The Port turnaround

Premium Port sales are rising in the US market, says Jim Clarke. He goes hunting for the reason why.

Rupert Symington
Rupert Symington, CEO, Symington Family Estates

Given the popularity of sweet red wines in the US, it’s unsurprising that Port should be seeing growth here; according to the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP), steady growth goes back a couple of decades, pre-dating the rise of sweet table wines like Apothic or The Prisoner. What’s intriguing is that it’s not simple rubies and tawnies that are leading the way; the US favours premium Ports, which made up 58.2% of Port exports to the US in 2017.

Where the growth is

The US is Port’s fifth largest market in volume, representing 5.8% of Port sales, but the emphasis on premium wines almost doubles that in value terms. “Vintage Ports have kind of taken it on the chin the last ten to fifteen years,” says Tom McKnew, wine buyer for Washington, DC retailer Calvert-Woodley. “I think in the past it’s mostly been people investing in wine or putting down cellars. Younger buyers aren’t doing that; the sweet spot right now is for people who come in and want something they can drink that night.”

If vintage Port is struggling, tawny Ports are filling the gap. “No matter how many Ports we have, whether it’s two or ten, across all our different businesses our most popular Ports are 20-year tawnies,” says Erik Segelbaum, corporate beverage director for the Starr Restaurants group. Segelbaum says guests go for the middle tier when picking out a Port; it’s an indulgence for guests, so the bottom end seems stingy, but they feel the high-end vintage wines are only for connoisseurs. While all of the Starr concepts offer Port, Segelbaum says the steakhouses sell the most of it – as a retro indulgence. “It’s what their parents did. A steakhouse dinner was a fancy thing; you got all dressed up, Frank Sinatra was playing.” And the evening ended with a glass of Port.

According to Ana Brochado Coelho at the IVDP, US interest in aged Ports began growing about 15 years ago, with the reserve-level tawny Ports picking up in the last five years; exports of reserve tawny Ports more than quintupled from 2012 to 2017. “It is clear that many restaurants have realised the advantages of listing these wines, with their suitability to dessert pairing and long shelf-life after opening,” says Rupert Symington, CEO of Symington Family Estates, whose brands include Graham’s and Warre’s. That’s true, too for drinkers who like to keep something open at home as well.

With rich, sweet table reds like Apothic doing so well, the rise of Port doesn’t seem surprising, but the connection seems tenuous. “I see the trend with people just getting into wine drinking semi-dry reds and they seem to be liking it, but I’m not sure I’ve really seen them go to Port yet,” says McKnew. The popularity of tawny rather than ruby styles speaks to a disconnect, too. Portuguese table wines are also seeing growth, up 9% in 2017 according to Gomberg-Fredriksen, but that, too, seems to be unrelated to Port’s progress. “In my experience there is very little correlation between the Port customer and the Douro dry wine customer,” says Symington. For one thing, US retailers typically stock the Douro wines with other European or Iberian table wines, whereas the Ports will be grouped with the Sherries and Madeiras, so they aren’t associated with each other in stores.

If there is an overlap, Symington says it’s probably among Americans who “have discovered Douro wines on a trip to Portugal.” Portugal’s National Institute of Statistics says the number of US tourists visiting the country grew from 390,000 to 685,000 from 2016 to 2017, with 822,000 expected in 2018. They also estimate that 68% of those tourists cite gastronomy and wine tasting as part of their plans, so many probably come home with a taste for Portuguese wines.

Other factors

Symington prefers to promote Port as a drink to be consumed on its own, but other producers have found the US’s booming cocktail scene to be a viable outlet for introducing Port to younger drinkers. The importer Kobrand brings in a number of Ports including Croft, Fonseca, and Taylor Fladgate, and has made cocktails a focal point for its trade events. “We’re having a lot of success lately with getting bartenders to consider Port again, because there’s a long history of Port in cocktails,” says Sven Muhlenberg, brand director for The Fladgate Partnership in the US. “We go to different cities and host intimate events to introduce bartenders to the idea of Port in cocktails, and that’s working for us.” Whether as a cocktail or an after-dinner drink, Muhlenberg is confident that today’s Port drinker will be around for a while. “We are younger than people think. It’s not just an older gentleman retiring to the study with a cigar.”

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