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Portuguese wines in the UK marketplace

(This article is modified from a piece I wrote for Harpers Wine and Spirits Weekly, the leading UK wine trade magazine, in April 2002)

April’s Portuguese annual trade tasting, held at the Royal Horticultural Halls in London, was the biggest yet, with more than 600 wines from 45 different producers. But it seems that the fortunes of Portuguese wines in the UK marketplace over the last 12 months have been decidedly mixed.

The good news? According to Nick Oakley, of Oakley Wine Agencies, ‘2001 is the best commercial vintage I’ve experienced in 10 years of working with Portuguese wines’. The bad news? ‘For the first time, we have the volume, quality and price, but we don’t have the interest from the supermarkets’. Oakley uses a surfing analogy to illustrate the problem. ‘Four years ago people were clamouring for Portuguese wine, but two successive poor vintages in terms of quantity, 1997 and 1998, came just at the wrong time: everyone was waiting for the wave that never came. Now it’s hard to get the serious players interested in listing new Portuguese wines.’ He adds, ‘it is frustrating, because we now have the best conditions for a decade. We have the wave but we don’t have the surfers.’

Peter Bright, who has been making wine in Portugal since 1993, agrees that the last couple of years have been ‘very difficult’ — he has seen listings for his wines come and go. The problem? ‘Portugal as a brand doesn’t exist: it’s not that people have a poor opinion of Portuguese wines; they just don’t have any opinion.’ More positively, Bright feels that Portuguese wines offer high intrinsic quality and totally different flavours, and while he can’t see an explosion of sales happening soon, he thinks Portugal’s best bet is to ‘try to carve out a niche market’.

Along similar lines, Robert Boutflower of Laymont & Shaw is worried that Portugal will always be a small sector. ‘Everyone had great hopes a few years ago, but they haven’t been realized. They had their chance and didn’t capitalize on it.’ He explains, ‘Six to eight years ago everyone thought Portuguese wine was the next big thing, but interest has been dropping off. Everyone was behind Portuguese wines and supermarkets were listing them. But they didn’t sell because people didn’t like the style.’ Boutflower admits that Laymont & Shaw haven’t done as well as they’d hoped with their Portuguese portfolio. ‘The style of wines that are successful in Portugal are difficult to translate to the UK market: they are too Portuguese. They need to vamp up their presentation and style for the UK.’

Not everyone is glum, though. Danny Cameron, of Raymond Reynolds, is much more upbeat about the prospects for Portuguese wine in the UK. In fact, he’s quite buoyant. According to Cameron, ‘the biggest trend over the last 12 months has been a surge of confidence among the independent trade. If you go back 12-18 months very few were listing more than 5 wines: now they are typically listing 8-12 and they are turning them over.’ He reports that merchants are also becoming more aware of the qualitative pyramid and are ‘not afraid to stock wines at the £8-10 and £15 price levels’. As an example of this growth in confidence he cites Redoma’s Rosé, a pink Douro wine that sells at £8.99. Last year 500 cases were sold. ‘In the context of the UK trade this is not a lot, but in the context of a Portuguese Rosé at £8.99, this exceeded our expectations.’ Cameron adds, ‘there’s now an acceptance of the idea that Portugal is not just there to service the trash can.’ Ineed, there does seem to be a gulf developing with Portuguese wines between the high-end, small production wines (they’re flourishing) and the high-volume everyday wines (which are finding it a bit of a struggle).

One unquotable source suggested that the supermarket buyers were to blame for some of the difficult conditions at the volume end of the market. ‘The problem is trying to get them to look at what we’ve got. The general trends in the wine market are guiding the buyers, who are not letting the wines speak for themselves. They are made to follow the marketing people.’ He added that ‘Waitrose and Marks and Spencer are the exception: if it’s good quality, they’ll back it.’

Going the varietal route?
A significant change at this year’s trade tasting was that for the first time there was a central varietal table, featuring more than 160 wines. ‘This is a new development in Portugal’, says João Costa of Wines of Portugal. Just 13 of Portugal’s multitude of indigenous varieties were represented, because, adds Costa, ‘there aren’t many Portuguese varieties that can stand up on their own.’

Sogrape’s Miguel Oliveiro Pinto believes that this move to varietals is important, but more as a learning process. ‘Because of the past history of Portugal in terms of viticulture, it is important for producers to learn about the potential of varieties.’ Oliveiro Pinto adds that ‘a very good blend is probably richer and more complex than a single varietal. Varietals are a good starting point in creating the best possible blends in the future.’

Wines to look out for in the UK marketplace
In the UK, Raymond Reynolds have been at the vanguard of the resurgence of interest in high-end Portuguese wines, with recent initiatives such as their Bairrada club (a special offer of hard-to get Bairrada wines pitched at independents). This year sees the launch of the new flagship Douro wine from Dirk Niepoort, the 1999 Batuta. The April trade fair was the first showing of the finished wine in the UK, although a few readers may have been fortunate to taste an under-the-counter cask sample at last May’s LIWSF. Batuta is an opaque, dense blend of old vine Tinta Amarela, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca, and only 3000 bottles of this mind-blowing stuff were made. Priced at £45, there are just 20 six-packs for the UK. The importance of Batuta, though, lies in its role as a figurehead for the new portfolio of Douro table wines that Dirk Niepoort is developing. Those who miss out will find the 1999 vintage of Redoma almost as impressive, but it’s still made in small quantities, with 900 bottles for the UK (retail £24.99). The two other reds in the Niepoort portfolio are the rare Charme (aiming at an elegant style, and foot-trodden with the stems) and Quinta da Napoles. Expect to see a lot more on wineanorak.com about Dirk’s wines in the coming weeks: as I write I’ve just returned from an exciting trip to the Douro looking at the revolution in top quality table wines that is taking place there, and his wines are leading the field.

