A group of Portuguese producers were in Vancouver a couple of months ago as part of a world wide tour to promote Portugal’s wines. It was interesting to see what approach they would take in trying to generate some support for one of the wine world’s least understood wine producing countries. A confusing and unfamiliar array of grape varieties, regions and styles means that Portugal is really starting with a fresh slate, albeit a challenging one. How were they going to present this unique wine country to the market?
The event started off with a lunch at the Metropolitan Hotel where (then) chef Dino Renaerts created a fantastic array of tapas style foods with a Portuguese twist. The wines showed very well with the food, showing clear potential for these styles in the right environment. Following the lunch was a larger tasting of wines from a number of Portuguese regions and producers. Many of these producers were unrepresented in the market and looking to build a business in the British Columbia and Canadian markets. This is where things got confusing.
A sea of wines was set out for tasting, with an overwhelming hotch potch of label designs, colours, packaging styles, grape varieties, regions and wine styles adding more layers of confusion to Portuguese wine. I was hoping this tasting would clarify things, simplifying Portugal to something that consumers could embrace and understand. But, unfortunately, the opposite turned out to be true. The picture got a little more blurry.
Portuguese wine does have a few distinct benefits but needs to figure out how to package these for the wine world. So far it has not been successful. The country has a fascinating array of indigenous grape varieties, the second most after Italy apparently, but with unfamiliar names, this will never be the gateway into new markets. Perhaps a more important advantage is that there are only a few regions to deal with and not a sea of complicated appellations for consumers to sift through. This benefit has also been blown as each region seems intent on trying to produce every imagineable style of wine possible. The result…more confusion. Some countries can be saved by their local cuisine, and build awareness in a market around the food, but Portugal doesn’t make the headlines in the culinary world and the wines are left to make it alone.
One area where Portugal has the chance to achieve success lies in its ability to produce wines of great value. Some Portuguese wines completely over deliver for the price. It will likely take the success of one wine to hold the door open for its compatriots if there is any chance of Portugal gaining a foothold in the market. A simplified approach needs to be developed where consumers are presented with a simple picture of what Portuguese wine is. This is not saying that Portugal’s diversity needs to be squandered but that it should be held in reserve, released only when the market is ready. Take Argentina and Mendoza Malbec as an example. For years the producers just worked on getting the world comfortable with Mendoza and Malbec. Only recently have they started to market the diversity that can occur within this framework, but because people feel comfortable with the product they are ready and willing to be educated.
The likely candidates for success are those regions where there is already some recognition. The Douro is the leader of the pack. It is quite logical for people, who already know Port, to imagine a Port like wine that is not fortified and not as high in alcohol. The big, rich, ripe, fruit-driven style of wine from the Douro is enjoying popularity. The other is the Douro’s neighbour Vinho Verde. The nature and the name of this wine is easy to appreciate. Nearly everyone can get the concept of a crisp fresh wine called ‘green wine’. There is nothing too challenging about it. The other region that seems to be the closest to the ideals of consistency of style, interesting wine and good value is the Dao. It is not hard to imagine a CAD$12 wine from the Dao becoming a consumer hit. Ripe fruit, good flavour but more interesting that the overdone sugar water wines that some consumers seem to be tiring of.
So Portugal as a wine country is definitely worth exploring, and with a bit of detective work some great value wine will be unearthed. Be brave, try a few bottles and give these interesting wines a try. With some more organized marketing, Portugal has the potential to give us something the market is increasingly wanting. Interesting wine at a great price.
Rhys Pender MW