Portuguese vino vies for recognition
Few countries of its size can boast the range of wine styles Portugal now produces. They run from delicate, aromatic whites through to huge, gutsy reds, quite unapproachable in their youth. Another of the country's great strengths as a wine producer is the large number of different grape varieties it boasts, many of which are uniquely cultivated in this strip of the Iberian peninsula.
"Once they've tasted the velvety smoothness of the south they don't go back to Dão"
The usual suspects - Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Pinot Noir - don't count for much here and there's only a little more Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the country's vineyards. Portugal's main varieties have refreshingly different names: Roupeiro, Arinto, Antão Vaz, Fernão Pires, Diagalves, Mantuedo, Rabo de Ovelha, Trincaderia das Pratas and Perrum are just some of the whites; Baga, Bastardo, Touriga Nacional, Jaen, Trincadeira Preta, Periquita, Moreto and Alfrocheiro Preto, a few of their red counterparts.
The rapid introduction of modern winemaking technology over the past decade has highlighted the particular characteristics of the best of these indigenous varieties. Add to this the influence of several individual high profile winemakers, from both inside and outside the country, and you have the basis of the winemaking revolution in Portugal today.
Portugal Wine Regions
The growing interest in making red table wine in the Douro region in the north, where there are a good deal more vines than are needed to support Port production in all but the shortest harvests, has given an indication of the quality potential of Portuguese varietals. A more modern approach producing easier, softer and fruitier styles of wine has been taken by some wineries in other traditional production districts like Dão and Barraida also in the northern half of the country. But it is really in the south of Portugal in areas like Extremadura, Ribatejo and the Alentejo, that the changes have been most dramatic.
"It's no accident that all six of the wineries which I deal with are from the south of Portugal," says Nick Oakley of Portuguese specialist Oakley Wine Agencies which supplies many of the major UK multiples. "Most of the wine exported (to the UK) from Portugal now comes from the south. It's taken over from Dão and Barraida. It's even true in the domestic market, Alentejo has become the most popular region and it now has about a 30% share of sales as opposed to only 4% ten years ago."
Why the change? "It's a generalisation," says Oakley, "but the north produces very hard wine, in the south there is a much softer style. People like this, even domestic consumers. Once they've tasted the velvety smoothness of the south they don't go back to Dão." The export figures for the Alentejo region bear him out. Back in 1990 total wine exports from the area (DOC, VQPRD and Vinho Regional) barely registered, but they grew steadily through the 1990s crossing the 3m litre mark in 1997. Overall exports in 1999 were 3.085m litres, less than a tenth of total sales from the region of 31.38m litres, so there is potential for more growth, though not all this wine is of export quality.
However as Oakley says: "The Alentejo is a not a volume market. There's some very good wine made there, but with the heat and dryness, yields are down to around the 40 hectolitres per hectare mark. High quality, but starting at about £5 a bottle, maybe £4.49 at a push. Ribatejo is a better place for volume lines with decent wine even at £2.99 and at £3.99 they're pretty good. For example, Terra de Lobos is a red 'vinho regional' made in a simple, soft, fruity style which sells at £3.99 in Waitrose. They sold 5,000 cases last year and they wanted more but we didn't have it."
The Terra de Lobos is made from the Periquita variety - the most widely planted red grape in the south -- at the Quinta do Casal Branco winery near Almeirim where João Ramos is the consultant winemaker. Along with Jose Neiva, who also operates mainly in Ribatejo and Extremadura, João Ramos is one of the most influential Portuguese winemakers. He makes a range of wines at another operation in the Ribatejo, from grapes grown in his own and managed contract vineyards, sold under the Fahlua and Tâmara labels in First Quench, Safeway and Morrisons, with prices starting at £2.99.
In addition to a whole string of other consultancies, Ramos also has vineyards and a newly extended state of the art winery (constructed in 1997) at Monte da Caldeira near the hill top town of Estremoz in the Alentejo. Here the impressive top of the range wine, sold under the Marques de Borba reserve label, is a blend of Trincadeira and Aragonez (plus a little Perequita). But like Australian David Baverstock, is the winemaker at the vast and celebrated Esporão estate a little further to the south, Ramos is also producing single varietal wines from Trincadeira and Aragonez , plus a new blockbusting Syrah, which further demonstrates the quality potential in this region.
"The Alentejo is the jewel in the crown, but it's not the area to take the UK by storm because there isn't the volume and it's pretty well all at £5 plus," says Oakley. Wine from this region has also become very popular in Portugal and "because the domestic market pays top dollar, it's harder to get the wine at the right price for export."
The right price for export is, it appears, getting increasingly hard to find. "Suppliers want to get the price up every year for no increase in quality. The Chileans and Australians are offering better quality each vintage at the same price. The Portuguese just want more and more money. Portugal really was a bargain when I first started seven years ago and bits of it are still very competitive."
The biggest importer of Portuguese wine into the UK - outside Vinho Verde own label and Mateus - is DFJ Vinhos which, according to Jose Leitao who looks after national accounts, has nearly half the market. Formerly an importer acting as an agent for various Portuguese wineries using the winemaking skills of Jose Neiva to help produce commercially attractive wines, DFJ now makes all its own wines using Neiva's services.
While this involves some wine from the Douro, Dão, Bairrada and Beiras, Leitao says that over 75% of what they import comes from southern Portugal, principally from Extremadura and Ribatejo. They see the latter as having the most potential, particularly for red wines in the £3.99-£5.99 price bracket.
Although they are competitors, Oakley admires DFJ's new approach to Portugal. "They said: 'we'll make the product, we know what the British market wants so we'll do it ourselves, we won't buy it in.' That's their idea and some of the new wine is very good.
"Everyone tells me Portugal's going to be the next big thing," says Oakley, "but they've been saying that for the past seven years - before Bulgaria, Fitou, Chile, South Africa and Argentina, always the next big thing, but it's never happened. It does make some fantastic wines and sales have increased steadily."
Oakley feels that faster growth has been held back by two main factors. "Firstly people still remember there was a lot of bad wine and secondly there's a lack of homogeneity to Portuguese wine styles. It's seen as producing very solid, very disparate styles, unlike Spanish reds which are broadly all soft, like poor man's Riojas. With Portugal just when you think you've sussed it, something else comes along to blow it all away and you taste it and say: 'what the hell is that'."
Top 11 Export Markets 1999
Top 10 Export Markets for Portuguese Wine by Value (10 PTE)
Top 10 Export Markets for Portuguese Wine by Volume (Hectolitres)
Exports of Total .......... Still Wine According to Countries in 1999 (%)
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RIBATEJO WINE REGION
STATISTIC DATA 2000
1- Total wine production of Ribatejo region:
(includes Table Wine + Regional Wine + DOC Wine)
(*)- Provisional data
% Growth 99/00- decrease around 9%
2- Total wine exports of Ribatejo region
(includes only DOC Wine + Regional Wine)
3- Main export markets
For more information on the wine market in Portugal, visit:
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