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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
22 Dec 2018

A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

Two of the wine world's most important luminaries have just retired, despite seeming (to me, admittedly) to be in, if not the first, then certainly the second flush of youth. Paul Symington, chairman of the most important Anglo-Portuguese family port producer, looks as though he should still be short trousers (and certainly not much changed from the picture below in which he is top left and his brother Dominic, still with the family company, is far right). 

Michael_Symington_and_family-2.jpg

And Richard Geoffroy, responsible for every vintage of LVMH's famous prestige champagne Dom Pérignon since 1990, is quintessentially impish. Geoffroy, a Champenois who trained initially as a doctor, is leaving the champagne business to make sake in Japan. He has long admired the precision of Japanese food and drink culture, and one of his three sons has been based there. With Ryuichiro Masuda who also produces Masuizumi sakes, Geoffroy expects to launch his IWA sake in about a year's time.

His four predecessors as chef de cave responsible for the dominant champagne company Moët et Chandon's poshest wine Dom Pérignon spent most of their time at the company's Épernay headquarters in and under the famous Avenue du Champagne. But Richard became one of the best-travelled and most visible of wine producers anywhere (see Winemaker as performer).

Over a light supper in London last month, after a unique tasting (see Mr Dom Pérignon's life in bottles) of every single one of the Dom Pérignons he had a hand in, he claimed that it was filming a scene in Jancis Robinson's Wine Course for the BBC with me in 1994, in which I cruelly made him taste blind the various sparkling wines Moët was making around the world, that gave him the confidence to be more than a corporate cog.

The air miles he must have collected while whizzing around the globe from table to table will presumably come in handy for his future commutes to and from Japan. Although during his 33 years working for Moët he tried to stay at home for the last few months of the year when the grapes are picked and the crucial blending decisions are made – not least in his later auxiliary role as director of oenology for the whole giant Moët operation.

It should be noted that, presumably thanks to Geoffroy and his team, the quality of Moët itself, often derided by wine insiders because it is produced in such volumes, has perceptibly risen. And our tasting of Dom Pérignons white and pink from 1990 to 2009 was truly exceptional. Tickets for this tasting organised by specialist retailer The Finest Bubble at the wine-themed club 67 Pall Mall were £750 each, and apparently sold out within 24 hours. Champagne lovers came specially from New York, Singapore, Australia, Switzerland, Spain and Germany.

Geoffroy was quite emotional at this array of 15 white and seven rosé cuvées of Dom Pérignon, presented with his successor, 42-year-old Vincent Chaperon, with whom he has worked for the last 13 years. The retiring 64-year-old shook his head over 'all my hard work over so many years on the table at the same time'. He acknowledged that he had inherited a pretty strong brand. 'When you arrive at Dom Pérignon you wonder what you're going to do because the wine's already so good. In my time I've tried to really understand ripeness in Champagne grapes and put even more depth and density into the wine.'

One of the great mysteries of wine is how such high quality has been maintained for Dom Pérignon when everyone knows that it is made in considerable (if carefully guarded) quantity. Another of Geoffroy's legacies is a name change for the late-released versions. They used to be called Oenothèque but are now called P2 for the first late release, P3 for an even later (and smaller) one. P stands for Plénitude. Of course.

Geoffroy has effortlessly circled the globe for years preaching the gospel of Dom Pérignon and associated wheezes. The many promotional adventures he has overseen have involved a wide range of stars in fields such as art, music, design and, especially, food. At one media event, eight courses were served with different Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1996s, each varying from the next by one degree Celsius (see Richard's report).

It would be difficult to imagine Paul Symington of Symington Family Estates, the company responsible for Graham's, Dow's, Warre's and Quinta do Vesuvio ports and a total of 27 wine farms and more than 1,000 ha (2,471 acres) of steep, low-yielding vineyard, indulging in such flights of fancy. He still seems to me like a typical English public schoolboy, although it was only exceptional demand for 1963 vintage port that provided the means for his father to send his children to school in England.

Another milestone in the fortunes of the port trade, beleaguered for much of the last century, came only a few years later. The launch in 1969 of Cockburn's Special Reserve created a whole new category of port between cheap ruby and vintage port. It would go on to become the world's best-selling port, transforming the fortunes of farmers throughout the Douro valley in northern Portugal because of this new and growing demand for good quality grapes.

Paul Symington could not care more about the somewhat precarious future of the rugged Douro Valley, as those who have heard him present any port tasting (such as this recent tribute tasting) over the years know well. Grape prices fail to reflect the extraordinarily harsh conditions. A labour shortage looms. Sales are only just recovering from some tricky times for port shippers. Yet the Symingtons – all nine cousins currently working in the company – tend to plough any spare cash into buying another wine farm or more vineyard.

Cockburn's, once a subsidiary of Harveys of Bristol, went on to be lobbed between various multinational conglomerates who cared little for port, so it seems entirely fitting that in 2006 the Symingtons took a deep breath and bought this venerable port producer, turning it into a thoroughly Portuguese, quality-driven enterprise (see Symington and Cockburn and Reviving Cockburn).

Seeing which way the wind was blowing – fanning the flames of Douro table wine rather than port – the Symingtons under Paul's chairmanship have been in table wine production for many years, and only last year acquired their first wine estate outside the Douro Valley, in the fashionable Portalegre region of the Alentejo in southern Portugal.

Having so far managed to lure two of his four children back from London to the company's headquarters in Oporto, Paul will be succeeded as CEO by his cousin Johnny but will continue to run their UK import company Fells House and intends to continue his researches into history, preferably military and Iberian. His father Michael used to take off to various Peninsula War battlefields with another port man, Bill Warre, customarily wiring for additional supplies of the sweet red stuff.

JEWELS FROM MESSRS GEOFFROY AND SYMINGTON
These were the most stunning wines from commemorative tastings for each retiree.

DOM PÉRIGNON CHAMPAGNES

P2 2002
Rosé 2002
P3 1990
Legacy Edition 2008 (Geoffroy's swansong)
P2 Rosé 1995
P2 Rosé 1990
2002
2004
P2 1996
P2 1995
P2 1993

SYMINGTON PORTS

Graham's Single Harvest Tawny 1963
Graham's Vintage 1963
Graham's Single Harvest Tawny 1982
Graham's Single Harvest Tawny 1972
Graham's Vintage 2016
Graham's 90 Year Old Tawny
Graham's 20 Year Old Tawny (the bargain)
Dow's 40 Year Old Tawny

Tasting notes in our tasting notes database and retail stockists from Wine-Searcher.com.