Michael Symington CBE: 1925-2013

Michael Symington, senior member of the famous Port-producing Symington family, died peacefully in Porto on Friday 25 January. His son, Paul Symington, provides an account of his life.

Michael Symington

Michael Symington CBE: 1925-2013

Michael Symington, who has died aged 87, was the senior member of a family of Scottish origin long resident in Oporto, Portugal and active as Port producers for several generations.

His grandfather, Andrew James Symington had come to Oporto in 1882 as a young man from Glasgow in Scotland to work in Graham’s, a business with wide interests in Portugal, including Port Wine. After a few years he left Graham’s and his entrepreneurial spirit served him well as in 1894 he was entrusted by the Portuguese Government with the sale of some 20,000 pipes of Port, the result of a miscarried speculation by the Burnay banking family. He undertook the orderly disposal of this stock on behalf of the Government and avoided the collapse of the market.

In 1891 Andrew James Symington married Beatrice de Leitão de Carvalhosa Atkinson, daughter of John Atkinson, a Port producer in Offley Forrester and niece of Edward Atkinson, Port producer in Smith Woodhouse. The Atkinsons had been in Port since 1814. Beatrice’s mother was descended from a long line of distinguished Port families, including van Zeller, Kopke, Wittingham and Maynard. The latter is recorded as having shipped Port to England in 1652, the second oldest shipment ever made by somebody from the British Isles. Maynard had been appointed English Consul in Oporto in 1656 by Oliver Cromwell and was later confirmed in his position by Charles II after the restoration in 1660. Beatrice’s great-uncle was the 2nd Conde de Santarem, who, aged 16 sailed out of the Tagus in 1807 for Rio de Janeiro with John IV of Portugal and his court on the ships of the Royal Navy under the command of Admiral Sir Sidney Smith as Junot, Napoleon’s General, marched into Lisbon at the start of the Peninsular War. Santarem later became foreign minister and then for a short time Prime Minister of Portugal.

Andrew James’s success in the Port market led him to acquire a few years later the venerable firm of Warre & Co, which had been established in Oporto in 1670, the oldest British Port company. There he was joined in due course by his sons Maurice, father of Michael and the twins John and Ronald. In 1912 the Symingtons also became partners in Dow’s Port, by then owned by the Warre family.

Michael Douglas Symington was born in Oporto on 13th May 1925, both his parent’s having also been born in the city. He attended first the Oporto British School and in 1938 went to the Oratory School at Caversham Park near Reading. In 1943 he enlisted in the Rifle Brigade and, after being commissioned, served in Egypt and Greece, where he was Mentioned in Despatches.

In 1947 he joined his father and uncles in the family business in Oporto. It was a difficult time as sales during the war had been negligible and Port was not viewed as fashionable when peace returned. Many of the historic Port companies were sold at this time as there appeared to be little hope. But the Symingtons persisted, partly due to their great love of the beautiful Douro valley and its wines and partly out of a sense of duty to their fathers. The Port trade today owes much to Michael Symington and a few others of his generation, who continued to believe in Port and the Douro when most were selling out and leaving.

Better times came in the early 1960s by which time two younger cousins, Ian and James Symington, had also come into the business. The firm was to be strengthened in due course by the addition of two further cousins, the brothers Amyas and Peter. At the same time the Warre family had decided to withdraw their interest, leaving the Symingtons owning the Warre and Dow Port companies. His father having retired in 1960, the retirement of his twin uncles John and Ronald in 1965 left Michael Symington heading the family enterprise. With his cousins Ian and James he formed a triumvirate which ran the business for the next twenty five years, taking it from a modest size to today´s prominent position in the Port trade. In 1970 the Symingtons bought the Graham´s Port company from the family which had brought their grandfather to Oporto in 1882 and Graham´s soon became a key element of their development programme.

Graham's Rabelo

Graham’s Rabelo

In the Port trade it is usual for a Vintage year to be declared two or three times in a decade. Following the declaration of the great 1970 Vintage Port, the three cousins, Michael, Ian and James, each travelled over to the UK to offer the young Port to the wine trade, as was the tradition. Each took samples from one of the different family’s companies. The venerable Berry Brothers, knowing that all three Symington cousins would be coming in at different times on the same day, put a sign up outside their office in St James’s Street saying ‘No Hawkers or Symingtons’.

