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Obituary: John Smithes

DURING A life devoted to the making of port, John Smithes made a major contribution not just to the family firm of Cockburn but to the port trade in general.

At Cockburn (now owned by Allied-Domecq), he helped to shape the company's Fine Ruby Port and the brand leader in Britain, Cockburn's Special Reserve. His perfectionist quest for quality combined with an intimate knowledge of Portugal's Douro Valley led to the selection of improved clones and the modern system of planting grape varieties in blocks.

A diminutive man with a big sombrero hat, Smithes was one of the port trade's most enduring, if not always endearing, eccentrics. His legendary volatile temper saw him explode more times than the beloved shotgun which accompanied him on trips in search of partridge and snipe. But he was humble enough to put things right with an apology, an unusual trait in the rigid, hierarchical structure of the port trade. And he was much liked by the Douro Valley farmers on whose grapes Cockburn's relied. When Portugal was embroiled in colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique, he would regularly send packages of cigarettes and other tokens of support to the company's workers.

John Smithes was born in 1910 and went to school at Anesbury and then Oxford. He joined the family business at Cockburn's London office in 1930. He eschewed the suit and tie and bowler hat traditionally worn in the port trade for a more rural outfit of tweed, brown brogues and trilby.

Smithes couldn't wait to get to Portugal where he was soon helping his father Archie with the blending. In 1938, he became a partner in Cockburn's, then, after the Second World War broke out, he and his wife Nancy joined the RAF and WRAF respectively.

Although Douglas Bader had been a schoolfriend, Smithes lacked the basic landing skills and consequently inflicted more punishment on his own aircraft than the Nazis. In a damage-limitation exercise, he was sent to the back of his aircraft as an observer and rear gunner.

His reputation for accuracy as a wine spitter however was established in the tasting room at Vila Nova de Gaia. Here, he was able to hit the target from six feet, thanks apparently to very few teeth getting in the way. The wine never touched the floor, says the Cockburn's director Peter Cobb.

Instantly recognisable in his broad-brimmed hat, Smithes was a down-to- earth character. He was not interested in creature comforts and seemed to thrive on the primitive conditions of the rugged Douro Valley. At the Cockburn's house at Tua, according to the writer Wyndham Fletcher, "the visits of ladies were not encouraged. The beds were like boards, there was only one bath with limited hot water [and] one primitive lavatory." In similar vein, the Cockburn's house at Val Coelho featured mosquito nets but no bathroom.

John Smithes' grandfather, John T. Smithes, had purchased the Quinta do Tua estate from Dona Antnia Ferreira in 1890 largely to provide himself with a base in the Douro Valley. At the time, Tua was not particularly significant for the production of port, but John T. Smithes used the vineyard to experiment with grafting and different pruning methods, a tradition which launched his grandson on a viticultural mission of his own. At the Tua vineyard in 1933, the young John Smithes experimented with the planting and clonal selection of the individual grape varieties used to blend port.

At a time when farmers were uprooting the top-quality grape variety, Touriga Nacional, because of its uneconomic output, Smithes foresaw the danger of the variety's extinction and successfully produced higher-yielding, high-quality clones of the grape. Traditionally port's many grape varieties were jumbled up in the vineyard. Smithes pioneered the modern-day practice of planting individual grape varieties in blocks, although it wasn't until the 1970s that Cockburn's adopted the practice for all its vineyards. According to Peter Cobb, it took the trade 30 years to realise that it couldn't depend on independent growers to provide all their high-quality fruit.

Smithes' tasting acumen was renowned. Port tasters generally divide into nose and palate specialists, says Antonio Graca, Cockburn's master blender who worked with John Smithes for four decades. Smithes was both, with a very good nose and an even better palate. According to his friend David Lett, owner of Eyrie vineyards in Oregon, Smithes coined the term "grip" for the intensity of flavour and aftertaste of port, a feature he valued above all other winespeak terms.

In the cellar, Smithes introduced new technology and championed the pumping- over method of vinification over auto-vinification. His strength lay in blending ruby ports and old tawneys, doing much to shape Cockburn's Vintage Character Port.

Launched in 1969 as a blend of premium ruby ports, Cockburn's Special Reserve, as it was later renamed, has become by some distance Britain's favourite port. Famously, Cockburn's failed to go along with the rest of the port houses in declaring 1977 a vintage year. From a marketing point of view, it was a disaster as customers felt that Cockburn's had lost interest in vintage port. From a quality standpoint however, Smithes had the last laugh. A recent re-appraisal of the 1977 vintage has shown that, despite the accolades, the vintage was overrated.

John Smithes was a countryman at heart. In April 1953, 10 years before the Douro River was dammed, he retraced the perilous 1846 voyage in which Baron Forrester, one of port's most influential figures, weighted down by a leather belt laden with gold pieces, had drowned, while the women survived thanks to the crinolines which had kept them afloat. With George Robertson, author of the Faber book on port (Port, 1978), he embarked on a three-day voyage in a barco rabelo, the boat traditionally used to transport port, 40 pipes at a time (a pipe is a 550-litre port barrel), from high in the Douro to the maturation lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia on the coast.

On his retirement, John Smithes left Portugal for Strete in South Devon, where, with a view over Start Bay, he converted a property into a miniature Douro quinta, complete with terraces and vines.

Anthony Rose

John Henry Smithes, port producer: born 19 April 1910; married 1932 Nancy Scott (died 1996); died Strete, Devon 22 January 1999.