It might be tipped by critics as the hottest item on the market, but Douro table wine has struggled to grab the attention of UK punters. Laura Clark talks to the region's pioneering winemakers to find out why
The turnaround in the Douro has been nothing short of spectacular. Wind the clock back 10 years and the iconic terraced slopes of Portugal's Douro Valley were synonymous in consumers' minds with only one thing - port.
The popularity of th is sweet, fortified wine meant booming business for the big boys as the shelves of UK off-licences groaned with bottles of Graham's, Dow's and Taylor's. But as the nation's thirst for vintage port ebbed , plummeting sales hit the giant port houses hard and threatened to destroy the smaller quintas.
Fast forward a decade of hard work, dedication and trial and error from a group of pioneering winemakers intent on harnessing the potential on their doorstep, and the Douro has re-emerged as Portugal's most successful table wine region. The rich, plummy reds and elegant, aromatic whites have gained respect among critics, and nothing testif ies to the region's success more than the results of the International Wine Challenge 2006. With nine Douro reds and two whites scooping gold medals, 15 silver medals, 14 bronzes and 35 seals of approval, the Douro has lived up to its reputation as a rising star of the wine world.
But one crucial element is lacking from this success story - the ability of Douro table wines to grab the attention of drinkers in the UK. Even with the likes of Majestic, Waitrose, Tesco and Laithwaites giving considerable shelf space to the Douro's offering, its wines are still relatively unknown to the average UK punter.
Part of the reason may be the Douro's legacy as a port-producing region, according to Miguel Roquette, export sales manager for Quinta do Crasto - one of the first quintas to break out on its own in 1995 and experiment with table wines.
"Port will always be there in the minds of consumers before table wines, but the hope is that it can become a compl ementary product," Roquette says. "If people take it seriously and there's serious investment, the Douro can be one of the top regions in the world for dry wines ."
Sogrape consultant Vasco Magalhães agrees that knowledge of port has blinded consumers to other wine from the region. Best known for super-brand Mateus Rosé, Sogrape is currently making modern, fruit-filled wines at its 105 ha estate and winery Quinta de Leda. "We try not to link table wine and port - it's important that it has its own identity. The problem is the message, not the wine," Magalhães says.
The region's use of lesser-known, indigenous grape varieties is another reason Douro table wines have failed to get on the radar of UK drinkers. Roquette admits that when a grape variety is hard to pronounce or remember, consumers aren't drawn to it . "The Douro offers different fruit, a different approach, a different complexity from other wine regions , but pronunciation of some of the varieties is tough for certain nationalities," he says.
For Magalhães, a solution lies in promoting the Douro as a region, rather than basing marketing on its unknown native grape varieties . In 2006 Sogrape Vinhos launched a range called Pena de Pato, which aimed to shift the focus from grape varieties to Portugal's different wine regions. The range consists of Douro Red 2004 and Douro White 2005, along with wines from the Dão and Alentejo regions.
Magalhães says: "Portuguese wines have little opportunity in the UK because there is tremendous competition. The problem is reaching the consumer who finds it difficult to pronounce our grape varieties. That's why Pena de Pato focuses on the different wine regions - it makes it easier for the consumer to engage with the range."
The Bergqvists at Quinta de la Rosa were among the first new-wave producers to take table wine as seriously as port. Owner Tim Bergqvist, who runs the quinta with his daughter Sophia, says the success of Douro table wines lies in raising their profile in the UK. "The only way to do it in the UK market is through the trade and Douro tastings in the off-trade," Bergqvist says. He highlights the vital work of groups such as The Douro Boys, the IVDP and the ICEP - which all bring together some of the best wines for tastings, both in the UK and abroad.
The Symington family - one of the dominant forces in the port wine trade - branched into table wines in 1998. For winemaker Peter Symington, the key to increasing sales of Douro table wines is changing perceptions of Portuguese wine quality. "Most of the producers are working hard to make quantities of table wines from individual properties. They have had a lot of success in terms of quality, it's now a case of convincing someone to put it on the supermarket shelves," he says.
The Symington s see big opportunities for older styles and its latest range - Quinta de Roriz Reserva red table wine - is a joint venture with João van Zeller.
Made with a blend of Douro grapes, including Tinta Roriz, the wines are aged for 12 months in new French oak barrels and are said to have excellent ageing potential.
But in a market flooded with cheap wine and recogni sable grape varieties, can Douro table wines ever compete with the big New World brands? Douro wines don't position themselves as direct competitors to the New World, especially at entry point level, according to IVDP spokesman Paulo Pinto, who asserts that Australia and Chile are better suited to this task.
"The region does not want to position itself as an exporter of large quantities of cheap wine . Instead, the Douro is able to offer value-added wines," he says. "At a higher price point, the Douro offers high quality wines that present greater value to the consumer than wines of a comparable price from the New World," Pinto adds.
With the region's high labour costs and low yield, the future for Douro table wines will continue to lie in the top end of the market.
But with the Douro's dynamic producers striking a balance between moderni sing the winemaking process and retaining traditional grapes and flavours, these distinctive wines can offer UK drinkers an attractive point of difference - putting the Douro firmly on the map.
Trade and press tastings
The Wines of Portugal Annual Trade Tastings take place on March 27 at Lord's Cricket Ground in London, and on March 29 at The George Hotel in Edinburgh. Among the Douro producers will be Quinta do Vallado, Churchill Estates, Quinta de Macedos and Ramos Pinto. The shows will also feature tutored tastings from Charles Metcalfe and workshops matching food with Portuguese wine. Contact email@example.com for more details.
Secrets of selling Douro table wines
Retailer Andy Paterson, from the Halifax Wine Company in West Yorkshire, believes the most successful sales ploy is to promot e Douro table wines with food.
"They're fantastic with food and work with the whole culture of leisurely eating and drinking. It gets people interested and experimenting," he says. Ken Sheather has also built his business around pairing Portuguese wine with food. "Many Portuguese wines have links with regional dishes and there's a natural affinity between the two," he says. At Ken Sheather Wines in Cheltenham, he organises food and wine evenings, working with customers to devise a dinner menu and matching the wines to it.
Another top tip from Paterson is to stock Douro table wine above £5. "Once people try a bottle worth £5.95 they're happy to trade up to a £8 or £10 bottle. Selling with enthusiasm and encouraging customers to taste a wide variety is the way to go," he says.