Text Sarah Ahmed
Lately, business has been brisk attracting top Bordeaux talent to the Douro. Poças Júnior recently announced that Hubert de Boüard and Philippe Nunes of Château Angélus have been working with them since the 2014 vintage. The previous year, Lima & Smith caused a stir when they hired Jean-Claude Berrouet, former winemaker at Château Pétrus, to consult at Quinta da Boavista.
While the results of these very recent collaborations have yet to be seen, another Bordeaux/Douro collaboration, Prats & Symington, hit the headlines with the 10th release of “Grand Vin,” Prats & Symington Chryseia 2011. This, my favourite vintage of Prats & Symington Chryseia thus far, made the cut for Wine Spectator’s coveted Top 100 Wines of the Year, 2014.
Earlier this month I attended a vertical tasting of Chryseia presented by the Bordeaux half of this French/Portuguese marriage, Bruno Prats, former owner of Château Cos d’Estournel. The Symington family was represented by the fifth generation, Charlotte Symington, the first woman from this well known Port family to go on the payroll (she is Port brand ambassador at UK importer Fells, which is Symington owned).
Prats had not long sold Cos d’Estournel before establishing the 50:50 joint venture with the Symingtons. He tells me the project took off faster than he had expected. After just one year of trials, the first vintage of Chryseia was made in 2000. Since then, vineyard sourcing has changed dramatically, first with the partnership’s acquisition of Quinta de Perdiz in 2004 which, in 2009, was followed by the purchase of Quinta de Roriz, which has a dedicated Prats & Symington winery. (Incidentally, another dramatic change since 2000 is the price tag of top Bordeaux which, says a smiling Prats, means top Douro reds compare very favourably with similarly priced Bordeaux).
He may call Chryseia the “Grand Vin” but, Prats told us, “our aim was always to produce food-friendly, elegant, balanced wines with the focus on finesse, not power.” His comments reminded me of a conversation ten year’s earlier with fellow Bordelais Baron Eric de Rothschild. In response to my observation that Domaine Baron de Rothschild (Lafite) wines from Argentina, Chile, Portugal, the USA and South of France shared an unusual restraint he shot back “you can take the man out of Bordeaux, but you can’t take the Bordeaux out of the man.”
Still, I’m sure it’s only coincidence that Prats has homed in on just two grape varieties in the Douro. Where Bordeaux has its Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot dichotomy, Prats claims only to find Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca “interesting.” This draconian varietal focus is one reason why he favours younger (single varietal) block planted vineyards over the Douro’s traditional varietally mixed so-called field blend vineyards. How do you know when to pick old vineyards, he asks rhetorically, later asserting “I am convinced we must work with block plantings to be sure to pick at the right time.” Which seems odd when so many of the region’s finest producers manage perfectly well, indeed use old field blend vineyards to fabulous effect – Niepoort and Quinta do Crasto spring to mind. Moreover, Niepoort’s increased focus on elegance and digestibility confirms that these two qualities are not the sole preserve of block planted vineyards (less still two varieties).
That said, I think Prats has a point when he says “you can get power in the Douro easily, which is why it’s important to concentrate on elegance.” While we’ll have to beg to differ about block plantings and two (admittedly world class) grape varieties being key to elegance, there can be little doubt about the positive impact of long but gentle macerations and a relatively short spell in oak compared with other top Douro cuvees (and indeed Bordeaux). As you’d expect from a renowned Bordelais winemaker, tannin management at Prats & Symington has always been exemplary.
According to Prats, unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, neither Touriga Nacional nor Touriga Franca “can accept a very high level of oak.” It also explains why 400 litre barrels are preferable to Bordeaux’s 225 litre barriques. For Prats “what’s magic with Douro wine is the fruit; we must preserve the fruit.”
I’m all for fruit, especially when it is expressed as brightly as in 2011 and 2012, but what excites me most about these Chryseia vintages is their pronounced minerality. A quality which, I might add, is present in both even though Prats describes one (the 2011) as “a more Douro style” and the other (2012) as “more Bordeaux in style.”
