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Tejo Take Two

Posted on  | December 23, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Part II of our look at Portugal’s Tejo region

Last month we brought you the results and insights on Portugal’s Tejo region from our first group of trade professionals. This month, we are presenting the results from our second roundtable tasting with different Tejo wines, and a new group of wine industry experts.

Whites Score Big

Like the first group of tasters, Roundtable #2 was very impressed with the white wines in the tasting. Most tend to think of Portugal as red wine territory, yet the Tejo region produces as much white as red. “I was very pleasantly surprised by the whites,” shared Mary Gorman, MW, educator and journalist. “They all share a lovely vibrancy; they are accessible and uncomplicated but not at all boring. An ideal choice for anyone who wants a pure, fresh white.”

Jack Robertiello, journalist and frequent contributor to Beverage Media, agreed, adding that their acidity makes them especially food-friendly: “They have an appetizing bitterness on the midpalate which made me want to have them with food and some fat. They could work with appetizers and many main dishes as well.”

According to Lisa Granik, MW, the region’s strongest case for market success and longevity is with the Arinto grape: “Arinto has proven itself to be a well-priced, accessible fresh white wine that has its own personality and offers diversity. It’s a fit for consumers and trade looking for something different but not quirky, and could really establish itself here.”

Native Grapes Rule

Much like Roundtable #1, this group was strongly in favor of Tejo’s indigenous varieties. “These wines stand on their own with real individual character,” said Scott Carney, Dean of Wine Studies at the International Culinary Center. “Adding international varieties confuses the message, because then people are making comparisons with a much larger group of wines—the region loses its trump card.”

Rather than put people off, native grapes are “what make you distinct and valuable in the marketplace,” says Granik. “The price points are there, but you also have to inspire interest, and Tejo’s native grapes will do that. Tejo should mean something distinctive.”

Spreading the Word

The story that Matt Stinton, Wine Director at Terroir and Hearth, likes to tell his customers about Portugal highlights their wealth of indigenous varieties: “From my point of view, I like the fact that some grapes are unpronounceable, but that is because we handsell almost everything. I think of Portugal as a blending culture, so I’m particularly drawn to blends.”

In less wine-knowledgeable restaurants—and particularly in large retail environments—things get more complicated. “I have trouble seeing consumers paying $20 for a grape they have never heard of—this will be Tejo’s challenge,” shared Jean Reilly, MW. Even the trade needs to get up to speed on the region, said Mollie Battenhouse of VOS Selections: “Most of us have had so few of these wines, we don’t know what to expect from a Fernão Pires or Trincadeira.”

The group agreed the Tejo message needs to be about quality, value and uniqueness. “When I have people looking for well-priced, traditional, European table wines, Portugal is the first thing that comes to mind,” said Gregory Dal Piaz, Editor-in-Chief of Snooth Media. “The unfamiliar grapes are not the issue. Without the hand-sell on or off-premise, people are going to need a tasting note and a solid staff recommendation.”

Gorman agreed: “For most drinkers, these should be promoted as delicious, fresh wines from Portugal. I don’t think it’s critical to educate about all the grapes. At these price points they are incredibly competitive, but it is a very crowded marketplace. It’s one thing to have wines that are relevant in terms of price point, but you must keep insisting on that relevance or people move on.”

Versatility & Value

“The great thing about these wines from a trade perspective is that I could easily sell them to someone with a traditional, more educated palate as well as a more entry-level consumer,” said Brooke Sabel, Wine Director, Natirar/Ninety Acres Culinary Center. “There is a great savory character which makes them very appealing.”

Christy Canterbury, MW, agreed, adding that they truly represent something different from the vast sea of wine already available on our shores: “Many of these are the kind of inexpensive wines you find on the shelves in Europe that I wish we had more of here—they offer lots of value and pleasure for the money,” she said.

Tejo Up Close & Personal

Wine, of course, has the distinction of traveling well all over the globe; yet there is something uniquely revealing when one can sample a region’s wine at its source. Being keenly aware of this truism, and rightly proud of their viticultural progress, the producers of Tejo complemented the NYC roundtable tastings with a trip for 20 U.S. writers, importers, sommeliers and retailers.

It was enlightening, to say the least. The trip tapped into the local culture (e.g., the historic town of Santarem; the wine museum of Cartaxo; famed Lusitano horses; the energy of Lisbon) and cuisine, as well as several estate visits and multi-label tastings with the winemakers. Throughout the trip, the region’s agricultural heritage was palpable; winegrowers of Tejo have an intimate relationship with their land and the river that has long served as a conduit, linking their wines to the vibrant port city of Lisbon, and only recently has agribusiness been enhanced by modern technology.

But now that it has, the region is enjoying a renaissance, evident in experimental vineyards and novel bottlings alongside the traditional. The wines the group experienced “in situ” were impressive on multiple levels—value, uniqueness, versatility with food, even structure for longevity. Tellingly, when members of the group were surveyed after the trip, the range of “favorite” wines served to demonstrate the diverse appeal inherent in Tejo wines: No single wine or producer stood out. Similarly, we asked the participants, “What surprised you most on the trip?” and their impressions, not surprisingly, touched on a range of points:

“I was surprised that these wines, relatively unknown in our market, are as good quality and value as they are.”
—Linda Lawry, Director,
International Wine Center

“NOT surprised by the friendliness and professionalism of people in the Portuguese wine community. However, I was surprised by the level of quality of wines.”
—Michael Schaefer, Journalist & Educator

“Fernão Pires. If there is going to be a white that markets not only to an international palate but wine geeks alike, this is it. It is rich and supple but with a vibrant minerality. Some of the best examples are aged in old oak barriques and are reminiscent of a steely white Burgundy.”
—Victoria James, Sommelier, Altamarea Group

“The wines have improved a lot since I was last there in 2007.”
—Patricia Savoie, Journalist

“The whites were more reminiscent of a cooler more coastal climate.”
—Adele Tolli-Capela, Importer, Value Vines

“I found Tejo more dynamic than other Portuguese wine regions I’ve visited. There’s a lot of young blood and energy. They seem to have a big vision for their wines, especially in their outreach to the export market. They also seem to have a lot of innovative wine concepts.”
—Cynthia Sin-Yi Cheng, Journalist

“Not a single wine seemed overpriced, and
lower-end ones represented extreme value.”
—W. R. Tish, Managing Editor, Beverage Media


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