Iberia’s fortified wine regions are, without exception, in the throes of chaotic upheaval in some form or another.
The peninsula, with its enviable geographic situation jutting into the Atlantic, has long been the epicenter of fortified winemaking. Ages ago, the odyssey-like journeys across the globe from these shores necessitated hearty, durable wines. Fortification with distilled spirit was the answer, and these aristocrats of Portugal and Spain successfully captured the hearts and palates of global wine drinkers for centuries.
The glory days are long gone, though. The ever-fickle pendulum of fashion has combined with previous eras of lower quality and ongoing anthropological transition to relegate these once-grand icons of vinous lore to misunderstood — or even entirely unknown — footnotes within the mind of today’s average wine consumer.
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However, among the wine-savvy crowd, sherry has been an “it” wine for a while already; Madeira is turning heads again; old dandy Port is even posing for the camera now. But despite the hype surrounding these fortified styles within circles of the wine and cocktail cognoscenti — and a hopeful bump in off-premise sales over the pandemic years — all three regions find themselves in precarious situations.
Douro, Madeira, and the Sherry Triangle are all facing down profound change — each one presented with a different twist on the challenge, and each attempting a unique strategy to forge a durable future.
Urgent New Direction for Sherry
Since the 1980s, vineyard area in the Sherry Triangle — defined by towns Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María — has diminished by over 75 percent. And despite a relatively recent spike in sales for the historically critical U.K. market, the overall demand for sherry continues to be a fraction of what it was 40 years ago.
In the face of this drastic contraction, the region’s producers have hatched a plan to dramatically alter the erosive status quo that has led to this decay within the Triangle.
An emphatic course correction toward quality over quantity is the hand sherry has been forced to play. “In our case, quality is absolutely unnegotiable,” says Helena Rivero, owner and president of Bodegas Tradición in Jerez. “We believe it is the quality of our wines that keep local traditions from being lost — top quality, not volume.”
Fortunately, the region is conducive to this strategy, and urgent new regulations are being implemented that aim to diversify sherry’s categories, reintroduce unique native varieties beyond the standard trio of Palomino, Moscatel, and Pedro Ximénez, and highlight the qualitative renaissance.
This even includes the reintroduction of unfortified wines under the official Sherry DO moniker — a fascinating development to refocus on regional terroir and attract renewed curiosity.
“[Lower] alcohol consumer trends could potentially make sherries a more attractive replacement to higher-alcohol spirits in cocktails.”
Unfortified sherry is a compelling idea with roots in the distant past. On the surface, it almost seems blasphemous to alter a core tenet of such a historically entrenched style. However, as a product presenting itself as some sort of exotic Iberian-Jura chimera, it could make for a clever and necessary debut in the current environment. After all, novelty is a coveted attribute for today’s consumers — and lower alcohol once again regarded as a virtue. It may well work, but the sell will most assuredly require considerable investment in education and regional ambassadorship.
The mixology scene also offers a piece of the puzzle, according to Rivero. “[Lower] alcohol consumer trends could potentially make sherries a more attractive replacement to higher-alcohol spirits in cocktails,” she says. Likewise, sherry vermouth is now increasingly found in local and export markets, presenting yet another opportunity for the Triangle to hedge its bets.
Within the context of these changes, there’s plenty about which to be hopeful in the sunny vineyards of southwestern Spain. The production of casks for the whisky industry continues to lend its financial lifeline. And while the new regulations in play may fundamentally alter perceptions of what sherry is — and is not — they could finally be the surgical intervention that the Triangle has long required after decades of insufficient band-aids.
Madeira in the Tempest
Out in the Atlantic, Portugal’s tiny island of Madeira — with its disproportionate historical and cultural importance in the wine industry and otherwise — is attempting to navigate its way out of the storm.
Only eight commercial producers remain on the island, and the extreme degree of difficulty in the vineyard — as well as requisite time investment in the barrel warehouses — highlight an unavoidably capital-intensive undertaking.
“The biggest threats are the abandonment of agricultural fields and real estate pressure on these lands. Plans that safeguard and protect agriculture and its entire economic and cultural heritage must be studied and implemented.”
“The return on investment has to be positive to maintain our activity,” says Joana Freitas, marketing director for Madeira Wine Company, the parent entity of storied Madeira label Blandy’s. “Madeira Island only has 400 hectares [990 acres] of planted vineyards, and this limitation makes Madeira wine a truly scarce product.”
The economic silver lining in this situation is exclusivity and the resulting buoyed prices keeping the industry afloat. However, the small island’s geographic limitations also reveal significant leaks that threaten future viability.
“The biggest threats are the abandonment of agricultural fields and real estate pressure on these lands,” Freitas adds. “Plans that safeguard and protect agriculture and its entire economic and cultural heritage must be studied and implemented.” Rampant tourism is taking its toll on Madeira, with vineyard plots being sold off for vastly more profitable real estate development. Some are worried that the majority of its cherished vineyards planted to the primary “noble” varieties — Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia — are genuinely endangered.
