous potential within our own region. The most exciting development at the moment is the dry red area. We have that wonderful combination of mature vineyards and a large supply of very good grapes, which are showing that they can be transformed very successfully into something other than Port. Port still does sell at a much better average price than table wines, but the table wines are starting to get some international recognition, which will give them the scope not just to sell on price but to sell on their intrinsic quality.

There are so many positives to a family business, but it would seem the challenge is in getting away from the business. Are you ever able to have family time that’s not business time?

The positives of having a family business is that you’re working for yourself, but on the negative side, it is very difficult to take a sabbatical. As Joint Managing Director with two of my cousins, I could pass that responsibility on to somebody in due course, but it would be very difficult to take a back seat in this business. I’d eventually like to spend more time with the wines and our vineyards and perhaps less time dealing with running the business.