Port is fortified wine, which means winemakers add distilled alcohol to arrest fermentation, leaving behind residual sugars and adding complexity. A new law is changing what kind of alcohol they can add, which could lower production costs, but is also triggering anxiety over whether quality might be lowered as well.
Fortified wines can be made with a lot of different spirits. Another Portuguese wine, Madeira, employs distilled wine, though originally cane sugar liquor was used. In the case of Port wine, traditionally and by law, neutral grape spirit—basically unaged brandy—made from wine was used. The Port Wine Institute (IVDP) has to certify the brandy’s quality, but each Port house is allowed to buy its own.
In June, authorities changed the regulations, allowing the use of brandy made from press wine for the fortification. This brandy is distilled from wine squeezed from the leftover solid matter of wine production, mostly the skins and stems. Producers can also use wine racked off with the winemaking lees, the dead yeast cells that settle after fermentation. While both brandies are cheaper to produce, they can have an herbaceous, rustic character. Some winemakers worry that such flavors could damage Port's image as a premium product.
The change comes as a consequence of huge increases in wine brandy prices—from $4 to $18 per gallon from 2009 to 2013—that badly hurt producers' bottom lines, as brandy makes up 20 percent of all Port. The price increases were caused by multiple factors, including the end of European Union subsidies for distillation and an increased demand from Asian markets for European bulk wine.
Paul Symington, CEO of the Symington Group, said his company's Ports produced from the 2013 harvest will not include any press brandy, as the company decided to wait and see before experimenting with it. He says that it's very important for the IVDP to use the same quality standards for brandy, whether it's from wine or press wine. He also believes that no proper Port house would compromise quality by incorporating poor brandy.
Bento Amaral, head of the tasting office at IVDP, said his office will make sure brandy quality remains high. The same quality requisites are mandated in the new legislation. According to Amaral, the key factor is that the brandy is neutral and allows grapes to express their true origin and character.
But are those standards high enough? David Guimaraens, chief winemaker of the Fladgate Partnership, says not all IVDP-approved brandies meet his standards. "The issue is not about wine or grape origin for the brandy. This new legislation will demand an increased responsibility from IVDP in consistency and rigor for the approved brandies.” He believes the industry needs to change the approval process. “The tasting panels for brandy approval should include not only IVDP staff, but also tasters from production and commerce," he said.
Guimaraens argued that the rule change will mean little for top Port categories—dated tawny Ports, Vintage Ports and late-bottle Vintage Port (LBVs)—as every producer will make it a point to use the best possible brandy. Guimaraens believes that brandy quality is essential for Vintage Port to age for decades. “Only with top-quality brandy can young Vintage Port express its fruit and origin without undermining its longevity.” Instead, the move widens the separation between those wines and lower-priced Ports.
Symington said the best news for the Port sector is “the balance in stocks achieved after 15 years of collective effort, plus the great acceptance that Vintage Port 2011 received in every market.” With prices on the rise, Symington said he is now more confident in Port's future than he was five years ago.