‘The Future of the Douro is to Walk on Two Legs’

Prats & Symington (P&S) is a joint venture that began in 1999 when Bruno Prats, former owner of Chateau Cos d’Estournel, joined forces with Symington Family Estates to produce a top Douro wine. This was a departure for the Symingtons who, having dabbled with Douro red at Quinta do Bomfim in the past (referred to rather disparagingly by previous generations as ‘consumo’), committed themselves to proving to the world that the region could produce top red wines alongside Port. Of course Ferreira with Barca Velha had already proved that it could be done back in the 1950s and at the end of the 1990s Niepoort were already well on the way to making a series of excellent Douro wines, both red and white.

 This all happened less than two decades ago but the ensuing years have been a game changer for the Douro with every major Port shipper (apart from Taylor, Fonseca and Croft) launching their own range of Douro wines alongside many excellent independent producers. Everyone has learnt an enormous amount since then, not least the producers themselves who have been seeking the best terroirs, grape varieties and refining methods of production. When it comes to making the finest Douro reds there is a significant overlap with Vintage Port. They are not mutually exclusive as I believed in my first book on Portuguese wines published back in 1992.  The most expressive vineyards and grape varieties for Douro reds (notably Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca) are also those capable of making the best Ports.  Fortunately with investment and the general upgrade in the A/B grade vineyards over the past 30 years there is room for both to co-exist.   

But there is a fundamental difference in philosophy. Whereas great Port is all about extraction, the best Douro wines are all about finesse. Firstly, picking times are crucial.  In the introduction to this tasting Bruno Prats explained ‘we don’t want greenness but then we don’t want grapes that are over-ripe – you need to know your vineyards. For example in a cool year you have to pick Touriga Franca late or it is very green.’

Since the first vintage of Chryseia was produced in 1999 P&S have been getting to know three vineyards in the Cima Corgo and this shows up in the wines. Quinta de Roriz and Quinta de Vila Velha adjoin each other on the south bank of the Douro upstream from Pinhão whereas Quinta da Perdiz lies deep in the Rio Torto. Roriz and Perdiz are the backbone of the P&S project and between them share around 65 ha of vines.  Apart from 4.5 ha of old, interplanted vinha velha at Roriz they are mostly block planted (40 blocks in total). Bruno Prats explained that this is very important when it comes to Douro wine and gaining a knowledge of individual grape varieties has proved part of the rapid learning curve over the past thirty years. Ironically the grape named after Quinta de Roriz, Tinta Roriz (aka Spain’s Tempranillo and the most widely planted variety in the Douro) has not shown its metal as a constituent of the finest Douro reds. According to Bruno Prats ‘the Douro is a perfect pairing of grape varieties and terroir…but only Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca are really showing their worth.’ To emphasise the point he went on to say that they are the ‘Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot of the Douro’. Hence the Douro standing on two legs? 

 At the outset, new oak was used by many Douro producers as something of a panacea (much as in Ribera del Duero), softening up and lending a gloss to some rather unbalanced wines. But, as Bruno Prats explained ‘Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca do not go well with a high level of new oak, hence we use 400 litre casks. We want to preserve the fruit so 8 – 12 months is generally enough.’ He added: ‘the emphasis is on elegance - we want wines that are food friendly’

 This tasting was divided into two with the younger wines shown before the meal and the older wines from the early days of the P&S project (albeit only just over a decade ago) served with dinner. There are three distinct levels to Prats & Symington wines: Prazo de Roriz at the entry level, Chryseia at the top and Post Scriptum serving as a second wine in between though much closer in style to Chryseia.  It is perhaps indicative of the steep Douro learning curve that neither 1999 or 2000 Chryseia were shown at this tasting, neither of which in my experience, have developed very well in bottle despite showing early promise.    

