Port: Steady as she goes

03 January, 2019

Port is one of the great wine styles and it is a case of keeping it on course these days. Christian Davis reports


IF YOU WERE LOOKING to invent a drink for today’s consumers, fortified wines such as port and sherry would probably be thrown out at the preliminary stage of NPD.

They’re made with hard-to-harvest, obscure grape varieties, which are made even more alcoholic by fortifying with grape spirit. Then there is the high-cost, long-term ageing. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the big drinks companies, looking for quick rates of return on shareholders’ investments, pulled out of the Douro and Jerez years ago, leaving them to the specialists.

While sherry continues to decline, having lost its niche as a traditional aperitif, for port it is essentially a case of treading water (rather than the grapes in lagares) – not particularly declining, not particularly growing, but a case of ‘steady as she goes’.

While the traditional shippers and producers are still wedded to declaring vintages in an exceptional year and making vintage ports, they are aware that there is a young audience out there, the dreaded millennials who are often looking for lower-alcohol, if not no-alcohol, drinks, preferably long and sweeter (tick port box for sweet). The wine bubble has burst (cross in port box), the cutting-edge drinks market is all about craft, as in beer, spirits and cocktails.

Anthony Symington, brand manager for port at Symington Family Estate’s UK distributor, John E Fells, tells Drinks International: “We have an incredibly loyal base of consumers for our brands, particularly for Cockburn’s, which remains the UK’s most popular port brand. But we recognise the need to deseasonalise the market and attract new/younger consumers. We have therefore embarked on a programme of presenting port in a more contemporary way – for example, long drinks such as white port and tonic and cocktails – to a younger audience using new initiatives and collaborations.”

Symington, which also owns Graham’s, Dow’s and Warre’s, declared the 2016 vintage back in the summer and claims demand has been high.

To back this up, Farr Vintners director Tom Hudson says: “The 2016 vintage port declaration has been well received by our private customers, with several of the wines, including Graham’s and Dow’s, selling out immediately.

“The outstanding quality of the 2016 wines and sensible price levels have proved attractive to buyers at a time when many have passed on buying the very full-priced 2017 Bordeaux en primeurs.”

So, all is far from lost for port, in general.

Sogrape’s Sandeman and Offley brands also declared 2016 a vintage. Winemaker Luis Sottomayor says: “As soon as the grapes arrived at our Quinta do Seixo winery, we knew this was the best we had seen since the last declaration in 2011. “The quality after fermentation left us in no doubt that we would be declaring 2016 as a vintage year.”

When it comes to NPD, it is now 10 years since the Fladgate Partnership, which owns Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft, introduced Croft Pink to try to entice younger drinkers, and particularly women, to port. It would be a stretch to describe pink/rosé port as a roaring success with kids clamouring to get more, but it showed that the producers, when deliberating over vintages, are thinking about the ages of future drinkers as well as the long-term ageing of their wines.

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