Bar Douro's Max Graham on his quest to revive port

Jacopo Mazzeo

Jacopo Mazzeo

01 November 2019

With Halloween already a memory of the past and a strong polar vortex set to bring ice-cold temperatures to the UK, we’ve officially entered port wine season.

Well, we would, if it wasn't that port is going through rough times. Although the category keeps performing well during the festive seasons, the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto claims that overall volumes of port sales in the UK declined by 19.7% in 2018, and by 4.2% globally, with value going down by 15.5% too (and 2.9% globally). What was once a British household favourite is now facing a challenging, hostile market.

Don’t let this apocalyptic scenario depress your inner port-over just yet though, as there are people in the on-trade willing to inject new life into the world's best known fortified wine.

Among them is Max Graham, the mastermind behind London’s Bar Douro, a man whose father founded Churchill’s Port back in 1981 and whose blood is a blend of mainly Touriga Franca and Touriga Nacional.

Port’s heritage and history... should be celebrated, people should be shouting from the rooftops

Max Graham

I meet him at Bar Douro on a quiet weekday morning. As the kitchen staff begin prep for lunch service, we sit at the bar and I ask him what port's USP is within the context of today’s staggeringly diverse UK wine scene.

‘Port’s heritage and history. They should be celebrated, people should be shouting from the rooftops, because port is one of the Old World’s classic drinks,’ he answers. ‘There are very few drinks that you can age for up to 100 years, that you would open and they still have incredible freshness and vibrancy and such length and layers. Couple [that] with the fact that it’s incredibly good value.’

That’s great, but there’s no denying that port is suffering from a rather stuffy image and is often associated to a range of highly unfashionable elements which make it a hard sell to today’s mindful consumers.

‘It’s still higher abv than wine and does have a higher sugar content, but most importantly is that idea that port is quite a heavy drink. The idea of a syrupy port is what we try to move away from,’ he explains. ‘Actually, what I like about many ports is their lightness, elegance and freshness. You put a glass of white port or of chilled tawny in front of the guest and immediately you’re gonna break down that [original] idea.’

Winning people over with white and tawny port

Graham sees white port as one of the category’s winning cards. At Bar Douro it’s often served with tonic as a valid alternative to a G&T as well as – and here comes the key word – a lower-abv one: ‘It’s garnished with a sprig of mint and a twist of orange. In comparison to a G&T it has less alcohol, so it’s got complexity but helps breaking down the high abv barrier.’

Tawnies are leading port’s charge too, both at Bar Douro and across the whole industry. Graham says that they deliver a ‘new image for port. It’s something people don’t expect so when they drink a tawny slightly chilled and it’s lighter in style compared to rubies, people find it more approachable, so we see it more and more in wine bars’.

Indeed, most guests are accustomed to ruby port, to its colour and profile, and are unaware that, in fact, port comes in a range of styles.

The markups are lower on a vintage port and they offer so much, they’re such great value

Max Graham

To illustrate the category’s diversity, Graham offers his guests an ‘educational’ tasting flight that features a white, a tawny and a ruby port. ‘All of our staff are trained to talk about these styles and how they differ. My idea is to stimulate the interest through showcasing the different styles. Get someone interested so they come back to try an LBV or a vintage.’

As it is for many port aficionados, vintage port is the pinnacle of port's hedonistic experience for Graham also. He admits, however, that whole bottles of vintage port aren’t sold that often, so to make the style more accessible Bar Douro always lists one by the glass.

Currently it’s his own family’s Churchill 1997, which he says ‘works as an introduction to the style’, but there are a lot more vintages available on the list: ‘We’ve got things like a 1963 Taylor’s, I tried it recently and it tasted fabulous. The markups are lower on a vintage port and they offer so much, they’re such great value.’

Graham is determined to increase port sales by educating people on the category’s diverse styles, walking guests on a journey back in time, from young rubies to old vintages. With his new site due to open in London’s Broadgate early next year, it seems he's already on the right path.

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