Wines of Portugal - the Next Big Thing?

Douro River as seen from Quinta da Barca winery
Douro River as seen from Quinta da Barca winery

The typical American wine lover is driven by the love of discovery and the desire to find unbeatable bargains. In light of these twin motivations, the wines of Portugal just might be the next big thing.

Until recently the Portuguese wine market was predominantly a domestic one, with a large percentage of its production filling local and regional markets. Nowadays, having been torn inside out by the economic thunderstorms buffeting the European Union, Portugal has been forced to establish itself in the global marketplace. And, while America ranks only fifth in the Portuguese export hierarchy, behind Angola (former colony), France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, it is a promising arena for the exciting wines now finding their way across the Atlantic.

“Yes, I agree that we have had a late start and I see several reasons that can help explain it,” said Miguel Nora, senior area manager at ViniPortugal for the US market. “One of them is for our history.  Until the late 1970’s our wine production was largely based on a cooperative system, with very small producers delivering their grapes to the local co-ops, which would find it more appealing to sell domestically or even locally, as opposed to the Port or the Madeira industries, where the focus was on exports. Then, in 1986, we joined the European Union and we were able, and forced, in some aspects, to reorganize our production, investing more in technology, legislation, wine education and research.” Another important year, Nora added, was 1997, when the country’s several thousand producers banded together to form an association called ViniPortugal, which has the goal to promote all Portuguese still wines.

According to Nora, other important aspects came into play as well. “We traditionally had a strong domestic wine market; for many years, we had one of the highest wine consumption per capita rate in the world. Also, we are a small country, therefore, not as well known up until a few decades ago; and, we had a wine sector that was formed by many very small companies.”

J Portugal Ramos Winery in Alentejo, courtesy Worldwine Marketing
J Portugal Ramos Winery in Alentejo, courtesy Worldwine Marketing

Because of this, Portugal was able to evolve slowly, he explained. “We were able to keep our traditions, our knowledge based on centuries of experience and more than 250 local grapes, many of which are not produced anywhere else in the world. All this makes Portugal a unique wine producer.” And one that has enjoyed steady growth for the past 20 years.

Will the American market help sustain this growth? Observers of the Portuguese wine market believe so, but only after certain impediments are removed.

“The biggest issue is that almost no one knows their grape varieties. Grapes such as Touriga Nacional, Arinto, Loureiro, Verdelho, and over 250 others are practically grown no place else in the world,” explained Mark Norman, president of World Wine Marketing. “So, step one needs to be more education.”

“The second issue is importers, other than traditional ones, need to bring better quality wines to the US consumer,” he continued. “I have spent a number of days traveling [throughout Portugal] with American importers who do not want anything over 3 Euros in price.  This translates to a maximum US retail price of about $11.99.”

One way to help consumers learn more about these wines, Norman said, would be for more winemakers to move away from traditional blending practices.

“Portuguese winemakers are only now starting to make single varietal wines, he explained. “These will be easier for American consumers to understand. Traditional wines are usually a blend of three to five grapes.  Trying to explain several grape varieties that no one understands is a leap. Getting more people to taste their better quality wines is the easiest way to grab the attention of American wine drinkers.”

Blanche Orbe, former brand manager for Esporão Wines, a top producer in the Alentejo region, agrees that education is imperative, but she believes the trade itself needs to learn more before consumers can dive into the Portuguese pool.

Herdade de Comporta winery in Setubal, courtesy Worldwine Marketing
Herdade de Comporta winery in Setubal, courtesy Worldwine Marketing

“You have to talk to the consumer as a teacher talks to students. They have to be able to differentiate the different styles from different regions and communicate those differences in style to the customer. If the trade knows the style of the region it's easy to talk to the consumer. But the trade needs to get educated first. We know that the consumers are interested. They want to know these things so we have to make sure that the trade and the media understand that.”

Orbe insists that the media needs to take a stronger role in helping the wine curious understand the peculiarities of Portuguese wine.

“There is a big focus on Douro in the print media,” she said, with minimal coverage of other areas, though that is slowly starting to change. “We’ve taken journalists to other places in recent years. So, you’re seeing a little bit more as they experience regions like Alentejo, Vinho Verde, and Dão. It is exciting. When I first started in this business nobody outside of Portugal spoke of Portuguese wines. And you are now starting to see more in a variety of publications. It’s getting there.”

For Americans interested in understanding Portuguese wines, Orbe suggests they look beyond the popular spots – Douro and Alentejo – and pay more attention to wines from Dão and Lisboa, formerly known as Extremadura. She is excited, too, about developments in Vinho Verde, which many people think produces only light, frizzante whites.

Vineyard at the border of the Dao & Beira regions, courtesy Worldwine Marketing
Vineyard at the border of the Dao & Beira regions, courtesy Worldwine Marketing

Norman agrees, adding that, for him, the key areas are “Minho, Tras-os-Montes, Dão, Beira Interior, Tejo and Alentejo." There are many more quality wines to be 'discovered' from the three sub regions of the Douro --Alto Douro (or Douro Superior), Cimi Corgo, and Baixo Corgo. “What I find appealing about all these wines is that their flavors are so unique,” he said. “There are no wines from anyplace in the world that have the same flavors.”

One person who understands that perspective better than most is Mark Squires, who reviews the wines of Portugal for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

“Portugal’s most prestigious region is Douro, famed for Port,” Squires explained. “It is a gold standard region internationally for that. Until Douro started producing a wave of fine table wines, less attention was paid to Portugal as a table wine country. I think Douro is sometimes viewed as synonymous with Portugal, which is unfair.

“If you go outside of Douro and factor those other regions in,” he continued, “you will find that there are a surprising number of stalwarts in many regions that have been around for quite awhile longer than the last 15-20 years that people talk about, and many have been making very interesting wines. I had a 1960 Carmo [from Alentejo] recently, for instance.  A lot of those other regions and wineries deserve more credit and attention than they have gotten.”

Vineyard view as seen from the Hotel Douro Scala, near Peso du Regua, courtesy Worldwine Marketing
Vineyard view as seen from the Hotel Douro Scala, near Peso du Regua, courtesy Worldwine Marketing

Most consumers, when they think of Portugal, think of red wine. Squires is quick to point out that that doesn’t have to be the case. “I’m very pleased with the development of the white wines of late. This has not typically been the Portuguese claim to fame, but I’m even seeing some very nice whites from places like Alentejo, which were not known for them. For bargains, try an Esporão Verdelho or Defesa white as charming Alentejo examples."

As one who reviews wines from all over the country, Squires understands the challenge new grape varieties can face in the marketplace. But he believes this actually gives Portuguese wines, which currently enjoy excellent price points, an essential advantage.

“I see diversity in grapes as a great thing. It gives Portugal an identity,” he said. “That’s what has to be marketed and that’s what will guarantee success in the long run. Touriga Nacional, Arinto, Bical, Encruzado, Touriga Franca, Loureiro, and many, many others—these are a lot of fun.”

Fun – one more reason why Portuguese wines might just be the next big thing.