Posted on | November 22, 2013
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
American industry professionals weigh in on one of Portugal’s most productive—yet little-known—wine regions.
Portugal’s Tejo region, which straddles the River Tejo—the Iberian peninsula’s largest river—has been producing wine since the Middle Ages. Yet the U.S. market has barely experienced what the region has to offer, in terms of quality, distinctiveness and value.
Last month, representatives from Tejo, along with The Beverage Network, hosted a series of roundtable tastings and discussions featuring a range of wines from Tejo—all under $20. We sat down with 24 leading journalists, restaurateurs, sommeliers, importers and retailers to get a sense of the region’s potential in the U.S. market.
After tasting through the first flight of wines, the panel’s reaction: Surprise. “I’ve tasted a handful of wines from this region over the last few years, and they were typically very bland, overripe and not very exciting,” David Foss, from Anfora Restaurant, explained. “These wines are completely different from what I was expecting.”
Orr Reches, sommelier and wine sales consultant at the distributor Massanois, agreed: “What most of us have been exposed to are uninteresting wines from large cooperatives, not the sort of wines we want to showcase in our stores or restaurants. But when I tasted the Bridão Classico 2010, I was blown away by the quality—and it’s made by a cooperative! This is very encouraging for Tejo.”
“The whites particularly surprised me,” shared Jeffery Lindenmuth, a Pennsylvania-based wine and spirits journalist. “They are all fresh with great acidity, and would have a great home as an aperitif with lighter foods. Well balanced and well crafted, they are in the right spot for Americans right now, with the growing interest in aromatic white wines that are unoaked, lean, dry and bracing.”
Portuguese wine expert and wine educator Candela Prol noted that great acidity is indeed a hallmark of the region, which can make them difficult to assess without food, added Beverage Media Managing Editor W. R. Tish. “Without fruit, they would just be high-acid, tart wines. But these wines have real fruit character,” Prol noted. “They are ideal for people seeking wines with authenticity that aren’t manipulated.”
A Case for Native Grapes
Portugal is home to over 250 native grapes, and thanks to diverse soils and a forgiving climate, many international varieties thrive here as well—Tejo is no exception. Unanimously, the group preferred the wines crafted with indigenous grape varieties. “Many vintners feel that recognizable grape varieties will help the region market their wines more easily on the international market,” Prol explained. “But I believe with time they will gain more confidence in their indigenous grapes.”
For a region that specializes in blends, a diversity of indigenous grape varieties is an asset, said Lindenmuth, and could help create a truly unique identity for Tejo. Wine journalist and judge Marguerite Thomas stressed that the hard-to-pronounce grapes shouldn’t be a big focus of their marketing effort, however. “Many consumers may ask if Tejo is a grape. I believe these wines need to be promoted as high-quality Portuguese wines, rather than over-emphasizing grape names,” offered Thomas.
The flight of red wines—which included several examples of native grapes blended with international varieties—made an equally positive impression.
“They would be great wines to pour in summer and fall as crossover to a heavier style of red—and ideal red wines for fish,” offered Kester Masias, sommelier at Megu Restaurant. “I would pair some of the lighter ones with grilled beets—actually anything grilled or smoky. If you offer them by the glass and actively support these wines, consumers will be thrilled to discover them.”
Perhaps the popularity of red blends will help them in the market, speculated Tish: “Blends are a huge growth category today. And promoting them as blends will make them an easy sell.”
Tejo’s wines offer something distinctive, even compared with more familiar Portuguese regions, added Lindenmuth: “I think these are very viable wines. They are at price points where experimentation is possible, and consumers will be pleasantly surprised at the freshness the reds offer versus the warmer Douro, as well as the character the whites display versus what they may have experienced from Vinho Verde.”
How to Spread the Word?
Trade support is critical for a lesser-known region like Tejo, Foss stressed: “In a restaurant, unless you have a sommelier on the floor promoting bottle sales, the best way to get people to try these wines is giving them glass pour placement. And at these prices—wines coming in at well under $10 wholesale—you could do really well with these wines and sell a ton.”
Adele Tolli-Capela, of importer Value Vines, noted that every time she has seen Portuguese wines succeed on-premise, it’s the result of enthusiastic restaurants: “People could get really excited about these wines, particularly if someone is offering them a taste and encouraging them to experiment.”
Tasting menus would be a perfect place to showcase Tejo reds and whites, concluded many sommeliers in the group: “You could save a lot of money by putting these wines on a tasting menu, at the same time have something really engaging and eye-opening to talk about with your customers,” Reches said.
Absent the support of enthusiastic sommeliers, how will Tejo wines fare in large retail environments? “While these wines won’t sell themselves by any means,” said David Talbot, retailer at Westchester Wines, “the price points remove the barrier to trial. An open-minded customer is ready for something new.” Talbot added that he believes the retail world is on the verge of a “Malbec meltdown” similar to Shiraz and Merlot before that. “This could be the next big thing.”
Recommend them to fans of Cabernet or Malbec, suggested Susannah Gold, journalist, who added that their acidity and minerality is their greatest strength: “They are terrific wines for food, and could easily sit in for a Cabernet or Malbec.” Reches said they would also work as inexpensive alternatives to many classic and pricier French wines.
While their value proposition is extremely strong, it is their quality, the group concluded, that will keep consumers coming back for more: “If the Tejo region can continue to export wines at this quality level, it bodes very well for the region,” stated Lindenmuth.
Next month: Tejo Roundtable #2