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MUST Wine Summit: Future of Fortified Wines like Port

Posted: Tuesday, 27 June 2017 14:53


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MUST Wine Summit: Future of Fortified Wines like Port

June 27: Although Port and other fortified wines have a different connotation in India where ‘Goan Port’ and ‘Nashik Port’ abound, these wines have had a glorious past and an interesting future with better quality but shifting focus from Staple to Luxury but innovation and change is needed to grow, according to Paul Symington, winemaker and owner of the Symington group which owns brands like Graham’s which is the 10th Most Admired Wine Brand, writes Subhash Arora who attended his Lecture at the MUST Wine Summit in Portugal earlier this month

Ask anyone in India about Port and chances are that they will rave about the Goan Port (or Nashik Port); many also know of fortified wines which generally cost $1.50 to $2.50 and are consumed by adding rum or vodka to get a faster ‘kick’. Many tourists buy them because of their sweet nature and Goan heritage. In fact, they occupy 40% of wine space.

Interestingly, the real McCoy- Port, Sherry, Madeira and other fortified wines like Marsala, Vermouth and Moscatel, occupied 40% space in the well-known book, Notes on a Cellar Book written and published by Professor Saintsbury in 1920. This book, referred to as a Seminal work by Jancis Robinson MW has been a substantial influence on generations of wine writers, said Symington claiming they were then considered world’s greatest wines and perhaps had the same share in the wine consumption. 

At a time when consumers are increasingly looking for authenticity and provenance in what we eat or drink, the unique quality and heritage of the worlds’ great fortified wines is of immense value. Even today you could buy some of these wines from early 1900s or before and enjoy drinking them. But this category is facing challenges now, he rued.

History and Popularity of Fortifieds

Fortified wines came into being since 1600’s-probably earlier, to help stabilise the quality of wine which in any case was artisanal as it depended a lot on the vagaries of nature and despite this the quality on the table was inconsistent. In fact wine drinking was a lottery!

Inconsistency in table wine quality was also the reason fortified wines came in the forefront. Paul stressed that due to the richly intense with low yields from areas like Port, Sherry, Marsala and Madeira and their unique Terroirs, they produced concentrated wines that were well suited for the fortification process and thus became world famous. Besides, the quality the extraordinary longevity of these wines also contributed to their demand.

The simple process of setting these wines aside in barrels or laying bottles down in the cellar resulted in wines of supreme quality emerging after a few years. In fact, certain fortified wines from exceptional vintages became legendary with huge demand. For at least three centuries until the late 20th century, fortified wines held a commanding position. Every important ceremonial occasion had to have a Port, Sherry or Madeira which became staples for the wine trade. However, the consumption of fortified wines ceased to grow along the red and white wines.

It’s Stainless Dear Watson

Though it might sound strange but Symington believes stainless steel is the main reason for the change. Till the 1970’s, most daily drinking wines were of very low quality and were often downright faulty. Stainless steel became accessible and affordable in the 1970’s and the ability to use clean fermentation vessels and to control the temperature of fermentation, helped change winemaking tremendously. The introduction of better viticulture practices and wine education produced a generation of well qualified winemakers.

As a direct result, the quality of basic red and white wines changed tremendously. Some of these being rather boring and industrial notwithstanding, they became almost always drinkable. Today, many supermarket consumers treat wines as a regular purchase – a staple in their shopping basket. From a handful of table wines of excellent quality, wines went from being luxury product to becoming a stable.

Upward shift in Fortified to Luxury segment

At the same time the fortified wines were moving from being Staple to becoming a Luxury. Even though most people related to fortified wine did not realise this trend, he felt it was dangerous when the region did not realise the implications either, especially the bureaucracy. The best fortified wines can never compete at the low-price levels because of their low yields, challenging vineyards, requirement for large inventories and long period of ageing. A white wine producer can release a wine 4 to 5 months after harvest but a Ruby Port needs a minimum of 24 months ageing prior to bottling. We must recognise these different criteria.

In this changing scenario 80% of all Port companies have changed ownership since 1980. Numerous companies have disappeared or have been taken over. Sherry producing Jerez has seen even more dramatic changes; Madeira has also been through turmoil. Innovation and change are the key to survival and success.

