Main index Other Papers index About author

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional

Big Bottles of Port: Ending The Prohibition

Julian D. A. Wiseman

Abstract: The regulatory body for Port used to prohibit large bottles. This is how that was changed.

twitter

Publication history: commissioned for FTLOP newsletter #83, December 2014, with an agreed exclusivity of 30 days. In January 2015 it was published at www.jdawiseman.com/papers/port_and_wine/port_ending_big-bottle_prohibition.html. Usual disclaimer and copyright terms apply.

An earlier version of this essay was published in FTLOP newsletter #83, December 2014, pp 4-11, having been commissioned by Roy Hersh earlier that month.

A slightly different version, which explained some Port terms, was distributed at CUTwC’s 60th Anniversary Dinner on 17th January 2015.

Port houses: please do send to the author more data for the table in the postscript, even for vintages long post-dating this essay.

Comment on this campaign and this essay can posted in the relevant threads on ThePortForum or ForTheLoveOfPort.

Contents: • Preface; • Lust; • To TFP, Aug 2007; • From TFP, Sep 2007; • To IVDP, Jan 2008; • From IVDP, Feb 2008; • To IVDP, Feb 2008; • From IVDP, Mar 2008; • To MEI, Mar 2008; • To TFP, Oct 2008; • IVDP, June 2009; • Victory; • Defeat; • Victory, II; • Postscript; • Table of Large Bottlings; • QVD’A 2008; • Afterword.


Big Bottles of Port: Ending The Prohibition

Lust

The end of the big-bottle prohibition started with a picture posted on FTLOP. It had been taken in the cellars of Taylor Fladgate, and purported to be double magnums of Fonseca 1985, at least 27 of them. I lusted. They were actually imperials, which didn’t lessen the lust.

To TFP, Aug 2007

Much of the story is told by re-telling correspondence, which starts with a letter on 20th August 2007 to Adrian Bridge, CEO of The Fladgate Partnership:

Hidden in bin 116, in your personal cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, are (at least!) twenty-seven double magnums of Fonseca 1985. I am writing to beg to be allowed to buy four or five of them—perhaps, before saying more, this letter would work better if you were told why.

The modern game of Tiddlywinks was invented in January 1955 in Cambridge, in England. The foundation of the Cambridge University Tiddlywinks Club (CUTwC) dates from then, and in January or early February of every year the Club has an Annual Dinner to give thanks to the Founders. The 60th Anniversary Dinner will be in early 2015, and as I usually provide the port for the Dinner, appropriate bottles are already being gathered.

… It is planned that the bulk of the port will be 1985, the year in which the Club was thirty, being half of 2015’s sixty. And what could be better than double magnums of Fonseca, for taste and for dramatic affect?

… please, is there any combination of love, money, an invitation to the Dinner, or even a promise of secrecy, that would persuade you to part with some of those precious double magnums? Please sir?

From TFP, Sep 2007

Adrian replied on 26th September 2007:

… Fonseca does not have any double magnums. We do have some imperials but only 12 and these cannot be sold under IVDP regulation. … Magnums are the largest format our regulator allowed to sell — the imperials are destined for tastings.

To IVDP, Jan 2008

So in January 2008 a letter was sent to Jorge Nicolau da Costa Monteiro at the IVDP, Cc people at the Ministro da Economia e da Inovação and at the Ministro da Agricultura. Some of the major Port companies were Bcc’d. The letter was in two columns, the left in English, the right a translation into Portuguese. Yes, it contained some minor errors of fact—at this stage I was learning.

The IVDP currently forbids the port houses from selling port in bottles larger than a magnum. Please, why? Other wine regions don’t impose similar constraints on their wine producers.

O IVDP actualmente proíbe a venda de casas de porto, mas em garrafas maiores do que um magnum. Porquê? Outras regiões vinícolas não impor restrições semelhantes sobre os seus produtores vitivinícolas.

On 28th February 2007, in New York, Sotheby’s sold one Nebuchadnezzar of 2000 Mouton Rothschild for US $100,000. That is $5000 per bottle. Mouton Rothschild make good wine, but so do the best port houses. Surely the best port names would like to have sold their product at a hammer price of €3850 per bottle.

