Grab port by the horns

That's how Miguel Côrte-Real, a former bullfighter, changed the face of viticulture in the Douro valley, the home of port. Christian Davis meets the man behind Cockburn's
27 August, 2008
Page 26 

Miguel C˘rte-Real, like so many involved in the port industry, dresses more like a traditional city gent than most Englishmen let alone city slickers. Dapper in a pin-stripe suit, what looks like a Jermyn Street shirt and tie and Church's shoes, you would think that he works for Prince Charles - if it wasn't for his dark, obviously south European looks.

The 54-year-old is managing director and winemaker for Cockburn's, the port house now owned by the American drinks giant, Beam Global Spirits & Wine. The brand is one of a small clutch that is holding the line for the overall fortified wine sector. While sherry and Vermouth continue to decline, the likes of Cockburn's, Taylor's, Graham's, Fonseca, Warre and Dow's - premium ports - flourish in countries such as the US, Canada and the UK.

C˘rte-Real is crucial to Cockburn's. While the brand has continued to hold sway - it has more than 20 per cent of UK sales, way ahead of its nearest rival, the fact is that it has been neglected. In the deal that carved up Allied-Domecq, it was one of the raft of brands in flat or declining markets that Pernod Ricard handed to Beam's parent, Fortune Brands, which made up the numbers in the takeover.

Since then Fortune has sold Cockburn's vineyards and wineries to the Symington Group, owners of Graham's, Warre's and Dow's with a 20-year contract to supply the fortified wine necessary for Cockburn's. But more of that later.

While all these events have been going on behind the scenes, C˘rte-Real represents continuity. For many in the trade and for port aficionados, he is the brand. With port's rich history of interconnecting families, you'd be mistaken to think that C˘rte-Real with his elegant name and sophisticated demeanor was of Douro aristocracy . In reality, his mother came from Lisbon, his father was in textiles and the family grew up in the region between Vinho Verde to Portugal's north and the Douro.

As a child he helped pick grapes and tread them in the lagares but at high school, the young C˘rte-Real was caught between agronomy and architecture. What ultimately became a plus for the port industry, was that young Miguel was not being the model student. He was asked to go and this left him a couple of modules short of an architectural set, so off to agronomy he went.

But not without adding another skill as C˘rte-Real became a Portuguese bullfighter, a "Forado" . At this point, the slightly embarrassed global brand ambassador for Cockburn's is at pains to point out that the Portuguese do not kill the bull after the duel (perhaps to dispel any thoughts of action by animal rights activists ). They, in fact, conduct the joust on horseback and once the fight is over the exhausted and confused bull is corralled by eight men and taken back to the fields - probably to spend the rest of his life wondering what it was all about.

Asked how he got into bullfighting, C˘rte-Real disarmingly replies: "I was 18 or 19. I just wanted to impress the girls. The bulls weigh 600 kilos so, like a big wave, you can't stop them." Which brings up other activities: C˘rte-Real introduced parasailing to Portugal; he is into "old car racing" and owns an old iconic E-Type Jaguar and raced a Triumph TR6; loves scuba diving; and the odd set or two of tennis.

But back to the serious stuff, C˘rte-Real studied agrarian science at the Escola Superior Agrßria de Coimbra. He then went off and did marketing and advertising before joining Cockburn Smithes, as it was then in 1978, as production and viticulture manager.

He planned and managed what was then pioneering block planting of the vineyards in the Vilarica valley. The company needed more fruit to meet growing demand and the valley in the Upper Douro was largely unexploited. He got new land at Quinta dos Atayde and began planting in 1979. This was a time of great social unrest in Portugal.

In 1980, C˘rte-Real went to study clonal selection and symptomatology - the detection and indexing of vine viruses - at Montpellier. This was a seminal moment for the ex-bullfighter and para-sailor. He returned to the Douro, where even to this day, a great deal of the viticulture is still basic due to small holders' lack of knowledge, education and commitment.

He went on to do a post graduate degree, majoring in soil and canopy management and in 1993 went to Australia to do another post grad degree, this time in oenology. The most recent project has been the replanting of Cockburn's flagship estate, Quinta dos Canais, where the production of premium quality grapes has increased tenfold and the winery was rebuilt in 1996.

Nowadays, C˘rte-Real spends about 50 per cent of his time travelling. He loves cities such as London ("feels like home staying at the Travellers' club in Pall Mall"), Vancover ("fantastic"), Chicago ("the architecture"), Sydney, Rio, Rome ("very much") and Marrakesh, among others.

When asked where he doesn't like, C˘rte-Real pauses, considers the ramifications and blurts out: "Boston: not very interesting". He then spends the next few minutes trying to back track. Too late.

With Symington in charge of the vineyards, C˘rte-Real works closely with the family's winemaker, Peter Symington. He sees the merger as "the best vineyards in the Douro (Cockburn's) with the best wineries. C˘rte-Real is the gatekeeper, the final arbiter of the essence of Cockburn's, but he obviously has great admiration and respect for Peter Symington and says it is "easy to work with him".

At the moment the company has unveiled a new look for the brand with a taller bottle and squarer shoulders. The white and tawny ports come in clear 50cl bottles. Nothing groundbreaking, but port doesn't do blue bottles, flashing lights and dancing girls. Nor do most men by the time they get to "35 -plus" - the target market. ?