When it comes to portraying wine on film (or TV), success has proven harder to come by than a good botrytized red wine. There's the bad, like Somm and Mondovino, as well as the boring, such as Uncorked (the Somm-based tv show), along with a host of other "meh" wine-themed flicks and TV flops.
But the real successes are few and far between, and often rather small in scale. I was a fan of A Year in Burgundy, which was followed by A Year in Champagne. Now comes writer-director David Kennard's A Year in Port.
Port is the world's oldest delineated wine appellation, we are told. Not surprisingly, it can come across as drab and stodgy today. Despite, or perhaps because of, its long history, Port struggles to keep up with modern-day wine drinkers. As if to hammer that home, the movie opens with a black-tie dinner in a dark wood–paneled clubby dining hall in England at a celebration for the Royal Navy featuring a toast to the queen.
But Port is also hedonistic and down-to-earth, and that is put forth quickly as well. The second scene takes place at a dinner in Portugal hosted by producer Dirk Niepoort in a decidedly more casual vein. From there, the film sways back and forth, from the likes of a blue-blazered group of men enjoying Port and Stilton in the office to the wild-haired Niepoort negotiating with a pair of gritty grapegrowers over a bistro-style lunch.
Former importer Martine Saunier reprises her role in the films, meandering through Portugal's Douro Valley, stopping in at vineyards and cellars to bring both the culture and process to the viewer. The film focuses on both prominent producers like the Symingtons and the Taylors (who combine to account for half the production of Port) as well as lesser-known houses such as Quinta dos Avidagos. We see how Port is a business, with competition among big personalities with contrasting philosophies, but also a culture—and they're all brought together by a boat race between the major Port houses that results in a comic traffic jam on the Douro itself.
Throughout, the history of Port and Portugal, along with their particularly strong connection to England, is laid out plainly and clearly. In addition, the economic difficulties facing Port's survival today and the debates over the importance of table wines and indigenous varieties are starkly exposed. A Year in Port provides a balanced presentation of where Port is today, rather than a polemically charged viewpoint of what Port should be. It's an honest movie, not a simply manipulative one.
Visually, the movie is professional grade and without gimmickry. Slow tracking shots and sharp-edged imagery evoke the time it takes to produce Port while giving the steep vineyard slopes and extreme weather of the Douro Valley extra gravitas. There's no amateurish slow-motion shattering wineglass to connect disparate scenes here.
Whether you're familiar with Port or not, the conviviality of wine runs just as strong in it as it does in Napa Chardonnay or Bordeaux. This film will appeal to novice and serious wine drinkers alike. It will rekindle for some and ignite for others an interest in and love for one of the world's great wines. And that's what a wine movie should do.