One of the highlights of my year as the port buyer at Berry Bros & Rudd in London was the twice-yearly Port Walk, a customer tasting held in Berry’s St James’s Cellars with the aim of providing an unabashed celebration of this most hedonistic and durable of wines. For many years, we were treated to an impromptu and exceptionally well-informed speech by one of the guests, who generally favoured a white linen suit if memory serves me correctly. It came as no surprise when Julian Wiseman’s (for it was he!) outstanding book Port Vintages was released in 2018, a seminal work in every sense and one that can only, it would seem, be surpassed in its breadth and authority, by the imminent second edition. A comprehensive and fascinating piece of work.
What, however, of the port category in general? The sound and fury surrounding the Vintage declarations and the unassailable quality of its wines sometimes overshadows the fact that Vintage Port, not released every year, only makes up a very small, lower single digit percentage of the wine’s total production and sales. In port’s less lauded antechambers there have certainly been challenges; one does not need to gainsay the ineluctable quality of the wine to concede that fashions change, and tastes move on. In the decade to 2016 global port sales fell by 16%, with key markets such as France and the Netherlands especially vulnerable. Port’s place at both the start and the end of the meal was no longer seen as essential, often quite the reverse, gradually to be replaced by something less potent or, more often than not, by no wine at all. The health lobby is an articulate opponent.
So…. what to do? The two silver linings to the woes of gradual decline are the fact that, next to the stark statistic above, the decrease in the actual value of the sales has been significantly lower than that relating to volume, implying a flight to quality, and also the fact that in the subsequent years, and this in spite of the pandemic, this decline has decreased, with 2022 showing a slow return to growth. Adrian Bridge, the dynamic CEO of the Taylor Fladgate Group, attributes this to three things: firstly, as mentioned, to the trading up (‘special’ categories such as Aged Tawny, Crusted, Vintage, Unfiltered LBV etc now make up 23% of the volume and an impressive 43% of value); secondly, to the sheer quality of the product (one is inclined to agree) and thirdly, perhaps most interestingly, to the mechanics of broader diversification.
This diversification manifests itself in many ways, from the introduction of large format bottles (such as Graham’s Tappit Hen, 210 cl) into the restaurant trade, to the development of New Markets (Asia and South America now challenge the hegemony of Europe) to the evolution of a broad panoply of still wines, some of them now highly landed in their own right, and finally to a more abstract conceptual approach, as demonstrated by the focus on sustainability of The Port Protocol. Respect for the environment has had tangible results with projects such as the 2019 Taylor/COOP reforestation project and their recent opening of insect ‘hotels’ (to match their five star ‘human’ hotel, The Yeatman, itself a good example of diversification). More fundamentally, developments in key areas such as the actual vine terracing, to avoid erosion, and projects aimed at water retention, in this most drought-prone of areas, are also worthy of note. Respect for the environment is key; and the PR machine of the major players is more than adept at letting us know about it…
In terms of product development, the Tawny sector leads the way, with the introduction of a 50-year-old age designation once again underscoring the quality initiatives in play, but also, importantly, the collegiate nature of the generic body, The Port and Douro Wines Institute (The IVDP). At the other end of the scale, we have more white port and the introduction (a heresy to some!) of pink port and port cocktails; the marketing behind launches such as Graham’s Blend No 5 or Croft’s Pink and Tonic has been intense and highly successful. A younger generation is drawn in, with more female port drinkers and less anxiety about alcohol levels which are conspicuously lower. Such innovative products, according to Anthony Symington, offer ‘a positive choice, without having to compromise on taste or quality’. Good news indeed! The spirit of dynamic optimism is exemplified by the opening, in the coastal town of Vila Nova de Gaia, of the fabulous ‘World of Wine’, an extraordinary wine-themed village comprising of 12 separate hubs, which include a museum, several restaurants and cafés, a wine school and also permanent exhibitions dedicated to chocolate and to cork. 107 million Euros well-spent, it seems… an amazing place!
Reports of the death of the rarified world of port have, therefore, been greatly exaggerated. Julian Wiseman’s eloquent tome reminds us of the unassailable quality and heritage at the top end of the category, the self-confidence at play evidenced by an almost unprecedented run of recent Vintage declarations, with the brilliant and hitherto-unheard-of back-to-backs of 2016 and 2017 at their core. On the other hand, it is the many varied developments surrounding port’s broader manifestations and their presentation to the wider world which serve, vitally, to underwrite an ongoing relevance and court a wider and more diverse audience.
Simon Field MW forsook the dubious charms of a life in the City to buy wine for Berry Bros and Rudd; twenty very agreeable years ensued, with specialisations in France and Spain the result, passions which has continued to nurture over the last few years.
Port Vintages – The Chronicle of Vintage Ports, from the Beginning (Second Edition) by J D A Wiseman is available exclusively from Académie du Vin Library.