Page last updated at 11:54 GMT, Saturday, 19 December 2009

Portugal port's image changed to attract younger fans

While a bottle of port may still be brought out at Christmas, the days of it being a regular tipple for most seem to be long gone. Humphrey Hawksley travelled to northern Portugal to see how an image overhaul is affecting the region's historic port trade.

Paul Symington walks through his hillside vineyard, at ease with the land. With his steps, confident on the damp, sloping ground, he cuts a figure not unlike a Roman centurion.

Grapes being picked in Portugal
The vineyards of northern Portugal have changed little since Roman times

He stops to talk to his men pruning the vines.

He confers with his caseiro - or farm manager. He consults his young viticulturist about the quality of the soil. Then he casts his eyes over the estate, where mist obscures the view of the Douro River below.

"The Romans dressed differently, of course. And you wouldn't have driven there," he said. "But apart from that, what you see in these vineyards hasn't changed since Roman times."

Paul's family have been working the hills in northern Portugal for more than 300 years. He has an instinctive sense of history and tradition, but he knows things have to change if his business is to survive.

Table rituals

The business is port wine, and if one product is getting an image makeover it is this deep red tipple.

The days of boring old men with expensive complexions, falling asleep over their port in leather chairs - they're long gone
Tim Stanley-Clarke

It conjures up images of huge wooden barrels in cobwebbed cellars; of raising glasses at regimental dinners; of strange table rituals with crystal decanters and grumpy conversations among red faced colonels - when the women have been asked to leave the room.

Paul has had to think very hard about his future.

"There's marvellous ceremony attached to port," he said.

"At state banquets the Queen always makes the toast with port, and we don't want to lose that.

"But we all live differently now. We don't have wine cellars. We eat around the kitchen table. We don't dress for dinner every night."

Douro Valley, northern Portugal
The Douro Valley is one of the oldest wine growing regions in the world

"We have to adapt our markets. We absolutely have to get more young people drinking port."

He paused to sweep his hand around the view of the vineyards, and said: "Otherwise this whole valley will revert back to scrub."

It has not been scrub for a long time.

Every year, the Romans ripped off their sandals to tread the Douro Valley grapes pretty much as some of Paul's harvest is trod by villagers today.

The rest is done by computerised machines that simulate human feet.

Immediate hit

The area itself is one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the world - officially demarcated back in 1756, a century before Bordeaux.

And port itself was created almost by mistake. To stop wine going bad on its sea journey to England, British traders fortified it with brandy.

The new sweet taste and extra kick was an immediate hit with those who could afford it.

Farm manager, Antonio
Farm manager Antonio has no time for English port-drinking customs

The Douro River runs down to the town of Oporto where hoardings with names such as Sandeman, Taylors and Dow, dominate the skyline - showing how the British establishment took to port wine and made it its own.

Over lunch in a small restaurant, it became clear that Paul need look no further than his own farm manager, Antonio, if he wants to expand his clientele far outside Britain's palaces and clubs.

"Do you decant port and insist on it being passed around the table to the right - or should it be to the left?" I questioned Antonio.

As Paul translated, Antonio's weather-beaten face broke into a huge grin. What on earth was I talking about? he asked.

Paul clarified and Antonio threw back his head, roaring with laughter.

"He doesn't know about these quirky English habits," translated Paul. "He makes port, puts it in the glass and drinks it."

"And here the women drink it just the same as the men," said Paul.

"They certainly wouldn't leave the table or the men wouldn't be allowed to sleep within the four walls of their own home."

Perfectly filtered

Back in Britain, in the heart of the recession gripped City of London, one of Britain's leading port experts, Tim Stanley-Clarke, was keen to add his bit to the drink's changing image.

He arrived at a top wine bar with a smart decanter, a vintage bottle from 1983 and a pair of tights.

With jazz piano playing in the background, he flipped open a pocket corkscrew.

Port being poured into a glass, filtered through nylons
Expert Tim Stanley-Clarke says port is "perfectly filtered" through nylon tights

"Forty-eight percent of port is drunk by females and 44% by people under the age of 45," he argued, easing out the cork.

"I love it," chipped in 23-year-old Judith Hurrell, there with friends, sharing a bottle in an ice bucket.

Behind us two young women executives each had a glass while working on their laptops.

Tim stretched the tights over the mouth of a plastic funnel, dropped it into the decanter and began pouring.

"There you go," he said.

"No ceremony here and perfectly filtered through nylons. House port sold by the glass.

"The days of boring old men with expensive complexions, falling asleep over their port in leather chairs - they're long gone."

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Portugal
22 Mar 12 |  Country profiles


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