I was at a tasting a few days ago in Porto where the presenter pointed out at the beginning of their talk that they wanted to focus on “value wines”. However, he then continued by saying that, with regret, while that was the goal, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. He felt that he needed to show some wines at higher price points instead to show what Portuguese wines were really capable of.
When I heard this I was a bit shocked. It reminded me of a scene from what is possibly one of the greatest films ever made, The Princess Bride. Throughout a series of challenges, the ‘mastermind’ Vizzini keeps repeating the word “Inconceivable” until eventually, the much more practical Inigo Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
For a long time Portuguese wine lovers, like me, have lived with a word that I don’t think the promoters of Portuguese wines fully grasp the meaning of; that word is “value” and is often applied in the form of “Portuguese wines are great value”.
On the surface this appears to be a good thing. Or so I thought back when I first heard it myself many years ago and went on to push the idea to friends and family. I figured if there was ‘great value’, it meant that the wines were fairly priced, or maybe even priced lower than their true worth. It turns out I was wrong.
You see, when you understand the context and what your options are, such as when booking a hotel, ‘great value’ can mean something useful. You know you might not get all the luxuries of a 5* hotel, but you expect that whatever you spend, you will get enough of them to feel you have spent your money well.
When the customer doesn’t have that context, or does’t understand or see the differences between options, value becomes a synonym for ‘cheap’. Like supermarket ‘Value’ ranges, they are the least expensive options, sacrificing quality and stripping away all conceivable extras for the lowest possible price. Because of this the word “value” has often times come to be a warning sign and something to avoid.
Most consumers I know don’t want to drink cheap wine. What they want is to drink the best wine that they can afford, in the category they aspire to. The “value wine” in this case is not the best wine, but the one with the fewest trade-offs. Yet you can’t have a “value wine” without that context or aspiration, and this is the crux of Portugal’s problem.
Ultimately, Portugal has not invested in its “added-value” wines (for lack of a better term).
Ask any non wine geek what are the best French wines are and I bet you get at least a couple of Rothschild responses, a Krug, DRC? Great Spanish wines might yield the classics of Rioja: Muga, Lopez de Heredia, and others. Yet ask any non wine geek to name the best Portuguese wines and you’ll be lucky if the answer is not Mateus Rosé. It’s not that the wines do not exist, but rather that they are not being talked about or linked to the “Portuguese Wine” brand outside of the value mantra. When I asked wine professionals in the USA the same question, most resorted to talking about the many Port houses.Wonderful for the Port Wine industry but worthless to the makers of still wines.
I know some of my Portuguese friends, and fellow Portuguese wine fanatics, will by this point be shouting at the screen Barca Velha, Barca Velha! This cacophony will then break down into other lists, each one varied by the individuals own interests. There will be a long list of great wines, but no consensus, or agreement, as to where these wines should rank in any hierarchy. I love that, I love the diversity. Sadly it does nothing for branding a country’s wine culture. Not to mention the fact that outside of Portugal even Barca Velha is not a well known name.
In the end, we would be left with no more than a group of people agreeing that the Douro made some of the best wines, the Dão is amazing, but yet to blossom, Alentejo is “our California/Australia”, and that “vinho verde” is fun in summer. Not to mention the hardcore advocates for Port wine, Madeira, Tras-os-Montes, Bairrada, Beira Interior, Tejo, Colares, Algarve … [ok, maybe no one will single out the Algarve, at least until this is posted]. I’m sure I’ll hear about it in the comments.
Sadly, no one will be able to give me the definitive list of Portuguese Icon Wines, and yet each year we hear that Portugal offers “great value”.
What is the great value of Portuguese wine? What makes them ‘value-able’ wines?
Portugal has great wines. But we need to make sure people know them and lust after them. Without that lust, the “value” idea is lacking a partner. What are we holding these wines up to? France? Spain? Elsewhere? I hope not. Because the truth is Portuguese wine is better than that and can stand on it’s own. It’s at its best, amazing. Yet some will then say, “So if they’re so amazing, then why are they not scoring big points with Parker?” To which I say, “They do occasionally, but in truth because the wines are unique, and diverse, and lacking a vocal full-time advocate.”
Kermit Lynch, Jorge Ordonez, Eric Solomon, Terry Theise, these are just a few advocates that changed the tide of perception of other regions’ wines. They didn’t do it by talking about “value”, they did it by talking from a passion. Passion sells wines. Value is for when others want to buy into that passion at a given price point.
My solution, I believe, is a simple one.
A new name. A new concept. Portugal to me is not a country of wine “values” like some discount big box warehouse. It’s not a place to go for bargains and deals. To me Portugal is a boutique wine making country.
Today the word “boutique” is being used all over to highlight the exclusive, one-of-a-kind places that you should see, visit, shop at. Places where you get unique experiences, not check price-comparison results.
There are boutique hotels, often one-off treasures to explore that happen to be off the beaten path. There are boutique restaurants with chefs combining flavors that others don’t necessarily grasp but delight in exploring. Boutique shops are the ones that have the ephemera of fringe artists, lost crafts and homemade curios.
This, to me, is Portuguese wine. Colares, a region I’m sure very few reading this know about, makes wines that defy explanation, and with flavors that haunt you. Aged Alvarinhos from Vinho Verde; 10, 15 years old – oxidized, golden, perfumed, and unknown. Douro reds that overflow with schistous minerality, fortifying you alongside their Port wine brethren. The list is too long to publish here now. But this is what I mean by “Boutique”.
We need to put Portugal on the map. We need to give it a home in the wine world. Beyond Port and Madeira (two wines I love) and within the halls of wine legends. The Portuguese need to stop settling for good enough, and demand that their wines are given a place on the top shelf of wine shops around the world. No longer relegated to the bottom tier of the Spanish shelf at the back of the store with other countries’ value offerings.
Boutique wines, from a boutique wine country. Get them while you can.
I like the ring of that.