James Symington, 1934 to 2020: A Remembrance - Wine & Spirits Magazine

James Symington, 1934 to 2020:
A Remembrance

James Symington

On the rare and memorable occasions that the 1970 Graham’s Vintage Porto appears in front of me, I think of James Symington. His grandfather, Andrew James Symington, had worked for W&J Graham’s before starting his own family company, one that would eventually become the largest vineyard holder in the Douro, Symington Family Estates. In 1970, ten years after James joined his family’s firm, the Symingtons purchased Graham’s.

Later, in 1991, James happened to have the 1970 Graham’s with him when I met him in the Douro, starting at the Quinta dos Malvedos, W&J Graham’s home base, then heading for lunch, at the Quinta do Vesuvio, a vast property at the entrance to the Douro Superior that the Symingtons had recently purchased from descendants of Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira.

James took us to the top of Vesuvio, where the vineyard team was pounding stone posts into the ground in preparation for planting a new vineyard. It was brutally hot and all of us were covered in schist dust from our long hike up the hill—more a mountain, as the name suggests. “I’ve often thought we should be in the Johnson’s Baby Powder business as a side line,” James said. “With all this dust, we could make a fortune.” There was plenty more dust on the way back down to the river.

Then he showed us around the once-grand and, by 1991, somewhat dilapidated manor house overlooking the river, with 17 bedrooms and two baths. There wasn’t a place to cook a meal or, really, to eat.

My sense of James had been British formal, as I’d only met with him in the US—usually at posh restaurants in San Francisco, where he came often in the 1980s after setting up Premium Port Wines, his family’s import company. But he was completely at home in the Douro as he led us out of the sun and into one of the ornate 19th century winery buildings, where he had a picnic ready. He took a seat at the head of a long table and proceeded to lob bacalhau balls for the rest of us to catch in our mouths. Some of us were better at the game than others.

After lunch (more bacalhau), he passed a bottle of the 1970 Graham’s. At 20 years of age, it was still young, the tannins still noticeable, the wine almost garrulous in its energy. I asked him who made it and he laughed, “I did.”

As it turned out, before James got involved in the commercial side of the business, he had been blending the family’s Port wines in the 1960s, and he was responsible for this beautiful 1970 Graham’s.

The wine showed up again at a special tasting of Port Vintages of the Century—a marathon in Oporto at the end of the 20th century with more than 200 Vintage Ports from every decade of the century available to taste over the course of the day.

The 1970s were a highlight of that day, and the Graham’s was a highlight of the 1970s. My notes from that tasting: “Best Graham’s I’ve ever tasted. Tobacco, cherry skin, wild and powerful. Real Central Douro character.” And without my notes, I have a clear taste memory of James’s first Graham’s Vintage, one of the most lasting of any Port I have tasted. It’s not a flavor memory, but more a series of colors and hues of light that layer into an impression of the wine, with James’s laugh providing the audio track, “Ha, I did!”

After serving as a blender, then running the commercial side of the business, James retired with his wife to farm their 140 acres of vines at Quinta da Vila Velha, on the south bank of the Douro just downriver from Malvedos. They owned Vila Velha with their son, Rupert, who now heads up Symington Family Estates. James is also survived by his two daughters, Clare and Miranda, and six grandchildren.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

This is a W&S web exclusive. Get access to all of our feature stories by signing up today.