Coopering, the age-old craft of making and repairing barrels, is alive and well in Vila Nova de Gaia, where Symington’s is fortunate to have its own cooperage. All of the Graham’s ports are aged in wood for some period of time, up to 60 years for wines destined for blending into our tawnies, so the importance of the coopers’ work cannot be underestimated.
No new barrels are used for aging our ports – whilst our winemakers value the qualities only oak can impart to our wines, we rely on old wood to develop a subtle complexity. Wooden vessels allow a slow, gentle exchange of oxygen and evaporation of 1 – 3% over the course of a year. For wines aged in barrel for an extended period of time this leads to an overall concentration of the primary fruit flavours and the development of secondary flavours such as toffee, nuts, spice or chocolate, as well as the development of the rich golden amber colour of tawny ports. Older barrels will have developed a crust of sediment – it is said that the barrels drink some of the wine themselves – which slows the oxygenation process just a little more.
When one of our barrels – whether a 550 litre pipa or a multi-thousand litre balseiro – needs repair, the staves are numbered and the barrel disassembled, then painstakingly rebuilt. Staves are re-planed to smooth out damaged sections or replaced from a supply of old staves. When a piece of wood is beyond any chance of repair or re-use in a barrel, it can still serve one last purpose: fuel to grill sardines for lunch!
The work is done entirely by hand, as it has always been – neither tools nor tasks have changed between the early 20th and early 21st centuries.
As the barrel is re-assembled, reeds are wedged between staves to fill any minute gaps and ensure a perfect seal. Barrel heads, the top and bottom pieces, are fitted into place and sealed with a natural clay.
For hundreds of years, port was shipped in cask to be bottled at destination by wine merchants or the consumers themselves, a practice that was only discontinued in the 1970’s. Every such shipping cask was labelled with its ultimate destination, and the old stencils still hang on the wall in our cooperage. Whilst the wine is now shipped in bottle, the destinations haven’t changed – Graham’s is still enjoyed today in Belfast, Philadelphia, Manchester, Liverpool and Rouen, as well as many other locations world-wide.