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Published:  23 July, 2008

With quality improving, knowledge increasing among the UK trade and the country's trade arm targeting the UK, could Portugal's year of football, as it hosts the 2004 European Championship, also boost its vinous fortunes? Jack Hibberd reports

Are you a Portuguese wine explorer?' asked the posters from Portugal's last generic wine campaign. A rather loud No' was the probable response of the tired consumers on London Underground who were targeted by the advertising last year - and one wonders whether the sight of the (very B-list) celebrities, such as Tony Parsons, Karen Brady (managing director of Birmingham City Football Club, if you're asking) and Jean-Christophe Novelli, swirling glasses of Portuguese wine, did all that much to change things. They didn't if the import figures are to be believed; take famous pink fizz Mateus Ros out of the equation, and light wines from Portugal have been wobbling around the 70,000hl mark for the past five years, with last year's figure of 68,496hl slightly down on 2001. For a country that boasts 238,073ha under vine; one of the most famous wine regions in the world (the Douro); more than a thousand years of winemaking experience; and a vast array of quality indigenous varieties, a measly 1.2% market share by volume, or 1.1% by value (AC Nielsen MAT June/July 2003), is clearly something of an underachievement. So what's going on? Apart from some fleeting popularity for Vinho Verde and bargain-basement buyers' own brand red, Portugal has struggled to find a toehold, let alone a foothold, on supermarket shelves. Portugal has been the Cinderella of the wine world for quite some time,' says John Powell, marketing director at Stevens Garnier (UK distributors for Sogrape), while John Hawes, MD at Laymont & Shaw, notes: UK supermarket buyers are very, very backward in coming forward when it comes to Portuguese wine'. Sarah Turner, Portuguese buyer at Tesco, responds that Portugal as a whole is pretty steady year-on-year, but we only have ten lines'. She also feels that quality is not a major problem for Portugal; there are plenty of good wines, particularly reds, that stack up well versus anywhere else in the world'. Quality on its own, however, has rarely sold much wine. Portugal's problems in the UK stem from its high domestic demand, unusual grape varieties, economies of scale (or, rather, the lack of them), and, most importantly, its image'.

Domestic bliss On the domestic front, along with the boom in wine quality, the past five years have witnessed a similar boom in demand for top wines from the thirsty Portuguese. The [UK] market for Portuguese wine is in the doldrums because, with one of two exceptions, there are no major Portuguese producers really making a concerted sales and marketing effort in the UK,' says Ben Campbell-Johnston, brand manager at John E Fells, the UK agent for the Symington Group. Everything they make they can sell on the domestic market and generally they receive better prices for it than they would over here too,' he adds. And as Richard Mayson explains in his chapter on Portugal in Tom Stevenson's recently published Wine Report 2004, better' prices can sometimes mean inflated prices: If the great wines from Portugal are to be recognised internationally, logic dictates that the majority must have a similar price-to-quality ratio as most other world-class wines. Should international travellers find the best Portuguese wines ridiculously overpriced in Portugal itself, they will not only fail to order those wines, but the word will soon spread that the best Portugal has to offer is overpriced upstarts that do not warrant a second thought.' The Symingtons for one, says Campbell-Johnston, have not gone down this route: With the way the exchange rate is going, and projections for the Portuguese economy, this could change pretty rapidly. The Symingtons are trying to prepare by creating an export market for their wines.' The famous Bruno Pratts collaboration Chyrseia is available in (albeit) small quantities in the UK, even though it sells for 23.99, far less than the E70 it can go for back home. Ditto, the Symingtons' other super-premium wine, Quinta do Roriz Reserva (15.99). So, back in the UK, is it all a case of doom and gloom with over-priced wines and reluctant consumers? Surprisingly, the majority of the trade that deals closely with Portuguese wine seems rather optimistic. Raymond Reynolds, the agency house that specialises in boutique' Portuguese wines, reports it is trading something like 25% up on last year'. Danny Cameron, director of sales and marketing at Raymond Reynolds, adds: There is a very sound future for Portugal in the independent trade. I think on the high street the challenge is more difficult, because Portugal's ability to get its message to the consumer has been constrained in the past.'

