In Georgian England, port was the tipple of choice, both in polite society and in the literature of the time. Nineteenth-century gentlemen wearing high, white cravats would drink port after a stroll in a well-manicured park, and of course, when they were at their gentlemen’s club. Fine ladies in poorly heated country houses, exhausted after countless wardrobe changes, rounds of picnicking and cricket, would – after a port or two – fling themselves into said gentlemen’s embrace.
Port figured large among the authors of the time. Charles Dickens had cheap port wine favored by those in the underworld. “Bring Port wine!,” growls the murderer Rigaud in "Little Dorrit," “I'll drink nothing but Porto-Porto.” Another novelist William Thackeray imagines local clerics indulging in port. “You would fancy that a parson's life was passed in gorging himself with plum-pudding and port-wine,” he wrote in his 1848 collection of satirical essays "A Book of Snobs."
Which is why it seems a little odd that the French have now overtaken the British as aficionados of the sweet spirit.
When five leading port wine producers toured Germany in January, surprisingly large numbers of sommeliers and wine traders came to sample the latest bottlings.
Then again, the French know all about a good drop of wine. Many of the most precious vines grow along the banks of the River Gironde in southwest France. Bordeaux and Burgundy are synonyms for top quality reds, Champagne the badge of outstanding sparkling wine. In France a good glass of wine goes with lunch and dinner. And quite often these days, that glass contains port. Between January and November 2016, France imported exactly 1,507,617 liters of premium port – more than any other nation – as well as 16,678,404 liters of non-premium port, more than the Portuguese themselves consume.
It could be that the French have an excellent sense of value for money when it comes to wine. Premium products from the Douro Valley in northern Portugal have not yet been targeted by speculators who have driven the prices of the most expensive French reds to absurd heights. “But that is slowly changing,” argues Axel Probst, the German author of a recently published book about port wine. What sold for €100 a bottle a few years ago, now costs more than double, he notes.
That’s one reason why one can still afford to buy a port wine that is over 40 years old. Sweet, laced with brandy, with its nose of dried fruit, nuts and wood, port is not attractive to drinkers in the far east. Neither China nor Hong Kong are on the list of the 25 biggest buyers; Chinese buyers have been prepared to pay ever higher prices for prestigious French labels but as yet anyway, they show little interest in port.
It’s a completely different picture in Germany. With a 5 percent growth in the premium port market in 2016, and 1.8 percent growth for more basic quality port, this clearly is a growing market. When five leading port wine producers, banded together under the dashing moniker, the Douro Boys, toured Germany in January, surprisingly large numbers of sommeliers and wine traders came to sample the latest bottlings.
So what is the secret of a good port? Experts suggest that it takes a lot of patience to truly understand this beverage, with its 19 to 22 percent alcohol volume.
“You need to drink a lot of port to get what it’s about,” says Johannes King, owner and head chef of the five-star Söl'ring Hof hotel on the fashionable North Sea island Sylt, a favorite resort for the well-heeled. Mr. King owns 11,000 bottles of port. He discovered his love of port more than 30 years ago when he was invited to try a drop from an outstanding 1945 vintage. “You have to treat these vintage ports like a grand red wine,” he says, “and they’re excellent dining companions.” So it’s a given that the two-Michelin-star chef serves his guests a port with some main courses.
Author Axel Probst believes a good port works best with sweet dishes or cheese. Munich barkeeper Charles Schumann prefers to meditate on his ports' rich flavors alone. When he moved his bar – Schumann’s, one of the best known drinking spots in the country - and needed money to invest, he sold his port wine collection with a heavy heart, only to buy it back soon after. He keeps the best bottles for himself and his friends.
A few big labels, such as Graham’s or Taylor’s, uphold Douro Valley traditions but it’s mainly smaller "quintas,” as these small Portuguese estates are known, that continue to crush their best port grapes, bare foot in granite basins. After that the wines are fortified with the addition of brandy to stop fermentation. Then follows the all-important storage and aging phase. For the old tawny style, that happens in a barrel, for the vintage style it’s in a bottle.
Production methods and conditions are as varied as the grape varieties – there are about 40 - and different flavors. In the Douro Valley, there’s blazing heat in the summer and foggy cold in the fall. Some vineyards point north and lie 800 meters (2,624 feet) above sea level while others are south-facing terraces or have steep slopes right down to river banks. "Port wine grapes have to be able to suffer,” Mr. Probst quotes a grower. “Only a plant that struggles, will maximize flavor.”
Thorsten Firlus is an editor at Handelsblatt’s sister publication, weekly business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: [email protected]