Rupert Symington is the CEO of Symington Family Estates, which includes the famous Port shippers Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, and Cockburn’s, among others. The Symington family has produced Port since 1882 when Rupert’s great-grandfather, Andrew James Symington, came to Portugal from England and founded the company. Rupert left Portugal at the age of thirteen to attend boarding school in the United Kingdom, and later Oxford University and INSEAD, the European Institute of Business Administration. He returned to Portugal in 1992 to join the family business. Symington Family Estates currently own 26 quintas (or vineyard estates) covering a total of 5570 acres. Currently, there are ten family members from the fourth, fifth, and sixth generations working in the company. Rupert became CEO in January 2019.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Rupert Symington for WineSpeed in May 2019.
Karen MacNeil: How old were you when you tasted your first wine and who gave it to you?
Rupert Symington: Growing up in a wine producing family, I was definitely allowed to taste (but not drink !) Port at an early age, I can’t recall exactly when, but I was probably six or seven, with my father explaining how Port was different from other red wines.
KM: You went to a notoriously brutal English boarding school for boys, then Oxford. What did these experiences teach you?
RS: Boarding School taught me to be independent, to listen, and not to stick my neck out. Oxford was just a dream experience, surrounded by amazing culture, wit and intelligence, and honed my social skills as well as my love of language.
KM: What was your first job in the wine industry?
RS: I spent six months in Australia when I was just eighteen, and worked at Buller’s Winery in Rutherglen, Australia. My first job was to scare off starlings in the vineyard with a shotgun. These birds love to eat over-ripe grapes and can strip a vineyard clean in a few hours.
“Boarding school taught me to be independent, to listen, and not to stick my neck out.”
Karen MacNeil: You are part of one of Europe’s great wine families. The Symington family owns many of the top Port firms including Warre’s, Graham’s, Dow’s, Cockburn’s and more. What’s the biggest challenge in working with your family?
Rupert Symington: Like any family business, it is important to preserve harmony and respect peoples’ individual idiosyncrasies. I find it helpful to define family roles that do not overlap as this is a surefire way to create problems.
KM: How many Ports have you tasted in your lifetime?
RS: Probably 5,000 different Ports.
KM: When you taste a really great Port, what’s the experience like for you?
RS: Tasting a Port that was made by my grandfather in the 1920’s is an extraordinary sensation. He is no longer with us, but here in the glass is his legacy, which has survived him. Altogether a curious mixture of pleasure, emotion, and reverence.
KM: Besides Portugal, what other wine region inspires you the most and why?
RS: I am a self-confessed Northern Rhône nut. I see so many parallels in these wines to the dry wines of the Douro, but I love the wild herb flavors that the syrah grape manages to produce and the earthiness that is uniquely French. Like in the Douro, the vines really have to work hard to survive and their deep roots impart special flavors.
KM: I’m not going to ask what’s your favorite type of wine. But what wine or type of wine do you like the least?
RS: I am not a fan of over-oaked white wines from any part of the world. There are so many examples where the fruit is simply eclipsed by the wood, and this cannot be a good thing.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
RS: I drink a lot of beer! But also sparkling water.
KM: The steep terraced vineyards of the Douro are legendary for their beauty but also their severity. What feeling do those vineyards evoke in you?
RS: It is quite astonishing how much work went in to creating the vineyards of the Douro, particularly at a time when there was no heavy machinery to help. I am still in awe of the reputation of Port that enabled, through its popularity and high prices, to tame the wilderness of the Douro in such a dramatic way so many years ago.
KM: Port of course is made in numerous styles. Which style do you love the most and when do you drink it?
RS: I keep a bottle of Twenty-Year-Old Tawny in my fridge at home at all times. This my go-to Port, there is nothing not to like.
KM: Port has long been considered a man’s drink. Has that changed? If so, why did it change?
RS: I think Port’s reputation as a man’s drink is linked to the fact that it was one of the most popular drinks in the world at a time when drinking was considered inappropriate for certain women who aspired to social status under the conventions of the era. The higher strength of Port was another reason for it to be favored by heavier drinkers who tended to be male. Now that our society takes a more libertarian view, I am quite sure that our consumers are much more evenly represented!
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
RS: Professionally, I am proud to have been part of the family team that secured Cockburn’s, one of the greatest names in Port, for our family business. Personally, raising three children in the company of my wonderful wife Anne, to hopefully continue the family Port tradition, has made me extremely proud.