Port in the East

Dow’s 1963 Vintage Port served at the Ritz Carlton, Shanghai, last November. Photo: Sofia Zhang.
Jorge Nunes, Symington Family Estates’ market manager for Asia and the Pacific, writes about what brought him to Hong Kong, what keeps him there, and what he thinks is the future for the Port trade in the region.

For as long as I can remember, I had always dreamed of visiting Asia. Its long distance from Portugal (my home country) in a time before the internet and fast travel, the mystery and myths that envoloped its culture and history, the different people, languages, foods, and habits – Asia pulled me in like nowhere else on Earth. So, it was a happy coincidence that nine years ago, the Symington Family approached me with the challenge of travelling to the Far-East for several months a year, with the objective of developing the Port market there. This was no easy task, considering how undeveloped the wine market was at the time, but it was definitely an exciting project!

Nine years have passed (already?), and it has been almost five years since my “travelling” became permanent. It was when both the Symingtons and myself thought it would make sense that someone from the company be stationed there permanently that I made Hong Kong my home.

Although I now live there, Asia  continues to be the most exhilarating part of the world but is now much more open, and known to, the West, whilst being incredibly easy to travel to and from. Luckily, the wine market has followed much the same path and I am now working in an environment very different than it was when I found it – its quite incredible how much has happened in only ten years!

Consumers are now more mature, open-minded, motivated to experiment, and above all, eager to learn more. The later being, in my opinion, one of the most important cultural differences between our part of the world. Personal interest in learning more about a specific subject, allied with a fierce competitive streak, makes many Asians extremely motivated to learn. Most Europeans, myself included, all too often have a tendancy to disregard learning in our daily lives.

So considering the aforementioned changes, how has the Port market evolved over the last ten years? Well, first of all, it’s important to define “Asia”. In the West we tend to consider Asia as one single body, when, of course, it is quite the contrary. It is instead a multitude of cultures, languages, foods, climates, habits, etc., and this means the way a market responds to a particular product or promotional campaign is entirely different from others, even when they are neighbouring countries.

Having said this, we have found that Port is beginning to find its place in similar moments of consumption and occasions across Asia. Apart from what we consider the “normal” dessert/after dinner consumption of Port – that without a doubt still exists – we also find more consumers beginning to socialise with Port on their tables, amongst friends and family, or in relaxed environments where they are not concerned about food-pairing.

This is, in my opinion, the right way to go.

Attempting to “force” our ways on the habits of others, i.e., “pair this with that” or “drink Port after dinner”, is a mistake that we make all too often do, and will inevitably lead to failure. The best path has been to educate, allow people to try the wine, and explain the context of Port in our culture while leaving it open for people to find their own space and context in which to enjoy Port. Fortunatly, this is now happening, albeit slowly.

From our experience of conducting many tastings throughout Asia, Tawny Port seems to be a firm favourite. The lack of tannins, smoothness, and ease with which they can be understood and appreciated, puts wines such as the 10 and the 20 years old Tawny Ports amongst the favourites almost every time. As an added plus, they also seem to pair quite well with many different cuisines: from the Shanghainese, to the Sichuanese and Cantonese, etc.

However, that’s not to say that other categories don’t also have their space. Vintage Port, Reserve Ruby and the easy-drinking Ruby & Tawny, all have established their roles in the development of this exciting region.

There’s still much to be done before Port becomes as popular in Asia as in the West, but the task that looked so daunting just a few years ago, is now starting to look a lot more achievable. No doubt, when that happens, Symington Family Estates will be seen as one of the pioneering companies in the region, and I, I hope, have contributed to that.

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