Some things are not invented, they just happen. Think of Isaac Newton who, if he hadn`t found himself standing next to an apple tree one day, might never have discovered gravity. And so it was with Port wine.
Under the reign of Louis XIV, during one of their many disputes with the English, the French restricted the import of English goods into France, provoking the English king, Charles II, to retaliate by forbidding the import of French wines into England.
This meant the English were obliged to find an alternative source for the Bordeaux wines that they had begun to appreciate so much. The answer was Portugal, a land of inexpensive and robust wines. The problem, however, was that by the time these wines had completed the long sea voyage from Portugal to England, they were often undrinkable. It was therefore decided to add a small amount of white brandy to 'fix' the wines and prevent their spoiling. This fortified wine proved to be very popular with the English: Port wine had been launched.
In England, people of my parents` generation would enjoy a glass or two of Sherry on Sunday, before tucking into a roast chicken for lunch. Today, nobody bothers, partly because brunch has replaced the Sunday roast but most significantly because Sherry, at least in its export markets, has long been laid to rest in a cultural cemetery.
Port, on the other hand, has been going from strength to strength. This venerable fortified wine, for years looked down on as the tipple of old fogies in their gent`s clubs, is now being ordered not only by connoisseurs but equally by the hip. Some of the coolest people I know even drink a Port and tonic with their brunch.
How has this happened? After World War II, most of the great Port firms were practically on their knees. For years it had been impossible to export Port to its main markets, but then, gradually, the industry rebuilt, and then repositioned itself.
This renaissance has largely been the work of two remarkable companies: Symington Family Estates, which owns a stellar portfolio of Port brands, including Dow`s, Warre`s, Graham`s and Cockburn`s and its spectacular lodge where visitors can gaze at an amazing nine million litres of Port. The Symingtons also have led an outstandingly successful diversification into award-winning table wines.
The second of these remarkable companies is the Fladgate Partnership, the owner, among other Port brands, of Taylor`s. The Fladgate Partnership, rather than choosing to follow the flow creating great Douro table wines, has diversified into luxury hospitality. The company`s most emblematic hotel is the Yateman, the ultimate wine hotel which cascades down the slopes of Vila Nova da Gaia, opposite the city of Porto, like the terraces of a Douro vineyard.
The Yateman, under the leadership of The Fladgate Partnership`s dynamic and visionary CEO, Adrian Bridge, has been one of the principal driving forces in establishing the not-long-ago decaying city of Porto as a premier quality tourism destination and, in particular, as a destination for wine enthusiasts. Bridge`s latest scheme, intended lastingly to anchor Porto on the international wine map, will be called the World of Wine, or WOW to give it its acronym. WOW it most certainly will be, as the aim is for it to be Europe`s foremost curated wine experience.
Undoubtedly, the city of Porto today is contributing to the successful revival of the drink with which it historically has been associated. Occupying an incredible site, between the Atlantic Ocean and the breathtakingly beautiful Douro Valley, Porto is the ideal destination for a short cultural and gastronomic get-away.
In the Douro Valley itself, the legendary Quinta do Noval, founded in 1715, is continuing to make headlines. A twelve-bottle case of its 1963 Nacional vintage port was recently the top-selling lot at a Sotheby`s wine auction, going for a staggering £45,980. Well, if that isn`t a buoyant market, what is?
I cannot end this article without mentioning an extremely talented producer of Port, who operates on a boutique scale. José Morais, the winemaker for the Fragulho brand and owner of Casa dos Lagares, descends from many generations of wine aristocracy. A man of passionate creativity, dividing his time between restoring his family property and caring for his vineyards, Morais makes a 20-year old Tawny that, with its extraordinary notes of fruit and spices, is quite simply one of the best Ports I have ever drunk. Look out for it!
©James Mayor, 2018