It seems to me that this minerality is a hallmark of Quinta de Roriz (and its neighbour, Churchill’s Quinta da Gricha). Prats observes that the schist at Roriz is particularly mineral-rich (very friable too compared with Perdiz’s harder, thicker schist). Apparently, there was a tin mine on the estate until 40 years ago but, as to how this translates into the glass, Prats says “I’m happy it’s still a mystery” – more Douro magic, you might say!
Below you’ll find my notes on the estate’s latest releases and the Chryseia vertical. Chryseia has been made every year save for 2002 and 2010. Since 2002, to adopt Bordeaux-speak, a “second wine”, Post Scriptum, has been produced annually. It is made from those barrels which don’t make the cut for the “Grand Vin.” (You can read more about the early history and evolution of Prats & Symington in my report of a visit to Quinta de Roriz and Decanter feature of 2011).
Prats & Symington Prazo de Roriz 2011 (Douro)
Sourced as to 70% from Quinta de Roriz, 30% from Perdiz, Prats says the A grade grapes go to Post Scriptum and Chryseia, the balance to this wine which incorporates a much wider selection of Douro varieties. As I’d expect in this top vintage, Prazo de Roriz 2011 has a nice concentration of cedar-edged plum and juicy black cherry/fruits of the forest. Tinta Barocca, the lead grape (39%) is readily apparent in its softer, sweeter, slightly jammy palate. Yet, in line with the philosophy of elegance, it shares the clean, fresh finish and fine tannins of Post Scriptum and Chryseia 2011. This is an accomplished entry level red. 14.3%
Prats & Symington Post Scriptum 2011 (Douro)
A blend of 56% Touriga Nacional, 30% Touriga Franca, 7% Tinta Barroca, 7% Tinta Roriz aged for 13 months in one year old 400 litre French oak barrels. Deeper in hue and much more structured than the Prazo de Roriz with brighter, better defined black berry and cherry fruit and fine, gently tactile, smoky, mineral tannins. The finish is precise and very persistent. Very good. 13.9%
Prats & Symington Post Scriptum 2012 (Douro)
This blend of 53% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional and 2% other varieties was aged for 13 months in one year old 400 litre French oak barrels. A milder summer (thankfully with low yields owing to the drought) produced a more delicate wine with red rather than black fruits, slinky tannins and fresh, persistent acidity. A markedly mid-weight palate reveals sweet-vanillin-edged damson and plum fruit, graphite and fruit (not oak) spice. Though not as charismatic as the 2011, the 2012 has an elegant, ready charm. 13.3%
Prats & Symington Chryseia 2012 (Douro)
Vintage: The most noticeable aspect of the 2011/2012 viticultural year was the lack of water. An unusually cold winter, the coldest in over a decade, was followed by an erratic spring whose unpredictable conditions led to poor fruit set and in turn, to a much smaller crop. Lower than average summer temperatures mitigated the effects of drought, and because there were fewer bunches on the vines, the grape ripening progressed very satisfactorily enabling us to produce some very fine wines. The grapes for Chyseia were picked at Quinta de Roriz between September 12th and October 8th and at Quinta da Perdiz between September 27th and October 9th.
