The Changing Face of Port-style Wines in South Africa

Aug 26, 2021

For the longest time, Port-style wines have found themselves playing on the side-lines, relegated to the realms of a quaint cold-weather indulgence mostly enjoyed by – or in the company of – senior friends and family members. However, as fresh serving styles draw in a new generation, Port-style wines are enjoying something of a resurgence both locally and abroad.

This comes as no mean feat, considering that, as recently as 2016, The Drinks Business published an article reporting that fortified wine sales had halved in the preceding 10 years. Port had dropped by almost 30% as a category and Sherry was even worse. In large part this was triggered by increased sales duties, but from a market sentiment perspective, there was a definite sense that the new generation - millennials - just didn't get it.

Fast forward a year or three and the tune has changed. Articles like "Why Port is a Millennials drink" have started popping up, and so have new recipes for vibrant Port cocktails. also reports that global sales of fortified wines are tipped to grow by at least 10% between now and 2025. It also reports that South African revenue for port-styled wines is set to grow by 15% each year in that same time period.

For the most recent edition of the Vinimark webinar series, we gathered a panel of local and international Port experts to discuss this phenomenon. Chaired by wine journalist and creator of HanDrinksSolo, Jono Le Feuvre, the panel included Boets Nel, owner of De Krans Wines; Harry Symington, Communications and Brand Manager for Symington Family Estates; Rui Falcão, CEO & owner of MUST Fermenting Ideas, as well as author, wine journalist and wine consultant; Travis Kuhn, multi-award-winning bartender who has been competing in flaring and mixology competitions locally and globally for over 20 years; and Margaux Nel, winemaker at Boplaas, and chairperson for the Cape Port Producers Association.

What’s in a name?

Before getting into the more juicy details about its growing popularity, it’s important to take a moment or two to clarify any confusion around the rules and regulations for the use of the term ‘Port’.

As with ‘Champagne’, the name ‘Port’ is restricted by the European Unions’ Protected Designation of Origin guidelines and may only appear on bottles of wine originating from the north of Portugal, the Douro Valley in particular.

While on the cards since the early 2000s, the rule came into effect at the end of 2011 and resulted in the ‘silencing’ of the word Port on South African wine labels. What used to be known as a Cape Tawny Port prior to 2012, became a Cape Tawny and the same with Cape Ruby, Cape Vintage and Cape Pink.

Setting the South African scene

Of course, when it comes to the production of Port-style wines in South Africa, the Little Karoo region – Calitzdorp in particular - stands out head and shoulders above the rest.

According to Boets Nel, it was really a serendipitous series of events that led to the establishment of a thriving industry.

The whole Port-style industry in Calitzdorp started in 1973 and, largely, by mistake,” says Nel. “My father and his brother (Margaux’s grandfather) decided that they wanted to plant red grapes in Calitzdorp and identified Shiraz from the Swartland as a good option. They planted the vines and only after the first grapes started appearing, did they realise it was actually Tinta Barocca!”

They produced their first wine from these grapes in 1977 and started planting a number of other Portuguese varieties such as Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

Part of their success lies in the fact that the Calitzdorp terroir is, in many ways, similar to the Upper Douro with hot summers, cold winters and low rainfall. This, however, isn’t all that sets them apart from the rest. Nel adds that the local producers of Port-style wine are dedicated to crafting their products in a way that stays true to the wine-making traditions of the Douro Valley.

The tension between old and new

It is, in part, the upholding of these age-old traditions and the stories surrounding them that has appealed to millennials.

According to Harry Symington, who is part of the fifth and youngest generation of Symingtons to ply their trade as part of Symington Family Estates in Portugal, there has been a marked increase in the premium Port market over the past 10 years.

“One thing that has helped is a renewed emphasis on authenticity in terms of stories, in terms of the drinks that people are consuming and a focus on provenance,” he says. “This is something the Port trade has in spades. It has wonderful stories to tell.”

Going hand-in-hand with this, is the boom in tourism northern Portugal experienced prior to COVID-19, with many millennial and Gen-Z travellers discovering the magic of Porto and the Douro Valley first-hand.

“When people come here, they can see how it is consumed locally, as well as renewing that appreciation for a product that is produced in a very harsh environment,” Symington says.

Despite this appreciation and respect for provenance, this new generation of Port lovers aren’t necessarily satisfied with sipping it in the same way their grandparents do.

In the Douro Valley, Symington Family Estates have been leading the charge in producing styles of Port that lend themselves particularly well to the rising trend of Port cocktails.

“Graham’s Blend No 5 was our first white port that we’d specifically designed for mixing,” says Symington. “The response has been really positive, which has been great to see. We have our signature served with tonic, but we also encourage creativity among mixologists – professional and amateur alike.”

Travis Kuhn, South African expert mixologist currently based in Portugal, says that the refreshing simplicity of Port and tonic – as well as the lower level of alcohol than spirits – has made it a popular choice for after-work cocktail hour at street cafes across Europe.

“What’s nice about Port is that you can actually also enjoy it on its own,” he adds. “And, we’re finding more people drinking it neat, just like our grandparents did!”

According to Margaux Nel, we’re seeing a similar scenario playing itself out in terms of South African Port-style wines.

“Locally, we produce Cape Pink and Cape White that lend themselves particularly well to Port and tonic style drinks that have been quite popular for a few years now,” she says. “Ultimately, we want to introduce people to Port through more fun styles, and then encourage them to gravitate towards the more serious styles.”

Sealing the deal

Of course, as with any trend, the fear is that these cocktails will eventually lose their appeal and Port will once again be forgotten.

So, how can one ensure a longer-standing commitment from millennials and Gen-Z?

Rui Falcão suggests two main adjustments: a stronger emphasis on online marketing and sales as well as a drive to make wine, in general, and Port, in particular, more approachable to the uninitiated.

“We mustn’t forget that roughly 75% of Gen-Z rely on their smartphones for the entire web experience, including their online purchasing,” he says. “Unfortunately, a lot of producers forget that their website must be mobile-friendly and how important an enjoyable mobile experience is.”

In terms of making wine more approachable, Falcão notes that wine as a category can be quite intimidating to people – especially those who haven’t grown up in an environment where wine features strongly during mealtimes and celebrations as it does in Europe.

“It’s part of our job in the industry to make wine approachable,” he says. “We, too often, miss this step. We owe it to the people who are buying our wines to make buying and drinking wine as welcoming and enjoyable as possible.”

As a new generation representing their Port-producing families, both Symington and Nel agree that removing the stiffness around the product is essential.

“In a sense, we want to de-snobify Port and take some of the concern about ‘doing it right’ out of the equation,” says Symington.

Nel adds: “It’s encouraging to see how pleasantly surprised many people are when tasting fortified wines and finding that they aren’t nearly as sweet as expected. It just shows that a lot of education still has to happen in drinking Port and Port-style wines.”

Where to from here?

Encouraging news from all panellists is that consumers are embracing change and have welcomed the innovation in styles – be they white, pink, or even Espresso-flavoured port-style wines. The exciting cocktails now available appeal to a broad range of people – even those who may not be wine lovers. It’s an interesting balance of tradition and innovation, but it seems clear that Port and port-styled wines and cocktails have a bright future.

Ultimately, we would like to see a reintroduction of the drinking occasion, showcasing that there is a distinct place for Port. We love the idea of making port retro-relevant and believe this can translate well into brand imagery and campaign content used by Port producers.

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