Control of many of the greatest Port houses is being passed down to a new wave of winemakers, importers and executives. How will their approaches affect what’s in your glass?
Throughout its 2,000-year history, Port has had its share of pioneers. Their decisions have shaped the course of this sweet, textured, fortified wine. On May 12, 1862, three prominent Port producers decided to have a picnic on the banks of the Douro. They were the Baroness Fladgate, of Taylor Fladgate; Dona Antónia Adelaide Ferreira—known as the “empress of the Douro”—who had taken control of her deceased husband’s flagging Port company in 1844 and turned it into a regional and national powerhouse; and Joseph James Forrester, an Englishman who not only ran his Port company with precision but meticulously mapped the Douro and chronicled Port production methods for posterity.
Tragically, on the picnic party’s return trip, their boat capsized on the Douro’s raging rapids, and Forrester perished. Legend has it that the money belt Forrester was wearing weighed him down while the puffy crinolines of Ferreira and Fladgate saved their lives.
Adrian Bridge, managing director and CEO, Taylor Fonseca Group
|Although the lives of contemporary Port producers may lack the drama of their forebears, the issues they face are no less daunting. At the dawn of the 21st century, a generation of seasoned producers is passing command to a younger generation. The incoming group is computer savvy, well educated, well traveled and technologically oriented. They are facing complicated issues in a world made more intimate by communications and ease of travel, but simultaneously more commercially competitive by expanding winemaking expertise. The times demand they be far more than custodians—they need to be visionaries.|
A Refined but Disparate Group
Some members of the next generation have dabbled in other lines of work before being lured into the Port trade; others are Port-industry lifers. Adrian Bridge, 39, is the current managing director/CEO of one of the Port industry’s elite companies, the Taylor Fonseca group. A Canadian by birth, Bridge was educated in England and spent more than three years in the British Army. After leaving the service in early 1988, he worked for Merrill Lynch and later National Westminster Bank in London. In 1989, Bridge married Natasha Robertson, the daughter of Alistair Robertson, then the CEO of Taylor and a Port industry doyen. In 1994, Bridge was offered the chance to join Taylor in the marketing arm of the business. “Having an MBA and coming from a banking background I understand that this is a business,” says Bridge. “We make long-term financial commitments with stock and vineyards to produce Ports.”
Bartholomew Broadbent also took a highly singular avenue into the realm of Port. Broadbent, 40, is the proprietor of Broadbent Selections. Headquartered in San Francisco, the company acts both as an agent and a Port shipper. Broadbent’s early appreciation for Port was cultivated largely through the influence of his father, the English wine writer Michael Broadbent, who is a long-time Port enthusiast. Broadbent started out working for the Symington family’s Premium Port Wines company in the United States before establishing his own firm.
While Broadbent credits his father with his Port education, he cites the Symington family for teaching him the value of marketing Port in the ever-changing international arena. Ultimately, Broadbent used what he learned from both sources to create his own company. “The way I did it is similar to the origins of most British Port shippers,” Broadbent points out. “That is to say that I am a merchant who came from outside the country and set up relationships with vine growers who agreed to sell me their grapes and/or wine. Knowing how to market and sell Port is the invaluable skill I acquired during my apprenticeship.”
Cristiano van Zeller started out at age 22 at one of the Port industry’s crown-jewel companies, Quinta do Noval, which his family owned until 1993. Now 43, he is the co-owner of Lemos & van Zeller, which produces Ports from the estate known as Quinta do Vale Dona Maria. Van Zeller’s experience in the Port trade has taught him several lessons, the most important being patience. He likens the Port industry to a huge ship that requires much time to alter its course—and in that analogy, finds reason for optimism. The Port trade, he says, “always finds the surest course and stays afloat with great balance, even in the middle of big torments.” It has a capacity to adapt to the different times and, in its core, always has men of great value.”
