A Day in the Life of Charles

As winemaker for Graham’s and all the Symington wines, responsible for the safe harvest of 950 hectares of vines across the Douro, Charles Symington has a slightly hectic few weeks every autumn.  Tuesday, 21 September was a fairly typical day, and Cynthia had a chance to meet him at Malvedos and shadow him for the rest of the afternoon as he made his rounds in the Douro.

Graham’s Sales Director, Euan Mackay, had come up from Gaia to spend the day with Charles, so they had already had some discussions about the overall state of harvest, the wines being made, and commercial affairs before arriving at Malvedos at 11:00.  First order of business was of course a visit to the winery, where he greeted the workers, all of whom, except Carlos our oenological student, he has known and worked with for years.

Checking out the robotic lagar the morning after its first night of treading

Henry then updated Charles on what parcels of grapes have been picked so far, how the wine in Lagar 1 is shaping up, and findings about the grapes coming into Lagar 2.  Together they checked the wine and grapes, and then Fonseca and Charles checked over the robotic lagar to ensure all was in perfect working order after its first night’s treading.  We are pleased to report it wan’t a bit tired, and was deemed fit and ready to work the second lagar, which it did later that afternoon and evening.

Charles strikes a pose, Masai is less co-operative

Next, a photographer was visiting to shoot at Quinta dos Malvedos for a story which will appear on Bloomberg soon, and of course he wanted a glamourous photo of Charles in his vineyards, wine glass in hand (not his usual modus operandi, by the way).  This is not so easy as you might imagine:  there was some discussion of which grape variety made the best backdrop, and Masai, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, was undecided whether to join the photo shoot or not.

Henry, Charles and Masai check out the Touriga Nacional

From there, together with Henry again, Charles took a walk up through some Touriga Nacional vineyards below the caseiro’s house which are progressing steadily, and the decision was made to start with that vineyard first of the Touriga Nacional.  The weather outlook is very good for the next ten days or so, the grapes continue to mature well on the vines so there is no rush, and we are in a good position to take things at steady pace as the grapes reach perfect ripeness.  In Charles’s words, we are sitting pretty.

Next to Quinta do Tua.  Again there was a discussion with the winemaker, Paulo Macedo, about the state of the work at Tua, where Graham’s vinifies the grapes brought to us by about 200 local small farmers.  Many of these farmers have been supplying Graham’s for years, in many cases as their fathers did before them.  The cachement area, the Riba Longa just east of Tua, is an excellent region.  Our viticulturalist at Malvedos, Senhor Mariz, often visits the farmers during the year to ensure the quality of the vineyards and harvest and offer advice if necessary.

At Tua, Charles tasted the first lots of wines destined for Graham’s – there were two  toneis of wines made from the old vine plantations at our own Quinta doTua which had been harvested on the 16th and 17th of September, and another wine, fortified only 90 minutes earlier, blended from incoming farmer’s grapes.  So far, so good, and all three showing distinct characters already.

Euan, Charles and Touriga Nacional

After Tua, the itinerary went roughly like this:  drive to Senhora da Ribeira, stopping en route to visit one of our farmers in the Riba Longa.  After lunch at Senhora da Ribeira took a launch across the river and back, paying a visit to Quinta do Vesuvio (another Symington brand), then visiting three more quintas in the area before returning to Malvedos by about 6:30 pm, where he again checked in with Henry on the progress for the day.  Throughout the day, he and Euan kept up a steady discussion about vineyards, winemaking and commercial matters.  Euan himself has twenty years’ experience with the firm, and this annual visit to Charles during vindima is invaluable to him, so he can keep our sales team, distributors and customers apprised of developments, conditions and outlook for harvest and wines.

At every quinta, Charles takes a walk through the vineyards, and watching him is an education itself.  He has an eagle eye for the state of the grapes, and as he walks down the terraces he plucks and tastes grapes as he goes.  The flavour and sugar levels of the grapes really do change tangibly as they ripen and the different varieties show clear flavour qualities even on the vine – Euan remarked on one that tasted distinctly like a Christmas cake, others a few rows away were equally rich and intense, but had a completely different flavour character.

Another test is to crush a grape with his fingers and start rubbing the skin to break it up and extract colour, just as treading would do in the lagar.  From that, and the maturity of the pips (have they changed from green to brown, are they soft or crunchy?) Charles can assess phenolic ripeness.

Where there are wineries, he spends time with the winemaker to review results so far, discuss next parcels of grapes to be harvested and vinified and any equipment or logistical concerns.  As he checks lagars and vats he leans in for a deep inhalation of the aromas, plunges his arm in up to the elbow to feel the grapes and assess the colour extraction, and where wines have been finished, taste samples.  Based on all of this, he may revise plans so far – every step of the process is basis to re-assess next steps.

Whilst we rely on our labs to gather precise scientific data for our research and viticultural database, the fact is, who needs a lab when you’ve got the experience and instincts of Charles?