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Traditional Methods of Port Making

June 7, 2012
Question by: Francisco, Lisoba, Portugal

Q:

Why aren't Port wines made anymore in the traditional way?  Why did one have to replace men by technology?  Is it a matter of Health Safety (EU regulation) or is it getting more and more difficult to find people to do this job in this remote area?  I went to Symington Quinta do Sol and saw the huge production. I'm working on a project on Port Wine for my IB Diploma.  Thank you.

A:

Hi Francisco, The good news is, some Port wines are still made in the traditional way! 

First of all, what you saw at Quinta do Sol is the winery where we make all the Symington Douro DOC wines (Altano, Quinta do Vesuvio and more, but note that the Prats + Symington Douro DOC wines are made at Quinta do Roriz).  In terms of Port winemaking, our White Ports are made at Sol and we have four lagares to help us handle the red Port making when our nearby specialist wineries are working at full capacity.  For a glimpse into the Douro DOC winemaking at Quinta do Sol, you might want look at an article focussed on the use of press wines at Sol, written by the Graham's blogger for her personal blog site; the attention to detail and quality is the same at all Symington wineries, regardless of production volumes or wine style.  The vast majority of our red ports are made in our small specialist wineries at Quinta da Cavadinha (Warre's), Quinta do Bomfim and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira (both Dow's), Quinta dos Malvedos (Graham's), Quinta do Tua, Quinta dos Canais, Quinta de Roriz and Quinta do Vesuvio. 

The move away from traditional pisa a pé (treading by foot) began in the 1960s, when the necessary labour to both pick all day and tread at night became increasingly scarce.  Richard Mayson, who wrote Port and The Douro, notes that over a million people emigrated from Portugal in the 1960s, with the Douro districts of Vila Real and Bragança and the adjacent district of Viseu showing the greatest loss of population during this time. 

As a result, port makers across the region began experimenting with a variety of mechanical vinification methods, many of them adapted from dry table wine making.  The Symington family were among the first to adopt auto-vinification at Quinta do Bomfim at that time.  In the late 1990s Peter Symington, our then head winemaker, and his son Charles, our head winemaker since his father's retirement a few years ago, invented a modern lagar which is very carefully designed to mimic as closely as possible the action of the human foot on the grapes and the effect that action has in releasing flavours and colour from the skins of the grapes.  The 2000 Graham's Vintage Port was one of the first made in the modern lagares and has been widely regarded as the top wine of the vintage, with James Suckling of The Wine Spectator giving it 98 out of 100 points in 2003, and the IWC and Decanter both awarding it Silver Medals in the 2012 competitions, just last month. 

Although Graham's, Dow's and Warre's ports are primarily made by modern lagar, we do still use pisa a pé in the granite lagares at Senhora da Ribeira when the grapes picked that day exceed the capacity of our modern lagares, and all the Quinta de Roriz Vintage Ports are made in granite lagares.  But it is at the legendary Quinta do Vesuvio that we continue to make every single lot of Port by foot treading in the immense 25-pipe lagares.  A team of 40 to 50 people work the harvest picking the grapes each day and treading them at night.  You can enjoy a glimpse into the treading at Vesuvio in this article written by Paul Symington for the Graham's Blog during the 2009 Harvest.

For much more detail, be sure to read our Winemaking article under the Port Basics menu above.



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