Van Zeller emphasizes that being successful in the Port industry is often dependent on other people’s skills and level of commitment. As one of the stewards meeting the challenges of the new century, van Zeller understands that cooperation with others can help make the responsibility of custodianship easier.
Sophia Bergqvist, managing director and owner of Quinta de la Rosa
Sophia Bergqvist 41, a former investment banker and management consultant, is managing director and owner of Quinta de la Rosa. Bergqvist is currently the only woman running a Port shipping firm. Bergqvist considers her father, Tim Bergqvist, to be her mentor. “I’ve been learning since my childhood when my grandfather, and then my father, made Port on our estate for Sandeman.” Almost through a process of osmosis, she says, she absorbed lessons learned from experiments with the new winemaking and vineyard management techniques due to the introduction of automation and mechanization. “I’ve learned that traditional techniques together with modern [advancements] can be used together with great overall benefit,” she says.
Rupert Symington, 37, is joint managing director of The Symington Family Port Companies. Symington’s apprenticeship under his father and uncles taught him two key lessons: “First is taking a long-term view because vintage Port is one of the few wines designed to be drunk at 15-plus years,” he says. “It’s easy to react to bad economic news by not bottling wines for the future and then finding oneself short in the next upswing.”
Symington is also sensitive to the importance of the Douro growers from whom his family purchases grapes. “Over time, we’ve built up loyalty and respect for—and from—the farmer that is fundamental to our future,” he says, “a policy not necessarily followed across the trade where, in the past, bad times have led some shippers to sack their farmers at short notice.”
Rupert Symington, joint managing director, The Symington Family Port Companies
João Nicolau de Almeida, 52, is the oenologist/winemaker and managing director for Ramos Pinto. His father, Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, and uncle, José Ramos Pinto Rosas, imparted a treasure trove of insights to him, which he recalls as sound bites: “The best way to make wine is to be honest and follow your feelings” and “Vintage [Port] is a wine but tawny is a Port wine” and “To continue in the Douro it’s necessary to progress in mechanization in the vineyards.” De Almeida also credits the French professor of oenology, Emile Peynaud of the University of Bordeaux, for contributing to his evolution by giving him “different types of thinking in winemaking.”
De Almeida is not the sole member of the next generation to acknowledge a Bordeaux connection. Nicholas Delaforce, 36, is the winemaker and blender for Delaforce and Croft Ports. While he points to David Delaforce, his father, as his initial mentor, Delaforce also credits Bordeaux winemaker Jean Louis Champs and Charles Eve, MW, of Château Loudenne as major influences, as well as Bob Cartwright of Australia’s Leeuwin Estate.
Delaforce learned from his guides the vital importance of properly matching grape types and location. This apprenticeship prepared him for what is, in his opinion, one of the most crucial issues the Port industry faces today: “The challenge at the moment and in the future,” he says, “is to gain more knowledge of the attributes of some of the minor grape varieties present in the Douro, plus whether it is better to blend ‘in the vineyard’ or blend the finished wine.”
Port in a Storm:
Grappling with Issues
The most pressing challenge facing the 21st-century generation is to preserve what has been created—to retain Port’s image and status in an increasingly complex and competitive world. One of the issues is how to keep Port on the radar screen for consumers around the world.
The answer involves continuing education—not just of consumers but of retailers and others. “To keep Port competitive, we have to explain the different types and styles of Ports,” says Miguel Roquette, the 34-year-old export sales and marketing manager of Quinta do Crasto. “After all, the Douro is one of the oldest of the world’s wine regions and Port is unique.”
Francisco Tovar, 31, the winemaker for Osborne Vinhos de Portugal, agrees that education is key to keeping Port competitive on the world stage. “We have two distinctly different wines, ruby and tawny, that are lumped together under the heading ‘Port’ and the average consumer usually doesn’t understand the difference,” says Tovar. “Wine companies need to spend time and money educating consumers and promoting to professionals about the appropriate occasions to drink Port.”
