Portugal’s best known wines are its Ports, produced from grapes grown in the Douro River region (about a two hour drive to the east from Porto which is just inland from the Atlantic Ocean) and aged in wooden casks in “lodges” (warehouses) in Vila Nova de Gaia (across the Douro River from Porto). A small group of us were fortunate to be invited to a private Black Tie dinner at the so called “Factory House”, dating back to 1790, near the docks overlooking the Douro River in Porto. Here we had the opportunity to learn much about the history of port wine and to taste both still wines and exceptional Ports with dinner with two members of the Port Association, including the current Treasurer. Plus, we had a grand surprise — a magnificent tasting of a very special and historic Port, “Ne Oublie” (see the last photograph and story).
The Association’s history in a nutshell: when British merchants were operating in the 16th century in Porto, they formed an association, the so-called “British Association”. The association’s contemporary building (completed in 1790) was taken over by the French after Napoleon invaded the country in 1808. Post the French occupation in 1811, the association restricted itself to Port shippers and changed the name to the “Port Association”, with the building becoming known as “The Factory House”.
Upon entering The Factory House, you have a sense of being in a place that holds much history and whose walls could tell incredible stories about Portugal’s wine legacy. Plaques in the lobby recall the families whose members served as Treasurers of the Port Association. The list from the mid-1800s reads like a list of the great contemporary port houses (producers): 1842 – Sandeman, 1844 – J. Graham, 1846 – Woodhouse, 1847 – G. Warre, 1848 – Fladgate…
Throughout the second floor were tributes to the past, several of which we were able to photograph:
An excellent account of the history of the association and a description of The Factory House was posted in a blog (“Wine, Woman, Travel: The Factory House in Porto”) by Cynthia Jenson, which we are excerpting from: “Very briefly, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Factories were commercial associations founded by Portuguese, British, Dutch, name your merchant nation, in the foreign ports where they established trading activities. According to local circumstances their headquarters could be anything from heavily fortified storehouses to more club-like accommodations, but they were all established as trading posts and were the centre of commercial activity for the relevant merchant community.
“The British Factory here in Porto was founded in the mid 17th century as an association for those engaged in trade with England in any sort of goods – typically wool, wine and cod. In 1790 this building was opened; the building and upkeep were funded by contributions from the members in proportion to the value of goods exported by them from Portugal. Today each member house (11 of them) pays a fixed amount to maintain the building and association, and all its traditions…
“Very handsome and very English inside and out, the building and its contents are fascinating, as are the history and customs of the British Association. The most well-known tradition is the dinners which are served in one dining room through the cheese course (which is accompanied by a tawny port). The members then arise, and move into an identical dining room set end to end with the first, where they seat themselves again and enjoy a glass of vintage port without the distraction of lingering aromas from the meal. The port is selected by the Treasurer and served blind; the members and their guests must try to identify both shipper and vintage.
“The public spaces of the building are very elegant – the entry hall is floored in granite, and the granite stairway is cantilevered – an incredible feat of engineering, but the 1.20 metre (nearly 4-foot) thick walls make it feasible. The dining rooms are beautiful, and the ballroom is exquisite, like a fine Wedgewood piece, with white Adams-esque garlands painted on blue walls, fabulous chandeliers, and a beautiful sprung wooden floor.
“The Library is what a library should be, as far as I am concerned – completely book lined, three rooms of it, immense windows for good light, and painted a wonderful deep Rouge Vif d’Etampes pumpkin red, though the walls are hardly visible except above the shelves. The library was accumulated by donations over 200 years, and was intended as a circulating library for members, not a specialist library, though the Association do now make an effort to acquire books about Port and the trade.
“So much for the public and grand aspect of the Factory House. Personally, I was captivated by the bits behind the scenes: the cellars and the kitchen.
“Every member port shipper must donate to the Association a dozen cases of every declared vintage, and when an individual becomes a member, their induction is also marked by a donation of his – or her – pick of one of their house’s vintage wines. Yes, you read that right – this bastion of tradition now has its first woman member.
“In the cellar are shelves, each marked either with the brand and year of the vintage if it was a vintage donation, or the name of the donor as well as brand name and vintage, if it was an induction donation.
