Treasuring its Nacional gems

18 February, 2011

Portuguese wines have been winning fans throughout the trade – with many retailers, most notably Majestic, giving them major attention. According to figures from the National Statistics Institute of Portugal, the country’s exports to the UK are up 99.1% by value and 22.5% by volume year-on-year to November 2010.?With Portugal basking in a larger share of the limelight and registering on more retailers’ radars, it seemed a fitting moment for the Portuguese industry to convene and take stock of where its success could lead.?The inaugural Wines of Portugal Inter­national Conference in Porto last December provided a timely platform, challenging producers and retailers from across the globe to focus on ways to exploit the country’s many attributes, as well as overcome some of the problems holding it back.?Organised by generic body Vini Portugal, the conference gave the indigenous Touriga Nacional grape centre stage, although it also discussed lesser-known gems that could become calling cards for the country.

In a keynote presentation, wine commentator Jancis Robinson said Portugal’s

number of indigenous varieties offered producers an unparalleled opportunity, pointing out that if there are 1,600 varieties in commercial use, the country is responsible for 10% of those.?She believes now could be the time to maximise this “extraordinary” asset. “Fifteen years ago, when consumers were only interested in a handful of grape varieties, that wasn’t the time. But the wine trade and consumers are getting heartily sick of those grape varieties and there’s an enormous cachet to having your own indigenous variety that can produce some chara­cteristics that provide a welcome change. Prod­ucers really must seize it now.

“Already France, Italy and Spain are taking advantage of this trend. Portugal’s future isn’t necessarily mass market. Touriga Nacional is the most obvious place to start, but I do think it should only be the start. If all goes to plan, Portugal’s renaissance will start with Touriga Nacional before consumers discover other varieties. “It’s a compliment that these varieties are being grown elsewhere.

“But don’t put all your eggs in the Touriga Nacional basket and shout about the number of old vines you have, which is another current fashion. I see much more interest in knowing exactly when vineyards were planted – I think it will become much more important to wine consumers.”?Robinson outlined further developments in the market that Portugal could turn to its advantage. “There is also the trend towards lower-alcohol wines and I think Vinho Verde could fit in with that. The quality of Portuguese wines is so much higher than it was 10 years ago. But I would add, please don’t make wines like everyone else. One opportunity they don’t have is your regions – the same story can be told by every wine-producing country. When you promote grape varieties, promote the regions. I think the kind of wines Portugal has to offer can appeal to a huge rash of independents.”?José Bento of Quinta do Monte d’Oiro added that the trade needed to be bolder about talking about the diversity it offers.

“It is time to recognise Alvarinho and not sweep it under Vinho Verde. If the [Vinho Verde producers] aren’t interested in doing that, maybe it’s time for a new approach. You know a grape has arrived when the Australians start wanting to grow it.”?Double-edged sword?Portuguese minister for agriculture Antonio Serrano added that this diversity could be a double-edged sword in some respects. “We have to sustain our grape varieties,” he said. “We have many more than Spain or Italy and we have to preserve their heritage. We have to innovate and maintain the sustainability of our grape varieties.”?Mario Neves, director of Caves Aliança, one of the largest producers of Touriga Nacional in Portugal, said: “I think with Touriga Nacional it will be like with any other grape. You can produce it at any level, but what’s important is the quality-to-price relationship.

One of the most exciting areas for me is Dão because there are practically only three grapes in the region, so the wines have a certain style. “A lot of people in the UK love Baga – probably because it has such a strong character. Many people think it is one of the best Portuguese grapes and there is a theory that it is a clone of Pinot Noir.”?While deciding which varieties to push from its considerable armoury remains a major issue, a recurring concern voiced by attendees was the way Portugal is perceived in the wider world.

“Portugal doesn’t have a strong image and Portugal’s tourism is very much associated with the Algarve and golf and less associated with the riches in Porto and Lisbon,” said Robinson. “See how rapidly Spain has built up its gastronomic reputation.”?Bento agreed: “Portugal has not yet projected a strong enough image to the outside world, which in a way is part of its charm –Portugal is discreet. But in this noisy world, Portugal’s quiet message is overshadowed.”?Francisco Barba, president of Vini Portugal, says the biggest-ever amount has been set aside for generic marketing globally this year. “There will be four different elements with a very powerful technology platform and a set of events very different to what we have done before, then promotional activity and a very strong educational component,” he added. “Vini Portugal understands it is important to have a more efficient execution. I think we need a more complex approach. I hope 2011 will be the best ever year for our wine exports.”?While the industry welcomed the promise of greater marketing resource, Robinson injected a note of caution about ensuring the funds were used wisely and suggested a more unified approach to bring together the marketing efforts of the “fragmented” interests of port, Madeira and table wine to maintain the country’s momentum. “Consumers don’t care [that they are separate categories] and they should be promoted together. The sooner the barriers between these three bodies come down the better, and everyone will benefit. How to spend promotional money wisely is a challenge. This is the stage where you must promote Portugal as an entity.”?

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