The revolution in Portugal in 1974 was a testing time for all businesses and the uncertainty led to a number of local bankers and businessmen taking up residence in Brazil, Spain and other countries while awaiting the eventual outcome. Investment came to a halt although the Symingtons took a sanguine view and continued their daily involvement in the company and built a substantial grape reception centre at one of their vineyards in the Douro valley, defying the pessimism of the time. They also offered local grape growers, many of whom suddenly found themselves without a buyer, the use of the family´s main wine production centre to process their grapes which otherwise might have been left on the vine. Their confidence was to serve them well, the Douro farmers never forgot and customers overseas were grateful to have continuity of supply.

Although the revolution caused such an upheaval in Portugal, and consequent worry, it also had its lighter moments. One such occurred in late 1974 when left-wing vigilantes were rife throughout the country. It was customary for citrus fruit to be sent down to the family from their vineyard properties in the Douro and on one occasion this had been divided up and placed in the family´s cars. That evening all cars crossing the Douro River into Oporto from the south were being stopped by vigilantes and searched for weapons. When they found five or six cars with their boots full of oranges and grapefruit the vigilantes were convinced that it was a plot and that the fruit must be concealing something.  Only by laboriously removing all the fruit were they satisfied that there were no hidden weapons!

Michael Symington formed part of a small group advising the British Ambassador in Lisbon of the situation in Oporto. The north of Portugal was fortunately less affected by demonstrations and violence than Lisbon and the south. Michael was also on the board of the Port Producer’s Association who had to negotiate with the revolutionary Government, most of whom were determined on wholesale nationalistaion of the Port trade and all its vineyards. Michael and his Portuguese colleagues were able to demonstrate that this would certainly destroy three centuries of history and eventually common sense prevailed, and the companies were allowed to continue their work. The better managed Port companies, including those of the Symington family, enjoyed the unstinting support of their workers throughout this revolutionary period, a testament to the respect built up over many years.

Paul Symington

Paul Symington

Later, Michael Symington was instrumental in inviting President Mario Soares, the first democratically elected President of Portugal since the time of Salazar, to a dinner in his honour at the British Factory House in Oporto.

In 1988 Michael was appointed CBE for his contribution to Anglo-Portuguese relations during this period and for his work in the British community in Oporto.

The Symington business in the Douro valley is centred on Quinta do Bomfim at Pinhão in the Alto Douro. Michael Symington oversaw the September vintage for many years, having taken over from his Uncle Ronald and eventually handing over responsibility to his younger cousin Peter. Apart from the supervision of the wine making, Michael Symington and his wife Elizabeth entertained countless wine trade figures and journalists, many from Britain but also many others from all over the world. Over several generations the hospitality of the Symington family in the Douro and Oporto has been legendary and Michael and his wife Elizabeth maintained this tradition with their friendly and informal manner.

Today the Symington family business is the largest in the Port trade and one of the major wine companies of Portugal. Having acquired Cockburn´s Port a few years ago, the family is now the most extensive vineyard owner in the Douro, the biggest Port producer and the leader in the production of premium Ports (Reserve, LBV, and Vintage Port).  The Symingtons are also significant producers of Douro red and white wines and are partners with the Blandy family of Madeira in the wines of that island.

Michael Symington followed the tradition of his father and uncles of being a great lover of the Douro valley vineyard country and would spend much of his leisure time there, first at Quinta do Bomfim and later, after his retirement in 1990, at his own vineyard high up in the hills overlooking the Pinhão valley.

Michael Symington married in 1951 Elizabeth Stilwell of a large Anglo-Portuguese family in Lisbon. They had a daughter and three sons, of whom the eldest, Paul, and the youngest, Dominic, followed him into the family business. Paul is now chairman of the family firm working with his cousins John, Rupert, Charles and Clare as well as his brother Dominic.

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