Whatever happened to port and sherry?

Today I leave the worlds of ‘climate change’ and Australian politics for a moment to consider wine, for me the indispensable accompaniment of dinner — except when I will be playing bridge afterwards. In a doctor’s waiting room the other day I was leafing through the recipes in a magazine, and came across notes for two ingredients: apera and tawny. Tawny was what I thought it was, tawny port, but apera? It turned out to be what we used to call dry sherry. At once came a flood of memories, and an urge to find out more.

My parents did not drink alcohol until they went overseas in 1957, though they did keep dry sherry which they served to visitors. From 1958 on they always had a glass of dry sherry before dinner, then switched to ‘cream’ sherry when that appeared. It was not until some years later, and more overseas trips after they retired, that they would serve a glass of table wine with dinner. As a boy I thought the smell of sherry awful, and when I went to university decided that all alcoholic drinks were unpleasant and an acquired taste, with the possible exception of a concoction called ‘gin sling’. Like most of my generation, I eventually acquired a taste for booze, and developed that taste rapidly when I went to Oxford in the mid 1960s and had access both to the College cellars and a great wine mentor.

From the mid 1960s on our dinner parties started with a dry sherry and finished with a good port, in both cases Australian versions, the sherry coming from Seppeltsfield, and the port usually a tawny, like Galway Pipe, or Penfold’s Grandfather.  Some time in the 1970s or 1980s sparkling wine started to become relatively good and relatively cheap, and we began to serve that as the aperitif, rather than sherry. I still had some excellent sherries in the cellar, but eventually they all went, and were not replaced. Somewhat earlier, port had been replaced after dinner by liqueur muscat, the wonderful wine from Rutherglen — from All Saints, Chambers and others. I bought a case of Orlando Vintage Port to celebrate the birth of my last child in 1972, and never opened any of them. In time they became gifts for friends who had turned seventy! Then Muscat vanished from our dinner parties. We might serve a botrytis semillon, like de Bortoli’s Noble One, or finish with cheese and keep the red wine flowing.

Tastes in general had changed, for we were not exceptional. What we served was by and large what others served. What I hadn’t noticed was that the whole port and sherry business in Australia had shrunk, and had changed its nomenclature. I knew that we didn’t and couldn’t use  terms like ‘champagne’, ‘burgundy’ and ‘claret’ any more, but had forgotten, if I ever knew, that the same restrictions applied to ‘port’ and ‘sherry’. The Wine Australia Corporation Act of 1980 gave that body the power to control names, and it did so, in the interest of Australian wine exports. The EEC was kicking up a fuss about names, not simply for countries outside the EU, like Australia, but for those inside it as well. We followed suit.

For wine exports have always been an important aspect of the industry in Australia. In the last year before the Second World War, Australian imported 41,00 gallons (remember them?) of wine, and exported 3,700,000 gallons. In 2011/12 we imported 82 million litres and exported (wait for it) 781 million. It is our increased wealth as a nation that has allowed such a lot of wine in, and of course the buying power of the $A. But the export market for our table wine is not at all a trivial aspect of our export income, reaching nearly $2 billion last year. Imports, by volume and value, are only a tenth of our exports.

I can remember people saying rude things about the EEC thirty years ago, but our preparedness to toe the line with respect to how we label our wines has helped to build our exports, which are considerable in Europe. In the US, Australian wine represents about 15 per cent of wine imports, more than the French share, and we are beginning to build wine exports into China, which ought to be a big market in the future.

All in all, it’s a small price to pay for the disappearance of Australian ports and sherries. And they haven’t really disappeared. We produced about 15 million litres of fortified wine last year, so there is still a demand, even if it is proportionately much reduced from fifty years ago. And Seppeltsfield still has the Para ports to bring out each year, each of them 100 years old, the world’s oldest wine in annual appearance. Dan Murphy will sell you a half-bottle for a mere $1400.

Every now and then I drink a glass of port or muscat, and remember how much I liked it all those years ago. And either wine, balanced by some good balsamic vinegar, is a wonderful basis for a good gravy. How have the mighty fallen!


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