The strange fortified wine boom

For years, the finest minds among producers, marketers and retailers have been trying to find ways of getting fortified wine sales moving. It turned out that all that was required was a global pandemic. Robert Mason reports

October 2020

The human condition is a curious thing. We seek familiarity and comfort in times of change. Old films and favourite albums are rediscovered in search of snug nostalgia. And sometimes, the rehashing of thoughts, feelings and flavours leads to the discovery of hidden gems.

The nature of the global wine industry has fundamentally and significantly changed. “Adaptability” has become a moniker of success and it seems the old fortified guard is a lot more adaptable (dare I say modern) than we thought.

Focusing on the “big three” traditional fortified wine types, it’s becoming evident that consumer habits are evolving.

Sherry has shaken off its Saga image, Madeira is not only for cooking and port is for life, not just for Christmas.

“We have seen a real surge in sherry sales since lockdown … and this is still continuing, even after the on-trade has started to open up again,” says Alison Easton, marketing director of Gonzalez Byass UK.

The rise in this category has been significant. Tio Pepe has been the star performer, with en rama sales the best they have ever been since the style was created 11 years ago. “Interestingly, the growth has been across all styles of sherry,” Easton continues. And the facts speak for themselves: in July, CEO Martin Skelton reported total sherry sales to be up a staggering 37% from March, compared to the same period in 2019 (source: Nielsen ScanTrack).

A similar progression can be seen in the largely seasonal port market. Joāo Vasconcelos, head of sales for Symington Family Estates, also reports unexpected gains. “The truth is, the category performed in the most resilient and incredible way … so much that the last Port Wine Institute statistics [end of July 2020] show port progressing by 3% in the UK, with the premium categories holding their position versus 2019,” he says.

As other sectors in the alcohol industry can no doubt attest, this has been driven by the increase in online sales and through the support of local communities for indies.

Vasconcelos cites Nielsen stats that point to a volume and value sales increase for port outside the usually all-important festive season, with little evidence of consumers trading down. Colheita, premium tawnies and vintage styles have all over-performed.

The Douro Valley (Photo by Andrew McLeod on Pexels.com)

Making a modern Madeira market
Madeira is often the most maligned of the trio. Although annual wine exports to the UK (up to the end of August) fell 18% in volume and 29% in value, the resilient volcanic island has seen encouraging signs of support from British consumers.

Chris Blandy, CEO of the Madeira Wine Company & Blandy’s, says: “We have seen 3-year-old wine sales through the multiple channel grow against the same period in 2019, and online performing substantially better as well.” The important thing to acknowledge here is the consumer awareness of Madeira – something that is quietly brewing.

“Our colheita and vintage sales through the high-end retailers are performing better than expected and our new releases have helped raise interest for Madeira,” Blandy continues. “The biggest increasing trend is the use of Madeira wine in food pairings.

“Sommeliers are leading the way in introducing Madeira wine to their clients, allowing the retail channel to benefit as clients want to then replicate their experience at home.” Which could not be more applicable than now. Living rooms have become bars and dining rooms are the Pirelli restaurants of the nation. Are we to expect a surge on Sercial?

Advertisement

The future of fortified
Perhaps the most interesting trend amongst all styles of fortified wine is how each category is proving its versatility.

Cocktails and long drinks are the medium of choice for both white port and fino sherry, with the occasional Tinta Negra flashing its wares. With the casual £100 blow-out nights currently on hold, the roaring twenties cocktail cabinet has made a jolly resurgence. The good old days of Daisies and Fixes re-imagined with white port, fino, manzanilla and half-oxidised half-anaerobic palo cortado. Or, simply a reserve ruby, amontillado or Verdelho served over half a ton of ice.

“As the market for spritzes and long drinks grows, we are seeing both port and sherry being drunk in different ways,” says Alison Easton of GBUK.

With the success over the past couple of years of RTDs, fortified wine is ideally situated to capitalise on this trend. GBUK has Croft Twist as its prime offering, for years available in 75cl glass bottles. More recently the brand has moved to the more sustainable and portable canned offering, so popular with the eco-conscious customer of today. Perhaps we will soon see similar port and madeira alternatives?

As we move ever closer to the Christmas season, the displays could well have some new festive fortifieds to offer, in a variety of guises.

However, it goes without saying that merchants should never under-estimate the power of premium. Is now the time to take advantage of the increased collective consumer sentiment for nostalgia? Those bottles seeking a place on the drinks trolley this December include Blandy’s bi-centenial release of the 1920 Heritage Collection Madeira, Graham’s 1940 colheita tawny and even the Alfonso vinos finitos 40-year-old oloroso.

In this modern age, traditional prestige products are still valued. In the first part of this century we have seen a boom in beer, followed by the glut of gin. Will we now see a flurry of fortifieds?
Old becomes modern and fortified becomes fresh. Nostalgia and tradition for some and a new adventure for others. Dressed up or dressed down, these are wonderful wines.

Advertisement

Sudden comfort: the appeal of fortifieds in uncertain times

Andrew Hawes of Mentzendorff has watched port and sherry sales climb over the summer – and urges indies to be ready for a Christmas boom

Fortifieds have been seeing some unseasonably strong growth, according to Andrew Hawes, MD of Mentzendorff, whose brands include Taylor’s, Fonseca, Bodegas Hildalgo-La Gitana and Henriques & Henriques.

A glance at the company order book confirms it. But Hawes has also been keeping an eye on Nielsen data (admittedly fixated on the mults) as well as Amazon activity. “On both of those fronts, fortified wine has had a pretty extraordinary time since lockdown,” he says.

“We started to see searches and sales of white port going up. At first, I thought that was the weather and then the weather got a little bit worse and it just sort of carried on.”

White port had been making glacial progress in the UK market until recently but has suddenly been discovered en masse by thousands of consumers. “Maybe people are thinking about it as being a lower-alcohol alternative to a gin and tonic,” Hawes suggests, noting how popular the style is with a mixer.

“But at the same time, the parts of port that after Easter tend to go quiet, like LBV … they were just firing on all cylinders as well,” he adds. “White port in percentage terms is off the chart, but at the same time there’s strong double-digit growth for your classic LBVs and aged tawnies which are not traditional summer drinks – and we hadn’t been promoting them.”

Perhaps it’s simply that fortified wines provide a kind of nostalgic comfort in difficult times.
“We’ve always known that in times of economic crisis there’s something comforting about fortified wine and sales do tend to pick up,” says Hawes. “There’s a degree of warmth and comfort around fortified wine.

“Port just hasn’t had its traditional summer lull – it’s going already – and if this continues, we could be on for a really big festive fortified season,” he adds, urging indies to stock up on a wide range of styles, including gift packs.

“People are largely going to be at home and looking for a sense of warming in dark days, physically and metaphorically.”