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Staying In? People Are Enjoying More Port and Sherry at Home

Some fortified wines have become popular again during the pandemic

Roger Morris By December 8, 2021
Portuguese fortified dessert and dry Port wine, produced in Douro Valley with colorful terraced vineyards on background in autumn, Portugal
Port wine against the backdrop of the terraced Douro Valley, Portugal, where it's produced. Photo by barmalini/iStock.

If you and much of your family were living under the same roof during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, and if you all gathered around the dinner table each evening because all the restaurants were closed, and if all of you lingered to tell stories and enjoy the food and wine a few minutes longer because there was nowhere to rush off to, and if you could sleep in later the next day because Zoomers don’t have to commute, then the folks around the world who produce Port and Sherry and other naturally sweet or wines fortified with neutral spirits want to thank you.

If they helped make your family evenings, well, you certainly made their day.

Sales exploded

“Port sales during the pandemic in the U.S. were up about 20%,” says Adrian Bridge, CEO of the Fladgate Partnership, which owns such brands as Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Croft, and Krohn. “A large part of that was because families were coming together for dinners, and that provided the opportunity for them to enjoy a glass or two of Port at the end of the meal. Port is a rich and comforting drink, especially during times such as this.”

Other Port producers experienced the same sales bump. Symington Family Estates CEO Rupert Symington says U.S. shipments of Symington brands, including Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, and Cockburn’s, were up about 30%.

And it wasn’t just Ports. Ted Emerson, director of marketing at González Byass USA, reports the same social phenomenon with Spain’s Sherry production. “Definitely, Sherry sales increased during the pandemic, including Tio Pepe, the range of González Byass Sherries and Harveys,” he says. “Our consumers rarely drink Harvey’s when they go out,” as it is not well-distributed in restaurants, “so if they are not going out, and spending more time at home, they will enjoy more Harvey’s.”

In short, one of the silver linings during the pandemic for wine producers was a shot in the arm for most sweet or dessert wine producers — segments that previously struggled — as the long-term trend of American families having shorter dinners with fewer family members present was reversed during this period.

“Everyone drank more wine at home during the lockdown, and, since I love Port, I certainly drank more Port,” says Pennsylvania entrepreneur Vince Moro. And when he couldn’t go out as usual to celebrate his birthday, “My wife, Elizabeth, and my mother, whose name also is Elizabeth, and I brought out a Cockburn’s vintage 1963 — my birth year.”

Profound and delicious

While producers of sweet wines — whether naturally or sweet because they’re fortified with alcohol — would love it if all the world thought like Moro, the charm of so-called dessert wines is that they are luscious and delicious and are well-suited by themselves or paired with the right food for dessert.

For example, vintage and other ruby Ports are big, alcoholic but fruity wines that can stand up to a round of pungent Stilton cheese; a Pedro Ximénez Sherry goes well with desserts of dried fruits, Sauternes is a great pairing with crème brulée, and it’s lovely to dip a biscotti into Vin Santo, a dessert wine from Italy Drinking a dessert-style Riesling? How about a glazed fruit tart with a crumbly crust? Madeira? Try crème caramel.

Unfortunately, in recent years, dessert wine sales have suffered in most countries because people don’t want to open a bottle of the potent wine unless there are plenty of people to help finish it, or who are able to linger at the table when they have after-dinner activities. They also don’t want to consume too many calories, or ingest too much alcohol if they have to drive home. The pandemic reversed all that — at least temporarily.

Emerson says that people also drank more cocktails at home, some of which call for fortified wines such as Vermouth and Sherry. 

Other styles worth trying

Not everybody enjoyed the gains, mostly because some styles are normally only sold in restaurants. Producers of Tokaji from Hungary, Sauternes from Bordeaux, and Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily, for example, report no pandemic-induced sales bumps.

Sweet and fortified producers are now hoping the home-use buying trend continues, especially if households decide to replenish pandemic-depleted stock. Delaware technology consultant George Harding decided, as lockdowns came to an end, to break out a well-aged bottle of 1991 Vintage Croft. “When I bought it, the guy told me it was a great vintage and that it would hold well for over 20 years,” he says. It did, he says, quite well. Now Harding has to decide which of the rare back-to-back generally declared 2017-2018 Port vintages would be a worthy replacement.

3 classic styles to try:

bottle of W&J Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Port NV

W&J Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Port NV ($14/375 mL bottle)

A delicious combination of brightness and richness of fruit that shows both freshness and strength.

bottle of Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Fino en Rama Sherry 2021

Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Fino en Rama Sherry 2021 ($19/375 mL bottle)

For many wine lovers, Tio Pepe is the standard taste by which they measure finos, great aperitif wines with an excellent appetite-enhancing nuttiness that is balanced by a hint of bitters in the finish.

bottle of Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2015

Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2015 ($22)

The essence of a Late Bottled Port is to maintain enough depth of fruit to be noticed and enough nutty tannins to balance it out, and this one checks those boxes.