If you come from Northern Germany (like I do) then you know for sure a few Burmesters… They are in your football team and part of the voluntary fire brigade and they are nice people and you have a lot of beer with them. However, things were not always so nice. Some centuries ago it was very important how you believed in God and which church you attended – and if it was suddenly the wrong one, then you had to leave quickly your home-town, before things got out of hand.
Even if the name “Burmester” means “mayor of a town”, that social standing didn’t help these Burmesters when they had to leave the small and beautiful town of Mölln in Northern Germany to avoid religious persecution in the 15th century. They headed to England and established themselves there very well. A member of the family would later be one of the founders of what is today the National Westminster Bank and a beautiful street a stone throw away from the Wimbledon Tennis Club is still called “Burmester Road”.
So, when Henry Burmester founded together with John Nash in 1730 the company “Burmester & Nash” his family lived already over 200 years in England… Like most companies of that time that traded with Portugal, they didn’t focus on the wine… they dealt with several items (like cereal) and it just turned out over the decades and centuries that the wine trade would become more and more important and those companies that specialized in the wine trade stayed alive and the other trading companies have all perished.
Shortly after they founded their company, a golden age of Port Wine began… The English loved this wine. 19,000 “pipas” (barrels of 550 liters) were for example exported from Portugal in the year 1749. In 1750 Henry Burmester and John Nash moved physically to Portugal and acquired storage space in Vila Nova de Gaia and started to export wine to England. But now the trade had become really difficult. Port Wine became a victim of its own success. The demand was so high that now many wines of low quality were labeled “Port Wine” and sold to more and more disgruntled consumers. Elderberries were added to give bad wines good color. A lot of fraud happened.
6 Years after the arrival of Henry Burmester the situation of the Port trade was so bad that the Portuguese government stepped in and started to regulate and micro-manage everything Port Wine related.
The “Companhia Geral da Agricultura das Vinhas do Alto Douro” was founded by Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the future Marques de Pombal; this company had the exclusive right to buy all the wine from the growers in a demarcated region in the Douro Valley, making sure that it was of high quality, and then would turn around and sell it to the Port Wine exporters in Porto/Gaia. While this guaranteed an improvement in quality, the English and other exporters didn’t like this government intervention as they were forced to buy the wines at prices dictated by the Government. Tensions were quite high for a few decades.
However, business was still good, money was still made and the Port Wine trade started to bloom again.
But in 1789 Henry Burmester Jr. (the son of the founder) and John Nash decided to part ways and they dissolved their company. John Nash would start a new trading company that in the end would become famous under the name “Butler, Nephew & Co.” while Henry Burmester Jr. started “H. Burmester & Sons”, together with his children Fredrick and Edward.
They even added for a brief period a van Zeller as partner to their company (Herman van Zeller, 1806-1809) but in the end, when Henry Burmester Jr. died in 1822, Fredrick was running the show of the company. Again it wasn’t an easy time… we saw the invasions of Napoleon’s troops in Portugal and Porto… we saw the civil war between Pedro and Miguel. Frederick was forced to leave Portugal – and he moved back to England. While he did come back to Portugal, he didn’t leave any heirs behind… While the Burmesters were in exile in London, they trusted their company in the hands of
In 1834 the English chapter of the company closes and the German chapter opens. The Burmesters remember that there is a young promising family member in Hamburg/Germany and ask him to run the Port Wine trade for them. At the age of 24 years Johann Wilhelm Burmester moves to Porto and joins the expat-community.
Port Wine becomes his passion and in 1861 his dream comes true: He is able to buy the company from all the owners that are now residing in England. He changes the company name to “J.W. Burmester”. But it seems that Port Wine isn’t his only passion – he got married to Nanny Katzenstein (another important German family in Porto) in 1847 and is the father to 9 children, 6 of them sons… which all become successful businessmen in Porto. It will be especially Gustav Adolf and Otto who prove their talent and help Burmester to become very successful. Gustav Adolf grows the company by focusing on new markets in Europe and America; it’s really his devotion that puts Burmester for many years into the public spotlight.
Tragedy strikes on February 2nd 1885: Johann Wilhelm Burmester is 74 years old when a big wave sweeps him into the Douro and he drowns. It’s the second time that the Port Wine trade has to mourn for a drowned member after Baron Forrester died in 1861, drowning further up the river in the Douro Valley.
To the end of the 19th century the company is gaining quite a lot of attention and the Ports of Burmester receive quite a lot of medals at international wine competitions and everything could be good… if there wouldn’t have been the First World War.
Portugal considered the company as a German company – and as Portugal and Germany were officially at war, the government confiscated all assets of Germans living in Portugal. I have read that Gustav Adolf was given a time of 24 hours to flee the country (and he went surprisingly to London rather than to Germany…) and that he was able to transfer the company to a good, loyal Portuguese friend – who luckily transferred it back to Gustav Adolf after the war in 1920… but I still have to verify if this story is true.
