The Portuguese wine scene is finally coming of age, offering quality and value at all price points, writes Chris Losh.
Back in 1987, David Gleave – later to become the founder and CEO of Liberty Wines – was on a Masters of Wine trip to Portugal. He was knocked out by what he found there and confidently predicted great things for the country’s wine producers.
As he ruefully points out, the UK on-trade then spent most of the next 30 or so years ignoring his prediction.
But finally, belatedly, things have started to change. Portugal isn’t just waking up. It’s starting to acquire some real momentum.
There’s been evidence of this in the Sommelier Wine Awards for a while. The competition is often a useful early indicator of trends, and Portugal has been attracting a growing number of medals and increasingly positive analysis from the tasters for several years. The number of golds has more than tripled between 2014 and 2020.
There are few countries or regions that come close to that level of improvement. But the tasters’ feedback probably tells you why. The terms ‘interesting’ and ‘value for money’ keep coming up time and time again.
‘Portuguese winemaking is now in its prime, and when consumers taste it, they tend to be delighted with what they find,’ says Alex Hunt MW, Purchasing Director at Berkmann Wine Cellars.
Berkmann has seen sales of Portuguese wine to the on-trade increase five-fold over the last five years. Even with all the Covid headwinds, the supplier still sold more Portuguese wine in September than in 2019.
Berkmann, it seems, is slightly ahead of the curve. Not all merchants contacted for this article were stocking up on wines from new Portuguese producers but most large importers were either aware that they were missing out or actively engaged in the process of finding new additions for their list.
'You can see more generalist suppliers putting Portuguese wines on their list now, where in the past you had to go to specialist suppliers like Raymond Reynolds, Portugalia and Atlantico,' says Andre Luis Martins of the Cavalry and Guards Club.
He’s absolutely right. Ten years ago a discussion with importers about the role of Portugal in the on-trade would have been a pretty short conversation, but there’s a real energy around the category now that is genuinely exciting.
We might, perhaps, expect Liberty to have big sales growth and positive words about this matter since the country’s biggest wine producer, Sogrape, acquired a majority stake in it last year.
But smaller, more niche operations such as Graft Wines have seen steady growth over the last four years too. Since the wine market overall is flat or contracting, that means Portugal’s influence is on the up.
Graft’s Nik Darlington says that the growth has mostly been in the £10-14 ex VAT area, so typically hitting a wine list at the crucial £30-50 mark. Others put the sweet spot at £12-20 ex VAT.
Either way, this is a significant shift in how people are seeing what the country can produce.
'The value piece is attractive,’ says Darlington. ‘But it's moved over the last five years from: “Portugal is where I get my house wines”. Portugal is still somewhere that can reliably do the £6 ex VAT thing, even for small producers. But people are becoming more confident in the mid-price range where they realise that quality-to-price is more important than just the price itself.’
Reaching the sommelier catnip point
Ten years ago, the idea of concentrating on Portuguese wines in this price bracket would have been fanciful. But the country has benefited enormously from improvements in winemaking and growing techniques.
These seem to have come later to Portugal than elsewhere, but now their effects are being felt there has been a knock-on effect throughout the price scale, from entry level (where it’s now reliable) to super-expensive, where it can be excellent.
There’s a feeling that the country is at that ‘sommelier catnip’ point of providing wines that are reliably good, interesting – and underpriced for what they are.
‘The fine wine is still very accessible,’ says Andre Luis Martins. ‘You have two or three wines who ask you for £300-400 a bottle, but all the rest are £70-120. Even in fine wine you find great value.’
Interestingly, it is at least partly that comparative lack of starry ‘halo wines’ that is keeping the prices reasonable in the mid-price tier. The cost of producing a Chianti, say, is probably not dissimilar from producing a wine in Dão – and quite possibly cheaper than producing one in the Douro.
But whereas Chianti producers fall under the gravitational pull of big-name Castellos or Super Tuscans, in Portugal there is very little upward influence on prices.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that the mid-priced wines are an easy sell. But in terms of quality and value for money, more and more of them are starting to stack up.
‘Spending £45 on a Baga from Bairrada requires knowledge,’ says Graft’s Darlington. ‘But we've moved the conversation along enough to the point where that conversation can be had and that wine can be sold.'
A native movement
The point about Baga is interesting. On my first (non-fortified) wine trip to Portugal 20 years ago, there was a fair bit of interest in growing international varieties – either to be made into stand-alone wines, or blended with native grapes.
But that trend hasn’t really taken off – particularly outside the Alentejo. As one sommelier pointed out to me, there was never a lot of Sauvignon Blanc in Portugal to begin with, and there seems to be less and less of it every year. It means that the country’s growth is being driven by its indigenous varieties.
In this, Portugal has a couple of key advantages. Firstly, it has a broad pool of unusual local grapes to draw on – arguably only Italy has more. But perhaps most importantly (and unlike some Italian grapes I can think of) its varieties tend to be easy to like.
‘Portuguese wines offer an accessible adventure,’ says Berkmann’s Alex Hunt. ‘They’re unfamiliar without being too challenging.’
All of which means that once people try it once they’re happy to try it for a second time.
Interestingly – and perhaps because of this broad spread of approachable varieties – future growth doesn’t seem likely to be driven by any one particular ‘star region’. I’d assumed it might be the Douro, but people canvassed for this article cited, variously, the Alentejo, Dão and Bairrada as well as the photogenic home of Port.
There was, however, consensus that Vinho Verde is definitely having a bit of a moment. Its wines (both red and white) are right in the sweet spot stylistically and it’s a name that consumers tend to have heard of – even if they don’t necessarily associate it with Portugal.
‘Minho is probably the most exciting wine region in Portugal right now,’ says Nik Darlington. ‘It's not hard to get a listing for Vinho Verde. Lisboa white might have similar cool Atlantic influences, but people don't know what a Lisboa wine is. They know what Vinho Verde is, and you can build on that.’
Apart from VV, the country’s current unpredictability is part of its charm. One merchant I spoke to was taken aback by a big spike in white Dão sales. Meanwhile, Liberty’s Gleave was getting good take-up for a region (Bucelas) and a variety (Arinto) that he’d barely even read about until recently.
It all points to the fact that finally – after 30 years – his prediction might be on the point of coming true.
‘We're still discovering a lot about what Portugal has to give and that's going to be one of its strengths,’ says Gleave. ‘It's going to offer a lot of different styles from a lot of different regions that are going to keep consumers engaged for a while.’