A blend of 72% Touriga Nacional and 28% Touriga Franca sourced from Quinta de Roriz, Quinta da Perdiz and Quinta da Vila Velha. It was aged for 15 months in 100% new 400 litre French oak barrels (Tonnellerie du Sud-Ouest, Boutes, François Frères). Again the emphasis is on red fruits, here more concentrated with a very seductive sheen of perfumed oak (chocolate, cinnamon and cedar). Bergamot and a hint of pipe tobacco bring additional lift and layer to this wine’s sweet core of raspberry, black cherry and forest fruits. Fresh acidity makes for a very poised, persistent, schist-sluiced finish; its fluidity is under-scored by ultra-fine tannins. Very classy. 13.7%
Prats & Symington Chryseia 2011 (Douro)
Vintage: Whilst 2011 was an exceptionally dry year, the abundant rainfall accumulated during the last three months of 2010 was to prove decisive for the prospects of the 2011, creating good water reserves in the Douro subsoil. The geology of the Douro, with its characteristic schist soils, facilitates the retention and storage of water, which the well-established root systems are able to draw on, although they have to go deep down to seek it out. Over centuries the Douro’s varieties have acclimatized to this mountain vineyard’s harsh conditions and they are well adapted to make the most of what little water they can access and to withstand the typically hot, dry summers. The incredible terroir of Quinta de Roriz is itself a prevalent factor in the quality and style of Chryseia’s wines. The timely rainfall registered in late August and early September proved instrumental in creating ideal conditions for the final ripening stage, which was also favoured by perfect warm and dry vintage conditions. The grapes were received in the winery at Roriz with a textbook balance of sugars, phenolics and acidity, such as we have rarely seen before. The vintage began at Quinta de Roriz on September 16th with the Touriga Nacional and w was concluded with the later-ripening Touriga Franca on September 30th.
A blend of 65% Touriga Nacional and 35% Touriga Franca aged for 15 months in 100% new 400 litre French oak barrels (Tonnellerie du Sud-Ouest, Taransaud, Boutes, François Frères). This, one of my Top 10 New Douro 2011 wines tasted in December 2013, has enjoyed sell-out success on the back of Wine Spectator’s Top 100. It’s a fabulous vintage of Chryseia, the first to really make its mark on me. I suspect because, as Prats put it, it’s more Douro than Bordeaux. Why? Because it has a pronounced terroir-driven schistous, salty, smoky minerality – a hallmark of Quinta de Roriz, also its neighbour, Churchill’s Quinta da Gricha. And this minerality is very much to the fore in 2011 despite its imposing but very balanced and fresh concentrated black fruits. Very lively, very long and focused its elegant frame belies this wine’s concentration and intensity; an outstanding exercise in power and restraint. 14%
Prats & Symington Chryseia 2009 (Douro)
Vintage: This was the third dry year in succession, and to compound the drought, the very hot conditions experienced in particular through August and September, brought about a very significant reduction in the size of the vintage (one of the smallest in the last 15 years in the Douro). The adverse conditions notwithstanding, the exceptional terroir of Quinta de Roriz came to the fore. The vineyard’s cooler north-facing aspect provided respite from the ferocity of the heat and the fact that the tow varieties used in the making of Chryseia (Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca) are generally heat-resistant also worked in our favour. Additionally, the Touriga Franca is a late ripener and was therefore well equipped to withstand – and gain from – the very hot conditions experienced through September. As the last variety to be picked at the end of September, after a full month of heat and three months with a paltry 7mm of total rainfall, yields did sugger though; the Franca producing an average of just 870g/vine (as compared to an overall average of 1.41kg/vine). However, both the Nacional and the Franca performed well, completing their maturation cycles satisfactorily and delivering very good quality.
