Graham’s – this producer stands for everything that makes the Port trade so special. It’s the story of two families that think in generations; it’s the story of brave decisions, some of them good, some of them wrong; it’s the story of the Douro Valley and of the Port trade.
When I started to plan this web-page, I knew exactly how I would begin the chapter of this producer: “Luckily we live on a planet where a few things are absolutely perfect. Together with the Bugatti Veyron and Jennifer Lopez we should also consider the Port Wines of Graham’s belonging into this category.”
“To exaggerate makes things very clear,” says my good friend Thorsten. Of course not all of the wines from Graham’s are perfect. But some of them are very close to perfect…
To understand where the company is today, we have to go back to the beginning. In the 1808 the Graham’s family decided to open an office in Porto. So far they focused very much on the textile trade, especially with India. The brothers William and John Graham are moving to Portugal to run the office. A brave decision – with a spectacular bad timing. A few months later the Portuguese army loses the battle with Napoleon’s troops and the French soldiers occupy Porto and Gaia. Thousands of civilians die when the bridge between Porto and Gaia collapses. However, the French can’t enjoy their victory for a long period – a few weeks later the English troops of General Wellington recapture the town for the Portuguese.
Considering this chaos, it’s really amazing that Graham’s didn’t just close their office. But they continued to do trade with Portugal during those difficult years, mainly in the textile business. If the stories are true, then it’s rather a coincidence than clever planning that Graham’s is today one of the leading Port Wine companies. Either in the year 1820 or 1826 one of their business partners had a cash problem and paid his outstanding debt by sending 27 barrels of Port Wine to Graham’s office in Porto. The shipped the wine to the head quarter in Glasgow and got some ugly comments from their father, who rather would have preferred to see cash than wine. However, it seems that the sale of those barrels went so well in Scotland that from that moment on the wine trade became one of the pillars of the company.
The company seems to be doing quite well – for example describes the Visconde de Villa Maior in the year 1876 in his book “The Illustrated Douro” Graham as one of the most important Port Wine traders. A few years later, in 1890, two decisions are made by the family that have shaped the company – and we can feel the consequences still today.
The first decision was to buy a lodge in Gaia – and then to demolish it, so that a larger lodge can be built instead. This lodge is still existing – more beautiful and more important than ever before – and its name is nor surprisingly “The Graham’s 1890 Lodge”. Just follow the link to see the beauty of this place.
The second decision is done with regards to the Douro. The Phylloxera has brought much of the wine trade down to its knees, many producers and shippers are either already bankrupt or at least in deep financial trouble. Quintas that were producing hundreds of barrels of Port a few years ago are now not even able to fill more than a handful of barrels.
But there are also some positive developments: the railroad from Porto to the Douro Valley was finished with the reaching of Barca D’Alva in December 1887. Now it’s so much easier to get from Porto to the Douro. Instead of traveling several days, the valley is now only a few hours away from Porto.
The Douro is now so much closer – and now the major Port companies are more interested in owning Quintas in the Douro Valley. Not necessarily to produce their own wine – but to have a logistic center for the co-ordination of the wine purchase.
In 1890 Graham’s finally finds the perfect Quinta: Quinto dos Malvedos. The Phylloxera has impacted this property dramatically; so much that it was decided to focus on the production of olive oil rather than wine. When Graham’s bought the Quinta it contained more than 9000 olive trees!
Graham has to learn the lesson that a good Port trader doesn’t necessarily become a good wine maker. They tried everything and started many experiments – all without success. Rumor has it, that Graham’s bought the wines from other producers to sell them again – but they kept their own wines, just to show visitors, how Port Wine should NOT be… They were not able to get the “Douro Bake” out of their wines – this burnt flavor that is so typical for wines that have matured too long in the Douro Valley.
Graham’s used the name “Malvedos” to sell a second-tier Vintage Port in years without general declaration. Some people might believe that this is a Single Quinta Vintage Port – but it wasn’t. At least not until the 1990s. Quinta dos Malvedos was just not able to produce sufficient Port Wine of good quality to launch a Single Quinta Vintage Port. The wines with the label “Malvedos” included therefore also purchased wines from other producers. Only bottles with the name “Quinta dos Malvedos” are real Single Quinta Vintages. “Malvedos” means “bad way” and that referred to the rapids in front of the Quinta that made the boat travel so difficult. Only when the Dams were built these rapids disappeared.
