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.

Share this post

A Year in the Vineyards, March 2017

Frost on the vine in the vineyards of the Douro
Frost on the vine. Photograph: Fernando Alves
Miguel Potes, no stranger to the ups and downs of a year in the vineyards, talks about winter pruning, low temperatures, and a lot of hard work.

The winter pruning of the 2016/2017 viticultural year was largely concluded in our vineyards by the third week of February, a little later than usual due to the fact that in many of our properties in the Cima Corgo sub-region of the Douro work only began during the first half of December. Typically, winter pruning would be well underway during the month of November, but this year’s delay can be explained by the longer than usual vegetative cycle of the vines over the preceding season (2015/2016), which meant that after the vintage the vineyards were still relatively lush and the onset of leaf-fall was delayed by approximately two weeks. The above-average temperatures during the first half of November accentuated this further.

The relatively late start to the 2016 harvest also inevitably influenced the delay in winter pruning. In some of our principal vineyards such as Quinta dos Malvedos, picking during the harvest was halted on two occasions to work around some (beneficial) rain that arrived during the middle of September. Some of the finest grape varieties, including the Touriga Nacional, only began to be picked from September 26th, which meant that the harvest finished quite late, well into October.

Our pruning teams did not have to contend with much rain; in fact over the winter the lack of rain has given us some cause for concern, the shortfall being approximately 40% when compared to the 30-year-average. However, they did face very cold conditions, especially through January, which records showed as being the third coldest January of the last 30 years. The lowest temperature was registered at Quinta do Ataíde’s weather station on January 19th: 5.6°C below zero, which underlines the continental climate of the easternmost part of the Douro region.

Fortunately our pruners are equipped with electric secateurs, which not only increase productivity but also make the task much less physically demanding. They do, however, have to face the whims of winter weather for weeks on end, not to mention having to negotiate the steepness of the terrain, which really doesn’t make their task any easier.

Winter pruning of the vines is essential for their rejuvenation in the spring and one of its prime objectives is to influence the following season’s yield by controlling the number of buds and therefore those that will potentially burst and give rise to the desired number of bunches of grapes per vine.  Because it is so labour-intensive and time-consuming it accounts for around a third of the annual costs in our vineyards.

Electric secateurs notwithstanding, winter pruning in our vineyards is still an entirely manual task. It is one of the single most important periods of the year in the lifecycle of our vines for it is at this time that decisions are made that will determine the individual future of every single vine and have a significant impact on the success of this year’s crop. During the moments the pruner spends on each vine his or her decisions influence its growth over the new vegetative cycle, its fate quite literally in their hands. Manual pruning requires great skill, knowledge and experience if it is to be carried out successfully and one of its great advantages, as opposed to mechanical pruning, is the precision it offers given that each vine is tended with individual care, one of the indispensable prerequisites for the production of the finest possible wines.


Share this post