Such massive changes have a significant impact on the regions where the great fortified wines are produced. In the case of Port, there are 22,000 farmers in the Douro. The average vineyard ownership is less than 2 hA with 63% of all farmers having less than 1 hA. Taking into account the family dependents, there are over 65,000 people dependent on this segment.

Facing New Reality

We need to manage something that is not so easy: we need to accept that we are no longer a staple and we need to work in the luxury arena. We need to take the very best of our long history, and at the same time be modern and appealing to younger consumers.

Factors of importance

The first factor we should highlight is the origin and terroir of our wines. Historically the great Port, Madeira, Sherry and other fortified wine producers largely bought grapes or even ready-made wines which they aged and blended until ready for shipment. Today the more far-sighted and brave producers own vineyards and are growers. This has changed the dynamics. This is truly the way we can make truly great wines and this cannot be done with purchased grapes.

Today’s discerning wine drinker wants the provenance and traceability of wines. Vineyards are the fundamental part of the creation of these great wines, and the fortified wine producers need to fully understand the need to own and manage their own vineyards.

The second factor is innovation. A good example is the transformation of Scotch Whiskey. A trade once characterised by vast quantities of standard blended Scotch, changed the game with their specialist Malt Whiskies from individual distilleries and with different wood treatments. These Malt whiskies with their hand-crafted image have been a phenomenal success. Superb things have been done in recent years in Jerez by several Sherry producers. In Madeira the introduction of younger

 wines, called Colheitas, and recognition of the quality of Tinta Negra grape, has helped to give new lease of life to these wines.

Thanks to the innovations in winemaking, Tawny aged Port needs no decanting and is to be served chilled, unthinkable for a Port drinker of the old days. Several Port producers have bottled limited quantities of rare Ports from the 19th century to help place Port amongst the world’s great luxury wines. Port in particular has had Vintage Port as its ultimate flagship and was produced in the rare years and always in limited quantities and therefore had huge global demand.

‘Although quantities are small, the publicity surrounding a new ’declaration’ is a very powerful endorsement of our region. And when a wine such as Dow’s 2011 is classified by the Wine Spectator as number one wine of the world, we see the results of such rarity and quality being reflected in global publicity.’ Although Symington has several well-known brands in its stable- like ***

But innovation is not easy when the production of fortified wines is so closely regulated by governmental authorities. Bureaucracies do not embrace change very well as a general rule, and they tend to be far removed from market realities. This continues to be a challenging area for most producers.

The third factor is education. Fortified wines have several categories and this is confusing for international customers. We must have the consumers understand the extraordinary, natural and almost mystical transformation of fortified wines with TIME in the barrel or bottle. Great fortified wines offer something different; they are superb wines gently ageing in our cellars in barrels and bottles, undergoing a process resulting in a balance and elegance that no technology can imitate; and there are no shortcuts. This reality will resonate with people who increasingly appreciate authenticity in what they eat and drink.

Wine Tourism

Wine tourism has also taken big leaps in the Port segment. ‘Part of telling our story is reflected in wine tourism that the new-world has been doing much better than the old. With the extraordinary history of the world’s fortified wines readily at hand, it is no surprise that well-managed wine tourism at our cellars and in our vineyards is adding a new and powerful dimension to what we do.  While decrying the use of Port in cocktails he also added that chocolate paired best with Port.

‘We need to accept and embrace the change and unlike the last decades of the 20th century we need to be in the luxury segment of the world of wine, which is a far more demanding environment, but it is the only way forward if we are to maintain the unique beauty and history of our respective regions of fortified wines.’

Symington Family Estates is a member of Primum Familiae Vini . I had met Paul 10 years ago in Mumbai at the PFV event at the Taj Mahal Hotel and have met him since, at various international platforms. He was Decanter Man of the Year in 2012, the first Portuguese winemaker to have been bestowed the honour. The family owns several well known brands like Cockburn’s , Dow’s, Warre’s,  Quinta do Vesuvio, Quinta do Ataíde,  Altano and Grham’s which was chosen as the 10th Most Admired Wine Brand in the world for this year. The winery was in the List of Top 50 in 2016 as well.
Paul may be contacted at

For a few related Articles, please click:

MUST Wine Summit: Wine Conference in Portugal a Big Success

Torres World’s Most Admired Wine Brand again

Port, Port everywhere…Not a Port to Drink

IVDP: Multi-faceted Regulator of Port and Douro

Subhash Arora

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