Grahams continues to buy the wines from the neighbor Quintas in the Rio Torto Valley – and again and again the company is able to produce fantastic vintages with those wines. But in spite of all the quality and fame Graham’s is not able to become a stable, profitable company. The Quinta dos Malvedos is pretty much run down in the 1960s, there is no money available for the needed repairs and re-planting. The management considers to give up the wine production from this Quinta and to focus on the production of grapefruit!!!
In this moment the second family appears: The Symingtons. The Grahams and Symingtons path’ had already crossed a long time ago – but only for a short while: In the year 1882 the 18 year old Andrew James Symington came from Scotland to Porto, working for Graham’s. But already a short while later he left the company and started to work for their competitor Warre. AJ Symington loved the Port trade and was able to build the foundation of a Port Wine empire like the world had seen only once before: Dona Antonia’s empire in the 19th century.
When his descendants took over Graham’s in 1970 the cycle of these two families was completed after nearly a hundred years.
Fortuna was smiling at the Symingtons – because 1970 turned out to be quite a good Vintage and especially the Graham’s 1970 is an amazing wine and helped to cement the fantastic reputation of this producer.
It was – and is – important for the Symingtons to continue to make Vintage Ports in the typical Graham’s tradition and to honor the independent character of this brand. Graham’s is the most important brand for the group; it’s the crown-jewel – and as such it gets all the support from the Symingtons that it needs to continue to be successful and to make great wines
While the Symingtons decided originally against buying the Quinta dos Malvedos when they took over the brand “Graham’s” (because it was deep in the red), they did finally enter into an agreement and bought the Quinta in 1981. They started shortly afterwards a major replanting-program and within a few years the property turned from a run-down Quinta to a proud and very representable winery with fantastic vineyards. Imagine how much poorer the Douro-Valley would be if back then it would have been decided to produce grapefruits instead of grapes!
The Symingtons are very proud about their tendency to be very open for change. This tradition of improving results by being innovative is a feature that also applies to the Graham’s family. Already back in 1880 wrote Vizetelly that there are only two lodges in Gaia that use machines: Dow’s and Graham’s. Even after the purchase by the Symingtons the brand Graham’s keeps this progressive spirit: In 1998 the first robotic Lagar of the Douro was inaugurated at Quinta dos Malvedos. This machine tries to tread grapes equally as good as the human feet were doing it for centuries. After several test runs Graham’s was brave enough during the harvest 2000 to process some of their best grapes in this robotic Lagar – and this wine was so good that a large part of the Graham’s Vintage Port 2000 was coming from this Lagar.
Coming now finally to speak about the wines of Graham’s: In years of general declarations the Ports of Graham’s are always some of the top-wines. In the last 100 years, the following years were especially great: 1927, 1945, 1948, 1963, 1966, 1970, 1977, 1985, 1994, 2000, 2007 and of course 2011.
The Vintage Ports of Graham’s are having in common that they are very sweet wines (Graham’s in the in-house-counter-balance to the more dry wines of Dow’s), with a very solid tannin-structure. The first years after the harvest the wines are real “fruit-bombs”, but the real potential is only visible after at least 20 years. And even then they are still “babies” and might peak only a few decades later. You can buy Graham’s Vintage Ports nearly blind and store them for decades without problems – they will get better and better. This is what made me speak about the “perfection” of Graham’s Ports; you can trust this company. If the company declares a Vintage Port, then you can put it into your cellar – it will be a great Port. This quality is over and over confirmed at wine auctions, when Graham’s Ports (together with Taylor’s) achieve often very good results; the attractive resale prices make Graham’s one of the few Port brands that investors could focus on for an investment into wine (whereby I think there are many, many things on this planet that have a better price-potential than Port Wine, unfortunately – please see the following link “Port Wine as Investment”).
You can’t go wrong with Graham’s Vintage Ports – the name is a guarantee for top-notch-quality. Of course they are not cheap. But then there are the Single Quinta Vintage Ports that are sold under the label “Quinta dos Malvedos”. These are also great wines, but not meant for being stored as long as the Graham’s Ports. But on the other side you can drink these wines much earlier. I like the Malvedos 1998 and 2001.