“[We] only produce fortified wines. This does not mean that in the future we cannot see ourselves producing still wines.”
As a consequence, the hearty and relatively easy-to-grow Tinta Negra grape has stepped in to plug the leaks left behind by diminishing “noble” acreage. And while taking a reputational back seat to the four stars of the island, it’s receiving increased attention in the vineyard and a makeover in quality.
It’s an adjustment seen as pragmatic necessity — though the sense of cultural loss of this “noble” acreage is palpable. Sure, the obsession of Madeira aficionados and collectors over these diminishing stocks of premier varieties continues to elevate pricing to prestige levels and balance the equation, but whether or not this transition can produce a sustainable market is anyone’s guess.
In 1992, Madeira Wine Company introduced its “Atlantis” line of unfortified table wines, a first for the island. Many producers followed suit with diversification — or have at least pondered it. “[We] only produce fortified wines,” say Helena Borges and Melissa Castro, the respective CEO and marketing specialist at Madeira house H.M. Borges. “This does not mean that in the future we cannot see ourselves producing still wines.” The appeal is obvious within the context of current global consumer tastes, and the complementary move is an additional attempt to patch up the industry’s economic hull.
Though waves of change now batter the island and its historically important — and culturally irreplaceable — wine industry, there endures a stubborn optimism that bluer skies lie ahead. “The good thing about tradition is that there will always be someone that will maintain it,” Borges says, “and we will continue to work for that.”
Douro’s Cry for Help
“Unless the table wine producers are prepared to pay more for grapes, the future for the valley is bleak.”
It’s a stark prognosis from Adrian Bridge, chairman and CEO of the esteemed Fladgate Partnership, which owns key Port houses Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, and Croft. “In the Douro, the Port producers pay around 1,200 euros per pipe [barrel] for grapes, and table wine pays around 500 euros,” he adds. “The cost of production is about 700 euros to 750.”
This paints a shockingly upside down — and clearly deteriorating — socioeconomic picture for a region experiencing such a remarkable boom in tourism and market attention. Conventional wisdom suggests that things should be looking up. Yet unless critical legislation is enacted, Douro is on frighteningly shaky ground.
Harry Symington of the Symington Port dynasty — as well as the company’s communications and Vintage Port manager — distills the issue. “Grapes used to produce DOC Douro [table] wine are transacted on the open market and in general with excess supply,” he says. “Consequently, many grapes are sold below cost.”
The family business, which includes such legendary houses as Graham’s, Dow’s, and Warre’s, has both an economic and a deeply personal interest in buttressing Douro’s crumbling financial structure. “This is impacting the socioeconomic sustainability of the region and the future of the region’s wines,” Symington says. With such prognostications echoing throughout the valley from cornerstone multi-generational families, a dire sense of urgency has taken hold.
“[But] the difference is that much of the Douro was replanted in the 1980s. So people inheriting a quinta have to pay to replant it. Throw climate change in as well, and you can see why many people are selling property in the Douro.”
On July 12, the “Douro Deserves Better” open letter was published. A plea signed by 26 producers, it’s a flare fired into the darkness — and a desperate rallying call to fix the inverted table-wine grape situation before it’s too late.
The extraordinary growth and expansion of the unfortified Douro DOC table wine segment, now representing around half of all Douro production, has unintentionally doomed the Douro under the antiquated “Benefício” system — a framework for sustainably pricing grapes specifically designated for Port production. “Benefício” has no regulatory counterpart for the rapidly expanding grape tonnage for unfortified table wine, and the pricing paradox has forced these growers to take heavy losses. The steep terraces of the world’s largest area of mountain vineyard hinder any hope of reducing production expenses. It’s a low-yield, high-cost, and tremendously labor-intensive environment, and mechanization in most of the valley is currently a pipedream.
The resulting abandonment of vineyards and depopulation of the region are striking at the heart of Douro’s viability. “We are at another intergenerational phase with quintas passing between generations,” Bridge says. “[But] the difference is that much of the Douro was replanted in the 1980s. So people inheriting a quinta have to pay to replant it. Throw climate change in as well, and you can see why many people are selling property in the Douro.”
Despite the gloom and decay, there’s reason for hope. If corrective legislation is passed for the grape pricing issue, Douro is positioned for renewed success. Overall sales are growing, and tourism is booming. In light of this upside, Symington envisions a bright outcome.
“Fortunately, there is currently very positive energy and excitement around visiting both Porto and the Douro,” he says. “That gives us confidence that our family and others will still be producing wine here for generations.”
Where Fortified Wine Goes From Here
These changes — for better and for worse — are inevitable, and these fundamental alterations might finally prove the antidote for an otherwise poisonous torrent of circumstances.
It remains to be seen whether this much-needed medicine will uplift these venerable traditions — or end up altering the three historical regions beyond current recognition.
Then again, there isn’t much of a choice, is there? Adaptation is never easy, but the alternative may result in nothing left to save.