Rob Symington – environmental activist

Rob Symington in Vila Nova de Gaia, Oporto

James Mayor discovers how a fifth-generation digital native is shaking up one of the best-known port shippers in its 140th year.

Climate is changing what’s in the bottle. You have only to see these 37 articles on tagged ‘climate change’.

I’m at Graham’s, one of the Symingtons’ port wine lodges in the Vila Nova de Gaia district of Porto (Oporto in English), to meet Rob Symington, Paul’s elder son and a member of the fifth generation of the Symington family. They have been port shippers, and producers, since 1882 when the young Andrew James Symington, ‘AJ’ as he’s known in the family, arrived in Portugal from Scotland. Rob mentions that ten members of the family currently work at Symington Family Estates, proof of the clan’s extreme cohesiveness. In the 1990s the Symingtons diversified, producing for the first time Douro table wines that have gained traction worldwide.

On the day of our meeting the Symingtons’ offices are practically deserted, with teams working from home due to COVID-19, although I catch a reassuring glimpse of head winemaker Charles Symington. Across the street, the visitor centre at Cockburn’s has been closed to the public by the pandemic.

‘We have a company that’s old, but not old-fashioned’, Rob remarks. He describes himself as a digital native. After a spell in management consulting, he created a London-based business start-up that challenged the traditional corporate model. Three years ago the call came to join the family firm. Rob was initially concerned he would find a business set in its ways. He discovered an organisation with a core of shared family values that embraced the fresh ideas and entrepreneurial attitude he brought with him. Creating premium ports is all about gradual ageing, but the concurrent crises – climate, COVID and financial – are forcing a change of pace.

To Rob, ‘the planet will be fine without humans, the question is whether or not we, or our children or grandchildren, are going to have a positive future on it’. He is fluent and passionate about wine sustainability.

In April 2020 Rob published We will either change or change will be forced upon us – Symington Family Estates on the Porto Business School website Norte.AR. The article points to our collective need to safeguard the planet, and calls for a shift in our cultural attitudes, and the economic systems which stem from them, towards the development of social enterprises that operate ‘within the limits of the earth’s systems’.

In 2019 Symington Family Estates was the first Portuguese company in the wine industry to become a B Corporation (see Symingtons join B Corps), an initiative sponsored by Rob. B Corp is a global movement, a new type of business, externally assessed to place social and environmental responsibility on a par with financial sustainability to embrace all stakeholders, including communities. ‘We are living a totally different paradigm today, and I suspect we won’t be the last wine company in Portugal to become a B Corp’, predicts Rob. [Adrian Bridge, head of the other major ‘British’ port company The Fladgate Partnership of Taylor’s fame, has launched The Porto Protocol, also with the effects of climate change in mind. At 4.30 pm on 15 April I will be participating in a discussion on wine packaging as part of their series of webinars. Register here – JR.]

Once approved by the certifying organisation, B Lab, companies have to follow through with concrete actions or, like the coveted Michelin star for a restaurant, they risk losing the valuable logo.

Like many wine-producing families, the Symingtons think in generations, and Rob and his cousins are taking the issue of sustainability extremely seriously across every area of the company. If you talk to a member of the family, you quickly realise the extent of their passionate connection with the Douro, characterised by involvement in creating a sustainable future for local communities. The Symingtons offer two scholarships annually to students from financially disadvantaged families to study viticulture and oenology at the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (UTAD), in Vila Real.

Rob is nothing if not proactive. In January 2020 Symington Family Estates joined International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), an association of wine companies founded by Familia Torres (Spain) and Jackson Family Wines (US). Members commit to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate the effects of our climate crisis. The Symington family are rolling out their comprehensive sustainability strategy with an overall goal to reduce the company’s carbon emissions by 35% between 2015 and 2025.

In Portugal and globally the wine industry has some pressing issues to address.

Glass bottles, and their transportation to the final point of sale, account for by far the biggest share of the wine industry’s carbon emissions (see Carbon footprints, wine and the consumer). The Symingtons are leading the way in the Douro working with their bottle suppliers to create lighter models which will have a gentler carbon footprint.

In 2020 Portugal sweltered through its hottest summer on record, confirming the disturbing trend of recent years. The yield at the Symingtons’ estates was small, although quality was ‘interesting’. Rob points out that no regulated irrigation policy exists in the Douro, which is alarming in a dry region where water is in such limited supply. UTAD has conducted research showing, under different climate scenarios, crop yields will drop 50% by mid century, a reduction which can be mitigated by science-based irrigation to support vines during the most challenging periods of the year.

Many of the Douro’s greatest vineyards are composed of old vines yielding magnificently concentrated terroir wines. Convinced that a limited amount of hydric stress encourages vines to produce the best grapes, the Symingtons practise smart drip irrigation in their vineyards, and have invited the Portuguese Ministry of Agriculture to come up with an irrigation policy for the region. ‘We’re going to have to see enlightened regulation in this area so we can balance the sustainability of water resources with the need to protect our crop’, comments Rob.

The company has created a stunning resource for future generations, three grape variety ‘libraries’ at Quinta do Ataíde, Quinta do Bomfim and the Tapadinha vineyard, to study different strains of indigenous Portuguese varieties (alongside a few international ‘reference’ ones) to determine those best-suited to changing growing conditions brought about by climate change.

To Rob the new low-impact winery the Symingtons are building at Quinta do Ataíde, in the Douro Superior, is an exemplar of sustainable future wine production. It is designed for wine transfer through gravity and will use renewable energy for much of its needs. The grapes from the quinta are organically farmed.

Rewilding aims to mitigate the species extinction crisis by restoring healthy, sustainable ecosystems which require minimum human intervention. The Symingtons recently partnered with not-for-profit Rewilding Portugal to reinforce a 120,000-hectare (297,000-acre) wildlife corridor between the Malcata Mountain range and the Douro Valley. The initiative supports the recovery of habitat and prey for species such as deer, the Iberian lynx and various birds of prey. Rewilding activities are also being implemented on Symington estates, which frequently include woodland as well as vineyards. In March, Symington Family Estates launched a Rewilding Edition for their successful entry-level Altano red. As well as the classic 75-cl bottle, it will be available in an easily recyclable 2.25-litre bag-in-tube with a far lower carbon footprint than the glass equivalent.

Upbeat about the future, Rob indicates three pillars which will support the Symingtons’ strategy over the next decade:

  • Driving the port category forward, with emphasis on premium ports. Symington Family Estates are reaching out to millennials and more diverse consumer groups through imaginative packaging and initiatives such as the lively School of Port, launched in 2020 on Instagram to educate and engage younger consumers with the category.
  • Championing Portuguese dry wines (including those of the Symingtons’ first vineyard outside the Douro, Quinta da Fonte Souto at Portalegre in the Alto Alentejo).

For both port and dry wine production, the Symingtons plan to continue to develop research-based sustainable viticulture, sharing their findings with other Portuguese producers.

  • Building on the company’s wine tourism activities, which play a key role in sustainable regional development and job creation.

When we are allowed to move around freely again, I will be heading straight from Porto, where I live, to the Douro. Believe me, it really is one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world.