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By Andrei Khalip
LISBON (Reuters) - It was a horrible year of debt crisis and an international bailout for Portugal, but 2011 turned out to be nothing short of a miracle year for the country's best known product: port wine.
After a tasting session on Friday attended by dozens of international experts, the crimson-robed Port Wine Brotherhood that counts among its members all major port producers and merchants as well as kings and heads of state, proclaimed 2011 a Vintage Year, the first since 2007.
"It is one of the largest Port vintage declarations ever, but more importantly it is one of the best years in terms of quality that has the critics exalting the wines, a lot more than in 2007," said Manuel Cabral, president of the Institute of the Douro and Port Wines.
Port wine developed initially as a fortified wine after merchants found that adding alcohol to it made it easier to ship to England, where it first became popular.
The Douro region is the world's third-oldest protected wine region after Chianti in Italy and Hungary's Tokaj.
"This vintage should add strength to the whole Port sector, allowing us to increase the value of exports ... 2011 made things tough for Portugal, but good things happened too. Our vintage was one such great thing," Cabral said.
Debt-ridden, cash-strapped Lisbon resorted to an EU/IMF rescue package in 2011 that enforced painful tax hikes and spending cuts and triggered a deep recession.
Vintage port, made only from the grapes of the declared vintage year, is usually left to mature in the bottle for years or decades. This signature type of wine accounts for only about two percent of total port output, but is capable of driving overall sales up by drawing critics' attention to the wine.
"Vintage declaration creates a buzz around the whole category, brings it into people's minds. It generates increased interest in the region, including its table wine, more tourism," said Dominic Symington, director at Symington Family Estates that owns famous port brands like Graham's, Dow's and Warre's.
He said the company already has "huge demand for our family's ports" after it declared its own 2011 vintage in April.
"Now the critics and the industry are confirming that we were not wrong and that it's an excellent year across the board for Port producers," he said.
Prominent British wine critic Jancis Robinson wrote last month on her web page that she finds it "impossible to think of any other wine region, anywhere in the world, that produced better wines" than the port-making Douro in 2011.
Cabral and Symington both said they expected gains in the value of port exports, if not so much in volumes, to reinforce a recent recovery in foreign sales of the wine that last year totaled 359 million euros ($472.98 million), below 2000's 414 million.
Vintage ports are much more expensive than other versions and can give a hefty boost to port producers' revenues.
"Our main markets are in Europe that has been affected by a recession and debt woes, yet we've had small growth in the last two years and now we hope to get more value gains," Cabral said.
Port sales in the first four months of 2013 rose 5 percent to 92 million euros. The volume edged up less than 1 percent.
"It's not all perfect - the volumes are a bit reduced. But there is a swing towards higher sales of premium wines, so we are getting more value. From a long-term sustainability point of view it's a better option than higher volumes," Symington said.
"Also, demand is a lot more globally spread now. We have Russia going very, very strongly, other former Soviet states buying a lot. China is evolving, not as much as many hoped, but it will come along."
($1 = 0.7590 euros)
(Reporting By Andrei Khalip, editing by Paul Casciato)