Graham’s was able over the last years to gain market share in the Late Bottled Vintage category. They managed to kick arch-rival Taylor’s of the number one position in the English LBV sector. The LBVs from Graham’s are slightly filtered; normally they don’t develop and deposits. Graham’s is lucky enough that they have so much great wine each year that even in the year of a general declaration enough great Port is remaining to launch an LBV (like in the year 2007).
An interesting wine is the Crusted Port. Graham’s is one of the few companies that produce wines of this category. The demand for Crusted Port is no longer very large (the LBV won that battle, I guess) and somehow we have to be thankful that Graham’s continues to produce Crusted Ports.
When I once encountered a Crusted Port in a blind tasting I assumed it to be a LBV. If you haven’t tried one yet, I suggest you get a bottle of Graham’s Crusted Port – and you can try the Port of a category that is unknown to most Port Wine friends.
Graham’s has a really amazing Reserve Ruby in its offering: SIX GRAPES. Since the beginning of the 20th century Graham’s is producing this really round and balanced Ruby Port. The names from the old Tradition at Graham’s to mark the barrels of the highest quality wines with six grapes – and these were the wines that were supposed to be used for the Vintage Ports. However, some of the wine wasn’t needed for Vintage production and Graham’s filtered it and sold it as “Six Grapes”. The Symington family is very proud that “Six Grapes” was the dessert wine that was served at the end of the first Gala Dinner on the Maiden voyage of the QUEEN MARY in 1936. And continue this track record, it was also “Six Grapes” that was served at the first Gala Dinner of the Maiden voyage of the QUEEN MARY 2 in 2004…
The Symingtons live – like so many other families of the Port trade – between two worlds. On the one side most family members are born in Portugal – on the other side they live in a family full of English traditions. One of the Symington brothers told me that he is supporting the Portuguese football team, when it plays at the World Cup or European Championships against England. However, especially with regards to the Royal Family, the Symington can be very British (surprisingly for a Scottish family…). Several events around the Royal Family have been used during the last years to sell Colheitas from those years… often at quite elevated prices…
For example was some time ago the Colheita 1952 launched to celebrate the 60 year jubilee of the Queen Elisabeth. It was also launched a Colheita 1982 – to celebrate the birth of Prince George. These wines are really good – and thanks to this quality and the usual amazing marketing campaign and beautiful packaging the buyers pay a premium for these bottles. These are special wines for special occasions – not the “normal” Colheitas for the daily drinking.
When I hear the name “Graham’s” I think automatically about great Vintage Ports. The quality of those is so over-powering that it’s easy to overlook the aged Tawnies. The 10, 20, 30 and 40 year old Tawnies are good, solid wines – but for each category there are other producers that get those specific years covered with better wines. As I say – the Graham’s Tawnies with an indication of age are good – but not great. Great are the Vintage Wines from Graham’s.
Which three Graham’s Ports would I buy if money wouldn’t be an issue? The Vintage 1963, the Vintage 1977 and the beyond belief amazing “Ne Oublie” – a special Tawny that dates back to the year 1882, when AJ Symington arrived in Porto. 656 bottles with this wine were made – and they are for sal in the Lodge of Graham’s – for the price of EUR 5,500 each. But if you have to operate on a smaller budget, then I suggest the Vintage 1994, the Crusted Port 2001 and the 20 year old Tawny – these wines will give you a solid understanding of the strength and diversity of Graham’s.
Graham’s for tourists: If you want to learn more about Graham’s and taste some of their best wines, then please visit the Graham’s 1890 Lodge in Gaia – it’s a fantastic place. If you are visiting the Douro: Quinta dos Malvedos is unfortunately not open for the Public… but you can visit the Visitor Center at Quinta do Bomfim – which belongs to Dow’s but as both brands belong to the Symington Family, you will find some Graham’s wines also at that Quinta available for tastings.
Graham’s is doing a lot to educate people about the world of their wines – in my opinion they are puts the most effort into teaching it’s consumers about the wines and vines. They have a very good blog: https://blog.grahams-port.com/
Graham’s Porto, Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal
Phone: +351 223 776 484 / 485