Some things don`t get invented, they just happen. Think of Isaac Newton who, if he hadn`t found himself standing next to an apple tree one day, might never have discovered gravity. And so it was with Port wine.
Under the reign of Louis XIV, during one of their many disputes with the English, the French restricted the import of English goods into France, provoking the English king, Charles II, to retaliate by forbidding the import of French wines into England.
This meant the English were obliged to find an alternative source for the Bordeaux wines that they had begun to appreciate so much. The answer was Portugal, a land of robust wines that had the additional advantage of being inexpensive. The problem, however, was that by the time these wines had completed the long sea voyage from Portugal to England, they were often undrinkable. It was therefore decided to add a small amount of white brandy, to “fix” the wines and prevent their spoiling. This fortified wine proved to be very popular with the English: Port wine had been launched.
In England, people of my parents` generation used to enjoy a glass or two of Sherry on Sundays, before tucking into a roast chicken for lunch. Today, nobody bothers with the Sherry, partly because brunch has replaced the Sunday roast, but most significantly because Sherry, at least in its export markets, has long ago been laid to rest in a cultural cemetery.
Port, on the other hand, has been going from strength to strength. This venerable fortified wine, for years looked down on as a tipple for old fogies in their gent`s clubs, is now being ordered not only by connoisseurs but equally by the hip. Some of the coolest people I know even drink a port and tonic with their brunch.
After World War II, most of the great Port firms were practically on their knees, as for years it had been impossible to export Port to its main markets. Then, gradually, the industry began to rebuild, and finally to reposition itself. How did Port manage to achieve such significant brand recognition?
New categories of Port, such as white Port and Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) have been created. Moving out of the comfort zone of its clubby image, Port has begun to conquer new markets and reach a younger consumer demographic. All this has been skilfully achieved without Port losing any of its prestige or its higher price points.
This renaissance has largely been the work of two remarkable companies: Symington Family Estates, the owners of a stellar portfolio of Port brands, which includes Dow`s, Warre`s, Graham`s and Cockburn`s. At Cockburn`s, you can now visit the spectacular lodge and gaze at nine million litres of Port, no less, or watch casks being repaired in a traditional cooperage. The Symingtons have also led an outstandingly successful diversification into award-winning table wines.
The second of these remarkable companies is The Fladgate Partnership, owners, among other Port brands, of Taylor`s. The Fladgate Partnership, rather than choosing to follow the flow by creating great Douro table wines, has diversified into luxury hospitality. The company`s most emblematic hotel is the Yeatman, the ultimate wine hotel, which cascades down the slopes of Vila Nova da Gaia, opposite the city of Porto, like the terraces of a Douro vineyard.
The Yeatman, under the leadership of The Fladgate Partnership`s dynamic and visionary CEO, Adrian Bridge, has been one of the principal driving forces in establishing the not-long-ago decaying city of Porto as a premiere quality tourism destination and, especially, as a top destination for wine enthusiasts. Bridge`s latest scheme, intended to lastingly anchor Porto on the international wine map, will be called the World of Wine, or WOW to give it its acronym. WOW it most certainly will be, as the aim is to provide Europe`s foremost curated wine experience.
Undoubtedly, the charms of the city of Porto are today contributing to the successful revival of the drink with which it has historically been associated. Occupying an incredible site, between the Atlantic Ocean and the breathtakingly beautiful Douro Valley, Porto is the ideal destination for a short cultural, gastronomic and wine get-away.
In the Douro Valley itself, the legendary Quinta do Noval, founded in 1715, is continuing to make headlines. A twelve-bottle case of its 1963 Nacional vintage port was recently the top-selling lot at a Sotheby`s wine auction, going under the hammer for a staggering £ 45,980. Well, if that isn`t a buoyant market, what is?
I cannot end this article without mentioning an extremely talented producer of Port and the owner of a marvellous boutique winery. Jose Morais, the owner of Casa dos Lagares, is the winemaker for the Fragulho brand, and descends from many generations of wine aristocracy. A man of passionate creativity, Morais divides his time between caring for his vineyards and restoring his family property. He also makes a 20-year old Tawny that, with its extraordinary notes of fruit and spices, is quite simply one of the best Ports I have ever drunk. You should look out for it!