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The report: Port Wine Day

Manuel de Novaes Cabral, President of the Port and Douro Wines Institute launches Port Wine Day

Manuel de Novaes Cabral, President of the Port and Douro Wines Institute launches Port Wine Day

Launching Port Wine Day last Wednesday Manuel de Novaes Cabral, President of the Port and Douro Wines Institute (IVDP)  quipped “every day is Port Wine Day.”  But in all seriousness, despite an uplift in sales by volume (+0.8%) and value (+2.5%) in the first quarter of this year, no-one is in any doubt about the challenges facing Port wine or, for that matter, the fortified wine category as a whole.

But lest there was any residual doubt Rozès’ António Saraiva, President of The Association of Port Wine Companies (AEVP), underlined the formidable task ahead.  Not simply to promote Port, he said, but also to defend it against a litany of evils such as changing consumption patterns, the anti-alcohol campaign, an expensive reliance on European markets, increased production costs and the high negotiating power of consumers.  With a rally cry to the trade, Saraiva urged it to tread that trickiest of tightropes and “work hard on new markets while not forgetting old.”

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To that end this new annual initiative brought together key opinion formers to focus on two aspects of changing consumption patterns – opportunities within the Asian market and the future of food and wine pairing.  Naturally Port was consumed and the day concluded with a tasting of Vintage Ports from the first decade of this century.

Whilst I was flying back across the Atlantic an initiative to combat Port’s less than contemporary image was already in full swing.   Port Wine Night offered a Porto “movida” experience as several city bars got with it.  Each prepared their own variation of Port’s best known cocktails – Portonic, CaipiPorto and Porto Rosé.

You’ll have to ask the good folk of Oporto how Port Wine Night went, but here’s my report on Port Wine Day which will be celebrated in Oporto every year on 10 September – the very day on which the Alto Douro of Port fame became the world’s first demarcated and regulated wine region in 1756.  I’ve kicked off with the tasting since I suspect the seminars will be a little dry for non-trade palates.

The tasting

Frustratingly my return flight and an over-zealous taxi driver cut short my chance to taste all 78 Vintage Ports from the first decade of this century.  And to be honest the conditions – hot – were not perfect for tasting fortifieds.  Those with fewer Ports on show could at least avail themselves better of the much-needed ice buckets.

Here’s my top 10 Vintage Ports from those I did taste; Niepoort Bioma 2009, Quinta do Vesuvio 2006 and Graham’s 2007 would be at the top of my wish list.

Niepoort Bioma Vinha Velha Vintage Port 2009

My most memorable wine of the tasting.  Bioma – a single (aged) vineyard Port (from Vinha das Pisca) – is one of the most singular Vintage Ports I have tasted.  Not just this vintage.  Every vintage.  The 2009 is uber-perfumed with heady violets which follow through on the subtly peppery palate.  Great freshness and drive to its concentrated but precise black fruits.  Very firm tannins but with enough fruit and juice to linger.  Very persistent, very intense and layered.

Ferreira Vintage Port 2007

Very 2007 in its perfume.  Its structure – firm bony, mineral tannins – also impresses.  A slow burn wine with a deep seam of tightly coiled black fruits.

Offley Vintage Port 2007

Again showing the vintage’s trademark floral perfume together with a lively riff of spice- black pepper and liquorice.  An expressive Port with fine but firm tannins to the finish.

Sandeman Vintage Port 2007

Very deeply coloured with a very concentrated core of perfumed, almost talcy, black fruits which is well supported by a powerful frame of tannins.

Graham’s Vintage Port 2007

Yum.  Great breadth and depth of fruit with gingerbread spice and a firm underlay of hard pan mineral tannins.  Weighty, long and full of serious intent.  Flowers – nah!

Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port 2006

This was not a generally declared year but it’s a rip roaring Port with terrific purity of black, inky fruit and an impressive plume of tannins which builds in the glass.  Fresh, well integrated acidity lends balance and persistence.  Not to be under-estimated.

Niepoort Vintage Port 2005

Still, says Dirk Niepoort, the best Port he has made.  With its voluptuous milk-chocolate edged raspberry fruits it seems much sweeter than the Bioma.  Though endowed with a great concentration of fruit it is delivered very evenly, such is its balance.  Insinuatingly too given its fine acidity and powdery if plentiful undertow of tannins which elongate and embed the flavours.  Lush without being over-bearing.  In stark contrast to Bioma, a very homogenous wine.

Ramos Pinto Vintage Port 2004

A very dark black hue with succulent slightly sooty black cherry, jammier red fruits and a hint of gum cistus.  Firm but fine tannins and elegant acidity make for a very well balanced Port.  Impressive freshness.

Ferreira Vintage Port 2000

Good concentration and persistence of still youthfully fleshy plum and sweet, ripe red and black berry and cherry fruit.  Firm ripe tannins bring balance and precision.  Considerable ageworthiness too.

