The next-generation winemakers fortifying the future

Younger winemakers with new ideas are gradually implementing changes in the world of fortified wine. Gabriel Stone profiles five producers preparing for the future of sherry, port and Madeira with the help of the next generation

Words by Gabriel Stone

The next generation in fortified wine
Daniel van der Niepoort with his father Dirk

The traditional, slow-paced world of fortified wine hardly seems the place for a dynamic young gun to implement bold new ideas. Yet the long-term mindset demanded by this category undoubtedly lends itself far more naturally to multi-generational family operations than multinationals with restless shareholders to placate.

That doesn’t always mean it’s easy for the old guard to let an eager new generation take the reins, as every family, company and region has its own sensitivities. There are, however, some innovative individuals who have experience of navigating a world in which their family and professional lives are all but impossible to separate. And here they are, energetically yet respectfully tweaking the status quo.

Sometimes this change reflects a personal passion or is a reaction to challenges that weren’t even on the radar of the previous generation, but all these individuals are motivated by a desire to leave their company and region in a stronger position for the generation that follows.

Daniel van der Niepoort

Daniel van der Niepoort, Niepoort

Part Dutch, part Swiss but deeply rooted in Portugal, Daniel van der Niepoort epitomises the inspired blend behind any serious port. He’s also waving a magnum emblazoned with the words ‘Party Port’.

This isn’t some hipster gimmick but rather the revival of a scheme dreamt up by his grandfather. In keeping with family tradition at Niepoort, this new Party Port edition is a serious wine that doesn’t take itself too seriously. ‘It’s not so much about the age but more about the quality,’ explains Niepoort. ‘I wanted to make it nice and “drinky” but with good structure.’

The first run was 1,500 magnums. ‘I wanted to do 5,000 but my father said no,’ he smiles.

Despite this resistance, there’s a real sense that father and son are very much on the same team. ‘I don’t need to reinvent the wheel; I like what my father is doing, but I can put a little of my own touch,’ explains Niepoort. In particular, he notes, ‘I like being in the vineyards. It’s very important to me and I can treat those vineyards better.’

Whether it’s Party Port or the return to a more sustainable viticultural approach, there’s a strong sense that Niepoort takes real inspiration from his grandfather’s era. As he sees it, ‘It’s really on us, the new generation, to bring back respect for that old knowledge.’


Anthony & Charlotte Symington, Symington Family Estates

Emerging from the ravages of World War II, the third Symington generation feared their contribution to the family port business would be to wind it up. Today it is instead thriving, with a healthy influx of fifth-generation representatives, including cousins Anthony and Charlotte.

‘One of the reasons we’re in the fifth generation is because the family has constantly evolved,’ maintains Anthony. If his parents’ generation rocked the boat by introducing unfortified Douro DOC wines and the fresh, modern take on port that was Warre’s Otima, those following behind have plenty of their own ideas too.

‘We banged on our uncle Charles’ door and said “Will you make us a white port specifically for mixing?”,’ recalls Charlotte. ‘He was quite up for it.’ The result was Cockburn’s Blend No.5. ‘The older generation have knowledge but they’re fully aware of the drive the next generation have to take the category forward,’ she remarks.

That forward momentum will depend on their ability to tackle a whole new set of challenges. Climate change means harvest has ‘shifted a whole month forward,’ reports Anthony, who also highlights the retention of vineyard workers in an era of urban migration as ‘one of the biggest challenges.’

With 11 junior members of the sixth generation already being gently encouraged to fall in love with the Douro, there’s every incentive for their parents to find a solution.

Ricardo Freitas

Ricardo Freitas, Barbeito

Time moves at a different pace in the world of age-defying Madeira. Third-generation Barbeito helmsman Ricardo Freitas may have taken charge back in 1991 but it’s only recently that he has started to reap the rewards of many early changes he fought to implement.

And it certainly was a fight, albeit often a surreptitious one. Attempts to persuade his mother that they should stop adding caramel to their wine began in 1993. By 2001, Freitas gave up and did it in secret. ‘She found out by accident in three days,’ he laughs.

It’s clear that Freitas is willing to risk a little family friction to achieve what he believes is necessary. Another early priority was to redirect Barbeito’s energy away from unprofitable bulk shipments to instead rebuild severely depleted wine stocks. ‘For 12 years, I’ve been buying 30% more inventory than our needs,’ reports Freitas. ‘The financial department is going crazy.’ Let’s hope they haven’t found out about his shift to cooler warehouse temperatures, which slows the aging process to create what Freitas insists are fresher, more balanced wines. ‘It was a big stress during the first eight years,’ he admits, ‘but now, after 20 years, it shows it is working.’

Freitas is clearly determined to spare his successor the excessively cautious mindset he had to navigate. ‘We can’t be afraid to change things,’ he insists. ‘I changed everything. The next generation will come and they will change it again.’

Silvia Flores

Sylvia Flores, González Byass

Although not a member of the González family that has steered this respected sherry company for nearly two centuries, Sylvia Flores represents the third generation of her own family to be winemaker at González Byass.

The respect Flores has for her father Antonio’s expertise – ‘his knowledge about sherry and this winery in particular is vast’ – doesn’t blind her to the different, complementary skills she has to offer. Previous careers as a professional sommelier and wine retail manager bring a perspective forged beyond the bodega walls ‘I know the consumer and what they are looking for,’ Flores says.

That contemporary understanding combined with her father’s deep knowledge of sherry’s traditions have helped to drive several exciting projects. These include a series of ‘there and back’ wines, bottled from butts loaded onto a Spanish navy ship ‘so that they evolve more quickly for having travelled,’ explains Flores. Then there’s the Vino Dulce Nombre, a sweet Palomino style made from partly sun-dried grapes.

Such creative projects may be exciting but there’s no doubt that the family link means this role is far more than just a job. Indeed, says Flores, ‘It makes me enormously proud to be able to walk around the cellars and taste a wine made by my grandfather, aged by my father and that I will probably get to bottle.’

Willy Perez

Willy Pérez, Bodegas Luis Pérez

Radical or restorer? Willy Pérez would argue that he’s the latter, even if his approach uproots modern-day notions of what makes a good sherry.

It’s a role he’s well placed to play, coming from a family with deep roots in the sherry business. Father Luis spent decades at historic producer Domecq before leaving to set up Bodegas Luis Pérez in 2002. ‘At first my family didn’t want to make sherries,’ Pérez recalls. ‘They saw the market as something impossible and were greatly disappointed with the drift of the industry.’

A particular source of dismay was the sherry category’s overriding focus on winery rather than vineyard. In contrast, explains Pérez, ‘we are focused on recovering a sherry culture in which vineyard, terroir and winery are integrated.’

An important element of this approach is to shift away from the fortification process that has become so widely viewed as intrinsic to sherry’s character. ‘Fortification has been used for a long time in sherry wines but always as a final method to achieve a goal; that is, it was hardly used in aging,’ says Pérez. Instead, he argues, ‘The soleo [sun drying] of the grape was the true quality technique to make a sherry.’

It’s a view that is gathering momentum. Pérez is part of the Territorio Albariza movement, which specialises in these unfortified sherries, or Vino de Pasto. As Pérez outlines their strategy of ‘seduction, success, friendship and sharing’, it sounds like a recipe guaranteed to banish the previous generation’s disillusionment.