Port - a Wine For All Seasons

Prager Aria white Port and oysters - hello, summer! Ctsy Prager Winery
Prager Aria white Port and oysters - hello, summer! Ctsy Prager Winery

This past winter, which most people across America thought would never end, brought calls from all corners for Port, Port, and more Port. Many wine lovers believed, and perhaps rightly so, that nothing would thaw and warm them like a steady intake of their favorite fortified wine.

So what’s behind that? Is our love affair with Port a fickle thing? Do we care for this sweet and warming elixir only at certain points of the seasonal cycle? Or does this affection run measurably deeper? Before we answer that, we need to take a closer look at Port, the state of its market currently, and where producers and aficionados would like to see it go.

Simply put, Port and Port-style wines, are wines that have had their fermentation stopped early on through the infusion of brandy or a neutral spirit. This leaves the final product with pronounced sweet or fruity flavors and alcohol levels around 19-20%. Various styles of Port are then produced through traditional protocols of aging the wine in bottle or in cask. Current European Union rules permit 11 different classifications of Port, including perennial favorites Ruby, Tawny, Late Bottle Vintage, and Vintage.

Port’s popularity for the past 300 years has been concentrated in Western Europe and despite its growing popularity around the world, this remains true today. As of 2013, according to the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto (the IVDP or Port Wine Institute) the top markets were, in order, France, Holland, Portugal, and the United Kingdom; together these four nations comprise 82% of the global market. The United States sits in sixth place, holding 4.5% of the market, which is a bit down from its performance in recent years.

Ctsy Sandeman
Ctsy Sandeman

George Sandeman, chairman of the House of Sandeman, and seventh generation head of his family’s firm, is confident in the stability of the Port market, both in Europe and globally.

“The traditional export markets -- France, Belgium, UK, Holland -- are mature markets and Port producers are developing markets, such as the USA, Latin America and Asia, to ensure their sustainability,” he explained.  “Portugal has grown to be an important market as well, partly driven by the increasing number of people who visit the country and enjoy Port for the first time.” Sandeman noted that growth also depended on the industry’s success in “creating new opportunities, by showing people that Port can be enjoyed – with food --chocolate desserts or cheeses -- as well as in long drinks, cocktails or just chilled or over ice.”

Specific successes, according to Sandeman, include the growth of the Reserve market and the increase in the popularity of aged Tawny Ports. This is particularly true in the United States, where his brand’s Reserve Port and 20 Year Old Tawny Port are doing very well. Despite these positive notes, Sandeman knows that vigilance on the part of producers is essential to continued health.

“Individually and in conjunction with the IVDP,” he said, “Port is promoted in Portugal and in the key markets, most often through education of the trade and wine lovers on how this unique wine is made and, more importantly, how it can be enjoyed.” Sandeman admitted that these on-going efforts to promote and educate are always a challenge given the “market environment where there are so many alternative offerings between wines and other beverages.”

Ctsy Sandman
Ctsy Sandman

There is an axiom in the beverage business that “Americans talk dry but drink sweet.” If this is true, why aren’t more Americans drinking Port? According to David Glancy, master sommelier and founder and chief education officer of the San Francisco Wine School, there are two main obstacles.

“First, too many restaurants focus on turning tables to the point of ignoring dessert wine and after-dinner drink sales/service,” Glancy explained. “You certainly don’t see a Port trolley being wheeled through dining rooms. Port is given minimal consideration by restaurateurs in that they often choose one producer and a few of their ports; additionally, they don’t list enough detail about them on wine lists and don’t preserve or serve them properly.” He is quick to admit that the “best restaurants handle all of this perfectly but too many do not."

“The second problem is our Big Gulp, Super-Sized culture,” he added, which leads to some people’s introduction to Port suffering from too much quantity. “Hangovers do not encourage repeat business. A small glass served in perfect condition, at a reasonable price, with a glass or two of water, makes all the difference.”

But the challenge of getting more Americans to experience Port properly lies not only with restaurants, but with the trade itself. Education and promotion, as Sandeman noted, must be enthusiastic and ongoing. Glancy agrees.

Lineup of Prager Ports, Thomas Riley
Lineup of Prager Ports, Thomas Riley

“When is the last time there was a Port trade tasting or consumer event? Going from zero to some promotional effort would be a good start for producers and more importantly as a group,” Glancy said. “Retailers need to educate and have store tastings. When I have done these they have been very popular.” Additionally, Glancy believes that “restaurants need to list Ports on the dessert list, not just in the wine list, and they need to give a dessert and dessert beverage list to every customer, every time, instead of asking if you want to see the dessert list or forcing them to then ask for the wine list again.”

It is possible that some of this might already be happening, as a growing number of younger wine drinkers are seeking out Port producers, eager to learn.

At Prager Winery & Port Works in St. Helena, Calif., one of America’s top producers of Port since they opened in 1979, tasting room traffic has been on the upswing the past few years. (Prager’s use of the word “Port” was grandfathered following the 2006 EU restrictions on its use in growing regions outside of Portugal.)

“We’re finding that more and more people are willing to try it,” Richard Lenney, assistant winemaker, said. “Certainly the younger crowd, who seem to be more flexible about new things. There was a cigar craze maybe a decade ago – as we like to say, ‘cigar and Port is a complete sentence’ -- so maybe those people aren’t smoking cigars anymore but they were introduced to Port then and that has been a nice bump for us.”

Peter Prager, winemaker, finds about half of those who find their way to his family’s winery know at least something about Port or other fortified wines.

“I would say a pretty good percentage of the people who come are knowledgeable about Port,” Prager said. Part of this he attributes to a large volume of return customers. “If you go to another Napa winery and you taste their port-style wines or their dessert wines and you enjoy them, there is a very good chance that you'll be coming to our door as well. You will get a recommendation to see us from that other winery.

“But if half the people visiting,” he added, “have some knowledge of our wines, the other half coming in often ask ‘what is Port?’ Which is great. People love to discover new things.”

So, for people looking to discover Port, where do they start? Glancy would prefer to present a range of Ports as an introduction – a simple Ruby, an LBV, and a 10 Year Tawny, but would go with the LBV if he had only one shot. “I’d save the vintage Port and the older Tawny Ports until after they convert,” he said.

Vineyard at Prager Winery and Port Works in Napa, ctsy Prager
Vineyard at Prager Winery and Port Works in Napa, ctsy Prager

George Sandeman has a similar approach, but is more specific when it comes to the exact wines to offer the neophyte. “The best place to start is with Sandeman Founders Reserve,” he suggests unabashedly. “This is a full-bodied Ruby Reserve Port grown in the best area of the Douro Region, the Cima Corgo. It has enough aging to give it roundedness and softness, without losing the wonderful red fruit character of younger Ports.

“But, if one is looking for a slightly more mature Port, then the Sandeman 10 Year Old Tawny Port, aged in small oak casks, has more complexity and hints of spices and vanilla, with delightful mature fruit aromas, and is great served chilled.”

Chilled? Port’s not only for the winter? Apparently not. “I like White Port with club soda over ice with a lime wedge on a hot day,” Glancy reported.

Today in northern California the thermometer hit 90 degrees. Looks like it’s time to go shopping. For some Port.