Em 28 de Fevereiro de 2007, em Nova Iorque, Sotheby’s vendeu um Nabucodonozor Mouton Rothschild de 2000 para US $100.000. Que é de US$ 5000 por garrafa. Mouton Rothschild faz um bom vinho, mas não faz o melhor porto casas. Sem dúvida os melhores nomes de porto, gostaria de ter vendido o seu produto a um preço de €3850 por garrafa.

Allowing larger bottles could even be seen as part of a larger national objective, the Lisbon Agenda 2000. In most countries a Minister of the Economy and Innovation would welcome a loosening of the rules that helps exports while hurting nobody. Hence this letter is copied to Manuel Pinho, in the hope that somebody in his office will ask the IVDP whether there is a good reason for this rule. As the IVDP is part of the Ministry of Agriculture, it has also been copied to Minister of Agriculture.

Permitindo maiores garrafas poderia até ser visto como parte de um grande objetivo nacional, a Agenda de Lisboa de 2000. Na maior parte dos países um Ministro da Economia e da Inovação gostaria de receber um afrouxamento das regras que ajuda as exportações enquanto ferir ninguém. Daí esta carta é copiado para Manuel Pinho, na esperança de que alguém no seu gabinete o IVDP irá perguntar se existe uma boa razão para esta regra. Como o IVDP faz parte do Ministério da Agricultura, que também foi copiado para o ministro da Agricultura.

But the IVDP might argue that, for example, having both 1.5 litre and 1.6 litre bottles would confuse customers, and hence that some regulation of bottle sizes is appropriate. In which case please expand the list of allowed bottles sizes to include the following:

Mas o IVDP poderia argumentar que, por exemplo, tendo ambos os 1,5 litro e 1,6 litro garrafas iria confundir clientes e, portanto, que alguns regulamentos do tamanhos da garrafa são adequados. Caso em que queira expandir a lista das garrafas do tamanho permitido para incluir o seguinte:

  • 2¼ litres (tregnum);
  • 3 litres (double-magnum);
  • 4½ litres (half a case);
  • 6, 9, 12, 15, or 18 litres;
  • Any size larger than 18 litres, however big;
  • Any bottle ≥ 2¼ litres that was bottled before this change in the rules (so the port producers may profit from the old large bottles in their cellars, some of which I want to buy).
  • 2¼ litros (tregnum);
  • 3 litros (dublo-magnum);
  • 4½ litros (metade de um caso);
  • 6, 9, 12, 15, ou 18 litros;
  • Qualquer tamanho maior que 18 litros (no entanto grande);
  • Qualquer garrafa ≥ 2¼ litros que foi engarrafado antes desta mudança nas regras (por isso os produtores do porto podem beneficiar das antigas grandes garrafas nas suas caves, algumas das quais gostaria de comprar).

Of course, these allowed sizes would not be compulsory. If any particular house wants to bottle only the ¾-litre or 1½-litre sizes, then that would be perfectly fine. But if a house wants to sell a larger size, and a customer wants to buy, that would also be perfectly fine.

Naturalmente, esses tamanhos permitidos, não seriam obrigatórias. Se uma determinada casa quer uma garrafa só a ¾ de litro ou 1½ litro de tamanhos e, em seguida, que seria perfeitamente bem. Mas se quer uma casa para vender um pouco maiores, e um cliente deseja comprar, o que também seria perfeitamente bem.

And yes, there are bottles sitting in cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia that I want to buy. I want to pay money; producers want to take my money; and for no good reason at all the IVDP says that this is not allowed. Please, either tell me why (and tell it to the Ministro da Economia e da Inovação), or let me buy what Portugal wants to sell.

E sim, existem garrafas sessão em caves, em Vila Nova de Gaia que eu quero comprar. Eu quero pagar dinheiro; produtores querem levar o meu dinheiro, e não por um bom motivo, e todo o IVDP diz que isso não é permitido. Por favor, diga-me por qual razão quer (e diga-la ao Ministro da Economia e da Inovação), ou deixe-me comprar o que Portugal pretende vender.

Re the Mouton Rothschild auction in New York on 28th February 2007, it seems that Sotheby’s sold lot database doesn’t have data from then (tut tut). However a press release mentions “a Nebuchadnezzar from 2000 which brought $119,500 (lot 41, est. $15/25,000)”.

