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.

With its independent buyer-bent, the UK awareness campaign makes prefect sense. When the mainstream consumer’s knowledge is at baseline, supermarkets can be inhospitable places. “Small independents are the best fit for our wines because they have to be hand-sold,” says Vale.

Danny Cameron, director of UK importer Raymond Reynolds, also speaking at LIWF, agrees. “Get closer to buyers in the independent off-trade, sommeliers and on-trade buyers to mobilise their ability to sell wine that is not on the consumer’s immediate radar,” he says.

In lieu of recognisable grapes and regions, brands become important. One company that has built a few is Sogrape Vinhos, but frustrations still abound. “Portugal does not have [its own] space on the supermarket shelf or on the menus in restaurants – our wine is placed under ‘others’,” says CEO of Sogrape, Francisco Ferreira. In the firm’s stable there is the globally distributed Quinta de Azevedo Vinho Verde, Gazela – a firm favourite in the US where it is compared to Pino Grigio – and, of course, the famed Mateus Rose, Portugal’s most successful wine brand.

Cameron picks up the point: “[Portuguese wine] must be better at creating commercial brands that have relevance to the consumer in the markets that they’re sold. The language of branding must also be simple. Consumers don’t know most of the words [used on labels]. What competitors have done around the world is make the words familiar to people. Familiarity produces confidence and recognition which produces sales.”

He continues: “It’s also important that people who are hand-selling know the words as well. If they don’t they won’t have the confidence to sell them. We now spend as much time training people on the pronunciation as the delivery of the information itself. The result? The sales go up.”

Blending tradition

The challenge of pronunciation is multiplied by the Portuguese tradition of blending two, three or even four grapes. Nick Oakley of Portuguese specialist Oakley Wine Agency, which operates in the UK, Ireland and Norway, says: “Almost every appellation in Spain is single varietal, in Portugal it’s almost always a blend. I hold 60 wines in the UK, 55 are Portuguese and five are Spanish. Every Spanish is a single varietal but only one Portuguese. Portugal talks about its treasure trove of grape varieties. Indeed, but it makes them hard to sell sometimes.”

A shortcut to consumer recognition is international grapes, something practised with mixed success. In Alentejo, Syrah has taken particularly well. Sogrape’s Ferreira believes indigenous grapes may be the country’s point of difference but consumers might be enticed by some familiar cues. “Blends are the right path – an international variety as part of a blend could hook consumers in.”

Ferreira will have noticed the rise of Tagus Creek over the past five years. Made in Tejo by the JP Ramos Group and now available in 11 markets, it is a hybrid of international and indigenous. Blends such as Chardonnay/Fernao Pires and Shiraz/Trincadeira have introduced consumers to Portuguese grapes and now the brand has tri-varietal styles.

“We tried to sell unadapted Portuguese wines to supermarkets but they simply don’t sell,” says Oakley, UK agent to JP Ramos. “They haven’t got a grape variety, a known appellation, and don’t have a recognised brand name. We recognised this and made a blend and gave it an English-branded name. It’s a branding exercise – you need to give people the confidence to pick it up from the shelf.” In the UK at least it seems to be working. According to Oakley, Tagus Creek is now the number two Portuguese wine brand behind Mateus.

Adapted varieties

But there are many in Portugal who err on the side of traditionalism and long-termism, not pragmatism. “The use of international varieties will not solve the visibility issue and might dilute the uniqueness of the country as a top premium wine producer,” says Paul Symington of Symington Family Estates. “One of the most important assets of Portugal’s viticulture heritage is the varieties that have been used for centuries and are fully adapted to our terroirs.”

“Controlling grape varieties protects the individuality of the wine regions,” adds Bárbara Roseira of Comissão de Viticultura da Região dos Vinhos Verdes (CVRVV). “Otherwise wines will be the same all over the world.” This is true. Portugal can’t compete with the likes of Chile on bargain single varietal wines, and nor should it have to. With its World of Difference in varietals and regional styles and now refocused marketing, Portugal certainly has the tools to chisel its own identity.

Vinho Verde

Vinho Verde is in luck. Its signature style of light, aromatic, lower-alcohol white wines are right on trend – for reasons more to do with winemakers in Italy than the north west of Portugal, but that hardly matters now. The point is, the US, Germany, France, Canada and the UK (five of its six top markets) are eyeing, if not drinking, the style of wines they make. Now is the time to capitalise.

The region’s wines once had a reputation for unbalanced, acidic whites that would strip the mouth – and probably a wall – but a great restructuring has taken place.

The CVRVV applies fastidious rules, codifying every production, tasting and grading every vintage from every brand before issuing a Vinho Verde logo of approval (3% of wines are rejected). The region, like its northern neighbour the Douro, is characterised by small estates, on average covering just half a hectare each, though the era of vines tangled around trees, or trained three metres into the air to allow room for cabbages and sweetcorn below, is all but over. The nine sub-regions of Vinho Verde have evolved and, collectively, cut the figure of a leaner, commercially acute appellation.

A year ago, the CVRVV rebranded. There was a new logo, website and a €5m marketing campaign targeting consumers via tastings and events. The message proffered is that Vinho Verde makes quality, light, aromatic white wines relevant for young drinkers – but also that there are some potential agers among the white stable, such as Alvarinho and Loureiro, and even sparklers, reds and rosés. As the production volume figures in the past year attest (2% down), the new focus for the region is lower yields and higher quality and therefore the achievement of higher value sales. Export sales in the year ending May 2012 saw a 12% increase in value on the previous year, continuing the trend of value growth since 2000 (CVRVV).

But according to CVRVV president Manuel Pinheiro, value increases don’t necessarily mean expensive wine. “The internal market is in recession and will remain so all though 2013. The good news for the client is that, given the recession, labour costs are being reduced and therefore interesting wines will have an excellent value in the near future.”

