Web Exclusives

Comfort, Contemporized

Deborah Parker Wong

Port, in all its styles, is decidedly a comfort wine. Enjoyed as an aperitif, it signals the comforting thought that dinner is likely to follow and it often accompanies moments of deep relaxation after a meal.

Enthusiasts have long associated Cockburn's (pronounced Coburn's), a brand founded by Scotsman Robert Cockburn in 1815 and acquired in full by the Symington Family Estates in 2010, with just that level of comfort. As the largest-selling brand of port in the U.K., the company's humorous advertising campaigns since the 1970s have traded on the common mispronunciation of the name Cockburn.

The Symington family. Front: Paul and Johnny; back: Dominic, Rupert and Charles.

Brits who know their history have the advantage in that regard, as both Sir George Cockburn, the admiral who conveyed Napoleon to St. Helena in 1815, and Sir Alexander James Edmund Cockburn, a Lord Chief Justice of England in the early 19th century, both carried the name.

As part of the Symington portfolio, Cockburn's has undergone a complete overhaul one that began in 2006 with improvements in wine quality and culminated in a complete redesign of the packaging and the reopening of the Cockburn Port lodge in Villa Nova de Gaia, Portugal where consumers can once again tour the cellars.

Packaging Perfection

A Fiat automobile served as the inspiration for Cockburn's packaging revamp, and the new slope-shouldered bottle and rich gold-embossed graphics were created by Bloom Design, a spirits design company that has refreshed brands including Baileys Irish Cream and J&B Scotch Whisky.

  The new packaging was completed last December and is just now arriving in the U.S., where it competes with more familiar brands for market share in the special reserve category, a premium ruby style that Cockburn's originated and which falls between standard ruby and vintage ports.

"Cockburn's pioneered the special reserve category in 1969, and the style has been widely emulated," says Henri Sizaret, Vice President of Marketing for Symington. "Aging is what sets Cockburn's Special Reserve apart. We let the wine age up to four years in wood, then the wines are blended and given an additional 12 months to marry, and then we carefully fine tune the blend using select batches for a more balanced finished wine."

Rewards for Quality

The rigor that Symington has applied to improving wine quality for Cockburn's is evidenced by the medals the brand was awarded in 2012. In addition to winning golds for the 2007 Vintage Port and the Quinta dos Canais 2009 Vintage Port, the brand's Special Reserve was awarded silver medals by the International Wine Challenge, the Decanter World Wine Awards and the International Wine & Spirit Competition.

These sought-after awards are a ready endorsement of the consistency and quality of Cockburn's Special Reserve. Wilfred Wong, Cellarmaster for retailer BevMo!, describes Cockburn's Special Reserve as "a very consistent vintage port," one that occupies a mid ground between ruby ports, which can be too fruity for some consumers, and tawny styles that may be too dry.

"In terms of where it fits during a meal, consumers can use port to create a bridge to sweet desserts that are difficult to balance with wine," says Wong. "For many port lovers, the charms of Special Reserve are still to be discovered."

The Occasion Matters

In talking about the core audience for Cockburn's, Sizaret says "Many port consumers are in their mid-30s and they see port simply as a drink they enjoy with friends. They're not trying to understand it as wine. What matters the most is the occasion itself." Sizaret who has been with Symington for two years is charged with building value in to what has been labeled a silent category. "Cockburn's is an approachable brand, and the ideal food pairings with these wines are easy things like chocolate mousse and cheeses-very simple foods."

With sales of premium quality port wines up 15 percent last year, growth is coming from consumers who are trading up to the better categories. "Cockburn's has traditionally been strong in the Northeast and it also has a very solid presence in chain stores and control states as well," notes Peter Scott, CEO of San Francisco-based Premium Port Wines, the importer of Cockburn's. "Eighty percent of Cockburn's is consumed off premise," confirms Scott. "It's the 20 percent that is sold in the on-premise fine-dining market that requires a tremendous amount of both trade and consumer education."

For the majority of consumers, comfort is king when making a port wine purchase. From knowing when and how to order port at an on-premise account to confidently buying port for at-home consumption or gift giving, comfort and familiarity go hand-in-hand with purchase decisions. Once American consumers are let in on the secret, the provenance and quality for value inherent in Cockburn's are bound to win it loyal fans.


THE TASTING PANEL, 6345 Balboa Blvd, Ste. 111, Encino, CA 91316
Content ©2016 THE TASTING PANEL magazine. All rights reserved