And on 30th January 2015 in Hong Kong lot 79 was another Nebuchadnezzar of Château Mouton Rothschild 2000, sold at HKD 918,750 ≈ $118,500 ≈ €104,600.

From IVDP, Feb 2008

Jorge Monteiro replied on St Valentine’s Day 2008:

Relating to the European Union Market, we would like to take your attention to the fact that the bottles sizes, between 5 ml and 10 l, must comply with the Council Directive of 19 December 1974 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to the making-up by volume of the certain prepackaged liquids (75/106/EEC), last amended by the Council Directive 89/676/EEC of 21 December 1989. According to this Directive, and for the liqueur wines, the largest bottle allowed is 5 litres. This Directive also establishes the several sizes allowed below 5 litres.

… However article 8 of the IVDP regulation n.º 23/2006 … determines that the largest bottle allowed is 150 centilitres, except for Aged tawnies, Crusted, Late Bottled Vintage, Single Year Vintage and Classic Vintage Ports for which the largest bottle allowed is 300 centilitres. It also determines that in certain cases, duly justified, namely for promotional purposes, IVDP may allow the use of larger bottles.

We must underline that these rules were approved by a Council that is composed by representatives of the Port wine Growers and Port houses.

However, we must underline that the use of very large bottles may be dangerous for the protection of this prestigious appellation of origin, as it may allow the practice of frauds.

Splendid: the field of battle had been chosen, and was to be 75/106/EEC.

To IVDP, Feb 2008

My turn, on 24th February 2008:

Thank you very much for your letter of 14th February, which helpfully details the IVDP’s stance and the reasoning behind it, and even does so in English. Before tackling the substance of your letter, I happily accede to your request: yes, please do send a copy of my letters (the previous one, and this one) to the Port Wine Shippers Association, and also to the IVDP’s legal advisers.

Your letter raises four points that are discussed in detail below. In summary:

1. Even if the IVDP’s understanding of 75/106/EEC is correct, the IVDP’s rules should be as unrestrictive as possible.

2. The IVDP’s understanding of 75/106/EEC is incorrect: port actually lies within 1.(a) of 75/106/EEC, and hence allowed bottle sizes are, in litres, 0.10, ¼, 0.187, ⅜, ½, ¾, 1, 1½, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, and anything ≥10L.

3. Even if my reading of the rules is wrong, it doesn’t matter: Brussels wants the rules to be as liberal as possible (Lisbon Agenda 2000), so will not criticise a more generous reading.

4. Even if that is wrong, there are other loopholes in EU rules, in which case the IVDP should be explicitly permitting the use of those loopholes.

Your letter also says:

However, we must underline that the use of very large bottles may be dangerous for the protection of this prestigious appellation of origin, as it may allow the practice of frauds.

This claim appears to be nonsensical. Forgeries happen to below-the-radar stuff. If a house bottled only 24 imperials of its 2007, an auctioneer can easily check provenance. And if Château Mouton Rothschild 2000 can be bottled in 5L and 15L sizes (and sold at an eye-watering price in New York), the more restrictive rules clearly aren’t needed “for the protection of this prestigious appellation”.

Omitting detailed technical tiresome arguing about which rules do and don’t apply to port…

Hence, in the Common Customs Tariff, port really isn’t 22.05. Hence in 75/106/EEC port is not 1.(d); port is 1.(a). Hence EU rules allow port to be bottled 0.10L, 0.25L, 0.375L, 0.50L, 0.75L, 1L, 1.5L, 2L, 3L, 5L, 6L, 9L, 10L, 0.187L, 4L, and 8L (in the order given in 75/106/EEC (as amended)).

Re-reading six years later, perhaps I should have restrained my sense of mischief. My letter continued:

3. It doesn’t matter if I am wrong.

Lets say that the IVDP’s lawyers discover that, though port isn’t 75/106/EEC 1.(d) in English, perhaps it might be in Finnish or Hungarian or Irish. It doesn’t matter. Brussels understands that rules can help markets function, but that excessive rules just get in the way (Lisbon Agenda 2000). Hence if there is any reading of the rules that allows a 6L bottle, even if it is an unreasonable reading that is obviously wrong (not my reading!), you will be allowed to get away with it until the rules are ‘clarified’, that is, changed to be less restrictive. It is a political decision, and Brussels wants Italy to stop such needless regulation of everything.