Graham’s Vintage Port 2000

Lovely sweetness and warmth of fulsome and sweet berry and plum fruit with the acidity to tease it out over a long, very pleasurable, balanced finish.  Ripe, chocolately tannins offer plenty of support – over a good few decades too.

Challenges of the Asian Market

Everyone is chasing the dragon and, being red and sweet, bottle aged Ports might be thought to be a good fit for the Chinese market.  Hong Kong-based keynote speaker Debra Meiburg MW, David Chow of Altavis Fine Wines and Jordi Franch de Francisco, Chief Commercial Officer, Miguel Torres shared some golden nuggets with their audience about trading in China.

Both Meiburg and Chow were at pains to point out that the Chinese market is in fact many markets given the People’s Republic of China’s heterogenous, highly individual cities, let alone taking into account Greater China’s Hong Kong and Macau.  So it pays to get know your target market within Greater China/China.

For example, for Meiburg Hong Kong is a saturated market but it’s a mature (educated) market, so well suited to a high end hand sell product like Port.  She was particularly excited about Port’s potential in the secondary market where, she said “we have auction mania – the largest auction market in the world.”  Although the auctions are slowing now she observed, ”I’ve not seen lot of collecting yet with Port so maybe this is area you can build the Port name with an interesting collection from museum stock which can set a prestige name for the region….Or push collectors to get rid of Ports.”

According to Franch de Francisco, Portugal currently has a 1% share of the Chinese wine market.  Does France stand in the way?  For Meiburg it’s a myth that no-one stands a chance against France in Hong Kong.  She reported that importers are in fact looking for a point of difference so, she advised, it’s a good time to go in and push harder to give a point of difference.

Busting another myth Meiburg observed that Hong Kong is no longer just a luxury market – its mid-market sector (less than 35€) is in rapid growth. Nor does Hong Kong’s food and beverage sector dominate the wine sector where 37% of wine sales are direct,  there is a strong BYO culture and mark ups in hotels are eye-wateringly high (70%).  Apparently consumers email importers directly to buy wine so Meiburg encouraged producers to work on direct consumer sales.  E-commerce is strong too, especially for everyday wines.

As for China, while it’s true that the wine market is experiencing radical growth (of cases and importers) Chow observed that, because the market is very fragmented, it’s rare to find a dominant international brand.

Chow’s statistics on growth were eye-popping.  Between 2009-2012 the wine market experienced annual growth of 8% while China’s journey to becoming Bordeaux’s number one market involved these giant steps, the latter positively Olympian – from 100,000 cases in 2005 to 1.5 million cases in 2009 to 6 million cases in 2012.

Of course, this Bordeaux market is very much the pointy end of a market of 1.4 billion consumers of whom Rabobank figures suggest only 200 million have the purchasing power occasionally to consume imported wines.    What’s more, beyond the Bordeaux bubble,  ganbei culture’s constant down in one toasts is the prevailing drinking culture which educators like Meiburg are working hard to change. Education, she says, is key.

Indeed, according to Meiburg though the middle class is growing rapidly, 80% of the market don’t drink wine while Chow reported that the current average annual wine consumption is 1.6l/capita – a long way off mature markets (which average 30+ litres/capita).  Still, eyes agog, Chow suggested we do the math and imagine the uplift in sales if Chinese consumption increased to even 3 litres/capita.

The culture of gifting and re-gifting is one reason why wine might not actually be consumed!  Although there has been a crackdown on gifting within the government, gifting en masse still takes place twice a year (at Chinese New Year & at a mid-Autumn festival) which, said Meiburg, means that gift packaging is critical.  Red packaging is especially valued for gifting, pinky red and gold too.  Why not put a red bow around wooden boxes, she suggested.

On the topic of market fragmentation, Meiburg reminded the audience that cuisine is different all over China.  She summarised there’s more wheat, salt and oil to the north, the south is about delicate seafood and steamed dishes, to the west, chilli sauce and oils play a key role and, in the east, dishes are sweeter and heavier. But it wasn’t for this reason (or the tradition of multi-course sharing dishes) that Meiburg urged producers not to worry about food matching.  She pointed out only westerners worry about this while “local people don’t care.”  As for the multi-course tradition Meiburg encouraged producers to come up with a branded toast for Port (each course is toasted).

Where locals do care about serving luxury wine to treat friends, Meiburg urged producers to “enter at the top like Bordeaux – it set really high standards and is now paying off for everyone else, so back your rock stars.”  Nonetheless, she cautioned against ever upward (irrespective of vintage) price hikes where the Bordeaux downturn has shown that the market is price sensitive.

Family is also very important and, where the Chinese understand inter-generational businesses, Meiburg endorsed the Bordeaux strategy of chateaux owners sending their children to China to get to know the market and build relationships.  She advised face to face relationships and trust are critical to success which is why Meiburg reported it is increasingly difficult to attract people to events with brand managers – consumers want to see the owners and winemakers.

