Once considered a health-giving elixir, Port's popularity in Britain has been on the wane. But, as Bruce Palling is delighted to report, it is being savoured once more
Does Port have an image problem? Well, the evidence is quite contradictory. Many people consider that Port drinking belongs to the vanishing era of gentlemen's clubs and over-indulgent dinners rather than dining out in smart restaurants. Until a generation ago, it was traditional for children of privileged families to have a 'pipe' of port (550 litres) laid down for them at birth, but that ended in 1970, when it became mandatory to bottle all vintage Port in Portugal itself. The high-water point was 50 years ago, when Britain was the largest market for Port, but since then France has usurped that role and Britain has slumped to fifth place.
However, Richard Mayson, author of the definitive Port and the Douro, disputes that Port has fallen from favour. As he says, "It is simply not true that Port is unfashionable – UK sales are up six per cent. A million cases were shipped here last year and premium Port was up by 19 per cent. The long-term trend all over the world is that people are drinking less but better, so while the volume market is falling away, vintage Port sales are up."
No one disputes that Port belongs in the pantheon of the great wines of the world, with its heady blend of complex fruitcake flavours that, in the case of vintage Port, can evolve for decades. It was first shipped to Britain in the 1600s and acquired its current fortified characteristics the following century, when brandy was added so exports could make sea journeys without spoiling.
Although we now associate excessive Port consumption as a sure recipe for gout, in its early years it was considered to be a cure. Pitt the Younger gained a certain fame – apart from becoming Prime Minister – by his reputed consumption of several bottles daily to allay this complaint. But then Port was almost considered to be a British drink. Many of the most important producers have British origins, which is why the most significant Port Houses have names such as Symington, Taylor, Croft, Warre and Cockburn.
The production of Port is not as straightforward as most other wines, as only about one in three years is declared for vintage purposes and even then, not all producers release their wines. There are, however, certain vintages – such as 1963, 1966 and 1994 – when it was practically impossible not to make outstanding wines.
Despite this, there are still some in the wine trade who don't think that vintage Port has a future, such as Tom Hudson, the Port buyer for Farr Vintners, Britain's leading fine wine brokers. "The problem for Port," he says, "is that it doesn't fit in with modern life – people rarely drink Port at lunch time and when was the last time you went to a dinner party and were served it? Even if you are in the wine trade, you probably only get to drink it two or three times a year. The perception of it is that it is too strong and gives you a hangover."
This might be why the price of vintage Port has hardly gone up in recent years. It means that it is often possible to purchase a fine 1985 Port for a similar price to a bottle from 2009 vintage.
Nonetheless, there are still plenty of people prepared to invest in Port production for the future, such as Christian Seely, who runs the wine division of the French insurance giant AXA Millésimes, which controls the distinguished house of Quinta do Noval. Christian Seely also recently increased his personal investment in another producer called Quinta da Romaneira.
In his view, "Whenever I drink vintage Port, there is something magical and wild about it, which transports me straight to the Douro. It isn't essential to drink Port in the way that you do other table wines, which makes it a purely sybaritic experience and I love that. We live in an age that is becoming more puritan by the year and Port is the ultimate anti-Puritan wine. I simply can't believe that something that is so damned good doesn't have a future."
Bruce Palling writes about food for The Wall Street Journal and wine for his blog gastroenophile.com