Port assesses ‘incredible’ comeback

The head winemaker of Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft Ports has hailed the “tremendous revival” of the entire fortified category as he defended a decision not to move into table wine.

David Guimaraens

David Guimaraens, head winemaker at Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft

“It’s an incredible moment in the Port trade,” remarked David Guimaraens on a visit to London this week. “Port and other fortified wines are at the moment being tremendously appreciated for what they are.”

Having studied at Roseworthy in Australia during the 1980s, Guimaraens credited the influence of the New World in helping to push up quality standards in many parts of Europe, not least the Douro.

“Ultimately these Australian and other New World producers coming over was the best thing to happen for the wine world and consumers; it made the Old World wake up, ” he observed. “Now we’re in a position where the Old World has got its act together, and not only Port but Sherry and Madeira have seen a tremendous revival – not because it’s fashionable but because it’s good.”

Nevertheless, Guimaraens conceded that this fortified revival was concentrated at the higher end of the category – 2013 saw special category Ports increase volume sales by nearly 4% and value by almost 12% on the previous year. “It’s not so much a story about volume,” he remarked.

Despite pressure to diversify into Douro table wine, Guimaraens stood by his decision to focus solely on Port. “Undoubtedly the best thing I have done in the 24 years since I came back from Australia has been staying dedicated to Port,” he insisted. “Everyone today wants to try to do everything, but there’s so much to do in the Port trade. I love Douro table wine but it’s not for me to make.”

For Guimaraens one of the most important contributions to the improvement in quality – apart from houses’ freedom to buy their own spirit since 1991 – has been the steady move away from the single variety block planting that was introduced during the 1960s and ’70s.

“They made it much more consistent but less interesting,” argued Guimaraens of that shift away from the Douro’s traditional field blend. “Ultimately we went down a direction of being safer – and we did become more consistent – but we ran the risk of losing that greatness.”

In a bid to “recover that complexity,” Guimaraens outlined his approach of planting “micro-blocks” of around six or seven varieties in a vineyard. “With today’s planting, in a year that one of the varieties misbehaves we can leave it out,” he explained.

While the ‘60s saw a narrowing of focus that favoured Tinta Roriz, Touriga Francesa and Tinta Barocca, Guimaraens currently works with around 12 varieties across the three houses in his remit.

He emphasised the importance of these different varieties to creating the individual character of each brand. “If all our Port was to be made with Touriga Nacional then how would you tell the difference between Taylor, Fonseca and Croft? Terroir has its limits,” Guimaraens argued.

Taylor's 1863 tawny Port, released earlier this year

Taylor’s 1863 tawny Port, released earlier this year

To illustrate this diversity, he noted that Touriga Francesa plays an influential role at Croft’s Quinta da Roêda, while the less widely planted Tinta de Barca adds an important element to Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas.

“Barca is very light so you might say ‘why would you want to use that in vintage Port?’,” remarked Guimaraens. “But if you use 10-15% when the other varieties are so ripe then it’s like Viognier and Syrah in the Rhône – it’s no contaminating, it’s there for a purpose.”

Turning back to the revival of the marketplace for high quality Port, Guimaraens welcomed in particular the growing international interest in tawny styles, driven by high profile recent releases such as Taylor’s Scion, this year’s 1863 vintage tawny release from the same house, Graham’s 1882 tawny and, most recently, an old single cask release from Sandeman.

Drawing a contrast with the need to mature and decant vintage Port, as well as its shorter lifespan once opened, Guimaraens observed: “Tawny Port is wonderfully accessible, easy drinking and unpretentious. It’s a Port where you don’t have to worry about the year – it’s just good. A 20-year-old tawny has been in touch with oxygen for 20 years so when you open it, it’s going to stay fresh for at least four weeks.”

As a result of these differences, Guimaraens identified two distinct but complementary opportunities for premium Port styles. “Vintage Port will always be something for the wine enthusiast and rightly so,” he maintained. “It’s very important to make sure that we keep vintage Port as one of the great wines of the world. When we talk about greatness, we’re referring to vintage; when we talk about consistency, that’s where tawny, ruby and LBV come in.”

Concluding, Guimaraens praised the “incredibly dynamic” nature of today’s Port industry, especially in relation to the recent activity with tawny styles, as he remarked: “We’ve been able to bring Port to the market in a way that was not happening before.”

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