Get your Portuguese wines now, before the rest of the world discovers them. Soon these reasonably priced table wines will become exclusive and expensive commodities.
Portuguese table wines are hot right now. Government statistics show that imports of wine from France, Spain and Italy have been declining in recent years, while imports from Portugal are steadily growing, despite the fact that their two most well-known wines, Port and Vinho Verde, have been on a slow decline for decades. Why is that? To find out, I packed my bag and went to Portugal.
The answer, it seems, is both simple and complicated. Portuguese wines are good and getting better, and are far more reasonably priced than those of their European neighbors. That’s a simple recipe for success: good product sold at a good price. But that was never part of a master plan or strategy. It just happened that way, and the reasons why it did are complicated.
Is the Portuguese wine industry new? Not really. If you ask Portuguese winemakers (and I did), they will tell you that Portuguese have been growing grapes and making wines there for more than 2000 years. For the last two hundred years, the relationship between England and Portugal has resulted in a Port wine industry that has dominated the country’s reputation and exports. Table wine was something the Portuguese either made for themselves or made in bulk for shipment around Europe. Grapes grow readily in almost every part of Portugal and have been typically French varietals, because that’s what bulk wine buyers wanted.
As Port exports declined, however, the nation’s growers found themselves with a lot of excess grapes. The main grape used to make Port is a native varietal called Touriga Nacional. So, why not make red table wine out of the grapes you can’t sell to the Port houses? The reason is because, on its own, Touriga Nacional is very strong and tannic, and therefore difficult to make into a smooth, drinkable table wine. It has to be blended. So, Portuguese winemakers began looking around and discovered that they had other native varietals that softened up the Touriga Nacional quite nicely: Alfrocheiro Preto, Alicante Bouchet, Tinto Cão and others.
The result was an explosion of new table wines made using exclusively native Portuguese grape varieties. With each new discovery came a renewed sense of national pride. Fourth generation wine maker, Joana Paes of Quinto da Casaboa, told me that she and other winemakers have begun to plow over fields of Merlot and Cabernet that they used to sell for bulk wine, and have started replacing them with the native varieties in earnest. She is part of a new, young and exciting generation of wine growers that are filled with the spirit of Portugal and all things Portuguese. And her wines are amazing.
But, there is still a problem. Because so many Portuguese still grow grapes for their own consumption, there is no real domestic market for Portuguese wines outside of Douro, where they still supply the famous Port houses. In the Dao region, for example, the average vineyard is less than one acre in size. The notion of wine tourism, with fancy tasting rooms, festivals, gift shops and live music is unknown in Portugal. Large Dao wineries, Tabaodella and Caminhos Cruzadas, are trying to change that with state-of-the-art facilities that they are hoping will catch on and help turn Portugal into a genuine wine destination.
So, while old in practice, the Portuguese wine industry has a new identity and a new future. There is a buzz in the air in Portugal and a sense of renewed energy. They are still experimenting and growing, but are producing some fantastic wines now, and I can only imagine what the future holds.
My advice? Get your Portuguese wines now, before the rest of the world discovers them. Soon these reasonably priced table wines will become exclusive and expensive commodities.