Time to fortify

Adapt to survive

So, port isn’t in trouble, but it might be if it doesn’t adapt. “Regulations in the region are some of the strictest in the wine world and it will take time to adjust”, the Fladgate CEO says. “We still operate under a regulatory base that was outdated in 1983. It is failing to reach its potential and it needs to be liberalised. 

“It will happen because the market ultimately requires it.” Bridge says that people will resist this, in part because they don’t like change, but ultimately it will happen because the market demands it. “It will take some time to adjust,” Bridge says. “People know the tanker needs to move and have decided which way it needs to move but it will take some time because it is a big tanker. Inevitably though, it will happen.”

Progress has been made in other ways. “We have come a long way,” George Sandeman, seventh generation of The House of Sandeman, insists. “When I first started out I repeatedly had the same heated discussion with people about what to call port. It took a long time to get over that.” 

This argument might have been settled but there are still challenges. “Particularly in the UK, a challenge is to change the image of port. People think of port as seasonal, like Christmas pudding or turkey. Normally people drink port at the end of a meal because that’s how they were shown how to drink it. It is port’s fault: it’s how we told people to drink it,” Sandeman says. “It is about getting people to taste port again. People have this concept that port is very sweet but it isn’t, well Sandeman isn’t.”

Gonzalo Pedrosa, CEO at Sogevinus agrees. “The image of the category is very conservative and at times old-fashioned. Port is often seen as an after dinner wine with lots of rituals associated with it, which can discourage younger consumers. We think there is an opportunity to develop this category and introduce new consumers by positioning port differently.” 

In the UK, people are beginning to see port differently. “They are starting to understand that tawny isn’t just a sweet wine to be drunk at Christmas,” Sandeman says. “The US is much more advanced though,” he adds. So much so that Sandeman started promoting 20-year-old in the US in ’88 or ’89. “And people got the concept,” Sandeman says. “It will take time for port’s diversity to be embraced everywhere.” 

Open market 

Belgium is an important market for the 225-year-old brand. France is also doing reasonably well, according to Sandeman but he admits the French market is changing a lot. “But all of the markets have changed a lot,” he confesses. In terms of developing markets, Austria is important because it is premium, Sandeman says. “We’ve always done well in Japan and Canada is a good market, but it is all monopoly.” 

Asia is starting to develop for the port house and Sandeman thinks the market will come back after the
“predictable overheating with China.” The brand also has a scattering through South America but it’s reputation for volatility is an apt one, Sandeman says.