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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 July, 2004, 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK
Port still tickling taste buds
By Will Smale
BBC News Online business reporter in Oporto

A bottle of Fonseca Port. Pic from Fonseca website
Please pass the stilton
In the last of a five part series of articles on Portugal and the Portuguese economy, BBC News Online takes a look at Port and how the historic drink has successfully reinvented itself in recent times.

Even Port fans would admit their favourite tipple needs to be approached with a certain degree of caution.

One of the world's most famous fortified wines, it is much renowned to give you a horrendous hangover if you don't stick to the age old rule of moderation.

Such is its typically big, bruising structure and no apologies sweetness, that drink too much and you could very well be in a world of anguish the following morning.

Thankfully such dangers have never put off Port aficionados; and more specifically, it is after all a drink designed for slow sipping rather than gulping down in volume. It goes with a nice piece of stilton, not before a takeaway.

Today Port, which has been made in the historic city of Oporto in northern Portugal for more than 500 years by adding a clear brandy to red wine - historically to strengthen or fortify the wine to increase its ship-worthiness and longevity - remains very popular indeed.

Changing tastes

Overall global sales last year were 412m euros (274m; $498m), and the total number of bottles sold in the UK alone was 1.18 million - the highest since 1999.

PORT FACTS
Port is made in Oporto, but the actual vineyards are 100 miles inland, on steep banks beside the River Douro
The wine is made from a number of traditional Portuguese grape varieties
For many centuries Port was only red, but in 1934 Taylor's brought out the first white Port
Most Vintage Port is still made from grapes which have been crushed by foot - it gives a better flavour than crushing by mechanical means
The British drink the most expensive Vintage Port, the French the cheapest - Ruby Port
A type of Port called Tawny is aged in the barrel for 10, 20, 30 or 40 years and is a much softer type of the drink
Port is today drunk equally between men and women
Originally the Port wines were transported to Oporto down the River Douro on boats. Today lorries do the work

However, go back to the 1960s and the Port industry looked to be on its last legs.

Sales were falling heavily and far from it being caused by a mass fear of hangovers, Port's problem was instead one of image - it suddenly found itself very out of fashion, and seemingly drunk solely by two unfashionable extremes.

On the one hand you had wealthy, elderly men, who would sip the very expensive, but very high quality top-of-the-range Vintage Port; and on the other, cheap and cheerful Ruby Ports were drunk with lemonade by, no disrespect, undiscerning female drinkers.

And the latter were switching in their droves to that generation's alco-pop - Babycham.

Port, a drink with more than five centuries of proud history needed to reinvent itself fast - it desperately needed a new mid-market version.

And so stepped forward Taylor's, today one of the last four remaining British-owned Port companies.

Anglo-Portuguese

The fact that British companies, such as Taylor's (founded in 1692) have been successful in the Port industry since its early days - and gone on to dominate exports to the UK - is based on Britain's historic closeness to Portugal. Or to put it more bluntly - we have both disliked France and Spain for long periods of our history.

Port vineyards in the upper Douro Valley
The vines that go on to make Port are grown on steep banks

So first in 1385 England and Portugal signed the Treaty of Windsor to confirm their alliance, and then in 1703 the Treaty of Methuen put the diplomatic seal of approval on the trade between British textiles and Port wine.

The UK firms have been in Oporto ever since, a colourful and high profile minority among the 110 different and mainly Portuguese owned Port brands.

What Taylor's, which is still owned by its founding families, did in 1970 was introduce a whole new style of Port called Late Bottled Vintage, or LBV for short.

Vastly better quality than Ruby Port, it offered a real picture of the expensive Vintage, but with three considerable advantages - much more affordable, and unlike, Vintage both ready to drink and no sediment, so no need to decant.

It was an instant success, all the other Port houses followed suit, the industry was saved, and today LBV remains a best-selling style.

New product

"To put it mildly, Port didn't have a very good image in the 1960s," said Adrian Bridge, managing director of Taylor's.

BRITISH PORT FIRMS
Taylor's - owns Taylor's, Fonseca, Delaforce and Croft
Cockburn's is owned by drinks giant Allied Domecq
Symington - owns Dow's, Warres and Graham's
Churchill's

"The premium Vintage Port will always be in very high demand, but by its very nature, supply is very limited.

"And would you believe it, Ruby Port was loosing out to Babycham."

Mr Bridge said another factor behind the development of LBV Port was requests from some London restaurants.

Historic Port boats in Oporto
The base wines were historically transported to Oporto by boat

"A number of top London restaurants had been in touch to say they wanted a better quality Port than Ruby which they could still sell by the glass - with Vintage you have to drink the bottle pretty much in one sitting.

"So we came up with LBV, which doesn't need to be drunk straight away, and is a very high quality product.

"It is also ready to drink, unlike Vintage , which needs to be cellared for some time."

Mr Bridge says that the Port industry has also been helped by the growth in popularity of Australian wines.

"Australian reds can be so big and bold that it is only a small step up again to Port. They have certainly helped guide more people towards Port."

Just hopefully in moderation.




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