“I couldn’t help but spot: Johnny Symington’s donation of Warre’s 1985 is already gone, and the Warre’s Vintage 1970 is down to the last 3 or 4 bottles.” – from: http://winewomantravel.com/2010/08/23/the-factory-house-in-porto/
We learned from the Treasurer at dinner that presently The Factory House has 50,000 bottles of Vintage Port in the cellar!
Our dinner at The Factory House was designed to showcase local wines:
Sea Bass Raviolis with Black Truffle Sauce accompanied by Soalheiro 2014 Primeiras Vinhas
Roast Beef with Olive Oil and Garlic, Cauliflower Puree and Spinach Mushroom Ragout accompanied by Quinta de Vesuvio 2009
Chocolate Cake with Red Berries Sauce and Quenelle of Marscarpone Mouse accompanied by Graham’s Colheita 1972
After the main part of the meal, following The Factory House tradition described above, we adjourned to the adjacent second dining room, with all of us sitting in the same locations as in the first dining room. Note the formal portrait of Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth over the fireplace mantle.
We continued dinner with the cheese course and Vintage Ports:
Serra, Ilhas and Stilton Cheese accompanied by Dow’s 1963 Vintage Port (Magnum) and Dow’s 2000 Vintage Port.
After our dinner and the Vintage Port tasting in the second dining room, our small group received an incredible surprise. The Factory House Treasurer, on behalf of the Symington family, presented us with their gift of an extremely rare Port – a wood aged tawny-style Port from the single vintage of 1882, which was aged in a wooden cask in their cellar until its bottling last year. This was truly an “amazing” wine – still vibrant and fruity, while smooth with a long finish. We felt that we were incredibly lucky to experience such a distinctive and historic port in it’s natural “home”, The Factory House.
Here’s what we learned about the wine that evening, supplemented by additional information from Graham’s: The Symington family released 656 bottles of a Port that dates back to the arrival of their great-grandfather Andrew James Symington in Portugal in 1882. The family named this wine “Ne Oublie” after the original family motto (“Do Not Forget”) and for the company where Andrew Symington started his life’s work. The name reflects the respect with which the family regards their British great-grandparents’ joint decision to commit themselves and their descendants to Portugal, to the Douro and to Port.
After discovering three casks in the Graham’s Lodge (port wine aging warehouse) in V. N. Gaia (across the Douro River from Porto, Portugal) in May 2014, Symington’s direct descendants bottled one of the remaining three barrels of the 1882 Tawny Port. The other two barrels have been entrusted to the next generation of the family and it is they who will decide the wine’s future, in 2025 at the earliest.
Note that this isn’t a bottle-aged vintage port. Instead, it is a much more unusual wood-aged colheita, which is a tawny-style port from a single harvest.
This extraordinary port wine has been bottled in an individually numbered, hand-made crystal decanter designed by Portugal’s leading glass manufacturer Atlantis. In the Graham’s cellars are ancient wine bottles of varying shapes; inspired by the beauty of these old bottles, the family chose the classic bulb form typical of nineteenth century bottles for the Ne Oublie decanter.
Three sterling silver bands, moulded and engraved by Scottish Silversmiths Hayward & Stott, and carrying the mark of the Edinburgh Assay Office, adorn the glass. The decanter is presented in a bespoke presentation box handcrafted with the finest leathers by quintessentially British brand Smythson of Bond Street, one of the world’s oldest luxury leather goods companies. Hence, Ne Oublie represents the work of the very finest artisans of the three nations from which the Symington family is descended: Scotland, England and Portugal.
Andrew Jefford visited the family… and tasted this wine. He wrote: “You simply can’t create complexity of this order in under a century or so, I suspect…There was a cleanliness and a precision about the wine, though, that was a testament to 130 years of exemplary stewardship… a synopsis of life and time.” — World of Fine Wine, Issue 37, 2012.
Background on the Symingtons: The Symingtons have been Port producers for five generations since 1882 but their involvement in Port dates back fourteen generations to 1652 through their great-grandmother Beatriz Leitão de Carvalhosa Atkinson. The family company is the leading quality Port producer with brands such as Graham’s, Cockburn’s, Dow’s and Warre’s, as well as being the leading vineyard owner in the Douro Valley with 1,006 hectares (2,486 acres) of vines at 27 Quintas (estates). Many of the region’s finest Quintas belong to the family.