Surprisingly (given it’s a no no to make health claims about wine in Europe) both Meiburg and Chow encouraged producers to refer to the health benefits of wine.  Apparently there is a perception of wine as a health drink and, specifically, that it is good for the skin.

Speaking of appearances, with reference to the wine region’s natural beauty Meiburg suggested that, since wine tourism has gone crazy, the Douro Valley should be promoted as a “lifestyle appellation.” Not least where, she pointed out, the importance of typicity and treasuring tradition are well understood in Chinese culture.  For Chow leveraging Vintage Port’s history and tradition feeds readily into the Chinese culture of showing status and giving respect.

Looking ahead, Chow forsees the development of a new, less bling bling and more value for money focused wine culture – “a real consumer market” – now that the bubbles (Bordeaux/gift culture) have burst.  While Franch de Francisco agreed that there is a post-bubble process of re-correction in the market he warned that the subsequent de-stocking of wines shipped before the market’s downturn means that there is currently a lot of wine in the market looking for a buyer and, it follows, aggressive discounting.   The market is very price very sensitive.

Chow sees a younger generation as a prime mover in this real, longer term market.  Keen to differentiate themselves from their parents, Chow reported that a younger generation is favouring wine over Chinese alcohol, is health conscious (see above), trendy, urban and sophisticated in a culture where imported goods are “sexy” (Chow pointed out that Porsche’s number two market is China – bling, if not bling bling then!)

For Chow the Port trade’s best asset is the fact that Port is a branded, terroir-driven, handcrafted product like Champagne with a history of being consumed by the elite for centuries.  The former Louis Vuitton Asia-Pacific Marketing Director called on the Port trade “to position itself as chic, trendy and modern…reinvent yourself.”  Referring to how Louis Vuitton “was a very old lady and used the elite, the big names” to reinvent itself he urged the trade “to make it a real status symbol to drink a glass of Port wine,” whether in a cocktail, as an aperitif, for casual drinking, after dinner or a friends’ party.    Prepare to be patient he added – Cognac and Whisky took more than 30 years of huge investment and, even then, a few big names never succeeded.

Putting on my own thinking cap I wonder if Port could start a trend for retro-parties or club nights revolving around a declared Vintage Port year or Colheita release?  The year of the Port could set the dress code, period setting and provide the chance to drink rare Ports while listening to music or viewing a film or art from that era.   In fact, why not set a retro theme for the next Port Wine Day or Port Wine Night?

The future of food and wine pairing

Ferrán Centelles, sommelier at elBulli 2000-2011

Ferrán Centelles, sommelier at elBulli 2000-2011

Keynote speaker Ferrán Centelles, sommelier at elBulli 2000-2011 together with Portuguese chefs Vítor Claro of Claro!  and Pedro Araújo of Viana’s Hotel Fábrica do Chocolate and Master Sommelier João Pires shared their thoughts on this topic.  An early slide from Centelles’ powerpoint might well have cast a shadow on Port Wine Day identifying, as it did, the greater food pairing versatility of wines from colder regions, lighter styles (sparkling, dry fortifieds, unoaked wines) and delicate reds.  Adding to the list of woes, Pires’ presentation mentioned the trend in favour of lower alcohol and lower carb wines (as this graph shows, Vintage Port and Tawny Port especially are higher carb than unfortified wines).

The good news is that Centelles reported that long aged wines are also flexible friends when it comes to food pairings so here, it would seem, is a path for the Port trade to explore.  Not least where, according to Pires, the umami flavours which are so bang on trend demand an investment in mature wines. Centelles recounted how elBulli had created a food and wine pairing to compliment, mirror and explain a wood-aged, oxidised wines such as Tawny Port using leather (an essence), black tea and coffee beans.

Thinking cap on again I reckon it could be fun to create a fruit-based dessert for bottled aged Ports – perhaps a flight of Vintage Port – which illustrates the different stages (primary, secondary, tertiary and fully mature) of the wine – a multi-layered dessert with fresh fruit and chocolate, spicy fruit compote, dried fruits and incense components.  I’m chuffed to report Centelles liked my idea.  Over to you chefs!

Meiburg, on the other hand, speculated about keeping it simple, either offering Port as an aperitif or even offering Port as a course in its own right.  Over to you to sell that one sommeliers!  But why not?  I often suggest to consumers that sweet fortifieds are the perfect store cupboard slackers’ dessert and, if it’s a really special Port (perhaps an anniversary Port), why not put it centre stage on a fine wining and dining menu?  Perhaps it could be poured from a (sealed) test tube like press samples of Very Aged Tawny Ports.  By the glass is much more affordable than a bottle and it addresses some of those lower alcohol/lower carb concerns.  It would also sit well with João Pires’ observation that consumers are seeking out experiences which go beyond the product itself.  As he put it, quality of experience is no longer just the domaine of the producers.

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