The dying art of Port wine – and one family’s bid to save it

Marianna Hunt takes the temperature of a great style


It’s 22:00 on the Rua das Galerias in Porto. The resident 20-somethings are buzzing like hummingbirds around the bars - sipping Super Bock beers, Aperol spritz and plenty more.

Yet nowhere in sight is the city’s eponymous drink: Port wine. 

“For many young people in Portugal, the only time they drink Port is with their grandparents at formal dinners. Port is tied up in out-dated associations with formality and stuffiness that couldn’t be further from the actual experience of drinking it,” says Jamie Graham, part of the second generation of Churchill’s, a family-run Port house. 

The situation is much the same in the UK - with Port relegated to the dusty bottle filched out of Granny’s cupboard once a year at Christmas. Between 2005 and 2015 sales of Port wine in the UK fell by more than a quarter - from 8 million litres to 5 million, according to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.

“The problem is often that many of the things people think they know about the drink - and why they don’t like it - are wrong,” Jamie adds. “They believe it has to be very sweet, that it’s served warm and you don’t drink it with food. But really Port is a fine wine and needs to be treated as such.”

Churchill’s was founded by Johnny Graham and wife Caroline Churchill (Jamie’s parents) after Johnny’s father sold the Graham family port business in 1970. The Port they make is of a dry, fresh style, low in sweetness and is deliciously quaffable.

The family recommends serving this dryer style of port at fridge temperature - and absolutely with food. Salty Portuguese snacks such as bolinhos de bacalhau (salt cod fritters), queijo São Jorge (a cured and slightly spicy cheese from the Azores) or thin slices of Presunto de Vinhais (a smoked ham) work particularly well.

Saving a dying art

Port, a fortified wine which must be aged in either North Portugal’s Douro Valley or a specific quarter of Porto, comes in ruby, tawny and white varieties. 

“Lots of people know the ruby variety but fewer know the new generation of aromatic, fruitier white Port styles that make a brilliant aperitif on a summer’s day,” says Sarah Ahmed, a Portuguese wine expert and Portugal Regional Chair at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

The skill of making Port is being lost too. Many Port makers are cutting costs by buying machinery to tread the grapes for their wines, rather than doing it by foot as per tradition (with the latter also creating a much tastier wine). 

“Social distancing during coronavirus forced even more [winemakers] to stop traditional foot stomping, so now we’re one of the last,” says Johnny. “We truly believe foot treading is the best method, as there’s no risk of crushing bitter pips in with the fruit - like the machines can.”

The Graham family is on a mission to save the art of making and drinking Port. They still tread every single barrel by foot at Quinta da Gricha, their 50 hectare vineyard - even during the pandemic.

“Our local communities rely on the harvest for work so we decided to carry on but took lots of extra precautions. We managed not to have a single Covid case,” Zoe Graham, daughter and Head of Sales & Marketing, adds. 

The sight of the treading is quite spectacular - and the Grahams see the experience as an opportunity to get foreign travellers interested in Port. Each harvest they welcome guests to their quinta (vineyard) to help with the picking. Afterwards they wade with them knee-deep into seas of grapes, frog marching in unison through the stone vats until the fruit turns into a gloopy purple mulch.

“It’s tradition to sing folk songs as you go. Sometimes we’ll get local accordion players and guitarists to accompany us. Other times we stick on the radio and sing along to Aretha Franklin or whatever else is on,” says Jamie. At the end of the harvest they have an enormous feast, with oodles of local food and wine.

Enticing a new generation

His hip new generation of the family is working on initiatives to attract younger drinkers to Port. They include a Port-based cocktail bar in Porto, a Port delivery club, and partnerships with Michelin star chefs who use the wines in their dishes. 

“It’s all about making the drink more accessible. The cocktail bar has proven really popular with young Porto locals. We’ve been amazed by how versatile Port is as a cocktail ingredient - although it took my Dad a while to come round,” Jamie laughs. 

The Gricha Mule has been a particular hit: dry white Port, ginger beer, muddled mint and cucumber - as has white Port and tonic. 

Efforts by the Grahams and other Port houses may well be paying off. During 2020, sales of the fortified wine to the UK jumped by just over 11%, according to the Port and Douro Wines Institute. Almost 9 million litres were shipped in total.

“A new generation of wine and food lovers are passionate about learning, experiences and gastronomy,” says Sarah Ahmed. “Port has an amazing heritage and is the product of extreme conditions. With a versatile range of styles, this oft overlooked fine wine is ripe for rediscovery.” 

She is helping to organise FESTA, a first-of-its-kind festival celebrating the food, wine and culture of Portugal, with the inaugural event due to take place in June 2022. 

At the festival, you’ll be able to sample over 250 Portuguese wines and Ports hand-picked by independent producers, dine on food from the UK’s best Portuguese restaurants, listen to live music as well as meet some of Portugal’s cutting edge winemakers. 

A heritage to be proud of

Port’s inclusion in the world of fine wines makes sense given its pedigree. The Douro Valley (where all the grapes must come from for a wine to be Port) is said to be the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. It was given its protected status in 1756 - around 180 years before Champagne and Burgundy got their appellations d’origine contrôlée. 

 The Douro Valley is said to be the oldest demarcated wine region in the world

The Valley itself is well worth a visit for budding Port fanatics. The Douro River snakes through its 61,000 acres - with terraces of vines clinging as if for their lives to the canyons of hard, schist rock that rise up either side of the water. This unique topography, the Herculean efforts of locals in carving out those terraces over the centuries, and the quality of its wines earned the Douro its place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2001. 

If it does succeed in winning over consumers, Port could go a long way still. According to figures from Port house Sandeman, the market for the fortified wine globally is only worth about $850m out of a global wine market of around $360bn. That means only 0.002% of wine currently being consumed is Port - leaving plenty of room for expansion.

If the success of Gin makers in transforming the drink from the stuff of grandmothers to one of the most consumed spirits in the world is anything to go by - the future looks bright.

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