Rich sweet reds hailing from Portugal are being given a rough deal because of inferior copycats.
While port has weathered centuries as one of the world's great wine styles, recent years have seen the popularity of this Portuguese institution hit by a sea change in tastes, the global financial crisis and image problems stemming from its associations with stuffiness and superannuated sipping.
One of its main issues, especially here in New Zealand, is the confusion over what port actually is. True port is made from grapes grown on the granite terraces of Portugal's rugged Douro Valley, whose river emerges at the seaport of Oporto, which gave this famous fortified its name. But while it was one of the first European wine regions to be geographically defined, its name became a generic term for fortifieds made throughout the world regardless of their origin or quality.
In New Zealand, we've calling our local fortifieds port for more than 100 years, despite the fact most bear only a passing resemblance to the rich, sweet reds hailing from the Douro's sunbaked hillsides. However, recent years have seen a growing number of countries cease using the port name on their wines in return for preferential EU market access, although this is not yet the case here.
"Despite the fact that it was the first wine appellation in the world, it's taking us a lot longer than Champagne to protect our name," acknowledges Jorge Nunes of major port producer, Symington Family Estates on a recent visit to New Zealand. "Australia has stopped using the port name, but can still use the terms tawny and ruby."
With its precipitous slopes and similarly steep labour costs, true port rarely comes cheap and as a premium-priced product was badly hit by the belt tightening accompanying the global economic crisis. The industry has also recognised it needs to recruit new drinkers and cast off its old fashioned identity.
"New consumers are within our reach," thinks Nunes, "through initiatives like promoting cocktails for a younger audience and food pairing."
"We're also educating the trade and then the consumer," he goes on, "for example, to treat port like a wine to serve it in a white wine glass rather than the traditional little glass that impedes its enjoyment. We're also communicating that ports are some of the great dessert wines of the world that pair with a many different desserts and should therefore be listed on the dessert menu rather than along with the likes of whisky and vodka."
"Port is not one of the most marketed wines, so I try and open as many bottles as I can as the more tasting we do the more people we convert to our cause," Nunes maintains. "The reactions I tend to get are people saying how delicious it is and wondering why they don't drink it more!" This is something that certainly corresponds with my own experience of introducing the uninitiated to the opulent joys of a good port.
Nunes also stresses how developments in the region have been having a positive impact on quality: from the replanting of vineyards by grape variety to control ripening (in contrast to the past when varieties were all mixed up), to solving the issue of sourcing staff for the arduous job of stomping the grapes through the adoption "robotic lagares" whose mechanised feet are always on hand to tread for as long as required.
If you've not tried proper port or it's fallen from your drinking repertoire, these winter months are the perfect time to crack open a bottle and get a taste for what's been going on for yourself. And as most ports (apart from vintage) are good for at least two weeks after opening, there's no need to hurry. Just relax and savour them at your leisure - the way they're best enjoyed.
Dow's Fine Ruby Port $42.29
"If you drink powerful shiraz, then why not drink a fruity port?" asks Symington's Jorge Nunes. This easy drinking example with its rich, sweet black cherry fruit and hint of marzipan certainly supports this assertion. (From selected fine wine retailers.)
Quinta da Romaneira 10-year-old Tawny Port $65-70.
Aged tawnies get their name from the characteristic russet colour derived from the wines spending considerable time in barrel. This mellow and savoury example exhibits notes of hazelnut, tobacco, dried fruit and a hint of butterscotch. (From Wine Circle, Point Wines, selected branches of Glengarry.)
Graham's Late Bottled Vintage 2007 $58.27
While vintage port requires years in bottle to soften, the "late bottled" style is designed for immediate enjoyment, such as this mouth-filling example with its plush black cherry and berry fruit and nuances of dark chocolate and spice. (From selected fine wine retailers.)