Celebrating 200 Years of Quinta do Vesúvio: A Look at the Remarkable Douro Superior Estate (1823-2023)

By | 13 April 2024

Richard Mayson reports on an impressive tasting that marked 200 years of the Symington-owned property.


Richard Mayson

Richard Mayson celebrates 200 years of Quinta do Vesúvio, an estate responsible for some of the greatest Single-Quinta Vintage Ports as well as increasingly fine table wines.

The year 1792 was literally a breakthrough for the Douro Valley. After 12 years of blasting and shifting huge lumps of granite, the River Douro became navigable for the first time, as far as Spain. The white-water rapids at Valeira had long been a physical barrier within Portugal, with the land upstream being isolated from the rest of the country. Indeed, inhabitants of the region (known as Trás-os-Montes, “Behind the Mountains”) were inclined toward Salamanca in Spain rather than Oporto, such was their remoteness. A tax of 400 reis per pipe of wine, aguardente, vinegar, or “any liquid” transported by river was used to finance the removal of the rapids. It effectively opened up a huge stretch of virgin country to vineyards and wine.

The Ferreira family, known for their entrepreneurial spirit, were among the pioneers in the establishing their Port-shipping firm in 1751. Quinta do Silho at Barca d’Alva, on the border with Spain, was the first recorded vineyard in the Douro Superior, planted by Miguel António Ferreira in 1820. Shortly after, Quinta das Figueiras (the “Fig Tree Quinta”), came into acquisition by António Bernardo Ferreira, a prominent capitalist from Régua. He is known for planting the first vines in 1823 at the property that produced figs, corn, almonds, olives, and citrus fruits, and for embarking on an ambitious building program. He then renamed it Quinta do Vesúvio. After a mere five years, the location had already gained positive recognition, particularly from the English audience. It was praised for the quality of its wines and the establishment of eight stone lagares.

Despite the high esteem and quality of the wines from Vesúvio and other estates in the Douro Superior, which remained outside the 1761 demarcation, they were technically illegal. However, they gained acceptance by the early 1830s. As scribed by the Viscount of Vilarinho de São Romão, these wines were “very good”. Today, this area forms the largest part of the three sub-regions that now contribute to the production of today’s Port and Douro DOC. António Bernardo showed great enthusiasm towards his investments, and completed an impressive house in 1835, at Vesúvio, which remains the largest in the Douro.

After António Bernardo, his son, also named António Bernardo, inherited the property. He had recently married his cousin, Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira, who later would become a dominating figure in the mostly male world of Port wine. Dubbed as Ferreirinha by locals, she became the largest landowner in the Douro with a total of 24 quintas, including Vesúvio. A hallmark of her properties are the ornate stone-and-wrought-iron gates. Charles Sellers, three years post her death in 1899, described Dona Antónia as an individual who focused primarily on her vast estates.

She accrued enough wealth to afford giving her staff a break during the 1870s phylloxera crisis. Dona Antónia was twice married—firstly to António Bernardo, and after his passing, to her property manager Francisco José da Silva Torres. Sellers further noted that no two men in the Douro ever spent more money than Dona Antónia’s two husbands. During her reign, which seems an accurate description, Dona Antónia entertained guests extravagantly at Vesúvio. Following one such visit in 1861, she narrowly escaped a river accident at Cachão de Valeira in which her friend and confidant Joseph James Forrester tragically perished. By 1887, Vesúvio had its very own railway station. At the time of Dona Antónia’s death in 1896, her estates were producing more than 1,500 pipes of Port annually, and she bequeathed her company, AA Ferreira, with a stash of 13,000 pipes. At The time, it is approximated that Vesúvio’s vineyard extended over 140ha (350 acres).

Quinta do Vesúvio remained within the Ferreira family until the 1980s. However, Portugal’s Napoleonic code of inheritance had resulted in numerous individual shareholders, rendering the property unmanageable. Compounding this was the damming of the river in the early 1970s, which sunk much of the best vineyard and diminishing investments into new vine planting or building renovations, which were near collapse. The area of vineyards reduced to just 60ha (150 acres).

