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Port is for life, not just for Christmas

With sales of fortified wines in decline, Port brands need to broaden their horizons if they are to survive

Rowena Curlewis Denomination

For many households, the festive season is the only time of year that Port makes an appearance. Sales of Port have declined by more than a quarter since 2005, forcing the Wine Spirits Trade Association (WSTA) to kickstart a campaign called ‘Keep Passing the Port’ in order to prevent the category from shrinking to an unsustainable point. 

The UK has a long association with this fortified wine – it has been shipped here from Portugal for hundreds of years, and the rituals created around it are deeply rooted in tradition. How many drinks demand to be passed to the left, or that, when the decanter stops moving, the inattentive guest is asked if he knows the Bishop of Norwich? It’s bonkers, it’s British, but why are sales in such decline? 

Well, the reasons are numerous. Arguably, these baffling traditions no longer have a place in modern society. People fear getting them wrong and perhaps abstain to avoid embarrassment. Port is also associated with an older, largely male demographic. 

There are more subtle reasons, too, including category complexity. Ruby, tawny, LBV, colheita, vintage – all presented in a dark ‘sea of sameness’ on shelf, with ubiquitous designs in white, black and gold.  

Look back just 25 years, however, at Warre’s Otima, and we have a brand that dared to say, ‘It doesn’t have to be like this.’ It caused a revolution by introducing a new look that sought to rejuvenate Port’s image and boost its presence in the main markets. It showcased its versatility as an all-year-round, anytime drink for women and men. 

The clean, modern design was a key contributor to Otima’s success; its clear, slim, elegant glass bottle showcasing the product. It proved that it is possible to do things differently and turn a category on its head. It was disappointing, though, that no other Port brand followed in Otima’s footsteps by further disrupting the market, and so the momentum to change perceptions around Port was lost.

So, what can be done to reinvigorate the category today?

Go younger

To recruit a more youthful drinker, Port brands need to stop languishing in the past and ask how they can be more relevant in the modern world. Other categories have managed it. Church’s footwear, for example, a quintessentially English brand, leveraged its reputation for craftsmanship and tradition to appeal to a completely new, younger target audience. Millennials are, after all, searching out brands that are crafted and authentic, and Port has this in spades. 

The redesign of Dow’s Port is another bold move in the right direction: a more contemporary approach, using gold-screen printing and intricate labels positioned on the bottle with a modern tension. If you look different you will be seen differently, and Dow’s experienced that exact reaction when it presented its new designs at ProWein 2018. 

If other Port houses reinterpreted their longstanding credentials in a way that appealed to a new audience, without alienating current consumers, the category would start moving in a positive direction.

Broaden your horizons

Summon to mind a typical Port drinker and most likely it’ll be a man (maybe even Father Christmas…). So, making Port feel less masculine would surely broaden its appeal. Packaging that disrupts the category with a more unisex focus would prompt consumers to think differently about Port. 

A more modern approach would also help shed Port’s stuffy, old-fashioned image. Go back to Warre’s Otima: its clear, elegant bottle showcased the product in a universally acceptable way, which was a brilliant tactic and made the drink appeal to men and women. Dow’s, too, combines masculine and feminine design cues in its new aged tawnies, helping to create a luxurious yet gender-inclusive image.

Innovate the category

Innovation is another approach that could help Port attract new consumers. Graham’s large-bottle format for on-trade has been successful in attracting sommelier and guest attention, thus encouraging trial. Tourists in the city of Porto seem to be enjoying white Port and tonic, so perhaps this is another direction that could help reinvent Port for some consumers.

There is so much potential for Port, however, if producers don’t try to recruit younger drinkers and wider audiences into the category, then they are facing an imminent demise. It is that serious. Port has a key role to play in the dining experience, especially when looking at the recent resurgence and popularity of postprandial dessert wines.And if we – brand owners and brand creators – can get it right, then the future will be rosy. Or even ruby.

17 December 2018