Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review of Decanter's Great Port Wine Weekend

Decanter, the leading wine magazine in the UK, implemented a program last year to bring a select group of its readers to top-end Bordeaux estates in order to meet and interact with the winery managers.  The intent of the program was to increase the Decanter value proposition in the eyes of these readers.  This initial effort was extremely successful from the reader's point-of-view (see my review here) and, apparently, from Decanter's  also, because they opted to repeat the effort this year, this time calling it the Great Port Wine Weekend.  This year's event differed from last year's in that it: was held in Portugal's Douro region rather than in France's Bordeaux; extended from Thursday to Sunday, rather than the two days covered by last year's program; was held during harvest so that we could observe and (participate in) the process; had a significant fortified wine (Port) component; had separate vitivinification and maturation aspects due to the structure of the Port trade.

Decanter leveraged its standing and relationships in the wine world to provide its readers with a four-day package that had the leading lights of the Port industry showcasing the leading Port locales in an encompassing, breathtaking fashion.  First, the level and intensity of executive access was unparalleled.  Every single activity in which we participated was led by some combination of Paul Symington, CEO,  Symington Family Estates, Nick Heath, Marketing Director, Taylor Fladgate and Yeatman, Adrian Bridge, CEO, Taylor Fladgate and Yeatman, Dominic Symington, Executive Director, Symington Family Estates, and Ana Margarida Morgado, PR Manager, Taylor Fladgate Yeatman.  For perspective, Symington Family Estates owns Graham's Port, Cockburn's, Dow's Port, Warre's Port, produces 30% of the world's premium Port, and is the largest vineyard owner in the Douro.

This "extreme access" began with an aperitif on the terrace and a private lunch in a private dining room (Both locales affording spectacular views of the the Douro and Porto) at the Yeatman Hotel, both hosted by its dapper Managing Director, Adrian Bridge.  The Decanter team was comprised of 11 readers, Sarah Kemp, Decanter Publishing Director, and Emma Franc, Decanter Events Manager and this was our kickoff meeting.  A glorious start to what would turn out to be a glorious weekend.  Adrian's welcome was very warm and he stayed with us for the duration, a practice to which we became accustomed over the four days.

This was only the beginning, however.  Both Paul Symington and Nick Heath took us on a tour of the Factory House and then hosted us for dinner in this fabulous historical structure.  And this level of executive attention and care continued until Dominic Symington deposited us into the buses that would take us from Graham's Quinto dos Malvedos to the airport at Porto on Sunday evening for our trip back to London.  And every day was chock full of activities.

Nick Heath, Marketing Director, Taylor Fladgate and Yeatman

Paul Symington, CEO, Symington Family Estates

Over the course of the four days we met the winemakers at Quinta do Vesuvio (a very important Symington Estate in the Douro) and Quinta dos Malvedos (a Graham's property), the viticulturist at Quinta do Vesuvio, and the head of Viticulture for all Symington properties.  The upshot of this level of access was a constant immersion in the history of the region and its families, the viniviticulture of the Douro, maturation processes, soil, climate, the wines of the region, and the difficulty associated with farming here.

As one travels up the Douro River, whether by train or boat, one is struck by the beauty of the terraced vineyards on gently sloping hills which reach at once for the sky and the horizon.  Punctuating these vineyards are patches of scrubland, walnut and olive trees, and granite outcroppings.  The appreciation for the beauty of the landscape is tempered by a mental tip of the hat in recognition of the human effort that was required to transform this inhospitable environment into a setting wherein extreme agriculture could be practiced.  The river, placid as it is, has been known to rise up and break a rib or two of the unsuspecting water-skier.

Occurring as it did in the midst of harvest, this trip afforded us the opportunity to observe the winemaking process for the 2011 vintage.  Port is vinified in the upper reaches of the Douro and then shipped downriver for maturation the following spring.  We visited three estates and were able to observe hand-harvesting of the varietals, the transportation of the picked grapes down to the winery, treatment of the grapes prior to crushing, various manual and mechanical crushing methods, fortification of the must, and the temporary storage of the fortified wine in the winery.  We participated in a manual crush but also gained an appreciation for the long hours that vineyard workers put in during harvest.  They are up at the crack of dawn and are picking grapes from 7:00 am until about 4:00 pm and are in the winery stomping grapes (gently) from 7:00 pm until 11:00 pm.

Our accommodations over the four days were an experience in and of themselves and contrasted luxury-living in a port town versus living on a working farm where the nearest convenience store is 40 kilometers away (When you forget to pick up milk on the way home you are not going back.).  The Yeatman Hotel, our place of abode in Gaia, is a new luxury hotel with all of the amenities.  The estate house at Quinta de Vesuvio is two-story, multi-bedroom structure with an attached church and no room-service button but we all jumped at the chance to stay on a working estate during harvest.  And this is not your every day rural farmhouse. It exuded warmth and charm which, in combination with the famed Symington hospitality, made us feel right at home.

We did not want for food or drink on this trip.  Being as close as it is to the Atlantic, fish dominates the Douro menu, with cod (for the most part slightly salted) as the victim of choice (Being a bacalou aficionado, I had no problem with this.).  The meals in the upper Douro were hearty and reminded me somewhat of Tuscan fare in its appropriateness for the land.  Drinks were always at hand either in the form of a tasting, an aperitif, or an accompaniment to a meal.  One popular aperitif is white port and soda on the rocks with a slice of lime and a mint leaf.  Very refreshing.  The meal progression is to first sit around in a circle and have a port-and-soda-fueled discussion before decamping to a nicely laid out table for the actual meal.

This trip was impeccably organized and well-managed on the ground.  I was not privy to the workings of the process but it was obvious that a yeoman Symington logistical effort underpinned the entire program.  Our transportation needs were frequent and varied but the bus, train, or boat was always there; and so were we. The concern for time, and respect for others, was especially evident in the cases where we were being handed off from Taylor's to Symington or vice versa.

If this program had been organized by anyone but Decanter I would have been advising them to get out now.  To quit while they were ahead.  I would have suggested that it would be exceedingly difficult to better  (and, after all, we always expect better) the experience that was afforded this year's participants.  That it would be hard to find partners who are so hospitable and generous with their time; so willing to include us in their family activities.  But after all, it is Decanter of whom we speak.  And it is Decanter to whom we will look next year for another mind-blowing experience.

I will detail the individual elements of our trip in future posts.

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