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Port - A drink for all seasons

Published:  23 July, 2008

With Christmas just a couple of months away, restaurants can get ready for a bumper few months of Port sales.

Unfortunately, this is the age-old problem with Port: a huge sales spike in the winter, and then it all goes very quiet.

With the varied styles of Port available, you would think that sommeliers would flex their creative muscles and educate consumers about the delights of a chilled Tawny or opulent Vintage Port, instead of the entry-level Ruby styles. However, Port is a category that appears to have been left behind by some of its competitors - like Sherry, for instance. In fairness, sales have remained steady for Port in the on-trade, and latest stats show a 3% growth rate (AC Nielsen MAT to November 2005), despite the fact that on-trade sales only comprise 11% of total Port sales.

So, how did Port find itself in this situation? Richard Mayson, probably the leading authority on the product, says that Port has been badly treated' by the on-trade, and restaurants are not making the most of their opportunities: Certainly, outside the metropolitan areas, very few restaurants are promoting Port in a creative way. People just think of Port as a fortified red wine, and don't realise there's much more to it than that.' Mayson suggests a number of ways in which restaurants could liven up their Port offering, including selling more Port by the glass, matching Port styles to particular cheeses and even keeping a chilled bottle of Tawny in an ice bucket on the bar.

Port's other problem is one of image. Even at the heights of its popularity, Port could never be said to be a trendy drink, and needs to start attracting younger consumers (cheeky Vimtos - a single measure of Port and a bottle of WKD - notwithstanding). Robert Wheatcroft, sales director of Fields, Morris & Verdin, which represents Quinta de

la Rosa in the UK, sums it up well: Other than the smart Vintage collectors market, Port is a slightly unfashionable sector which is in the process of regeneration. Rather like Sherry, it is considered by the wider public to be an old-fashioned, formulaic drink that is both made and drunk by the unfashionable. On top of which, it has that reputation for delivering a really foul hangover.'

Another thing that puts diners off is that, short of seeing the sommelier open the bottle at the table, they have no way of knowing how long that bottle of Vintage Port has been sitting in the restaurant - possibly last used a month or two before. Of course, Tawnies, with their oxidised style, last much longer than other styles, but restaurants need a good, quick turnover when selling Ports in this way, and how do they do that? By promoting the stuff.

The final hurdle to enjoying a good Port in a restaurant is the standard of glassware. Sadly, the days of tiny glasses filled to the brim are still with us, which, when you consider a product such as Port, with its aroma, colour and flavour, is absurd. Paul Symington, MD

of Symington Family Estates, whose Port houses include Graham's, Dow's and Warre's, says that the right choice of glass is extremely important: In general, Port is served in the most awful glasses in restaurants, and even in top-quality hotels and London clubs. It is a pity that with all the training and professionalism that now exists in the on-trade, bad Port glasses are still the norm. Restaurants should use a medium-sized white wine glass and not fill the

glass up. The measure should be the same, just in a larger glass.'

A sentiment shared by Port house Rozs. Sara Hicks, UK manager of the Vranken Pommery Monopole group, which owns the company, says we should forget those mean-spirited, flavour-dampening thimbles and treat Port as a real wine', and serve it at between 12C and 14C.

Single serve

One way that restaurants can encourage Port consumption is to offer it by the glass (a decent-sized one, that is). A whole bottle of Port is a challenge that only larger dining parties tend to accept, so a by-the-glass offering should get consumers to experiment with styles. Ronan Sayburn, executive head sommelier at Gordon Ramsay's restaurants, says that Port is selling well by the glass, but not very well by the bottle, and this is down to an attitude of people treating' themselves to a glass. He also likens Port to spirits such as Armagnac and Calvados, in that they are products not necessarily consumed at home: The customer almost forgets about them unless reminded,' he says. We have very good people in charge of our cheeseboards or taking dessert orders, and they actively suggest things to customers.'

Aged Tawnies, wonderful as

they are, are misunderstood products, and their ability to match desserts is often overlooked. Some believe the chocolate/

aged Tawny combination has been overplayed a touch, but given that chocolate-based desserts are one of the tougher dishes to find a suitable accompaniment for, aged Tawnies should be a good starting point for a sommelier.