A second education-related challenge involves keeping Port unique and separate from the expanding list of the world’s wines that are fortified with grape brandy, such as Sherry, Madeira and the fortified wines of other nations. While Port’s place as the king of fortified wines is still relatively secure, this new generation of Port producers is keenly aware that the Port-style wines of winemaking countries like the United States, South Africa and Australia are making gains in the category.
Robert Bower, brand manager for Taylor, is watching the competition closely. Bower, 26, is concerned that Port-style fortified wines from other countries are causing confusion for consumers as to which are true Ports (from Portugal) and which aren’t. Proper and clear identification is the issue at hand. “New World Ports don’t accurately describe the product in the bottle,” he points out. “Port wine from Portugal has its unique terroir, which cannot be replicated elsewhere. A ‘Port’ made from Cabernet Sauvignon in California will taste completely different than Port from the Douro. I believe that the consumer should be able to distinguish between the traditional Ports from Portugal and the New World ‘Ports’ by using a more accurate descriptor, such as ‘fortified New World wine.'”
For others, another key issue involves the over-regulation of the Port industry—it is notorious for being one of the most intensely controlled wine industries in the world. Three associations are a fact of everyday life for Port producers: the government-operated Casa do Douro, which regulates all vineyard designation, inspection, planting and grape-growing; the Port Wine Shippers Association, which dictates who can and cannot ship Port; and the state-controlled Port Wine Institute, which is in charge of research, stock and quality-control policies.
Some consumers may take comfort in this, seeing the trio of watchdog committees as a safeguard. Indeed, some of the Port producers and shippers express support for the regulations—or at least anxiety if the situation were to be changed. But to most of the Port shippers, grape growers and producers, the associations represent only a continual entanglement in masses of red tape and bureaucratic meddling. Eliminating them, say these producers, would create incentives for investment and innovation.
“I’ve always been amazed at the complexity of the business,” marvels Bridge. “Every single thing we do is regulated in some way and by such a wide number of people that the industry is far more complex than it needs to be.”
“It has been a negative surprise to be limited by so many industry rules,” agrees Tovar. “As is the case all across Europe, winemaking and vine-growing regulations make it difficult to do something new and as a result developing something new is a risk.”
Symington sees both sides of the regulation debate. “Our industry is bound by some fairly strict regulations…[some of which] have without doubt underpinned the success of our trade,” he asserts. “There is nevertheless an argument that some reform in regulations would incentivize growers and shippers alike to invest in the future.”
Though government regulations are widely viewed as stifling innovation and modernization, many of the next generation see the government as an important impetus for the Port industry to modernize. Not more regulations, they say…a change in regulations.
Symington believes that government-sponsored incentives should be offered to Port producers in order to produce better quality Port and to develop stocks of aging wine—important, because current regulations make it financially unattractive to do so. Industry-wide low profit margins and a paucity of governmental investment incentives means that, according to Symington, “only a few brave or foolish producers have taken steps to invest and modernize.”
Consequently, in Symington’s view, it’s the few Port producers who are willing to take the chance and invest in modernization who will keep the trade afloat in the coming years—not the government of Portugal or the industry as a whole.
Dirk van der Niepoort, 37, director and winemaker at Niepoort Ports, takes a different view. “Of course, many things should be modernized mainly for the reasons of costs and to stay competitive,” he concedes. “But, one of the treasures of Portugal is, in fact, being backward. We still have many things that are old, authentic and that no other country in the world has. We should therefore be careful to modernize only certain areas of the industry while maintaining the antiquity of others [for the sake of] cultural richness.”
So how to modernize the Port industry without stripping its heritage? How to streamline the bureaucracies so that they continue to assure quality but also encourage innovation? How to keep Port’s profile high in an increasingly competitive world? The next generation’s workload seems daunting. Their resolve, ingenuity and luck will be key to bringing Port into a new period of fortune. We’ll be watching.