Portuguese wine

29 October, 2012

“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).

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Nick Strangeway

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