Please, instruct your lawyers to be non-paranoid. The IVDP really can allow all bottle sizes permitted under 75/106/EEC 1.(a), including 6L.

4. Even if your lawyers are unnecessarily paranoid, there are other loopholes.

75/106/EEC (as amended) doesn’t actually regulate bottle sizes, though it might look like it does. It regulates labels, saying that they can have only certain values, and that the value must not be larger than the actual volume (with some small statistical inaccuracy). So it would be perfectly legal to put a 500cl label on a 600cl bottle, and add to the back label words such as:

This bottle, before being filled with port, was able to hold 600cl of liquid. EU regulations (75/106/EEC, including amendments up to 89/676/EEC) do not allow a bottle of port to be labelled as containing 600cl; hence the inaccurate “500cl” written on the front label. But we are confident that customers understand: before being filled with port this bottle could hold 600cl of liquid.

Nothing in 75/106/EEC prevents the labelling and sale of such a ‘pseudo-Imperial’. And, in the Eurosceptic British market, such a wording would please many customers. The IVDP’s website should blatantly describe this practice as a “necessary circumvention of silly bureaucratic rules”.

In short, if the IVDP’s lawyers insist that port is 75/106/EEC 1.(d), the IVDP should then explicitly allow and facilitate such pseudo-labelling.

The letter ended optimistically:

This letter contains an interpretation of a Brussels Directive. I’m not a lawyer—otherwise I would be charging you thousands of euro for this letter. Instead it is free. But if you act on it, as you should, please encourage the port houses to believe that they have a moral obligation to sell me some interesting bottles at a price somewhere between fair and generous. UK delivery, despite the US postal address. Thank you.

I confess to having enjoyed writing the letter, both the technical legal interpretations and the cheekier sections.

From IVDP, Mar 2008

Jorge Monteiro replied on the last day of March 2008.

… Going directly to your comments, we will not make any observations concerning points 3 and 4 of your letter.

Oh. That’s a shame. It could have been so much more fun.

There followed two paragraphs re-stating a wrong interpretation of 75/106/EEC, and re-stating that the matter had been decided. It was just like a civil servant using many words to express a two-word reply, imperative verb then preposition. This was going badly.

To MEI, Mar 2008

However, I had included the Ministro da Economia e da Inovação in this correspondence, which had sent a cursory response. So, on 18th March 2008, to the “Cabinet of Secretary of State for Trade, Services and Consumer Protection”:

Dear Dra. Martins,

… Thank you for your brief note in response to my letters of 22nd January and 24th February. Please could I ask you for a tiny additional thing: a single phone call.

Most ways of improving the efficiency of the Portuguese economy would displease somebody. A union, a special interest group, a de facto cartel, somebody would strike and protest. Even if there would be long-term gains for the economy, the short-term price, political or economic, might be too high. But I am asking for a regulatory change that would cause no strikes. No protests. No bad headlines. No political cost. No economic cost. And in return for not paying any costs, Portuguese exports would increase, even if only slightly. That must be pleasing to the Ministério da Economia e da Inovação.

I have worked in the British public sector, where there were some people who wanted to do it right. And there were others who wanted never to admit that it was being done wrongly — even if that never-admit behaviour meant that it continued to be done wrongly. I was very unimpressed. If the IVDP is of the former type, great, my arguments alone will cause the rules to change. No problem. But if the IVDP is of the latter type, never admitting to being wrong, then the arguments will be ignored. I don’t know which type is the IVDP, but if they are the wrong type, a quick phone call from the Ministério da Economia e da Inovação to the IVDP might cause a rethink.

I am imagining a British civil servant firmly asking questions such as the following. They might need to be converted to a Portuguese style, but, please, any similar conversation would work.

We have received a copy of a letter about the regulation of port wine bottle sizes, explaining that port is subject to 75/106/EEC 1.(a) not 1.(d). It is interesting.

