Port, the unique fortified wine, has the longest “official” history of any wine in the world – and is now actively trying to secure a solid future for itself. The Douro port appellation, an appellation being a mechanism for quality control, was the first established in the world, in 1756.
An event organised this year on the appellation’s anniversary date – 10 September – in Porto, the second largest city of Portugal, marked the inaugural Port Wine Day. It will be celebrated the world over around this date in future.
Eyes among port producers are particularly on the China market (all wine industry eyes appear to be focusing in that direction). But industry heavyweights such as Shanghai-based David Chow, the founder and CEO of Altavis Fine Wines, and Debra Meiburg MW, who lives in Hong Kong, believe the industry needs to reinvent itself to compete with the likes of high-end Bordeaux. “It needs to turn itself upside down,” says Meiburg MW. She gives as an example the idea of re-branding port as an aperitif, for example, and by forgetting notions of food matching.
Chow thinks the industry should “leverage tradition while also embracing modernity”. The image of port has traditionally been rather stuffy: an after-dinner-drink to be enjoyed with cigars, and most particularly by British (or British-influenced) gentlemen. Is it possible for an industry of such age and tradition to re-invent itself?
The generic governing body Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (IVDP) believes so. This body says the port industry has at least four strategies for adapting to modern consumer trends and habits, and champion its diverse styles: garnering the interest of the younger generation, hitting the ultra-premium market, pushing old white port, and introducing port as something to have with, rather than after, food.
Programmes are under way to talk to a younger consumer basis (the 25-35 year old demographic) through the development of cocktails such as Portonic, and the marketing push of “fashionable” rose port. At the highest end, it is seeking to reposition itself as a luxury product, particularly in the Asian markets, with the introduction of limited edition, ultra-premium bottles from either great vintages or great single vineyards, beautifully packaged.
Perhaps the most exciting initiative is in the category of aged white ports. Vintage port, a rich red bottle-aged wine, is usually considered to be at the top of the tree, produced in small quantities, and only in great years. However, some producers (Symington, Niepoort and Taylor’s, for example) are going back into their cellars and seeking out old tawnies.
These are barrel-aged wines whose colour turns from red to shades that become more and more golden as the wine ages. While there is a category known as aged tawnies which are classified at 10-, 20-, 30- or 40-years old, these emerging “old” tawnies can be older than 100 years, putting them in a category thus far monopolised by Madeira – another unique Portuguese fortified style from the eponymous island.
IVDP has been expending much energy into re-branding port as something to have during, rather than after, a meal, and thus with food. Classically it is paired with cheese, chocolate and certain desserts. But IVDP’s Bento Amaral, head of the daily-utilized “tasting chamber”, says it can also match savoury food. In the same way that sweet wine (such as Sauternes) was brought to the beginning of the meal with, say, foie gras, chilled white port can also match with foie gras. With its natural acidity, even while having a sweet character, it can also cut – citrus-like – through the oiliness of certain fish, or accent flavours and textures.
There’s also experimentation with “foreign” grapes such as pinot noir and alvarinho, the latter more usually associated with Douro’s neighbouring Vinho Verde region. Some producers are even going over to screw caps for certain wines – though in a major cork-producing country such as Portugal this practice is still contested.
At the same time, there’s increasing interest in going “back” to the use of foot-treading in concrete tanks known as lagares, and fermenting and ageing in cement or old large-format barrels, rather than new oak barriques. Also balancing tradition and modernity is the placing of port in a traditional, cultural context through the burgeoning area of culinary and wine tourism. With the recent arrival of boutique hotels and guesthouses, and good restaurants, tourists are now exploring the beautiful vistas of the Douro as they develop an interest in port.
Disclosure: IVDP provided Annabel Jackson’s flight and accommodation in Porto.
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