Interview with Peter Symington
Peter Symington: “… a cork has long durability”
Andrew James Symington arrived in Portugal in 1882, to work with a textile company. In less than twenty years, he had already become a partner in the oldest British Port Wine firm: Warre & Co., founded in 1670. Today, his grandson, Peter Symington, is President of the Administrative Council of the most powerful and representative group in the sector, which encompasses the brands:Graham’s, Dow’s, Quarle Harris, Gould Campbell, Smith Woodhouse, Quinta do Vesúvio andMadeira Wine Company.
Peter Symington tells us how he started his career with the company in 1964: “I studied in England and after spending some time learning about wine in general in the regions of Bordeaux, Bourgogne and Jerez, I arrived in Porto. My responsibilities have always been in production: making and buying wines – which are areas where my son, Charles now shares responsibility with me.” Peter Symington will retire within two years and will be succeeded by the eldest member of his family.
Purchasing more than 20 million corks each year, means stopper quality control is of the utmost importance to the Symington Group. Their technical team is so expert, that other wine companies seek their help when selecting cork stoppers.
Peter Symington gives us his personal view: “Port Wine has always used cork stoppers. As far as I know, even today, no other type of stopper is used. For Vintage wines we use the traditional 45/49 mm format, known as bordalesa comprida (long bordeaux cork). We demand the highest quality from our suppliers – and even so, we subject the corks to further exhaustive control measures. For years, there was a tendency to export the best corks to Bordeaux and other prestigious wine regions of the world, but now we are supplied with exceptional corkstoppers for our Vintages.”
The cork is a fundamental element for a wine such as a Vintage, destined to age in the bottle for decades. Sometimes, customers ask whether it is necessary to change the corks in bottles of Vintage older than 50 years. The advice of the Symington House is clear: “We only change the cork if we verify that there is a reason to justify it – if the seal is not perfect. But, normally, the cork stopper remains in good condition – meaning replacement is the exception. We must be careful removing the cork. For that reason, when opening very old Vintages, we use tongs*. I think one point should be explained: the fact that sometimes the cork is not extracted intact, does not necessarily mean that the wine is not in perfect condition; the cork can be so humid, that it cannot be pulled intact. But as long as air does not enter, the contents of the bottle will not be affected. Normally, a cork has long durability; a fact that we verify when purchasing wines at auctions (and taste them with clients in Britain or the United States), where we frequently open wines that are more than 80 years old – to find the corks are in good condition.”
Aside from the Vintages, which represent a minimal share of the Port Wine market, the majority of cork stoppers we use are capsulated. Peter Symington explains why: “In respect of wines that are going to age in the bottle, I think it is globally recognized that natural cork stoppers are ideal for storage. With all other Port Wines aged in wood (which will remain in the barrel for more than 3 years), we always use a capsulated cork. This stopper is far more practical for barmen and consumers, as they can open the bottle without a corkscrew.”
“In our company, the use of corks is such that top-of-the-range cork stoppers cannot be used for all the wines, which obliges us to undertake exhaustive quality control measures that practically eliminate the risks of contamination by TCA. If we talk in percentages, we do not permit even a 1% failure rate, which, in 20 million corks would be completely unacceptable. Therefore, our control procedure starts in the cork factory, as problems with cork stoppers could be much higher without stringent control. I think the Portuguese cork industry must invest much more money in finding a way to render the cork stopper impervious to TCA, because it only takes a minute amount of it to completely destroy the wine.”
Peter Symington is of the view that the most demanding clients see the cork stopper as a sign of confidence: “When the consumer discovers that a wine does not have a cork stopper, they think it strange and doubt its quality.”
*The traditional Port tongs allow the clean extraction of wine – without having to pull the cork from the bottle. How? The tongs are heated until they are red-hot, then clamped around the neck of the bottle – below the cork and above the shoulder of the bottle. After 1 – 2 minutes, the tongs are removed and a wet towel is applied to the heated glass spot. The rapid change in temperature causes the glass to break cleanly, thus removing the top of the bottle with the cork stopper in it.
This interview with Peter Symington was conducted by
Alfredo Hervías y Mendizábal.