Portugal, a specialty wine making country

Portugal, a specialty wine making country

Portugal, a specialty wine making country

In 1997, Sporting CP discovered then 12-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo and signed him for a fee of around $1,800. It was the best deal the team ever made. The prodigious soccer player quickly moved up to the first team and by age 18, the team sold him to English Premier League’s powerhouse Manchester United for $14.5 million. 

Like the world-renowned soccer star, Portuguese wine is just as great, and equally competitive in taste and nuances, ready for wine enthusiasts to discover it. But they don’t have to pay millions to try it.

“Portuguese wines are a great value” is a common phrase from Portuguese wine lovers. But unlike the Sporting CP scouts who saw the “value” of Cristiano Ronaldo when they saw his skills, promoters of these spirits don’t fully grasp the meaning of “value.”

Worth, not price

For some, “great value” means the wines are fairly priced, or maybe even priced lower than their true worth. And that’s why those who try them go on to recommend them to friends and family.

On the surface, this appears to be a good thing.

But while Portuguese wines may be less expensive than more famous Spanish, French, and Italian counterparts, they are no less rich, textured and most importantly, full of flavor and character. In other words, their worth can’t be measured by price. You’ll have to sample them, and enjoy them, to recognize what they offer.

Just like when booking a hotel, “great value” can mean something useful. You know you might not get all the luxuries of a 5 Star hotel, but you expect that whatever you spend, you will get enough of them to feel you have spent your money well. Again, it gives you a sense that you got your money’s worth.

When the customer doesn’t have that context, or doesn’t understand or see the differences between options, value becomes a synonym for “cheap”. In supermarket “value” ranges, Portuguese wines are the least expensive options, sacrificing quality and stripping away all conceivable extras for the lowest possible price. Because of this, the word “value” has often times come to be a warning sign and something to avoid.

Wine lovers don’t want to drink cheap wine. What they want is to drink the best wine they can afford, in the category they aspire to. The “value wine” in this case is not the best wine, but the one with the fewest trade-offs. Yet you can’t have a “value wine” without that context or aspiration, and this is the crux of Portugal’s problem.

A lack of branding and promotion

Ultimately, Portugal has not invested in its “added-value” wines (for lack of a better term).

Ask any non-wine geek what the best French wines are and you get at least a couple of Rothschild responses, a Krug, DRC? Great Spanish wines might yield the classics of Rioja: Muga, Lopez de Heredia, and others.

Yet, ask them to name the best Portuguese wines and you’ll be lucky if the answer is not Mateus Rosé. It’s not that the wines do not exist, but rather that they are not being talked about or linked to the “Portuguese Wine” brand outside of the value mantra.

Ask the same question to wine professionals in the USA, and most resort to talking about the many Port houses. That’s wonderful for the Port Wine industry, but worthless to the still wines producers.

Portuguese reading this, and Portuguese wine fans, will by this point be shouting at the screen Barca Velha, Barca Velha! This cacophony will then break down into other lists, each one varied by the individual’s own interests. There will be a long list of great wines, but no consensus, or agreement, as to where these wines should rank in any hierarchy. Diversity is great. Sadly, it does nothing for branding a country’s wine culture. Not to mention the fact that outside of Portugal, even Barca Velha is not a well-known name. That is simply due to lack of promotion.

For decades, Port and Madeira dominated Portugal’s exports. Table wine offerings were practically nonexistent outside of small ethnic enclaves. Things have improved and Portuguese table wines are finally emerging as equals to their fortified counterparts. But they still lag behind other countries’ offerings that have been heavily promoted abroad for decades. Distribution and equity on the shelf need to rapidly increase in order to stimulate the demand for Portuguese wine.

In the end, a group of people will agree that Douro makes some of the best wines in the Iberian country; that the Dão is amazing, but yet to blossom, Alentejo is “our California/Australia”, and that “vinho verde” is fun in summer. Not to mention the hardcore advocates for Port wine, Madeira, Tras-os-Montes, Bairrada, Beira Interior, Tejo, Colares, Algarve … [ok, maybe no one will single out the Algarve, at least until this is posted]. They’ll surely post some comments.

Sadly, no one will be able to offer the definitive list of Portuguese iconic wines, and yet each year we hear that Portugal offers “great value”.

What is the great value of Portuguese wine? What makes them “value-able” wines?

Portugal has great wines. But we need to make sure people know them and lust after them.

Without that lust, the “value” idea lacks a partner. What are we holding these wines up to? France? Spain? Elsewhere? Hopefully not. Because the truth is Portuguese wine is better than that and can stand on its own. It’s at its best, amazing. Yet some will then say, “So if they’re so amazing, why are they not scoring big points with Parker?”

The response is simple: they do, occasionally, because the wines are unique, and diverse, but lack a vocal full-time advocate.

Three of them were included in the Top 100 Wine Discoveries 2020: Filipa Pato Nossa Missão Tinto 2016, a red wine produced by Filipa Pato and William Wouters in Anadia, Aveiro; Márcio Lopes Proibido Grande Reserva Tinto 2017, a Douro red made by Márcio Lopes; and Porto Kopke Colheita Branco 1940, created by the oldest Port wine company.

Kermit Lynch, Jorge Ordonez, Eric Solomon, Terry Theise, those are just a few advocates that changed the tide of perception of other regions’ wines. They didn’t do it by talking about “value”. They did it by talking from a passion. Passion sells wines. Value is for when others want to buy into that passion at a given price point.

The solution is simple.

A new name. A new concept. Portugal is not a country of wine “values” like some discount big box warehouse. It’s not a place to go for bargains and deals. Portugal is a boutique wine making country.

Portugal’s winemaking heritage is well-established. The country’s wine regions are littered with Quintas producing small, limited-production, hand-crafted and artisanal vintages that can be sweet, earthy, full, and layered. Wine made with ancient recipes passed from generation to generation, with traditional methods in both the growing and harvesting of the grapes, the production (such as foot-treading in shallow stone basins called “lagares) and the storage, and even the bottling. 

Today the word “boutique” is being used all over to highlight the exclusive, one-of-a-kind places that you should see, visit, shop at. Places where you get unique experiences, not check price-comparison results.

There are boutique hotels, often one-off treasures to explore that happen to be off the beaten path. There are boutique restaurants with chefs combining flavors that others don’t necessarily grasp but delight in exploring. Boutique shops are the ones that have the ephemera of fringe artists, lost crafts and homemade curios.

Portuguese wine is the same. Colares, a region very few reading this know about, makes wines that defy explanation, and with flavors that haunt you. Aged Alvarinhos from Vinho Verde 10-, 15- years-old – oxidized, golden, perfumed, and unknown. Douro reds that overflow with schistous minerality, fortifying you alongside their Port wine brethren. The list is too long to publish here now. But that’s the very definition of “Boutique”.

Portugal needs to be on the map. It needs a home in the wine world. Beyond Port and Madeira (two great wines, indeed) and within the halls of wine legends. The Portuguese need to stop settling for good enough, and demand that their wines be given a place on the top shelf of wine shops around the world. They should no longer be relegated to the bottom tier of the Spanish shelf, at the back of the store with other countries’ value offerings.

Boutique wines, from a boutique wine country. Get them while you can.

Because like Cristiano Ronaldo, they’re unique. Something you can’t find everywhere and when you do, you better grab them because soon they’ll be more famous, and their value will grow.