DOURHO VALLEY, PORTUGAL, December 2009
One of the traditions of the Christmas festival is the bottle of port, that fortified wine used to wash down mince pies and Stilton cheese. But is it still like that? And given all the traditions surrounding port, from the Royal Family to crusty clubs – who exactly drinks port nowadays – particularly given the recession. Port comes from one of the oldest demarcated wine growing areas in the world in northern Portugal where Humphrey Hawksley went to see how the port trade was faring.
Paul Symington, walking through his hillside vineyard, at ease with the land, his steps confident on the damp, sloping ground, cuts a figure not unlike a Roman Centurion. He stops to talk to his men pruning the vines. He confers with his cassero or farm manager. He consults his young viticulturist about the quality of the soil. Then he casts his eyes over the estate, where mist clouds the view of the Dourho River below.
“The Romans dressed differently, of course. And you wouldn’t have driven here,” he said. “But apart from that, what you see in these vineyards now hasn’t changed since the Romans were here.”
Paul’s family have been working the hills here in northern Portugal for more than 300 years. He has an instinctive sense of history and tradition, but he knows things have to change if his business is to survive.
The business is port wine and if one product is getting an image make-over it is this deep-red tipple that conjures up images of huge wooden barrels in cobwebbed cellars; of toasts at regimental dinners; of strange table rituals with crystal decanters and crusty conversations among red-faced colonels in where the women have been asked to leave the room.
Paul is thinking very hard about his future. “There’s marvellous ceremony attached to port,” he says. ” At state banquets the Queen always makes the toast with port, and we don’t want to loose that. But we all live differently now. We don’t have wine cellars. We eat around the kitchen table. We don’t dress for dinner every night, and we have to adapt our markets. We absolutely have to get more young people drinking port…” He pauses to sweep his hand around the vineyards, “Otherwise this whole valley will revert back to scrub.”
And it hasn’t been scrub for a long time. Every year, the Romans ripped off their sandals to tread the Douro Valley grapes pretty much as some of Paul’s harvest is trod by villagers today. The rest is done by computerised machines that simulate human feet.
The area itself is one of the oldest wine growing regions in the world – officially demarcated back to 1756 – a century before Bordeaux. And port itself was created – almost by mistake. To stop wine going bad on its sea-journey to England, British traders fortified it with brandy. The new taste and extra kick was an immediate hit with those who could afford it.
The Douro River runs down to the town of Oporto where hoardings with names such as Sandeman, Taylors and Dow, dominate the skyline – showing how the British establishment took Port wine and made it their own.
Over lunch in a small village restaurant, it became clear that Paul need look no further than his own farm manager, Antonio, if he want to further expand his clientele far outside Britain’s palaces and clubs.
“Antonio,” I asked. “Do you decant port and insist on it being passed around the table to the right?”
As Paul translated, Antonio’s weather-beaten face broke into a huge grin. What on Earth was I talking about, he asked. Paul clarified and Antonio threw back his head, roaring with laughter.
“He doesn’t know about these quirky English habits,” translated Paul. “He makes port, puts it in the glass and drinks it.”
Antonio finished his glass, as if to make his point and then insisted on picking Paul up on another point. “And here the women drink it just the same as the men,” said Paul. “They certainly wouldn’t leave the table or the men wouldn’t be allowed to sleep within the four walls of their own home.”
Back in Britain, in the heart of the recession-gripped City of London, Tim Stanley-Clarke, one of Britain’s leading port experts, was keen to add his bit to Port’s changing image. He arrived with a smart decanter, a vintage bottle from 1983 and a pair of tights.
With jazz piano playing in the background, he flipped open a pocket corkscrew. “Forty eight per cent of port is drunk by females and forty four per cent by people under the age of 45,” he said easing out the cork.
“I love it,” chipped in 23-year-old Judith Hurrell, there with friends, sharing a bottle in an ice bucket. Behind us two young women executives each had a glass while working on their laptops.
Tim stretched the tights over the mouth of a plastic funnel, dropped it into the decanter and began pouring.
“There you go,” he said. “No ceremony here and perfectly filtered through nylons. House port sold by the glass. The days of boring old men with expensive complexions, falling asleep over their port in leather chairs – they’re long gone.”
Well – back in Portugal, Antonio had known that all along.