THE DOURO RIVER, which rises in Spain and slowly, serenely winds its way down through northern Portugal, emptying into the sea at Porto, epitomises and sums up its most famous product.
Port is not particularly accessible. The process of production is complex, expensive and long-winded. The majestic hillsides which make the Douro a World Heritage site are steep, making mechanised harvesting nigh-on impossible.
The Beneficio system under which the IVDP, the Port Wine Institute, controls the production of the grapes thus governing the quantity and quality of wine produced, is another hurdle or kink in the progress towards the finished product. And then there is the fluctuating price of the neutral alcohol used to stop the fermentation process (leaving port’s characteristic residual sugars and thus rich, full flavours).
Fully fortified, the wine then has to be shipped down the valley and put into barrels, or pipes, in the various company lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia opposite the city of Porto.
Along the way, on the tortuous journey to the retailer shelf, the producer must determine the style of port that will end up in the consumer’s glass.
Current challenges can be distilled into three. The most recent harvest was short, which is likely to mean higher prices going forward. Costs and pricing overall – any global business is at the mercy of fluctuating interest and exchange rates. The recent uncertainly in markets caused by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (Brexit) and the imminent annointing of Donald Trump as the next US president.
Finally, there is the real burning question: who is going to drink port in the future and how are they going to drink it?
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that most of the major global drinks companies pulled out of port, bearing in mind the cost of production, leaving the specialists. Among those, there has been a move to diversify. The Fladgate Partnership has gone into hotels and now owns three in the region, while Symington Family Estates has gone into table wine with a partnership with Bordeaux producer Bruno Prats. Also conscious of the opportunities afforded by tourism, Symington’s visitor centre at its flagship Quinta do Bomfim, has just won a major international tourism award. Then there is the big Portuguese wine producer, Sogrape which, seeing an opportunity on its home turf, snapped up Sandeman. Blessed with good stocks, it is concentrating on its aged tawnies.
Adrian Bridge, chief executive of the Fladgate Partnership, fleshes out the issues for Drinks International: “We have just completed a good harvest, although it was complicated. Many farmers failed to do the treatments needed for disease control on the basis that the Beneficio system only allows them to sell 50% of their crop at a profit. The remainder, which is sold for table wine, is at about a third of the cost of production.