Rise of Douro wines from Portugal has put port back in spotlight

Portugal's fortified wine vintages are still great value for money, say experts as country marks its second annual Port Wine Day and prepares for partner role in Hong Kong's International Wine and Spirits Fair

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 September, 2015, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 September, 2015, 11:01am

Yesterday, in Portugal’s second city of Porto, leaders of (and commentators on) the port industry gathered for Port Wine Day. The gathering included family members and rising stars from such illustrious names as Symington, Taylor, Fonseca and Niepoort.

It was the second edition of this event, now set to be held annually on 10 September – this date representing the day in 1756 on which the port-producing Alto Douro became possibly the world’s first demarcated and regulated wine region. It is a region steeped in tradition, with each bottle containing not only port, but history, too. In today’s rapidly developing global wine industry, how does a traditional style of wine, or region, maintain edge and momentum?

Some commentators suggest the finesse of the region's new wave of table wines is helped by modernising practices in port production. Others argue it is the recent raise to fame of Douro red table wine which has focused fresh attention on this beautiful grape-growing region’s port.

 “There’s no doubt that Douro table wine has been one of the most exciting wines to enter the market in recent years,” says Hong Kong-based Master of Wine Debra Meiburg, adding that this success has helped to revitalise the image of port.

She says that part of the region’s march to marketing success has been the “Douro Boys”, a group of producers who travel the world together. “This group of five of the valley’s top producers bounded into our market several years ago with such genuine enthusiasm for their wines, and for each other’s success. Never have I seen winemakers so willingly say, “You like my wine? You should try my neighbour’s wine, I’ll go get you a glass.”

Portugal is subsequently to be the partner country for this year’s Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair, to be held in November.

But others, such as Hugo Bandeira, food and beverage manager at the Instutite of Tourism Studies in Macau, is not sure about the influence of table wine in the port sector.

“While it is true that some traditional port wine producers decided to diversify the business and started producing table wines, I don’t really think that one affects or affected the other,” he says. “The port wine sector is one that doesn’t usually innovate much, it’s all about tradition.”

For port wine, a vintage (as opposed to a regular ruby, or a LBV – late bottled vintage) is not made every year, but about four times a decade. This is done amid much fanfare as a vintage is “declared” in Porto in traditional parlance. It could be argued, now, that this deep-rooted tradition is being utilised as a marketing tool in the modern wine world, and giving it access to the luxury market.

The fanfare around the declation of the 2011 hit world headlines, with winemaking guru Dirk Niepoort saying he didn’t think there had been a vintage as good in the past 120 years. Another port heavyweight, Christian Seely, of Quinta do Noval, later reflected that it should have been released at much higher prices, presumeably taking a leaf out of Bordeaux’s book with the pricing of that region’s brilliant 2009 vintage.

It seems the elevation of port to a luxury is finally being realised. While vintage port is traded at auction, with back vintages largely unavailable even in Porto, old tawnies (oak aged as opposed to bottle aged) are available, and houses have started to release these as limited editions.

Even this kind of terminology places it in the luxury category alongside high-end whiskies and cognacs, certain watch brands, the world of haute couture, and even works of art. It places port in the traditional trajectory, whereby buying a bottle of port is buying history and culture.

For example, Symington released the Graham’s Ne Oublie, dating to 1882, which was priced at more than £4,510 (HK$54,000). Taylor’s released port dating from 1863 at £2,500.

Such products are creating curiosity in the market, and keep port wine top-of-mind.

 “Luxury packaging and luxury positioning are great steps to revitalise port’s image and secure its rightly earned position as one of the world’s top wines,” says Meiburg.

 Yet there are plenty of 30 and 40 Year Old Tawnies on the market. “You can have a fantastic aged port, ready to drink and which will not cost you an arm and leg,” says Bandeira. 

Annabel Jackson is a food writer and author