Portuguese wine

Portugal has no shortage of great wines to offer the world, but its challenge lies in communicating the message. Hamish Smith reports

IN PORTO, the city that funnels the river and wine of the Douro to Portugal’s north west coast, melancholic sounds of Fado singers fill the air. Sad songs of lovers left behind; full of warbling regret.

Portugal’s wine industry, with its years of longing for overseas and cross-border recognition cuts a similarly romantic figure. Of the old guard of European winemakers, Portugal is the one that was left behind. Wines of France, Italy and Spain have all made homes-from-home, leaving deep impressions on consumers their styles, regions or grapes.

The road to recognition was always going to be bumpy. Except to the well versed and travelled, Portugal’s 280 indigenous grape varieties are as unfamiliar as they are unpronounceable – and then there is the geography of the country. Perched on the far edge of Europe, go west and there is nothing but blue Atlantic, east and only Spain. Perhaps worst of all, Portugal still suffers from a heel-dragging perception that it does not make first-rate wine.

It’s true that a generation ago, and for hundreds of years before, winemaking tended to be a family-run, patchy affair, largely resulting in wines with only Portuguese food in mind. But this tired old tag should have long since come loose. The vine to vinification overhaul in Portugal was yesterday’s project and yesterday’s news.

Today’s task for Portugal is telling the world that, from the fine wines of the Dão and Douro to the relevant, light whites of Vinho Verde and the glugable reds of Alentejo, Tejo and Lisboa, it has accomplished wines, diversity and good value. And unlike in the past, the communication has to be clear and constant, not vague and piecemeal.

“We’re shy people but we need to speak louder. Project stronger personality, be more provocative, aggressive and naughty,” says Nuno Vale, marketing director for Wines of Portugal, speaking at this year’s London International Wine Fair. The recession-blighted Portuguese market still makes up an estimated 60% of the country’s DOC wine sales – a dependency that will need to be alleviated.

But export markets are showing brighter signs, with volumes up 21.2% and value up 10.5% last year (Wines of Portugal). The top destinations are former colony Angola (largely, but not entirely, bulk, low priced wine), France, Germany the UK, US and Portuguese-speaking Brazil, all of which are showing decent or healthy volume growth.

New campaign

Discover A World of Difference is the newly launched UK campaign, which neatly spins Portugal’s perceived stumbling block – its difference – into its springboard. Helping UK consumers to Discover the Difference are wine buffs Tom Cannavan, Charles Metcalfe, Neil Phillips and Simon Woods, who will act as wine ambassadors by holding 50 tastings at independent wine merchants and restaurants. Campaigns, albeit with different focuses and personnel, are also organised for Angola, Brazil and Portugal.