In 1989, the Symington family (by then owners of Dow’s, Graham’s, and Warre’s) stepped in. Johnny Symington, the modern head of the family, described it as a ‘now-or-never’ acquisition. On the opposing, northern riverbank, they already owned a property, Senhora da Ribeira, which catered to Dow’s. However, they elected to keep Quinta do Vesúvio separate from their additional Port houses. Since 1989, apart from 1993, 2002, 2020, and 2021—when Covid barred foot-treading— Vesúvio has produced a vintage Port almost every year. They have invested approximately €3 million solely in the vineyard. The predominantly north-facing Vesúvio estate spans across 326ha (800 acres), with about half dedicated to vine cultivation. The vineyard starts from 360ft (110m) above sea level on the riverside, stretching to nearly 1,500ft (450m) at the estate’s peak. This provides a variety of microclimates for wine production that vary yearly.

Considerable strides have been made in reviving the property, including the significant lagares which remain operational today, after being expertly refitted and equipped for temperature control—critical in the Douro region. The ancient azenha (mill) is now air-conditioned, serving as a lodge for maturing wines in cask. Their comprehensive understanding of different vineyard plots has led to the production of unfortified Douro wines at Vesúvio since 2007, including Capela da Quinta do Vesúvio, a super-premium Vintage Port from their oldest vines available in five vintages: 2001, 2007, 2011, 2016, and 2017. Vesúvio’s high quality exhibits the expertise and investments made. Wines from recent vintages have exhibited greater purity and distinctiveness, even during arid vintages,

A recent focus on altitude due to global climate change and warmer seasons, something Dona Antónia probably couldn’t have envisaged when she incorporated these plots to the estate a century and a half earlier, further elevate the quality of the best Douro reds.

Johnny and Tom Symington, a father-son duo, showcased a range of wines from Quinta do Vesúvio, both Port and Douro DOC in October 2023 at the St James’s Hotel in London, commemorating the property’s 200-year history. I have incorporated a few of my latest Vesúvio Port notes, including the tasting date, to provide a more detailed taste and characteristic profile of this extraordinary Douro Superior estate.

Comboio de Vesúvio 2020 Douro DOC

The train (comboio) symbolises the important role it has played in Vesúvio’s life for almost 150 years, which is reflected in the label of what is essentially the property’s third wine, first introduced in 2018. It predominantly consists of an even mix of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Roriz, bottled without undergoing oak aging. Thus, it offers a fresh, front-loaded aromatic floral—hedgerow scents with solid, rather compact, sappy-herbal, berry-fruit tastes. Enjoy its initial burst of youthful exuberance. | 88

Pombal do Vesúvio 2020 Douro DOC

The second wine of Vesúvio is named for the dovecote, a highly recognized feature on the quinta. It primarily hails from Touriga Franca, derived from two different vineyard plots, accompanied by Touriga Nacional (30%) and Tinta Amarela (5%). The wine undergoes ten months of aging in seasoned 400-liter and 225-liter French oak barrels. It possesses a deep opaque color with enticing, perfumed rock-rose and violet aromatics that have a significant underlying depth. The oak is hardly noticeable in its aroma; instead, the fruit takes center stage. The palate reveals ripe, pliant berry fruit, accompanied by fine-grained tannins. Its finish is stiff but lacks astringency – there is nothing aggressive about this wine, and it’s incredibly approachable. You can expect it to develop well in the bottle over the next decade. | 94

Quinta do Vesúvio 2020 Douro DOC

This blend is mainly Touriga Nacional (75%), sourced from a west-facing vineyard at an altitude of 1,500 ft (457m). Supporting the blend are Touriga Franca (22%) and Tinta Amarela. The wine was aged (80%) in new French oak barrels, 225 and 400 liters in size. On the nose, it’s quite shy at first, needing time to fully express itself; intense, aromatic, yet restrained (particularly for Nacional). There’s a delightful, ripe, near-exotic fruit quality to this wine, paired with firm, bold tannins. The structure is full-bodied but not overwhelmingly so, and finishes smooth, showcasing a lovely expression of fresh Douro fruit. It would benefit from another five years of bottle aging before consummation. | 96

Quinta do Vesúvio 2015 Douro DOC

Plentiful rainfall at the beginning of the year nurtured the vineyard throughout the following dry summer. The blend comprises 54% Touriga Nacional from a high-altitude vineyard, 42% Touriga Franca, and 4% Tinta Amarela. It was aged for 16 months, with 75% in new French oak. Despite its age, a lovely berry-fruit and black-cherry character continues to emerge on the nose. The palate is rich with ripe plum and cherry that juxtapose perfectly with firm gravelly tannins. The finish is elegant, characterised by raspberry notes. The balance is incredibly graceful. Drink now or in the next 15 years. | 95

