How the world’s oldest demarcated wine region is facing the future.
Last month in the charming northern Portuguese city of Porto (sometimes anglicised as Oporto), industry members gathered for the second edition of Port Wine Day. The associated conference was abuzz with debate, while restaurants across the city served innovative port cocktails, and the port houses rolled out port-and-food matching banquets.
This wine region/wine theme conference scenario is nothing unique. Traditional wine regions have never really invented themselves in the way that New Zealand’s Marlborough has taken the Sauvignon Blanc route, or Argentina’s Mendoza the Malbec way.
By luck or by plan or a combination of the two, some regions like Chablis and Chianti have become brands. Port, one could argue, is a brand. The problem is, most people don’t know that port is from Portugal, and only from Portugal, and that it is a wine almost impossible to emulate.
So not really having invented itself in the first place (and indeed, it is the case that the British “invented” port), the region and brand are now having to reinvent, or at least explore, themselves.
A core question at the conference was this: Is there a bridge, and if so what form does it take, between innovation and tradition? How does the Douro Valley look today, with all the fuss around its premium red table wines, compared with the region that, in 1756, became arguably the world’s first demarcated region of origin? Further, take this rich history and place it in the ever changing makeup of the global wine scene, and it is clear that there’s little chance of a slickly conceived roadmap successfully and suddenly emerging.
Among speakers the majority view was that, given the uniqueness of port, the Douro must be promoted in terms of port. Further, the image of port must be upgraded to a luxury product with prices to match.
Joana Mendes Cardia, who recently completed her dissertation on strategies for luxury port wine, pointed out that it is only in the last four years that port has been perceived to have entered this category. This came with the highly successful, limited edition release on the market by six houses of aged tawnies, perfectly ready for drinking.
Some might regard vintage port, such as those traded at auction, as luxury products. But the prices, though high, could arguably be far higher. The question was even raised by Hong Kong-based wine critic James Suckling that port is simply not expensive enough to gain traction in Asia. Guta Moura Guedes, a member of the international design community, echoed this view. “Why is port so much cheaper than champagne?” she asked. Suckling felt that the correct paradigm was to line up tradition and history with luxury and thus price. “People who buy brands are looking for a subtle intellectual connection,” Guedes concurred.
Advertising guru Thierry Consigny countered that it was all very well to focus on premium port – but that there were still quantities of standard port to sell. It could perhaps be argued that if premium port prices were hiked, more humble ports could become aspirational, and thus see a price shift, too? “We must not be shy about leaving behind the notion of value for money,” said Professor Ana Tersea Lehmann, the head of InvestPorto.
Several people mooted elevating port through the idea of linking wine and tourism, with the potential for the Douro Valley to become the next Tuscany. The tourism dollar would drive up property prices and boost village economies, as well as bringing more fame to the wines and dragging up prices. Consumers would finally associate port with the Douro Valley, and would surely fall in love with this most enchanting and beautiful of wine regions.
But critics of this view, who did not agree with the idea of promoting the Douro in similar vein to the Algarve, felt that bringing in tourists would destroy the region’s beauty, not to mention ecosystem. Suckling countered that efforts should focus on the city of Porto, given that it is becoming an increasingly fashionable destination, especially for younger people. He cited Bordeaux as a model: a city which as recently as the 1990s embraced the region’s wines and in so doing transformed itself into a showcase for some of the world’s most loved wines.
Disclaimer: Annabel Jackson was a guest of IVDP, the Institute of Douro Wine and Port.