Boutique wines Cameron believes in the future of Portuguese wines so much that Raymond Reynolds has printed 25,000 copies of a leaflet called Boutique Wines of Portugal. It doesn't say: "Portugal is weird and wonderful, and hey, we've got thirty grape varieties you've never heard of and I want you to memorise them all by six o'clock",' he says. We want to talk about lifestyle, gastronomy and the modern face of Portugal - it's a very sexy place at the moment.' D&F Wine Shippers, the largest importer of Portuguese wines into the UK, is also upbeat: Things are looking healthy, volumes are good, but more important for us is the increase in sales of wines at higher price points,' says Filipe Fernandes, sales manager at D&F. The right quality/price ratio certainly exists if you look hard enough for it. Fernandes points to the Estremadura region, home to the company's best selling brand, Ramada, (which sells a very healthy 250,000 cases a year), while both Fernandes and Hawes enthuse over Ribatejo, rather than its more famous neighbour the Alentejo. The wines from Alentejo are very good, but they are very popular on the domestic market, and that has pushed the prices up,' says Fernandes. The wines don't really cut it on the export market.' The Symington Group and Fells are also pleased with the success of its less-expensive Douro table wine, Altano. We are selling around four to five thousand cases now, which is quite good when you think it was only launched last year,' says Campbell-Johnston. By next year we hope to have doubled volumes.' And they could well achieve their target, for the fruity, rich Waitrose and Booth's-listed wine is really rather good (the current 2000 vintage costs 4.55). Sogrape is also reporting encouraging figures, mostly driven by the Regional range, which features six wines from four different regions (Vinho Verde/Douro/Do/Alentejo). Sogrape is doing as well as it has ever done in the UK,' says Powell, and that's quite apart from Mateus Ros, which, although produced by the Portuguese giant, is handled by First Drinks Brands in the UK. The Regional range was really the first to give UK consumers want they want, and it was made with export markets in mind,' says Powell. We are now selling 25,000 cases, which is good for a Portuguese wine range.' The Wine Society, Safeway, Majestic and Waitrose all carry one or more of the wines, and more listings are hoped for.

Education, education, education After a number of years of shrinking promotional budgets, the further development of export markets is something that the Portuguese authorities and producers are turning their eyes to (the precarious state of the Portuguese economy being, no-doubt, a spur). Viniportugal, the Portuguese wine promotional body, commissioned a report into identifying which export markets had the most potential. The answer, unsurprisingly, was the UK and the US. Monitor, the consultancy group that undertook the research, has been asked to look at the best way to sell Portuguese wine to these English-speaking countries. Consultant Chris Malone, who heads the research project, says: The UK and US wine markets are growing in value. Both are big markets for Port, and both have strong tourism links with Portugal. I said to the Portuguese: "If you want to succeed in exporting, you need to focus on these markets, give a strong, concerted push and then other markets should follow," and they agreed.' The final report is not released until the end of the year, but Malone says a call to strengthen its central message to both consumers and trade will definitely be in there'. Portugal has been mixed-up about what it tells consumers and the trade,' adds Malone. As well as the Port and Ros sectors, which are categories in themselves, there are 70 different grapes and 32 regions.' Malone wants Portugal to concentrate on a few, quality grapes, and a few successful regions' before it tries to do anything too complicated. A repeat of the wine explorers' advertising is also not favoured by Malone. It was a gallant effort,' he says, but for minor players in the UK market, he feels generic advertising is ineffectual as most purchase decisions are made on the shop floor'. Raising knowledge of Portugal in the wine trade, and among shop floor staff, are the priorities.

A curse or a blessing? Increasing the knowledge of Portugal's grape varieties will probably take first priority in any future programmes. Its varieties, outside those grown on the slopes of the Douro, are almost unknown in the trade - never mind among consumers. A point of difference is one thing, but can a POD be just so different it looses its point? If Portugal goes down the international varieties route it will find itself competing with countries like Bulgaria and Eastern Europe,' says Campbell-Johnston, and they are so far behind [in planting terms] that they will never catch up'. If a wholesale switch to more commercial varieties is out of the question, concentrating on increasing knowledge of a few, quality varieties is certainly a step in the right direction. Oz Clarke says in the introduction to his 2004 Pocket Wine Book: As Portuguese reds get better and better, I'll start learning the flavours of its fascinating indigenous grapes.' And no less a figure than the vine doctor', Richard Smart, said at a seminar at Lisbon's Envoi trade fair, that Portugal has some of the finest grape varieties in the world', and that interest was growing in Australia as producers there become bored with international varieties. Could knowledge of Portuguese grapes become a new badge of honour among the wine cognoscenti? The average consumer, however, will probably want more of a helping hand when it comes to delving into the mysteries of Trincadeira, Aragonez and Touriga Nacional. As Hawes says: I think producers should create blends with the classic grapes to give a handle to consumers.' Turner also backs blending international with indigenous: On my past visits to Portugal, I've been scowled at for even mentioning international grape varieties, but more recently, attitudes are changing and more producers are experimenting with planting international varieties. This is a positive step, as it is giving the opportunity to blend indigenous and international varieties.' Powell says Sogrape is completely committed to indigenous varieties', but also mentions that the company has experimental plots of international varieties and does not want to rule anything out.

