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Tasting Corner: Portugal Aims for America

Posted on  | September 4, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Shifting Their Target Audience, Importers Make Progress

For decades, Portuguese table wines that it to the U.S. were mostly bought by two groups of people: a few curious wine geeks, and a lot of Portuguese-Americans. Things have changed in the last seven years. Portugal exported 50% more table wine to the U.S. in 2011 than it did in 2005.

Esporão produces wine in Portugal’s most acclaimed regions for red table wine: Alentejo and Douro. Quinta dos Murças in the Douro Valley has typical steep-sloped vineyards.

Portugal is still only our 9th-largest supplier, responsible for just 1.8% of imports. But it’s ahead of South Africa, and #8 Germany (3.3%) is not out of reach. And the reason has to do with both its groups of major customers.

First, while Portuguese-Americans on the East Coast remain a large market, importers and wineries are looking beyond them. That’s because, second, Americans—particularly younger drinkers—are more curious about wines they haven’t tried before.

“We’ve been going into states like Colorado because the market is there,” says Pedro Lopes Vieira, U.S. sales manager for Esporão, the largest Portuguese red table-wine brand. “We just opened California. We expect that to be huge for us.”

It’s almost mind-boggling to learn California, the country’s largest wine-consuming state, wasn’t on Portugal’s radar until recently. But the U.S. in general hasn’t been very important to Portugal; it’s still only Portugal’s sixth largest export market. Shared language has made tiny Angola and enormous Brazil larger markets. Only in the last decade have most producers begun to seriously look west across the Atlantic Ocean.

Bruce Schmidt, general managing partner of Lavanda Restaurant & Wine Bar in Palo Alto—in wealthy Silicon Valley—says Portuguese wines are doing well for him by the glass. “I mainly feature these wines to keep an eclectic selection for the guests, to give them something they haven’t tried before,” Schmidt says. “On the [bottle] list, I only have about two Portuguese wines. That moves slower, maybe one or two hits a month.”

Schmidt says that’s because most of his customers, even though they’re sophisticated world travelers, are still not familiar with Portugal. “My business partner is Croatian, so we have a lot of Croatian wines,” Schmidt says. “But there aren’t Croatians ordering them; it’s people who’ve been to Croatia. People order Tuscan wines to remember the vacation they had in Tuscany. Portuguese wines are not quite there yet with the tourism connection.”

While most Portuguese producers have been focused on selling their wines in Europe, producers of Vinho Verde have become hooked on the U.S: it is their largest export market. And quaffable Vinho Verde is responsible for 40% of all Portuguese DOC wine exports—which makes you realize, despite favorable mainstream press coverage for several years, how few wines from Douro and Alentejo were actually coming here.

“For us, the U.S. is a very important market. For you [USA], Vinho Verde is not very important,” says Manuel Pinheiro, president of the Vinho Verde executive commission. “So we have a lot of growth to make there.”

Overcoming Barriers

But cracking the expensive wine market in the U.S. is trickier than getting Vinho Verdes under $10 on the shelves. Part of the problem is style. The key to the U.S. market seems from outside to be to make wines as much as possible in the New World style, as in showing very ripe fruit with plenty of oak. But Super Douros are latecomers to this party and aren’t interesting to the enophile gatekeepers who are crucial to getting Portuguese wines into new markets.

“We have a few big sturdy Douro reds that have all the marketing behind them,” says Jesse Salazar, wine director for Union Square Wine & Spirits in New York City. “But with the red wines, I’ve had to ask to get special five-case drops of the basic estate wines, rather than the flagship wines they’re treating with too much oak. The simple wines made in stainless steel are more interesting. Those are the wines that are going to bring people to Portugal.”

Salazar is a believer in Portuguese wines. Last year he moved them out of the “Other European” section they shared with wines from Greece and Switzerland, and he says customers wander over from the Spanish section, enticed by lower prices. He says the sweet spot for Portuguese wines right now is retail between $10 and $20. “The white wines in that range really offer excellent quality, similar to what Spanish Albariño was like 10 years ago, before we got $30 and $40 Albarinos,” Salazar says.

Portuguese wines still face a language barrier. Many Americans are accustomed to French on a wine label, and have some knowledge of Spanish. But Portuguese wines give unfamiliar spellings or names even to familiar grapes: Alvarinho, for example, or Tinta Roriz, better known elsewhere as Tempranillo.

Vino Verdhe: The Clear Alternative

Vinho Verde is one of the best values in wine. There’s no better wine you can sell retail at $7 with good margins.

Many people already know the thirstquenching, slightly fizzy, low-alcohol “classic” Vinho Verdes, among the best of wines for a hot day. (The name Vihno Verde literally means “green wine,” but translates best as “young wine.”) What most people aren’t familiar with are the high-quality single variety wines, especially minerally Alvarinhos (called Albariño in Spain) and floral Loureiros. SRPs are $15-$20. Retail consumers may not be expecting to pay so much for a Vinho Verde, but on a wine list, imagine charging $7 a glass with great markup for an Albariño. That is a fantasy from Spain today; not so from Vinho Verde.

Try Muros Antigos wines from artisanal producer Anselmo Mendes, and “Primeira Vinhas” bottlings from Soalheiro. Or, try the readily available wines from the region’s largest winery, Quinta da Aveleda, makers of 9 million bottles annually of Casal Garcia. At these prices, you can’t really go wrong, and neither can your customers.



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