With 85% of production now white wine, the bulk of exports will continue to be classic Vinho Verde blends of local indigenous varieties, although Alvarinho is one grape that could make a name for itself. A potential ager for up to 10 years, it is at its best from the sub-region of Monção-Melgaço where a microclimate and the region’s granitic soil lend a Chablis-like minerality.

Some of the groundwork has already been done. Across the Minho river and the north border to Rías Baixas in Spain, where the grape is known as Albariño, much progress has been made in global markets. “Spain has made a name for Albariño, but there are far more producers there, about 200 [versus 50 in Monção-Melgaço]” says Antonio Cerdeira of Soalheiro. “But we want it to be the reference point for Portuguese wine. The national image of Alvarinho is already very good and the international recognition is growing,”

Small berries and a high skin-to-pulp ratio may ramp up aromas and flavour but it also makes for an expensive, low-yielding vine. But this hasn’t stopped producers in the wider Vinho Verde planting the grape, and indeed other areas of the country. Oenologist at the Monção based Solar de Serrade Antonio Souse says the grape variety may prosper elsewhere but it changes as it travels. “They are very different wines. Vinho Verde has granitic soil, in other regions the freshness and minerality disappears.”

At Vinho Verde’s largest wine company, Aveleda – where brands include the Portuguese market-leading white Casal Garcia and the not-far-behind Aveleda Vinho Verde – the burgeoning reputation of Alvarinho has been noticed.

“We have come to realise Alvarinho has great potential, even when planted outside of its sub-region,” says sales manager Pedro Costa. “We’ve been increasing our vines because we think Alvarinho is understood to be premium to Vinho Verde.” Indeed, Alvarinho is very much the couture end of the offering and, outside of its traditional sub-region, is often prioritised as the name on the front label, ahead of Vinho Verde.

For winemaker Vasco Croft the spectre of Vinho Verde’s former reputation still looms. At his biodynamic winery, Aphros, in the sub-region of Lima, he majors on the bluish-red Vinhão and the white Loureiro, but prefers to not display the appellation on his bottle label. “Vinho Verde does not help me to sell wine because people expect something of lower price and I do not have low price or low quality [wines].”

It’s true that some Vinho Verde wines, such as Afros, which have received international recognition ( including from Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding) and can fly as high as £35 a bottle, would probably not benefit from the association. But the large majority, those positioned in and around the sweet spot of south of £10, will want to stick together. Vinho Verde is poised for its breakthrough moment.


For reasons of historical association with Port, the Douro is the most exportable word in the Portuguese wine lexicon. Depending on whom you talk to, the valley’s passage from fortified towards table wines is either a creep or a lurch. Indeed, according to Symington Family Estate, sales of port are up 3.7% for the year ending May 2012, and port remains an estimated 40% of production.

But whatever the speed of the transition, the direction from Douro port to Douro red is indisputable. “It’s the biggest story in Portugal,” says Oakley. “There was a big movement in Port production in the Douro valley when it was recognised that people buy one bottle of port a year and 200 bottles of wine. Douro is opening doors in a lot of countries. It’s a battle we’ve fought for 20 years in the south of Portugal and banged our heads against the wall. Douro is not the best wine region – I think that’s Dão – but it has the strongest resonance in driving the market.”

Tellingly, port’s governing body dropped the yield for this year’s production to reduce stocks and this – coupled with a reported 60% hike in the price of wine brandy (used for fortifying port) – will see port prices rise. Despite the hurdles facing the port industry, Symington believes there is still sufficient requirement for ‘premium port’, particularly in the ‘after-dinner’ markets, but says the Douro has “a brilliant future, although that progression will probably take time”.

Some wineries will take longer than others. Oakley illustrates the point: “Quinta Nova was taken over by the Amorim family as a 25ha port estate. It’s now an 85ha table wine estate. They still make a little bit of port but the conversion to table wine is almost absolute and it’s happening left, right and centre in the Douro.”

The JP Ramos group, a protagonist in Alentejo and Tejo, Portugal’s engine rooms, has also moved in. The easterly region of Douro Superior, dubbed the “promised land”, has seen a gold rush-like exploration in recent years as it is the last of the Douro’s uncultivated land. JP Ramos’ Duorum winery has some exalted company – nearby are the Amorims (Quinta Nova) and Sogrape (Quinta Leda and Quinta Granja). The project, which started in 2007 through the marriage of former Sogrape winemaker José Maria Franco and João Portugal Ramos, saw the high-altitude Arizona-like scrubland planted, and is now producing wines to market.

The attraction for Franco was to produce blends – fresh, fruit driven wine of high acidity and medium alcohol – a move away from bludgeoning 15% heavyweights associated with the Douro.

The winery lends its name to the range Duorum but heading up the portfolio is Tons, an affordable Douro at £8.99 in the UK. Launched in red and white styles over 2010-2011, 200,000 bottle sales were split equally between international and domestic markets. According to export manager Roque de Ferreira, the “much talked about project” has resulted in innovative wine suited to the palate of the consumer, not the winemaker. “Tons is the wine that enables us to democratise the Douro,” he says. Ferreira is doing well on that front – he recently helped broker a deal that would see the JP Ramos’ group supply wine for the UK supermarket group Tesco’s Finest Douro. A move, according to Oakley, which was “the success story of this year”.

As Ferreira says: “The only thing left for Portuguese wine to do is get into the mouth of consumers”. It seems so simple – and the Douro is clearly closer than most wine regions from Portugal. Just as Rioja has garnered international resonance and has led consumers to other Spanish wine, Douro’s continued march will leave tracks back to Portugal. That, supported by an unbroken line of communication, should see that the rest of Portuguese wine isn’t left behind.