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Portugal's age-old port houses face a battle to win over 21st century drinkers

 It’s hard to deny that port has an image problem. Many of us are partial to a glass of the sweet fortified wine with some cheese after a Christmas feast.
But it also evokes less homely connotations: stuffy private members’ clubs, boozy Eighties City traders and, for those who overindulge too often, gout.
That might explain why sales of the drink by volume have been in steady decline for most of this century, with worldwide sales falling almost 10pc to 83.5m litres between 2011 and 2016, according to data from market research provider Euromonitor.
But the Portuguese companies that make port, which is produced by mixing fermenting grape juice with a spirit called aguardente, aren’t going down without a fight.
Inspired by the recent success of gin and scotch whisky before it, they are creating new varieties and luring tourists to their hilly vineyards and atmospheric cellars in the home of cultivating a fresh image that will appeal to a younger fan base.
Like many of those who drink it, port is pretty old. The Douro Valley, where all of the grapes used in its production are made, became one of the first officially defined wine regions in 1756. Port houses have for centuries been transporting it down the river in flat-bottomed “rabelo” boats to their cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia in Porto, where it is aged and bottled.
Portugal's age-old port houses face a battle to win over 21st century drinkers

 Having been allies of the Portuguese for hundreds of years, Brits have had a key role in the industry’s history – as evidenced by the disused rabelos that line Gaia’s riverfront, their sails emblazoned with brand names such as Graham’s, Taylor’s and Croft.
The industry has consolidated since its early days with many of the old families selling up. But one dynasty that remains is the Symington family, who own more than 1,000 hectares of vineyard estates, known as quintas, as well as the Dow’s, Graham’s, Warre’s and Cockburn’s brands. It also produces own brand ports for four UK supermarket chains including Tesco and Waitrose.
“My great-grandfather came here from Glasgow in 1882 aged just 18,” says Paul Symington, the company’s current boss. “He came here as a young lad like a lot of Scots looking for opportunities and we’ve been here ever since”.
There was a time when much of the industry was owned by international drinks giants including Seagram and Allied Domecq, but now that’s only the case for Porto Cruz, the industry’s biggest company, which belongs to France’s La Martiniquaise.
Symington’s is second-largest, while other big names include family-owned Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman, Portuguese group Sogrape and Quinta do Noval, part of the insurance giant Axa’s portfolio of wine companies.
We need to rejuvenate our image, we have a reasonably good market, but we can’t just sit back and hope for the bestPaul Symington
 All face a battle to win over younger consumers, these days more likely to be supping gin cocktails or craft beer. Though Symington’s had a record year in 2017, reaching revenues of €92m (?81m), Paul Symington admits port suffers from its “fusty” reputation and festive associations.
“In the UK especially we are extremely oriented towards Christmas, some 40pc of our sales are in the last two months of the year,” he says. “We need to rejuvenate our image, we have a reasonably good market, but we can’t just sit back and hope for the best.”
All of the growth at the moment is coming from the market’s premium end as drinkers cut back on cheaper “ruby” varieties. While vintage port, which is made from only the best years’ grape harvests and aged in the bottle for several years, is seen as the industry’s pinnacle, it can be fussy to drink because it needs to be decanted to separate out the sediment that forms as it matures.
Max Graham, a descendant of the family that started Graham’s runs Portuguese restaurant Bar Douro in London. He believes younger drinkers are more likely to plump for more “accessible” varieties that can be served chilled, straight from the bottle.
That includes tawnies, which take on a mellow, nutty flavour and a brown hue after being aged for decades in oak casks, and the less well-known white port, which is typically served with tonic water as a less alcoholic alternative to a classic G&T. Some houses including Porto Cruz and Croft, owned by Taylor’s, have tried to capitalise on the popularity of rose wines, by launching “pink ports” in recent years too.
Portugal's age-old port houses face a battle to win over 21st century drinkers

For centuries port houses transported their wine on rabelo boats from the Douro valley to Porto, pictured 
 The companies are also counting on a spike in tourism to help them attract new customers.
Passenger numbers flying to Portugal soared 12pc last year to a record high of 12.7m. “So many of our customers are either on the way to Portugal or on their way back,” says Graham.
Symington’s, Graham’s and Dow’s cellars in Porto and its Quinta do Bomfim estate, only recently opened to the public, welcomed a combined 114,000 visitors last year, pulling in revenues of €5.4m.
“There is strong evidence from wine producers all over the world that if people have visited your winery and you’ve treated them well then they will be your ambassadors for life,” Symington says.
There are some signs of a resurgence in the UK. While the industry’s sales volumes in the year to March dipped 0.8pc, revenues were up by the same amount to around ?78m, according to figures from Nielsen, as shoppers splashed out on more expensive bottles.
So many of our customers are either on the way to Portugal or on their way backMax Graham
 Paul Symington expects the trend to continue in the future. While that will keep port makers’ finances looking healthy, it does beg the question of what they will do with all their vines as they use fewer grapes for port.
Part of the answer could be unfortified wines. While the Douro is currently a small player in that part of the industry, it has taken off in recent years as plonk aficionados have gone in search of something a little different.
Symington hopes in time the region will come to rival the likes of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
“We’re not there yet but there’s a real possibility that the best wines in the Douro will eventually earn their right among some of the great wines of the world,” he says.
With its old-school reputation, port might not seem like a likely candidate for a comeback. But as experience-hungry youths go in search of interesting tipples the possibility can’t be ruled out.
Know your ports | A quick guide to fortified wine
Regardless of what tumult the industry faces in the future, it seems unlikely the Symingtons will be selling up any time soon.
“A financial adviser would probably say: ‘Look, I’ve added up the value of all your cellars in Gaia, all your wine stocks, your brand values and your Douro vineyards.
“If you sold all of that and invested it in a big fund somewhere you would probably all be a lot better off’,” he says.
“But we look at that and think: Well, yeah, but what the hell would we do? How many bottles of champagne can you actually drink?”
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