Football crazy So what's the next step for Portugal? With the Portuguese government giving backing to an export drive, encouraging, if minor, signs of growing interest in the UK, and increasing knowledge among commentators and retailers, Portuguese wine does seem to have a future. And the biggest marketing opportunity yet for Portuguese wine is about to burst onto our screens. Next year David Beckham, Michael Owen et al will be jetting off to Portugal to take part in the 2004 European Championship (the qualifier in Turkey permitting). The eyes of Europe, if not the world, will be on Portugal as never before. As Powell says: Direct sponsorship is hideously expensive', and best left to the likes of Budweiser and Coca-Cola, but no-one is ruling out holding events to coincide with the event, with Laymont & Shaw particularly keen. Portugal [due to its inherent production problems] will never be another Australia, or even a La Mancha,' says Hawes, and Portuguese wine is unlikely ever to achieve massive volume success outside the bargain basement category, with or without a football tournament. But steady, if slow growth is certainly possible, especially in the burgeoning premium category. As Cameron says: There are interesting wines from across the country now - almost all the regions have something to show.' Becoming a Potuguese wine explorer might not be such a bad idea after all.


The multitude of indigenous varieties, subtle regional name differences and tradition of blending often confuse consumers but may turn out to be Portugal's vinous salvation. Josie Butchart looks at the challenge to exporting tradition

