Andrew James Symington arrived in Portugal in 1882 to work in Graham’s. He was aged just 19. Andrew’s father was a Glasgow merchant and writer and his mother hailed from Unst in the Shetland Islands. Andrew James left Graham’s a few years later to pursue an independent career as a Port producer and in 1891 he married Porto-born Beatrice Leitão de Carvalhosa Atkinson. Beatrice came from a long-established Port family, her grandfather having been a Port producer and shipper since 1814. On her Portuguese mother’s side, Beatrice was a descendant of the pioneering Port merchants of the 17th century. Thus the Symingtons can trace their lineage back 14 generations and to the earliest days of Port’s long history.
Andrew James Symington was a man who became passionate about the Douro and its wines and he understood that to build an enduring family wine business, he and his wife must instil in their children a long-term vision. Andrew and Beatrice anchored their family firmly in the vineyards of the Douro Valley where they spent much of their childhood.
As an independent Port shipper Andrew Symington made a name for himself in 1894 when he was entrusted by the Portuguese Government with the Burnay sale of some 20,000 pipes of Port. Speculative mismanagement by the Burnay banking family had resulted in a dangerous oversupply of Port and in order to avoid a collapse of the market the government had been forced to intervene. His skilful handling of this complex process earned him the respect of his peers and of the Douro farmers, who depended on the stability of the Port market.
In 1905 Andrew Symington became a partner in Warre & Co., which, established in 1670 was the oldest British Port house in Portugal, and by 1908 he had become its sole owner. Then, in 1912, he acquired a shareholding in another Port producer, Silva & Cosens, which traded under the well-known Dow’s name and already owned three important Douro vineyards. In the early 1920s three of his sons followed him into the company, managing it until his grandsons joined them after the Second World War.
Maurice was born to Andrew and Beatrice in 1895 and the twins John and Ronald were born in 1900. Maurice followed his father into the family business after serving in the First World War, and his brothers joined them in the 1920s. The period immediately following the Great War was one of prosperity in the Port trade and this proved an auspicious time to take the company forward.
Thinking of his sons’ future, Andrew Symington had significantly consolidated the foundations of his family enterprise when he became a partner in Dow’s, which was then one of the most progressive Port houses. During the second half of the 19th century Dow’s had invested in its own Douro vineyards, acquiring Quinta do Zimbro in 1887, Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira in 1890 and Quinta do Bomfim in 1896. Andrew Symington understood that to safeguard his family’s future it was essential to secure prime Douro vineyards.
At every opportunity the family would leave their house in Porto to travel to the quintas in the Douro and the children grew to love the wild, untamed and remote mountain country. Tragically, Beatrice died in 1916 aged 46, but as they became young adults, Maurice, John and Ron helped their father run the quintas in the Douro, tending the vines and overseeing the winemaking. Some of the vines planted by them during the 1920s and 1930s survive to this day, a tangible testament to the family’s love of the Douro.
The quintas visitor’s books, which are also a record of the annual vineyard cycle and the weather, register their frequent entries and bring to life the work they undertook over several decades as they paved the way for the next generation. Reading these entries, written by the hand of the various contributors and initialled ‘AJS’ (Andrew), ‘MMS’ (Maurice), ‘JDS’ (John) and ‘RAS’ (Ronald), one is left in no doubt that the Douro vineyards were the family’s lifeblood.
Andrew and Beatrice’s grandsons, Michael, Ian, and James joined the family firm during one of the most challenging periods facing Port, the post-World War II era. They were later to be joined by Peter and then Amyas. The Second World War had put a halt to all exports of Port to its principal market Great Britain, and indeed to most others. The family risked losing the business and many of the long established Port families sold their firms and left Portugal. However the Symingtons never lost faith in an eventual recovery, even though the hard times obliged the family to sell two of their treasured vineyards, Quinta do Zimbro and Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira. In an extraordinary turn of events, their children were able to repurchase Quinta da Senhora da Ribeira in 1998, 45 years later.
The Symington’s faith in the Douro throughout these lean times began to pay off when during the early 1960s Europe entered a period of prosperity. The declaration of the outstanding 1963 Vintage, a 20th century classic, heralded a period of sustained growth and success for the family firm. This generation was instrumental in turning around not just the prospects of their own family business but contributed, with others, to the revival of the Port trade as a whole, and helped to lay the foundations for its successful growth in markets around the world during the 1970s and 1980s.
The generation currently at the helm of the family business are Paul, Johnny, Rupert, Dominic and Charles. Their parents prepared them well to become the custodians of the proud heritage built by their forebears. At the heart of their philosophy are the valuable lessons learnt from their grandfathers, fathers and uncles, principal among which is the realisation of the importance of vineyard ownership. As the company prospered, the family acquired further land along the length of the Douro Valley, mostly in the prime sub-regions of the Cima Corgo and the Douro Superior, where their ancestors had long established themselves.
Several members of the fifth generation of Symingtons, in a break from their studies, have already worked at the family wineries during the harvest and have helped to receive visitors at the lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. In the next few years more of the family will join the company, securing the continuity of the family’s long tradition. Charlotte Symington has already joined the family business and is working in London as Port brand manager.
‘Sharing those experiences in the winery at Malvedos has been a fantastic education. It was a privilege to be part of the team with the likes of Fonseca, Juca and Senhor Tibério, 7 days a week for 5 weeks, working the night shifts, the midnight emergencies and the pump breakages. We learnt to be part of a hardworking and dedicated team, some of whose families have been working with us for several generations.’