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A Delicious Dilemma for Portuguese Wines

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Portugal drinking fine wines and eating good foods as I talked with winemakers from up and down the countryside. My visit included wineries in the Douro Valley, the Vinho Verde area, Bairrada, and Lisboa, as well as sitting in on presentations by winemakers from Alentejo, which I have previously toured, and from Tejo, which I have not.

Although Portugal has sold a lot of wine in the U.S. (my own post-college choice was Mateus rosé), it has not had the exposure here as have wines from France and Germany or, in more-recent years, those of Italy and Spain.  Not surprisingly, the conversations during tastings or after dinner turned to the same question: “How can we make American consumers understand Portuguese wines so they will buy more of them?”

I have had similar conversations on recent visits to northern Italy (Colli Euganei), Spain (Cariñena), even France (Jura), which all produce wines not well-known.  Most wine writers, me included, have an opinion and a solution for everything, so we automatically start abandoning our neutral role of wine critic to don the robes of wine consultants, even advocates.  This time, however, I held back to give it some thought.

On the long transatlantic flight home, I wrote down a series of statements that are, in my mind, close to being absolutes.  They are:

1.  Portugal makes a lot of very good table wines.  Even the more-rustic ones tend to be quite pleasant. (Big plus)

2.  Most Portuguese table wines are priced equal to or slightly under their worth compared to others in the international market. (Big plus)

3. The best wines generally are also the best known – Douro reds, Vinho Verde whites and Alentejo reds (with also some whites).  Lisboa isn’t far behind.  (Neutral point)

4. There are at least 20 grape varieties, many known only in Portugal, commonly used either as varietals or in blends, and another 10 or so that are widely grown but perhaps unknown even to most Portuguese.  (Minus, in that it complicates positioning and branding.)

5. Most of these grapes, especially the reds, all have similar flavor profiles, being closest to those of Bordeaux varietals.  As a result, few stand out from the others, either from a quality standpoint or as a taste differentiation.  (Multiple minus).

6. As many of the regions use many of the same grapes – although often with different regional names – it is difficult to differentiate DOCs.  No such problem of differentiation exists, for example, with France’s Big Three of Bordeaux, Rhone and Burgundy.  (Minus)

So, is there a solution?  I think no and yes. It doesn’t help that Portuguese wine are as complicated as those of Greece, which it resembles in many ways beyond the wine conundrum.

The “no” is that I don’t think there is any one solution – no “aha” to get the retail trade or the consumer to suddenly wholeheartedly embrace Portuguese wines, although they made flirt with them briefly if writers and sommeliers kick up enough interest.

Still, let’s remember a basic of marketing – good wines and good prices are half the battle.  The other half?  That will take longer.  The American market has accepted Douro reds.  (Check)  It is accepting Vinho Verde.  (Check)  It may not know from whence they come, but it is drinking and applauding wines from Alentejo. There, individual producers are selling brands, not the region – which makes a lot of sense.  It’s easier to explain one new thing to a consumer than two new things.  (Marketing 102)

So, in the end, I think Portuguese wines will dramatically increase their presence in the United States – but only over the long haul.  It will not be by discovering a silver bullet that covers everything and everybody.  I think they will win over the American market, but in the most-laborious manner – one brand, one region, one varietal, one blend at a time.

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