What’s New (and Not-So-New) in Port Wine

I was binging on YouTube videos from Kevin Zraly’s 2009 “60 Second Wine Expert” series when I stumbled upon his take on Port wine. Sue and I are fans of Port, so I was a little disappointed to see Zraly reinforce some of the attitudes that hold back the growth of the Port market. Port? Complicated to understand and you should really only think about drinking it when your kids are asleep, it is cold and snowy outside, you have a warm fire in the fireplace, and a loyal dog at your feet. That was the  Zraly video’s advice on Port.

This isn’t how I think of Port and it isn’t a picture that is really helpful to Port producers who want to draw consumers into the Port experience. Maybe talking about Port in a beat-the-clock 60 second video doesn’t do it justice. What are Port producers doing to get their message out?

Taylor’s Port Season

There is no particular season for Port at the Wine Economist household — different types and styles of Port lend themselves to different occasions year around. Summertime backyard meals, for example. seem to begin with our favorite White Port spritz, often featuring Taylor’s Chip Dry. Taylor’s and its parent, the Fladgate Partnership, have put all their chips on the Port market — they do not make any other styles of wine, which means they need to expand the perceived Port-drinking windows beyond Zraly’s snowy snowy night.

As you can see from their recent promotional video, Taylor’s has declared “Port season.”  Fun, festive, romantic, a glass of Taylor’s LBV Port seems to make any occasion special. The trick, of course, is getting that first glass poured so that people can see what they have been missing.

New Looks and Old

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but everyone does it all the time. You eat (and drink) with your eyes first, the ubiquitous “they” also say, so it isn’t surprising that Port producers are tweaking their packaging in many ways to try to catch consumer eyes.

Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Port is versatile and delicious — Sue like’s it with dark chocolate “cat’s tongue” treats. Symington Family Estates, which owns the Graham’s brand, has freshened-up the presentation with a redesigned bottle that tweaks the presentation in subtle ways to give a more premium look and feel.

Down the road at Taylor’s you can find both old and new packaging efforts. The new is the Chip Dry Portotonic, a White Port Spritz in a can.  Pretty radical for Port! At the same time, Taylor’s has launched a series of special Reserve Port packages that invoke Port’s long history by drawing on bottle designs from the past. The most recent edition is called “The Mallet,” Here is the history behind this unexpected bottle shape.

At the beginning of the 18th century, bottles were hand blown and bulbous in shape. They could not be laid on their sides and were therefore unsuitable for long term ageing. Instead, they were used mainly to convey the wine from the wine merchant’s cask to the consumer’s table. Because bottles were expensive, they were re-used and often displayed the crest or initials of their owner.

As the 18th century progressed, bottles became taller and more cylindrical.  The early bulbous ‘onion’ shape gradually evolved into a more elongated, straight-sided bottle with a longer neck.  The first stage in this evolution was the appearance of the ‘mallet’ shaped bottle which had become well established in England by around 1730.  Like their predecessors, the first ‘mallet’ bottles were squat in shape.  Their sides were often tapered towards the shoulder rather than completely parallel. However, by around 1750, the ‘mallet’ bottle had developed a more cylindrical form.  This Limited Edition bottle is inspired by the ‘mallet-cylinder’ bottle from that period, the immediate predecessor of today’s cylindrical wine bottle.

Cocktail Hour for Port 

Although it is hard to top a glass of Port by itself, there is no denying that it also makes a great base for cocktails (as the White Port spritz example shows). The combination of great flavor and lower alcohol (compared with spirits) is very appealing.

Graham’s Blend No. 12 Ruby Port has been introduced to fill this market niche and it comes in this colorful bottle, which hints at the fruit flavors to be found within. The idea is to appeal to consumers who don’t drink Port but are interested in experimenting with cocktail beverages. As Vicky Symington notes,

It has been great to see people explore the Graham’s range after discovering port through the Blend Nº5 White Port, often in a port & tonic. We are confident that Blend Nº12 will also resonate with people who don’t typically drink port – be it as a delicious and approachable straight serve or mixed in a long serve.

The Classics Endure

I admire that Port can both change and endure. It adapts to satisfy each generation as it emerges, but doesn’t forget who it is. That’s something we can all appreciate.

So I wasn’t completely surprised when Sue announced her choice of a wine to pair with dessert for Thanksgiving:  Sandeman 30 years old Tawny Port that we received as a gift on a visit to Porto. The back label advised to pour the wine into large glasses and let it sit a short time to allow the aromas to unfurl themselves.

Your patience will be rewarded, the label advised. And it was! Cheers to Port wine and Port lovers everywhere.

6 responses

  1. I was never a Port drinker until my wife took me to Porto on a weekend trip a couple of years ago. Fabulous. We did the Graham’s tour (very much worthwhile) and there are many bars along the riverside that serve any number of Port based drinks. Now White Port and tonic is a staple sundowner in our house and we have a bottle of LBV as well as 40-yo Vintage to savour as a digestif.

  2. I used to keep a bottle of the 6 Grapes around when we lived in the states.
    Now that we live in Porto and have access to all manner of port wine at very low prices, we use the ruby and white ports for cocktails and drink tawnies with dessert. They are all so good here!

  3. White Port tonics while sailing the Douro or reclining in the back yard in Idaho are pretty special. Of course a we dram of 40 year old also helps with sleep quality as well!

  4. Bom dia to all! Kay Bouchard here, Californian co-owner together with Burgundian husband Vincent Bouchard of Quinta do Tedo since 1992! Our Classification A 35+ acre estate, located at the confluence of rivers Douro and Tedo, is halfway between Peso da Regua and Pinhâo: we practice organic viticulture and make internationally-acclaimed Port, Red and Rosé Douro wines and Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Vincent and I spend 1/2 the year at Quinta do Tedo and 1/2 the year in Napa, California. (Hello to Lisa from Porto!) Tobin Trevarthen recently shared with me your article in “The Wine Economist” after attending a recent annual Quinta do Tedo Tasting at our Napa home. I especially appreciate your comment “I admire that Port can both change and endure. It adapts to satisfy each generation as it emerges, but doesn’t forget who it is.” We have worked hard over the last 30 years to always improve and modernize yet respect tradition – and that is symbolic of Port! Every day we receive many visitors and offer tours, tastings, a B & B accomodation, hiking trails and bird watching in our ecological Tedo Reserve and a small tapas-focused Bistro Terrace. Today’s demographic for our wine tourist is a cultivated and curious traveller, who appreciates our tour guides’ competent explanations of Port’s fascinating categories. Hands on at the table or in the vinification area’s lagars and aging cellars, we make an effort to be personable, educational and professional and the customer feels our passion. More versatile than one would expect, each Port category has a niche for pairing – be it a Tawny with white fruit, nut and or cream desserts with spices such as cinnamon and ginger and hard cheeses, or a Ruby with flourless chocolate cake and blue cheese, to a Vintage that shines in the company of a worthing pairing and on its own! To “respond to changing times”,10 years ago we branched out to make a Porto Rosé for the “younger demographic” that can be fashioned into a cocktail or straight up – that today enjoyed by all ages. When a Port is well made – the uniqueness is captivating and timeless. Happy, healthy and hopeful holidays to all and saúde!

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