Do the port houses have any vintage port in bottles larger than 3 litres?

Are the port houses allowed to sell these large bottles?

If this were Bordeaux rather than port, would they be allowed to sell them?

The letter dated 24th February explains that port, like Bordeaux, is subject to paragraph 1.(a) of the EU directive, not 1.(d). Does your lawyer agree? If not, may we see your lawyer’s opinion?

Of course I am sure there is a good reason for this prohibition, but the Minister wants to know why Bordeaux but not port may be sold in larger bottles, and for lots of money. Please send the MEI a formal letter, either explaining why port may not be sold in bottles larger than 3 litres, or saying that the rule will soon change.

Thank you.

And, Dra. Martins, thank you as well.

PS: If it is allowed, after the call, please do tell me that it has happened. Thank you again.

It wasn’t friendly to the IVDP, but the gentle possibilities seemed to have failed.

Did the MEI telephone the IVDP? Did the recipient of the call need to change his armour? Nobody told me.

To TFP, Oct 2008

Another attempt—yes, blatantly transparent—was a failure:

20th October 2008

Dear Mr Bridge,

I am writing to learn whether The Fladgate Partnership sells much Fonseca port to Lesotho and Botswana. If your sales are currently small, and our research suggests that they are currently miniscule, would it be possible to become your distributor in these two countries? Both have a growing middle class, and we believe that we would be able sell port during the southern-hemisphere winter—particularly in large formats. Exclusivity of distributorship would not be required.

Naturally The Fladgate Partnership would not want the harassment of handling customs at Maseru and Gaborone airports (each reached via Johannesburg), so the easiest course would be for bottles to be delivered in bond at Heathrow or elsewhere in southern England, allowing us to merge with other shipments and handle the administration. Labelling requirements in Lesotho and Botswana are not at all stringent: it suffices to label as for any English-speaking rich-world country and the authorities will be happy.

Yours sincerely,

Julian D. A. Wiseman
Sales Manager (Africa)
The Wiseman Partnership

Understandably, Adrian chose not to hide behind this sham.

IVDP, June 2009

Next there was a meeting with the IVDP, on 25th June 2009, at the start of a trip to Portugal with Port-drinking chums. The document sent in advance to the IVDP included:

Finally, a request about timing. Please could this rule change be done soon, before the entire 2007 declaration has been bottled.

Originally the meeting was to be with the IVDP’s new president, Luciano Vilhena Pereira, but was substituted by the IVDP’s lawyer, Almeida Ribeiro. He and I went through the relevant pages of the Common Customs Tariff, and after half an hour the argument ended. My letter of 9th July 2009 giving “double thanks for my brief trip to the IVDP” included:

First, hurray!, the IVDP’s new president does not object to large bottles. I am asking various people in the industry to ask that

the IVDP put before the Conselho Interprofissional a motion to change the rules such that any legal bottle size not exceeding 18 litres is then permitted. In particular, the new rule(s) should allow any of 0.1L, 0.187L, 0.25L, 0.375L, 0.5L, 0.75L, 1L, 1.5L, 2L, 3L, 4L, 5L, 6L, 8L, 9L, 10L, and any size that is both ≥10L and ≤18L.

This is the full range permitted by 75/106/EEC (with amendments), subject to a no-bulk-export cap of eighteen litres (a Melchior). Even if the wine-makers forget to ask for some of these sizes, please could your motion permit them all?

Second, the trip to the IVDP was itself of great interest. … You might recall that we discussed the IVDP glasses: if ever there should be a version 2, I’d be more than willing to assist the testers.

Anyway, thank you again for your time, and most of all, your non-disagreement.

Victory

Then, later, quietly, without my noticing, the battle was won. I’ve forgotten how the news reached me: it might have been from Dominic Symington. However it did, hurray! Proper size bottles had become legal. Argument ✔; battle ✔. Hurray!

(The actual rule change is dated 15th March 2010, article 20 of which allows sizes up to 3 litres, and bigger if pre-authorised by the IVDP. A better rule would have allowed bigger without needing IVDP approval, but the practical result is what I wanted, so won’t argue.)

Defeat

A letter was sent to Adrian, explaining that his concerns of September 2007 had now been fixed, and that now he could legally sell imperials. Please would he do so? From memory his email said something like “No. I do not wish to sell any.”

