Americans breathing new life into Port

Young wine drinkers aren't afraid to admit they like sweet wines

Jim Clarke By Jim Clarke

Winemaker Henry Shotton at Quinta dos Malvedos, flagship vineyard for Graham’s Port. (Jim Clarke)

It’s a cliché in the wine industry to say Americans “Talk dry, but drink sweet.”

These days, our talk is sweet, too.

According to Nielsen, sales of sweet red wines in the United States were up in 2011, jumping 172 percent in the last quarter of the year and then 148 percent in the first quarter of 2012. That’s bad news for Europe’s classic wine regions, like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Chianti. Their wines are dry, and regulations and winemaking tradition mean that’s not going to change.

One European wine could benefit from the change in American tastes, though: Port.

Port is made from indigenous grape varieties grown in Portugal’s Douro Valley that are aged and blended in the city of Oporto, from which the wine takes its name. The fortified wine comes in two basic styles, but Ruby Ports, with their deep color and fruity aromas, have the most in common with the sweet reds that have become so popular in the United States Tawny Ports are brownish and more nutty in flavor.

What the two styles have in common is fortification. Once the wine ferments to six percent alcohol, vintners add a clear, flavorless grape brandy, bringing up the alcohol level to 20 percent. The additive kills yeasts in the liquid, leaving more than half the grapes’ natural sugars unfermented, so the wine is sweet.

From seasonal to sensational

According to Lewis Dimm, owner of Fairview Wines & Spirits in Hudson, New York, Port sales used to be seasonal, peaking around the holidays. But now they hold steady year-round, even if, to his taste, “drinking Port in the summer is problematic,” due to its high alcohol content.

On the other hand, Luisa Amorim, executive director at Quinta Nova, a wine and Port producer in the Douro Valley in northern Portuhal, is confident the product has appeal 365 days a year. “There’s nothing wrong with Port,” she says. “The problem is that when people walk into a wine store, they never look at the Port shelf.”

Why not? “I’ve never tried Port before because it always seemed old-fashioned, like something an old professor or literary genius would drink after dinner,” says Jennifer Dome, 32, of Birmingham, Alabama, summing up Port’s notoriety. A fan of Jam Jar Shiraz, a sweet red from South Africa, she was eager to give Port a try when she learned it was sweet.

While Baby Boomers led the way in paying lip-service to dry wines in the 70s and 80s, much of that is water under the bridge to Millennials like Dome, who likes sweet wines and doesn’t care who knows it. Research shows her cohort being more open to less-familiar wines, even those that might have developed poor public images in the past like Lambrusco, Rosés and sweet wines like Port.

On the white side, Moscato, made in a light, sweet and slightly effervescent style native to Piedmont Italy, has taken off, even garnering shout-outs in hip-hop; growers in California and elsewhere have jumped on board and sales are booming.  Dimm says sweet reds, on the other hand, aren’t led by a single grape variety or style. Barefoot Sweet Red, Sutter Home Sweet Red, New York State wines like Hazlitt’s Red Cat, and the Jam Jar Shiraz are all part of the category, with no particular grape dominating.

Open-minded Millennials

According to Amorim, it’s the open-minded Millennial that Quinta Nova is hoping to attract. She says they’re targeting younger consumers, particularly women, with their new Port, “Clã.” It’s a traditional, ruby-style Port, but they’ve updated the packaging, using a clear bottle to highlight the wine’s rich, dark color, with a cork instead of a stopper to remind consumers that Port, after all, is unquestionable a full-fledged wine. An eye-catching, colorful cardboard sleeve encloses the bottle on the shelf.

The beautiful Douro River, complete with barca, as seen from Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos estate. (Jim Clarke)

Quinta Nova began developing Clã after noticing a growing interest in sweet wines as early as ten years ago; the spike of the past year was unexpected, but welcome. The wine industry, reliant on long-term vineyard plantings, rarely turns on a dime. Now, Quinta Nova’s prescience may give it a leg up in courting the sweet red crowd in the U.S.

Other brands have been casting Port in a new role as a cocktail ingredient. Sandeman, for example, sponsored a contest for bartenders who developed recipes using their Ports.

Henry Shotton is a vineyard manager and winemaker for the Symington Group, one of Portugal’s largest wine companies and producer of several Port brands, including Graham’s and Dow’s. He wonders if promoting Port as an ingredient could take away from its place as a wine, and says they prefer to focus on pairings as a marketing strategy. For example, Graham’s recently ran a campaign centered on the combination of Port and chocolate.

Shotton says Symington’s sales representatives in the U.S. report that the American market favors opulent wines. Accordingly, “The wine that does particularly well in the U.S. is the [Graham’s] Six Grapes, which is made in that style: a rich, full-bodied wine.”

Dimm would agree. Among dessert wines the Six Grapes is a top seller at his shop.