Christmas is always a bumper time for sherry and port, but with innovation bringing in more consumers, the upcoming festive season is promising to be particularly bountiful. Rob Brown reports.

Christmas and port go together like British summertime and sunburn. And everyone knows that sherry is a certain saint’s favourite tipple as he’s doing his rounds on Christmas Eve. So, after a bumper year in the off-trade for fortified wines, driven in part by the collapse of the on-trade under lockdown, the omens for the coming festivities are good for both.

Port imports rose by 10.5% by volume and 2.4% by value in 2020, making the UK the third largest port market by volume and the second largest by value [IVDP]. Supermarket sherry sales surged by 13% in volume and 15% in value in 2020, according to Nielsen [year to December 26, 2020]. Wine merchants report continued growth over the past year.

Now, fortifieds are gearing up for a healthy festive season. So, what’s in store for Britain’s second Covid Christmas? How will things be different this year? And what challenges do suppliers and retailers need to overcome?

“Port and sherry are as much a part of Christmas as Quality Street,” says Andrew Hawes, managing director of wine supplier Mentzendorff, which distributes La Gitana sherry and the Fladgate Partnership’s Taylor’s, Croft and Fonseca ports. “We had a solid Christmas last year and we are confident sales will be strong again this year, with people visiting their nearest and sending gifts.”
Mentzendorff will be running a digital campaign to support Taylor’s for the fourth year running, and is offering a full range, from the bestselling LBV to a selection of aged tawny, white and vintage ports. For more adventurous drinkers, Hawes tips Fonseca’s Terra Prima organic port and La Gitana’s unfiltered En Rama sherry as wines to look out for.

“One of the key characteristics of sherry and port is that the market has always been predominantly off-trade, but the on-trade has been important for seeding cool stuff because people feel that it is safe to experiment with the guidance of a sommelier,” says Hawes. “But with fewer people drinking in the on-trade, they’re becoming more adventurous with their drinks choices at home.”

This growing sense of adventure is also noted by Harry Symington, brand manager for Symington Family Estates, a fifth-generation family port producer with a portfolio that includes Cockburn’s, Dow’s and Graham’s. “One of the most important trends shaping the market is the emergence of a new generation of port drinker,” says Symington.

“They are not defined by their age, but by how and when they drink port. Fuelled, in part, by the growth in tourism from the UK to Porto and the Douro, people are learning more about the different styles of port and how to drink them. When they return home, they are buying bottles of port and introducing these new traditions to their friends and family.”

In July, Symington’s launched Graham’s Blend No 12, an unoaked ruby port that it claims is just as at home when mixed with tonic over ice as it is served straight up. It also launched Graham’s Blend No 5 white port in 2019, which was created specifically for mixing with tonic.

“Our approach has been to demonstrate the versatility of port and how the different styles are suitable for different drinking occasions throughout the year – from a chilled glass of tawny port after lunch on a warm summer’s day, to a white port and tonic cocktail as an aperitif, and a warming ruby port in the winter months,” says Symington.

“We do this through our brand communication and when people come to visit us and have a tasting at our cellars in Porto and wineries in the Douro. We see that people exposed to different ways of drinking port in Portugal then return to the UK and often continue these new behaviours at home.”

With tapas bars and restaurants off limits for much of the past year, more and more drinkers have been seeking guidance from independent and specialist retailers, says Hawes. “Something that’s really easy to miss, because it’s not captured by Nielsen, is that independent retailers have grown significantly in the past year,” he adds.

“For us, independent retail is growing even more quickly than online. It’s really interesting what’s happening – these retailers are adopting an on/off-trade hybrid business model that is transforming independent retail.

“They are putting on events and running websites with local deliveries and people are loving the service they get. People are discovering local wine businesses.”

In turn, they’re finding great fortified wine, and that no longer just means dusty bottles of vintage port and sherry. For example, July saw the launch of Cockburn’s Tails of the Unexpected, a trio of ports that sound more like Bond women than fortified wines – Ruby Soho, Tawny Eyes and White Heights – which Cockburn’s bills as “experimental, daring and without limitations”.

Sherry is also being reappraised. “Far from being a high-alcohol drink to consume at the end of the meal, as people readily perceive sherry and port, we have been single-minded in our aim to make sherry a staple of the aperitif scene instead,” says Xeco Wines co-founder Alexa Davies on launching a duo of sherry-based Spritz RTDs in August. “Fino sherry is a brilliant lower-alcohol alternative to the classic G&T.”

Xeco Fino is flavoured with fig and prickly pear and the Amontillado line contains Sicilian orange and bitters. Both products come in 25cl cans and have the company’s namesake sherry as their base.

In June, Cockburn’s launched its Portonic white port and tonic premix, a month after Taylor’s claimed to be the first to market with its Chip Dry & Tonic RTD. That launch was quickly followed by sister brand Croft’s Pink & Tonic RTD, a premix made with rosé port that is claimed to be attracting a younger set into fortified wine.

“More people are coming into the market because of products like these,” says Hawes at Mentendorff. “White port is growing exponentially, albeit from a small base, even without any huge impact from the major multiples. We put the Taylor’s cans in the market and immediately had a great reception from the independents and smaller online players. It just works.”

The hope that port and sherry’s associations could one day stretch to the great British summer may be a long way from being realised, but growing distribution suggests that more drinkers are looking for alternatives to the G&T throughout the year, rain or shine, sleet or snow. Mentzendorff has high hopes for its Croft and Taylor’s RTDs this Christmas, as drinkers look for less potent long drinks.

There’s just one off note in the outlook, however: the ongoing logistical crisis facing anyone who’s trying to ship products into the UK, resulting from the HGV driver shortage and the explosion in the cost of shipping containers caused by the pandemic. Symington says he is now having to “account [for shipping delays] in our planning” and Hawes characterises the issue as “the challenge of the moment”.

He adds: “The market is really strong. People have disposable income and they are coming out to play a bit more in the on-trade now. The challenge is stock and supply that’s taking up all of our mind space and all our conversations with customers. Brexit made everyone think they had to hold more stock and allow more time to move through the supply chain. They thought it would be a short-term impact, but it’s slowly got worse.”

Best stock up now then. Or Saint Nick and fortifieds’ new fans might end up missing their Christmas tipples.