Oh. Argument ✔; battle ✔; war ✘. Oh. Not happy.

Victory, II

In April 2011 Adrian was guest of honour at a vertical of Fonseca Guimaraens (1933 to 2005), for which he paid the price of sitting next to me. At a minimum, the seed was re-planted.

And then in November 2013 another letter was sent, starting “Please allow a third and final attempt.” And he did. And he really did.

… I was delighted that you were able to bring the Port Wine Institute into line and that we can now sell imperials.

… We own 11 of them and 2015 is the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the house of Fonseca. Young Guimaraens started working for the company in 1821 and moved to the UK in 1822 to sell there. He became owner in 1863.

You have been persistent and focussed.

Yes, I will sell you an Imperial of Fonseca 1985. The remaining 10 will be used for various events celebrating our anniversary.

… What we can also do is sell some Fonseca magnums …

And at a very generous price (doffs hat): thank you Mr Bridge. Argument ✔; battle ✔; war ✔. Hurray!

All of which is how, on 17th January 2015, the only imperial of Fonseca 1985 not owned by The Fladgate Partnership was opened.

No trouble at all.

‘Postscript’

A draft of this article was shown to Adrian Bridge, who suggested a postscript showing bottling numbers.

Much of these were sold. There is good demand from collectors for large bottle formats. A commercial success and a boost to Portugal’s exports. Happy drinking

That data from The Fladgate Partnership, and more, follow.

ShipperBrandVintageDouble-
Mag, 3 l
5 litreImperial
6 litre
Salmanazar
9 litre
Balthazar
12 litre
S.F.E.Dow2007
Graham
Vesuvio
Warre
NiepoortNiepoort2007
QuevedoQ.V.D’A.20083030
T.F.P.Croft200910010
Fonseca30010
Taylor30010
T.V.V.V.3
S.F.E.Vesuvio2009
Warre
Ribeira
NiepoortNiepoort2009
S.F.E.Vesuvio2010
T.F.P.Croft201110010
Fonseca25025
Taylor45040
T.V.V.V.10
QuevedoQuevedo201160
S.F.E.Cockburn2011
Dow
Graham
Vesuvio
Warre
NiepoortNiepoort2011
N.B.V.V.2011
S.F.E.Malvedos2012¿60
Ribeira
Vesuvio
QuevedoQ.V.D’A.201350
O-Port-UnidadeO-Port-Unidade2013
Totals:

1590
+ 20×?

≥ 1610


3×?

≥ 3

258
+ 13×?

≥ 271


7×?

≥ 7


7×?

≥ 7

So two things have happened. Bottles bigger than three litres have become de facto legal. But as importantly, the idea of large bottles has gone from exotic to almost ordinary — for the IVDP, for shippers, and even for some consumers. Before the change double magnums were legal, but very rare. Since the change production of double magnums has become standard, even if not quite yet everybody’s basic home-drinking size.

However a comment of Dominic Symington should give some pause: “If a very large bottle is lying horizontally, there is excessive constant pressure on the cork, and for a long time. Additionally the greater the diameter of the neck the larger the cork has to be, compromising its ability to compress and create a decent seal. There is also the problem of capillary action. Which is why SFE has recently decided no longer to bottle larger than an imperial.” I wondered whether bottles could be stored at 45°, but Dominic observed that it might still be “too much of a risk, particularly in transit when the wine is sloshing around inside the bottle”.

Quevedo Quinta Vale D’Agodinho 2008

There was one bonus piece of mischief: the back label of large format Quevedo Quinta Vale D’Agodinho 2008. The picture speaks for itself, legal weaknesses and all. (As yet, no invitations.)

Part of the back label of 3L and 6L Quevedo Quinta d’Agodinho 2008 Vintage Port

— Julian D. A. Wiseman
London, 24th January 2015
www.jdawiseman.com


Afterword

May 2015: added to the table of large bottlings, imperials of Quevedo Quinta Vale D’Agodinho 2013, its back label happily resembling that of the 2008.

May 2015: added to the table of large bottlings, double magnums and five litres of O-Port-Unidade 2013.


Main index Top About author