Douro leads Portugal boom

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2012, 12:00am


There's a buzz about Douro, a region in the north of Portugal, relating to the emergence in just the past decade or two of remarkably high-quality table wine in what was previously known as port country. Exports last year of table wine exceeded those of port for the first time, at 51 per cent. We see sales of sherry, another great fortified wine, declining worldwide. Is port going the same way?

'In reality, there is no such thing as a port versus DOC Douro kind of confrontation as both wines have co-existed throughout history,' says Christiano Van Zeller, owner of Quinta do Vale D. Maria and the former owner of prestigious port house Quinta do Noval.

What is new is the level of quality in table wine. Until the early part of the 18th century, wine was fermented dry and shipped. Quality at that time tended to be so poor that merchants added brandy to stabilise the wine during shipment. The sweet port as we know it today, as Van Zeller points out, was created when shippers learned to arrest fermentation at a certain point, leaving residual sugar. After that, wine quality was somewhat neglected in favour of port production, and it was consumed locally or distilled into brandy.

'Port and DOC Douro are part of the same future of the region,' Van Zeller says. 'They can no longer be looked at as different routes of development, but as fundamentally complementary ones.'

Nick Heath, marketing director of The Fladgate Partnership, which includes Taylor's in its portfolio, says that, while media exposure given to Douro DOC as a relatively new entrant to the fine wine market may have drawn some focus away from the extraordinary long-term success story of port, 'vintage ports from the top houses continue to attract the highest accolades'.

He quotes The Drinks Business Power List, in which for three years running Taylor's vintage ports have enjoyed the highest average Parker scores of any wine in the world. In the 2010 list, Taylor's was first and Lafite second. Fonseca has four Wine Spectator 100-point vintage ports to its credit, putting it ahead of virtually any other producer except for a handful of Bordeaux-classified growths.

'There may sometimes also be the perception that inspired and innovative winemaking and viticulture are the preserve of Douro DOC producers, whereas the reverse tends to be the case,' Heath says.

Port does not enjoy the broad recognition among Hong Kong wine drinkers as some of the other classic European wine regions, such as Bordeaux, but this situation seems to be changing.

Heath notes that the Taylor's Scion (a 155-year-old pre-phylloxera port) successfully opened up the ultra-premium segment and drew strong interest from Hong Kong wine collectors. 'This is beginning to build the aspirational profile for quality port that it enjoys in Western markets,' he says.

But the interest seems to be reserved for the high-end - ultra-premium, vintage, aged tawnies - while the broad range of ports in all kinds of styles from LBV and Colheita to simple ruby and tawny, and everything in between, seem to be confusing the consumer.

Van Zeller thinks this diversity is a sign of how tremendously alive and creative the port and the Douro regions are, but Maria Campos, sales and marketing director of Churchill's, is concerned by this fragmentation, which she calls an unnecessary evil. 'I feel sorry for the consumer. They answer in a very subtle way. They don't drink.'

She doesn't see young people drinking port, though she hopes the interest in table wine will develop interest in port.

Yet more new categories, such as Croft Pink, are actually helping to inject life into the port market, according to Adrian Bridge, CEO of The Fladgate Partnership, by attracting new consumers. 'It is what we thought would happen when we created Croft Pink, and we believe that innovation is important.'

At Churchill's, Compos has developed an extremely attractive, modern-looking 20cl bottle for the restaurant segment. It is equivalent to two glasses of port, particularly suited for a couple to enjoy at the end of dinner. It was created as an answer to ordering a glass of port from a bottle that may have been open for months, and thus being poured, something very tired.

She did not anticipate such dizzying success. The shape is modern and the label is very clean, with lots of white space. It is a far cry from the traditional image of port as being for the gentlemen as they retire together after dinner over cigars. '

I thought it was interesting as a message bottle,' Campos says. 'I'm romantic and I could imagine my husband writing 'I love you' on it and offering the bottle to me.'