It's a brand manager's nightmare. How do you convince the sophisticated UK drinker that fly-droppings' (Borrado das Moscas) or dog strangler' (Esgana Co) are the perfect wines to bring to a dinner party or impress a hot date? While Merlot trips of the tongue fairly easily, Trincadeira is a bit of a challenge and Ferno Pires sounds more like a swash-buckling adventurer than a grape. If Portugal wants to resist the trail blazed by New World countries and stick to its indigenous viticultural treasures, rather than planting well-known international grape varieties, it needs to consider other ways to move sales forward in the competitive UK market. How do producers go about wooing the average UK consumer, more used to ordering a generic Chardonnay than a glass of Aragonez from Alentejo? But Portugal's indigenous varieties may ultimately prove its salvation, rather than a viticultural albatross. Portugal's strength lies in its individuality - and using indigenous varieties makes the wines more individual,' says Raymond Reynolds of Portuguese specialist Raymond Reynolds Ltd. Many producers believe that the rich diversity of Portugal's own grape varieties is vital to its future wine-producing success. Time and again producers, importers and buyers come back to Portugal's unique selling point - the ability to offer the consumer something different, and that is significantly helped by the wealth of viticultural options at their fingertips. Portugal needs a niche,' says Waitrose buyer Nick Room. Without that they are part of a pool, and Portugal won't succeed as part of a pool.' Indigenous varieties are one way that Portugal can differentiate its wines on the world stage. The planting of international varieties could be a very short-lived temptation, but a wholesale move to international grapes should be avoided because Portugal would be competing against every other wine-producing country, without offering anything unique. The debate for and against moves to modernise the Portuguese wine industry through the planting of international grape varieties has been rumbling on for some time, and attitudes now seem to have swung back in favour of tradition. As time goes on people are becoming more confident about indigenous grapes,' says Lance Foyster, director of FWW Wines, but sales are still disappointing - it's easier to sell a Do or a Douro than a Tinta Roriz'. And that is the crux. The varieties may be interesting and unique to Portugal, but do they sell? There are plenty of fantastic wines made from indigenous varieties in Portugal,' agrees Tesco buyer Sarah Turner. But there is very little customer recognition and consequently customers are hesitant when it comes to Portuguese wines.' One option is to blend indigenous varieties with better known international names such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. It is easier to sell international-style wines in the UK but there is a danger that the international element becomes merely a marketing tool, rather than contributing significantly to the taste profile of the wine. There is a place for blending indigenous varieties with international grapes but that is something of a market-led idea. The attitude is: "Touriga is hard to sell so let's stick Merlot on the label",' says Foyster. However, when producers do use international varieties alongside local favourites it can lead to success. Ferno Pires works well blended with Chardonnay, according to Ehrmanns buying director Hugo Campbell. Foyster, meanwhile, suggests that Merlot softens the wildness of Baga, but producers should avoid Syrah with Baga as they tend to fight in the bottle. Alentejo producer Joo Portugal Ramos has been blending local varieties such as Trincadeira and Touriga Nacional with Syrah and Merlot for years, with great success. Another option is to use modern winemaking techniques on traditional varieties, producing an international-style wine with the indigenous grapes. This is the tack Peter Bright has taken in Bairrada with the Baga grape. Using carbonic maceration to reduce the tannins in Baga produces a wine with a soft, smoky quality and sweet fruit,' says Campbell. As winemaking techniques refine, winemakers may have more success in producing wines from traditional varieties that taste modern and appealing to the consumer. But are Portuguese producers willing to produce wines with a modern taste profile? A lot of Portuguese winemakers are terrified of being accused of selling out to international styles,' says Foyster. They remember the way that indigenous grapes used to taste, see the changes and huge stylistic differences, and they are frightened of being accused of going too far.' The Portuguese are proud of their viticultural heritage - to the extent that producers are compelled to use the Portuguese synonym for varieties such as Tempranillo when exporting abroad. But, says Carrie Jrgensen of Cortes de Cima in Alentejo, It makes it very difficult to market Tempranillo, for example in the US market, when you are forced to call it Aragonez'. Many varieties even go by different names in each region and the wealth of synonyms can be confusing. A grape such as Tempranillo is now almost as much Portuguese as Spanish - whether it is called Tempranillo, Aragonez or Tinta Roriz - because of its long history of plantings, but forcing producers to call it only by the Portuguese names doesn't make marketing sense. The same could now be said of Syrah in Alentejo. It is an international grape variety,' says Jrgensen, but it has come to Portugal and become Portuguese'. The Cortes de Cima Incognito' is so-called because Syrah was not an approved variety in Alentejo when the vines were first planted and the 100% Syrah couldn't be sold as such. Syrah works exceptionally well with the Alentejo terroir but plantings of the grape were blocked for some time by bureaucrats fearful that international varieties would usurp indigenous grapes if approved. If experimentation is hindered by regulations, Portuguese winemakers will never find out what the real answer is. Producers should ultimately be able to make the choice and plant the varieties they believe best suit their terroir. The indigenous viticultural landscape can be a daunting prospect, but it's certainly not boring. Until recently, vineyards in the Douro were planted with a fairly random mix of over 80 different varieties. Things have become a little clearer in recent years, after reform of agricultural production under the PDRITM rural development scheme of the 1980s and 1990s led to five grape varieties being selected as the best performers in the Douro region and batch-planted in single-varietal plots. Getting to grips with these five varieties gives you a good start towards understanding the viticultural profile of the Douro, and each region of Portugal has a similar pattern of widely-planted top performers. While it is important that the minority varieties are not forgotten - contributing as they do to Portugal's unique heritage - it certainly helps to clarify things if you have an overview of the main players. So for a shorthand guide to Portuguese grapes here is a quick rundown of the varieties that make up the 238,073ha under vine. Starting in the Douro, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Co are the big five' varieties and most are also planted throughout the rest of Portugal. Touriga Nacional is the most lauded and seen as the brightest star in the Portuguese sky, but it is tricky to grow and a low yielder. Tinta Roriz is Spain's Tempranillo and also does particularly well in Alentejo, where it is known as Aragonez. It is relatively easy to grow and favoured by viticulturalists in the Cima Corgo and Douro Superior, but it is important that yields are kept under control to maintain quality, when it will produce wines of elegance and distinction. Touriga Franca is the most widely-planted Douro variety and is a good all-rounder in the vineyard, valued for its intense violet aromas. Tinta Barroca is an early ripener but not planted outside the Douro, while Tinta Co, the red dog', frustrates growers with low yields but produces exceptionally long-lived wines. Now for the best of the rest. The south is dominated by the full, grippy red variety Castelo Frans, previously known as Periquita, where it thrives on the dry, sandy soils, although Trincadeira edges ahead in Alentejo. In the north the Douro varieties are fairly important, with Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz the most widely-planted in Tras-os-Montes. But each region has its own speciality: Baga dominates in Bairrada, the white Ferno Pires in Ribatejo and Alfrocheira Preta is important in Do. The white variety Arinto is particularly well-respected, with some producers comparing it in quality to Chardonnay. Vinho Verde favours three varieties for its unique zesty white wines: Alvarinho, Loureiro and Pederna. But most Portuguese wines are a blend of several varieties and producers are now experimenting more with different combinations. Perhaps the best tactic for Portuguese producers is to exploit the indigenous varieties, but plant international varieties where they particularly suit the terroir. Communicating the message that Portuguese wine is mainly made from a mix of indigenous varieties and the result is a Do, a Douro or an Alentejo, rather than worrying about explaining the exact varieties used, could help the wines develop a clearer image. Whatever route producers ultimately choose, it is vital that Portuguese wines continue to modernise without losing their unique character. International varieties may have a place but surely only as a complement to the nation's own viticultural treasures.