A blend of 70% Touriga Nacional and 30% Touriga Franca aged for 13 months in 100% new 400 litre French oak barrels (Tonnellerie du Sud-Ouest, Taransaud, Boutes, Radoux, François Frères, Saury). This was the first vintage to be sourced from and vinified at Quinta de Roriz. It’s not my favourite Douro vintage – the ravages drought and heat produced quite burly wines. Hence even for those seeking elegance of expression, this is a well-built wine; it was interesting to hear Prats’ speculation about perhaps having made a better wine had they known the vineyard better. Muscular and opulent with velvety, ruffled tannins Chryseia 2009 has a tarry edge to its rich confit of raspberry and plum fruit. Chocolatey new oak further ratchets up the sweetness factor so, all in all, the 2009 lacks the restraint and finesse of the preceding wines. Which is not to say it’s not enjoyable; if you like your wines big and bold, this will be more up your street. 14.4%
Prats & Symington Chryseia 2004 (Douro)
Vintage: A wet autumn in 2003 was followed by a very dry winter, with a serious lack of rainfall at a very crucial period. Warm and dry weather in May 2004 encouraged a rapid growth in vine shoots and a slightly lower than average fruit set. By the end of July the vines were in excellent condition, but with the continuing lack of rain we were starting to become quite concerned with potential hydric stress. Then the almost impossible happened: heavy rain in August, the 77mm measured between August 9th and 17th being the highest recorded in August in the Douro in 104 years. This was followed in September by 25 days of uninterrupted sunshine which allowed for perfect ripening and ideal harvest conditions. The harvest started later than usual on September 23rd and had just been completed when the rain resumed on October 9th. What could have been a very difficult year turned out to be a quite remarkable one, with a favourable combination of low yields, high sugar levels in the grapes, and a rich structure and great colour in the finished wine.
Details of varietal split and time in oak were not provided, but the fruit was sourced from Quintas Vesuvio, Bomfim, Vila Velha and, for the first time, Prat’s & Symington’s then recently acquired Quinta da Perdiz. I’m a big fan of the 2004 vintage and it was interesting to re-taste a bottle of this vintage from Fells’ London stock. The wine seemed brighter and fresher than the bottle I tasted in Oporto in December 2013 when I reviewed a number of 2004 Douro reds. Like the bottle I tasted then, Chyseia 2004 is particularly spicy and perfumed with liquorice, esteva and pine needle notes, hints of bergamot too. Together with its concentrated, still animated fruits of the forest, it lends this wine great energy – a certain Douro wildness of character (despite its ultra-refined tannins). An involving finish with salt-lick, schistous minerality lingers long; this is a powerful, very characterful wine. 14.2%
Prats & Symington Chryseia 2003 (Douro)
Vintage: The heavy rain that fell in the autumn of 2002 and again in January 2003 was followed by higher than average temperatures in March. The climactic conditions in May were extremely beneficial to the flowering and berry set, both indicated that 2003 would be a reasonably large harvest. The summer was hot and dry bringing good concentration to the grapes, but rainfall on 27th and 28th August was very welcome and played a key role in improving fruit quality. The grapes arrived at the winery with good Baumes and the musts showed very good colour. The grapes were icked by hand from the 18 September, ending on the 9th October.
A blend of 60% Touriga Franca, 35% Touriga Nacional, 5% Tinta Cão sourced from Quintas Vesuvio, Bomfim, Vila Velha. It was aged for 12 months in 100% new 350 litre and 400 litre French oak barrels (Tonnellerie du Sud-Ouest, Taransaud). This was Prats’ favourite wine from the older vintages which, he observed, are characterised by Porty notes. It’s a very polished, dark, chocolatey wine with supple tannins and glossy, very smooth fruit. Accomplished yes (less porty than other 2003s I’ve tasted) and drinking very well but, for me, it lacked a sense of place – the detail, interest and energy which I liked so much in the 2004. 14%
Prats & Symington Chryseia 2001 (Douro)
Vintage: The weather conditions in early 2001 were unusually wet with moderate temperatures. Conditions improved by the time of the flowering. Early on in the year the total crop was expected to be higher than normal. A hot and dry summer led to some dehydration of the fruit, earlier than expected ripening and lower than anticipated yields. Manual picking of grapes began on 13 September and ended on the the 27 of September.
A blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Cão from Quintas Vesuvio, Vila Velha and Vale de Malhadas. Prats says it was mistake to include Tinta Roriz. It was aged for 10 months in 100% new 350 litre and 400 litre French oak barrels (Tonnellerie du Sud-Ouest, Taransaud). Evolved with rustic, gamy, Bovril notes to its Porty nose and palate and disjointed (volatile?) acidity. Disappointing. 13.8%
Prats & Symington
Quinta de Roriz
São João da Pesqueira
5130-113 ERVEDOSA DO DOURO