In the 20th century we saw the next generation taking over the business – and an important addition was Karl Gilbert, the nephew of Gustav Adolf and Otto. In 1962 a company “Gilberts & Co.” was founded and exists still today.
Together with João Guilherme Burmester and Hans Steinmetz he runs the company. The names of Burmester and Gilbert belong from now on together.
When “J.W. Burmester &Co.” bought in 1962 Alcino Correia Ribeiro (a small producer with a great stock of old Port) it was decided to run this company separately from Burmester and its name was changed to “Gilberts & Ca.” – a brand that still exists.
A brave move was the purchase of the amazingly beautiful QUINTA NOVA DE NOSSA SENHORA DO CARMO in the Douro Valley on New Year’s Eve in 1991. Finally had Burmester its own Quinta and could control the whole process from planting vines until treading, storing and bottling. Traditionally, Burmester had bought mainly grapes from producers rather than wine, so that quality control was easier – and they continued to buy grapes even after owning finally their own Quinta; even if the Quinta is quite large for Douro standards, it was able to provide only 1/3rd of the needed grapes.
After belonging 269 years to members of the Burmester-Gilbert family, the shareholders decided at the end of the 20th century to sell the company. This was good news for GRUPO AMORIM – a cork-producer and therefore since a long time anyhow associated with the wine trade. They didn’t hesitate and bought the company in 1999 with its brands and stock of old wines plus the very beautiful Quinta Nova de Senhora do Carmo in the Douro Valley. Rumor has it that this transaction happened somewhere around the EUR 15 million price-tag.
However, 6 years later, in 2005, AMORIM sells “Burmester” and “Gilberts” to SOGEVINUS. SOGEVINUS has become a real Port Wine Power House over the last decades, having bought CALEM in 1998, BARROS and KOPKE and FEIST and HUTCHISON in 2006. SOGEVINUS is owned by a Spanish bank: CAIXANOVA. CAIXANOVA was bought by the Venezuelan bank BANESCO. BANESCO is owned by Juan Carlos Escotet, a billionaire from Venezuela. This man owns now a huge part of the Port Wine production…
The QUINTA NOVA DE NOSSA SENHORA DO CARMO wasn’t part of the sale to SOGEVINUS – it remained with the AMORIM GROUP that still runs it today. SO SOGEVINUS had to find a “new” Quinta for Burmester – and they did so in QUINTA DO ARNOZELO. SOGEVINUS had bought that Quinta in 2004 and used it originally for wines from CALEM – but now it releases the Single Quinta Vintage Port of Burmester under the QUINTA DO ARNOZELO label.
That was a lot of history… let’s have a quick look at the wines.
The strength of BURMESTER is for sure the old Colheitas and wood-aged Tawnies. The company also produces Vintage Ports and LBVs – but the most interesting wines are in general the Colheitas.
Burmester is one of several companies that claim that they produced the first LBV… The legislation was changed in 1962 and LBVs were now formally a new Port Wine category – and two years later we find the first bottling from Burmester.
Having historically focused on markets that are not so much into Vintage Port (France, Germany, Scandinavia) the company never got famous for its Vintage Port – but there are a few really interesting wines. James Suckling obviously really liked their 1985 and places it between the best of that year.
However, most Vintage Ports of Burmester can be drunk early on… I wouldn’t hesitate for example to open now the 2011 Vintage Ports, if I want to drink something from 2011. Most Ports of that year are having great aging potential and should be drunk only in 20 or 30 years… while those mature, I would enjoy the 2011 of Burmester, which is nicely approachable and a pleasure to drink.
But, if you want to spend less money, then try to find the 2015 QUINTA DO ARNOZELO – that has everything that a young Port should have. This is again a wine that I wouldn’t store for 20 or 30 years – I would drink it now, just to enjoy the powerful, fruity-aroma-explosion…
Burmester has a great stock of old, wood-ages Ports and launches constantly Colheitas – and many of those are just outstanding. If you started BITCOIN-mining back in 2010 and don’t know now what to do with all your money, then I would suggest to buy the Colheita from 1937… Otherwise, go with the Colheita from 1963 – it’s also amazing and slightly more affordable.
However, the company has of course also Tawnies with an Indication of Age. All of these are quite nice – but looking for the best value for price I would suggest the 20 Year old Tawny. This has everything that I would hope to find in a 20 year old Tawny. The 10 year old is also very well done and very nice to drink.
Now, how can you get to know the company and the wines a little bit better? Easy – just visit Gaia, on the opposite riverbank of Porto. Here you find the very cozy, very interesting lodge of BURMESTER.
To read more about this beautiful place, please follow this link: The Lodge of Burmester in Gaia.
Largo da Ponte D. Luiz
4400 – 111 Vila Nova de Gaia
Phone: + 351 22 374 66 60
Fax: + 351 22 374 66 99