Fortified wine in restaurants: Fresh o-port-unities

While it is vital for producers to present Port in a modern light, they must also take care to preserve its unique and quirky traditions, writes Gabriel Stone.

The Frozen Pink Festival cocktail

The Frozen Pink Festival cocktail, made with Croft Pink, watermelon and raspberries

When was the last time you ordered Port in a restaurant? Anyone in the trade should be suitably switched on to the delights of this great drink but the fortified category as a whole can all too easily fall by the wayside for reasons of budget or sheer saturation.

That’s certainly not a problem restricted to the on-trade, but this sector has a particularly vital role to play in the Port houses’ ongoing mission to reinvigorate their enviable history for the modern era.

After all, a good restaurant thrives on the ability to present familiar ingredients in an original way without overstepping the mark into discomfort or gimmickry. With its depth of flavour and stylistic range sitting alongside an all too often rather superficial sense of familiarity, Port is a perfect weapon for the thoughtful sommelier – or even chef – looking to thrill their audience.

A FRESH PERSPECTIVE

Against this backdrop it’s pleasing to see so many signs of energetic effort on the quintas’ part to find a suitably contemporary role for their product in today’s restaurant scene, whether that’s devising fresh occasions and food matches or playing on the drink’s sense of occasion by presenting it in an eyecatching way.

“People in the UK still have a very strong perception of Port and a box where the category fits,” comments Tania Oliveira, communication manager for Sogevinus Fine Wines, home to the Kopke, Burmester, Calem and Barros brands. “Our aim is to make this box bigger,” she continues. “In fact, to break the box completely.”

Crucial to convincing people to look at Port in a different light is that first step of actually getting the product into people’s glasses. Charlotte Symington, senior brand manager at John E Fells, UK agent for her family’s extensive portfolio, describes the on-trade as a “great platform” for doing just that. However, she acknowledges the category’s reliance on an enthusiastic front of house team to support what should after all be a nice additional spend for their own business.

“It does get forgotten about at the end of a meal unless you’re offered it,” Symington notes.

While taking on-trade teams out to the Douro for the total immersion experience is an established and unbeatable way to create long-lasting ambassadors, that’s clearly not practical for every account.

Giovanni Ferlito decants Port at The Ritz

Giovanni Ferlito decants Port at The Ritz

Andrew Hawes, managing director of The Fladgate Partnership’s UK agent, Mentzendorff, stresses the need for a more active approach closer to home.

“In general the UK on-trade has yet to realise the full potential of Port but that should not be taken as a criticism,” he remarks. “It is up to the brands to lead the way with new initiatives and we have found many willing partners by taking this approach.”

For all the drive to present Port in a modern light, Hawes is careful to emphasise the enormous value of this drink’s rich heritage and traditions. “The on-trade remains a vehicle for presenting not only new contemporary ideas but also for re-presenting traditions that are in danger of being forgotten and which to millennials may be more relevant than for previous generations,” he observes. In practice that means dragging Port off the back pages of the wine list and onto the cocktail menu while at the same time keeping alive the art of port tongs, proper decanting and entertaining yarns about the Bishop of Norwich. In the right hands, these oldschool attributes can engage rather than alienate today’s bright young things who, after all, are busy lapping up other ‘retro’ artefacts, from Pashley bicycles to vinyl and real ale.

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