Port's image still stands firm, but its life as a Christmas tipple is costing the Douro dear. Susan Low reports on controversial efforts to reinvent the region.

Strange though it seems, I suspect that Port's spin-doctors are courting the Animal Protection League (APL). Or maybe the Port houses have banded together to get a good deal on the APL's secondhand promotional literature. Whatever the story, the message is clear: just like puppies and kittens, Port 'isn't just for Christmas'.

Marketeers are always keen to emphasise the importance of brand and image to sell a product. Lucky old Port has never had a problem with either. It is still a quality drink that reeks of tradition. Only problem is, that traditional image is also a very seasonal one. For many drinkers, Port IS just for Christmas.

Image is beginning to take its toll on Port exports. Sales to the UK have been falling slowly but consistently in recent years. And, although 1999, with the millennium celebrations, was a bumper year for the drinks trade, the Port Wine Institute admits that "the 1% rise in sales over 1998 was well below what many expected". The problem, said Paul Symington, joint MD for the Symington group, is that "most Brits buy one bottle a year. If we don't innovate, our sales will just go down. Right now exports [to the UK] are static."

Innovation is the key to attracting a broader audience, which means making the drink attractive to younger audiences and women. One of the recent success stories here has been Warre's Otima 10-Year-Old Tawny. Packaged in a slim, elegant, eye-catching bottle, it certainly stands out on the shelf. Sales of this wine have been impressive. So, who's buying it? "Women and young people - people who weren't drinking Port before, which was exactly what we wanted," says a visibly chuffed Symington. Surprisingly, though, so far no other Port producers have followed the Symingtons' lead.

Another wine that has caused a stir in the Douro in recent years is Sandeman's Vau Vintage Port. Vau is made with the younger generation in mind. Younger drinkers, weaned on Aussie Cabernet and California Chardonnay, want to drink something with fruit. Vau is made in an unabashedly fruit-forward style. The packaging - a slick black bottle emblazoned with a red 'V' - is a departure from the staid black and white labels of more traditional wines.

However, neither the bottle nor the wine inside are revolutionary. "Essentially," says Sandeman's chairman George Sandeman, "it's a style of vintage Port that I'm convinced has good potential. We know there are a lot of people who like the big fruit style of vintage Port. In this blend, we've selected for overt fruit but with softer tannin. The aim is to have a vintage Port that tastes really good. Look, if people are drinking vintage Port young, then let's make one that can be drunk young."

Vau is certainly fruity, with plump, dense, chocolate and plum notes. The wine is approachable, but it's got tannic structure, too. Though good, it's hardly going to frighten the horses, but Sandeman says that the wine was "controversial" when it was launched. "People were afraid that it was going to devalue the image of Port," he says.

Frankly, a wine like Vau is merely more likely to attract younger audiences in the US and Canada - where, incidentally, Port sales are booming. Generally, North American wine drinkers don't worship at the altar of old wines and most can't be bothered laying down bottles for decades. In future, I predict, that more Port producers will be dreaming up ways to woo this large, lucrative market.

Table manners

But fortified wines don't tell the whole story about what's happening in the Douro. If the sales pitch doesn't strike a chord with the consumer, the Douro has still got an ace up its sleeve in the form of table wines.

"Perhaps it took an outsider's eye to recognise the potential of the Douro's terroir for table wine"

Table wines have always been made in the Douro, but it's only in the last decade or so that they have begun to share the limelight with vintage Ports, old tawnies and colheitas. The UK press was quick to sing the praises of Australian winemakers such as David Baverstock and Peter Bright, both of whom continue to make good wines in the Douro. And, although it is no doubt galling for Portuguese winemakers to be told, as João Nicolau Almeida, director of Ramos Pinto was, that "the Australians taught us how to make wine", perhaps it took an outsider's eye to recognise the potential of the Douro's terroir for table wine.

Nevertheless, producers in the region have got the message that Douro table wines have excellent potential. Across the region, cellars are being dug and French barriques shipped in to prepare for a new wave of "super-Douro" wines.

Most newsworthy, perhaps, is a joint venture between Bruno Prats, former owner of Bordeaux' Cos d'Estournel, and the Symington family. The wine, called Chryseia, is made by Pedro Correia. The first vintage was 1999 - only 2,500 cases were made, from tiny quantities of Grade A grapes. The wine will be released en primeur. "It will be sold at a high price, which we hope will be in the same league as Barca Velha," says Peter Symington.

Other producers, too, such as Barros and Burmester, are planning pricey new Douro table wines, due to be released next year. Add these to the new Fojo and Vale de Pinhao wines made by David Baverstock and the Rio Torto and Quinta do Portela wines from Lemos and Van Zeller and it adds up to a definite trend.

From a commercial point of view these wines make perfect sense. When I asked Luisa Amorim of Burmester why the house was adding an expensive table wine to its portfolio, she said: "There's a very good margin for them. For colheita you have to wait at least seven years before you can sell it. With table wine you can sell it in one-and-a-half and for more than a bottle of LBV." And they're definitely not just for Christmas.