 Prazo de Roriz 2011 ***

 Made for early drinking, a blend majoring on Tinta Barocca, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz, short ageing in 400 litre  barrels of French Oak: deep, youthful colour; lovely ripe, fragant aromas, already formed and up front; well-balanced, fresh, up front berry fruit with a touch of sweet oak, good definition and good value at around £13.00. 16

Post Scriptum 2012 ***/****

A blend of Touriga Franca (53%) and Touriga Nacional (45%) from Quinta de Roriz and Quinta de Perdiz, a dry year with low yields produced some fine wines: deep and dense, closed and restrained on the nose; fine, firm tannins, quite polished for a second wine, with fresh, vibrant, almost sappy flavours supported by tannins all the way through to the finish. 16.5  

Post Scriptum 2011 **** 

Touriga Nacional (56%), Touriga Franca (30%) with the rest made up by Tinta Barroca and Tinta Roriz, from an excellent year for Port and Douro wine: deep in colour as you would expect; still closed and quite sullen on the nose, underlying finesse and a hint of liquorice, much more to give; restrained, tight knit with well defined cassis and berry fruit flavours backed by a touch of oak and fine grained tannins.  This is a second wine that behaves almost like a first with the capacity to develop in bottle for a decade or more.  17

Chryseia 2012 ****

 Dominated by Touriga Nacional (72%) with 28% Touriga Franca from a drought year, yet this wine is wonderfully restrained: very deep, opaque, youthful colour; closed, dense but ripe, even opulent fruit underlying; big, ripe, powerful flavours yet firm and well defined backed by tight-knit tannins giving a long, linear, structured finish with real purity and finesse. This wine will improve with five more years in bottle. 18

Chryseia 2011 ****/ *****

 A blend of 65% Touriga Nacional and 35% Touriga Franca given 15 months in 400 litre French oak. From an outstanding year in the Douro: even deeper in colour than the 2012; rich and dense on the nose with much more still to give; lovely ripe, powerfully concentrated fruit with muscular bitter-sweet, dense tannins, discreet and well integrated savoury oak, full and ripe all the way through to a broad finish. Very impressive. Drink 2017 – 2025+ 18.5   

Chryseia 2009 ***/****

 From a hot, dry year, even for the Douro, this is a blend from three quintas: Roriz, Perdiz and Vila Velha. Made form 70% Touriga Nacional and 30% Touriga Franca (both fairly drought resistant in 2009) and aged in new French 400 litre oak barrels for 13 months: deep, dense, rich and opulent in style, both on the nose and on the palate, super-ripe, fleshy fruit reflecting the warmth of the vintage, this is the softest and most flattering of the younger Chryseia trio, perhaps lacking a little in that structural Douro typicity that I admire so much. 16.5

Chryseia 2004 ***/****

 A blend from four quintas: Vila Velha, Bomfim, Vesúvio and the then newly acquired Perdiz. Mostly Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca: still, deep and youthful in colour; lovely, well developed aromas, very slightly wild with a hint of camphor and eucalypt, very Douro; leathery, gamey fruit with characteristically dry, dusty tannins, a savoury-meaty character mid-palate and a touch of coffee. Fully ready to drink and a wine with real Douro personality if perhaps lacking a little in finesse. 16.5   

Chryseia 2003 ****

 This is a year with a reputation for heat and, although the Douro had its fair share, the vineyards were able to cope far better than in much of western Europe where many regions produced atypical wines.  A blend of 60% Touriga Franca with 35% Touriga Nacional and 5% Tinto Cão, aged for 12 months in new French oak:, tight and minerally on the nose, much more together than the ’04; firm and structured with a lovely dusting of fine grained tannins well-defined, focused fruit, a touch of spice with a burst of berry fruit on the finish. Excellent balance.18        

Chryseia 2001 ***

A blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz and Tinto Cão from Bomfim, Vesúvio, Vila Velha and Vale dos Malhados. This wine comes close to the start of the learning curve and it shows: distinctly roasted, coffee bean, rather stewed and soupy on the nose; big, broad, ripe but rather bruised fruit, strong, muscular tannins, but rather disjointed. Drink soon. 15

Scoring

19 - 20 An outstanding wine (*****)

17 – 18 An excellent wine in its class, highly recommended (****)

15 - 16 A good wine, with much to recommend it (***)

13 - 14 An enjoyable but simple, straightforward wine (**)

10 – 12 A very ordinary wine without faults but with no great merit (*)

8 - 10 Disagreeable (no stars)

Below 8 Faulty