Quinta do Vesúvio 2012 Douro DOC

A rather dry yet relatively cool year marked the Douro Superior when this wine was conceived. It is a blend of 70% Touriga Nacional, 25% Touriga Franca, and 5% Tinta Amarela. The wine aged for 15 months in both new and second-year French oak barrels. Even after aging for a decade in the bottle, the wine appears deep and youthful. It exudes ripe fruit aromas that team with a leathery-cedary undertone, both of which have incorporated the oak notes seamlessly. The taste is deeply intense, intermingling bittersweet, herbal, black-cherry fruit with bold, gravelly tannins. The finish lingers, resonating vibrancy. This wine is aging excellently. Enjoy it now or over the next decade. | 94

Quinta do Vesúvio 2009 Douro DOC

This is only the third Douro red to be produced from Vesúvio; a blend of 70% Touriga Nacional, 20% Touriga Franca, and 10% Tinta Amarela, with 13 months in new French oak. 2009 was a hot year and it still shows; deep and dark at the center, just showing its age on the rim. Rich and rather pruney on the nose; similarly ripe, heady fruit on the palate, dense with supple tannins, kept alive by a streak of acidity on the finish. It lacks the finesse of more recent vintages. | 90

Quinta do Vesúvio 2019 Vintage Port

From a dry year, fortunately without any extreme heat, a blend of 35% Touriga Nacional, 33% Touriga Franca, 18% Alicante Bouschet, 8% vinha velha (field blend) and 6% Tinta Amarela. Very deep, inky color. Lovely, open, aromatic plummy aromas, opulent and exotic, with a hint of lavender. Soft, rich, and voluptuous initially, with tannins building on the palate, leading on to a big, broad, firm finish retaining characteristic opulence. “Suave” describes the wine overall. Ready to drink relatively early: 2030–50+. | 96

Quinta do Vesúvio 2018 Vintage Port

Experiencing a remarkable year in the Douro Superior, which began with rainfall during spring, hot weather in August, and harvest in the middle of September under ideal conditions. This wine is a blend of 54% Touriga Nacional, 40% Touriga Franca/Alicante Bouschet (co-fermented), and 6% Sousão. The aroma is wonderfully elevated, scented with floral notes (like rose petals), vinous and pronounced. Initially, it’s sweet and smooth; ripe but delicate blackberry fruit, complemented by velvety tannins, culminating in a finish that’s both robust and sophisticated simultaneously. There’s an impressive freshness and vitality; it’s perfect for consumption in the medium to long term. A scarce 965 cases were produced, making up only 3% of the vineyard’s total output. (Comment from a 2020 tasting.) | 98

Capela da Quinta do Vesúvio 2017

This wine is a field blend made from hundred-year-old vines at Vinha da Capela, including Touriga Franca, Alicante Bouschet, Sousão, and Touriga Nacional. The aroma is lovely and elevated, presenting floral scents, wild berries, and green tea. The palate also exhibits exoticness, showing exceptional fruit purity again, with licorice concentration enveloped in robust, spicy tannins. The finish is massive, leaving a fresh acidity from the Sousão grape. In total, only 472 cases were made. (Comment from a 2019 tasting.) | 97

Quinta do Vesúvio 2003 Vintage Port

A hot year throughout Europe, which produced some exceptional Vintage Ports, some of which are marked by the heat. Still retaining its deep, youthful color, Touriga Franca is to the fore here, with open, ripe aromas redolent of date and prune. Fresher but still opulent in style on the palate, with ripe morello-cherry sweetness, mouth-filling tannins, and good definition. Lovely now, and with 20-plus years of drinking life ahead. (Note from a tasting in 2022.) | 95

Quinta do Vesúvio 1995 Vintage Port

Hot weather in August shaped these wines, which came along in the shadow of the widely declared 1994 vintage. Deep and opaque at the center, starting to brown on the rim. Rich and a bit soupy on the nose, with rather hot, pruney fruit, rich and heady, but lacks freshness and definition, with powerful, licorice-like concentration mid-palate and muscular tannins. Impressive but, to my mind, rather lacking in finesse. Drink now to 2035. | 89

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