Having said that, according to Alan Montague-Dennis, prestige manager at Mentzendorff (the UK agent for The Fladgate Partnership, which owns Croft, Taylor's, Fonseca and Delaforce), there is a new breed of sommelier prepared to mix things up. He cites Hamish Anderson at Tate Gallery Restaurants in London, who offers Taylor's 20 Year Old Tawny with pan-fried foie gras, or Brook's Club in St James's Street, also in London, which matches chocolate desserts with chilled LBV. Montague-Dennis says he has noticed a lot of interest at both ends of the quality spectrum', with just as much interest in decent Ruby as in Vintage Port. Furthermore, Mentzendorff and The Fladgate Partnership run tastings with the Academy of Food and Wine Science, and also encourage restaurants to list a minimum of three different Port styles by the glass: LBV, Tawny and Vintage.

One aged Tawny that has made good inroads into the on-trade is Warre's Otima brand, which is available as a 10- and a 20-year-old. The product has certainly won plaudits for its design, and Paul Symington claims that no other producer has managed to produce a Port that retains all the great traditions of Port's very fine image, while at the same time making it look modern and contemporary'. He also believes that it has created an awareness of aged Tawnies that simply did not exist in the past. The company has subsequently released Graham's The Tawny, and both are bottled in clear glass to highlight Tawny's distinctive, mahogany colour.

Robert Wheatcroft says that sales of Quinta de la Rosa Ten Year Old Tawny are building nicely', while Paragon Vintners, which represents Quinta do Noval in the UK, organised a Chilled 10 Year Old Tawny' initiative this year, which saw sales increase by 52% during May to August, compared to the same period in 2005. Marni Laurent-Trammell, junior brand manager at Paragon, says that while it is the responsibility of sommeliers to educate the consumer, she feels that the whole category should be simplified. The focus for Noval in 2007 will simply be promoting LBV and 10 Year Old Tawny.

Despite this summer campaign, Laurent-Trammell believes Port will continue to be a seasonal product in the UK, but Robert Wheatcroft has a different view. He says: Customers who are exposed to delicious Ports in restaurants throughout the year are increasingly searching out the best examples from their local merchant.

It may be a relatively small market at the moment, but it's the one that's growing.'

The White stuff

The other style that rears its head from time to time (but mainly in its homeland) is White Port. Various companies have tried to extol the virtues of White Port and tonic, but while such a drink is welcome in the oppressive heat of the Douro in high summer, back in Blighty it has less appeal, partly because it has such strong competition from other aperitifs.

Xavier Rousset, sommelier at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire, believes the product is a bit of a marketing tool' and a cashflow exercise', while Ronan Sayburn says the drink is fine for summertime in the garden' but not in a fine dining restaurant, and that it is not a good aperitif if you are eating great food. Gerard Basset MW thinks sticking White Port with tonic is rather unimaginative, and that bartenders should be inventing more exciting cocktails, more on the line of Pimms'. Robert Wheatcroft says the only people who buy White Port in the UK are ones who have holidayed in Portugal and wish to relive the moment'. It seems that White Port is destined to remain a niche product with limited appeal - at least for the time being.

LBV Ports are doing well in the UK on-trade, despite the best efforts of the major multiples to get dragged into pre-Christmas discounting wars each year. LBV is a simple term to remember, even if consumers are unaware what it stands for, or even the process it refers to, and it's good to hear that on-trade sales are holding up when in the off-trade its reputation is being sullied with bargain-basement deals.

In conclusion, the scenario isn't all bad. Sales are holding up well, and efforts are being made (however overdue) to modernise the category. Port may always carry a rather stuffy image, and it is unlikely ever to rid itself of the festive connection. But it's encouraging to hear that companies are investing to promote chilled Tawnies as a summer drink. This year has also seen the first-ever organic Port: Fonseca's Terra Prima, and hopefully, with the support of restaurateurs and sommeliers, consumers will start to experiment and will become comfortable with the many styles of Port, including Single Quinta and Colheita (Vintage Tawny).

Port has so much to offer the consumer and is such a versatile drink. Let's hope our on-trade outlets maximise this opportunity to the full.