Another high-end Douro wine hoping to make a splash is the newly released Chryseia 2000, a 50:50 joint venture between Bruno Prats (of Cos d’Estournel fame) and the Symington family. According to Paul Symington, the principal behind Chryseia is simply ‘to try to make a wine that will be seen as one of Portugal’s best’. He feels that the climate and grape varieties of the Douro are capable of producing ‘an outstanding wine’. 35 600 bottles of the 2000 vintage have been produced, and rather unusually it will be offered for sale solely through the Bordeaux Negociants. My verdict? It’s good, but probably outperformed by several of the new breed of top Douro wines. According to Ben Campbell Johnston of John E. Fells, it should cost in the region of £20–25 per bottle. Fells are also agents for the modern-styled Esporão wines from the Alentejo, impeccably made by David Baverstock. 

Oakley Wine Agencies have a large portfolio of Portuguese wines, including those of João Portugal Ramos, who is currently making some impressive, fruit-driven commercial wines. Ramos has developed a reputation as one of Portugal’s leading consultant winemakers, but is now concentrating on his own operation at Estremoz in the Alentejo, and also a promising venture called Falua in the Ribatejo. Falua is a negociant business, but maintains quality through long-term contracts with growers. It has the potential to produce the sorts of quantities that interest the supermarkets (currently half a million cases), and at the right prices, too. Oakley has just achieved a listing for two of these wines with Marks & Spencer (Trincadeira and Aragonez varietals, under the brand name Solorico, each at £4.99).

Laymont & Shaw’s portfolio includes several Portuguese producers (Spain is their core business), most prominent of which is probably Luis Pato. In the last 12 months he’s left the Bairrada appellation in frustration at the bureaucracy, and from now on the wines will be labelled as Vinha Regional das Beiras. His well-known single vineyard wines are expensive (retail £16.95), and there’s a paltry 20 cases of each for the UK. Impressive in the modern style are the Quinta da Alorna wines from the Ribatejo, which now have a radically improved packaging. These delicious wines are made in a soft, concentrated, commercial style and retail for £6.95. Laymont & Shaw also have great hopes for Pellada, a 100% Tinta Pinheira from Alvaro Castro in the Dão (£6 retail; independents). They’ve decided to put a nude on the label for the UK market, because, according to MD Robert Boutflower, ‘sex sells’. How nude? Boutflower assures me it will be tasteful: ‘Just a belly button and half a bosom’. Castro’s other Dão wines, Das Saes and Pellada, are leading examples of their region.

What of Sogrape, Portugal’s largest family-owned wine company? It seems they are pretty far advanced in the process of reinventing themselves as a thoroughly modern producer making wines that the export markets want. Marketing Director Miguel Oliveiro Pinto says that Sogrape have made a conscious decision to change the style of their wines to appeal more to international tastes. New for this year’s tasting was a revamped Reserva range, with a white from the Douro (£5.95) and reds from Dão (£6.95), Douro (£7.99) and Alentejo (£7.45). Whereas Sogrape’s reserva wines were previously made with the specific requirements of the powerful domestic market in mind, the new range has been adjusted ‘to fit the international palate’. According to Oliveiro Pinto, ‘the whites are frutier and fresher, and the reds show more up-front fruit and better integrated oak’. But while there has been a change in style, Sogrape are not considering using international varieties. ‘Portuguese grape varieties are the soul of our product’, he emphasizes. Also on show will be the latest vintages of the Regional range, which was launched early last year. These come in just under the £5 price point, and represent four different DOCs: Douro, Dão, Alentejo and Vinho Verde. Quantities range from 50 000–150 000  cases, with up to half for export markets. These aim to represent the very best each region can do at this price point.

Future trends
At the top end, Portuguese wines go from strength to strength. On my recent Douro visit I was stunned by some of the new wines being made by people passionate about their craft and keen to produce the very best wines their impressive terroirs permit. These wines invariably sell themselves; the tricky business is shifting large volumes of lower-priced wines.

There is some good news amid the realism that cracking the volume end of the market is a rather elusive goal. Robert Boutflower comments that ‘Portuguese producers are now listening to what we are asking for. In the past they’ve made nice wines but they’ve not been commercial enough. We’re asking producers to soften up their wines for general drinking while maintaining their Portuguese identity.’

Peter Bright is also positive that ‘the quality is there’. It is promising that the overheated domestic market is showing signs of cooling off: ‘Grape prices are coming down, which should make the wines more competitive in export markets’.

Everyone seems to agree that quality is on the up. João Costa claims that there has been an ‘enormous increase in quality in the last five years’, an opinion echoed by Miguel Oliveiro Pinto, who thinks there has been a tremendous improvement in viticulture, vinification and also packaging. He adds that while the concentration by most producers on indigenous varieties may be a disadvantage in the short term, in the medium term ‘there will be a point of differentiation of   Portuguese wines that will be important in foreign markets.’ Costa agrees that one of the advantages of Portuguese wines is that they are different. ‘Consumers could become fed up with international grape varieties, and if and when they grow bored with them, they’ll turn to Portuguese wines’. He thinks that the current difficulties Portuguese wines are experiencing are not unique to Portugal. ‘Everyone in the old world is up against a lot of competition from the new world wines, which are often produced by big private companies with large marketing budgets. In the old world many companies are still family owned and can’t compete on the same level’. For the future, he believes Portugal is ‘well placed to offer a third way between the old world and the new.’  For the sake of diversity, I hope he is right. Portuguese wine producers have jumped through all the hoops that the export markets have set them: let’s hope they can also woo the consumers…

Producer profiles from the Portuguese trade tasting and my recent Douro trip will be appearing over the next few weeks.

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June 2002