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Wines of Portugal International Conference: A Country’s Struggle to Amplify Their Message Internationally

Recently, we experienced Portugal’s first attempt at an international wine conference with “The Wines of Portugal International Conference” in Oporto. Presented by ViniPortugal – the Portuguese wine trade association devoted to promoting Portuguese wines – this three day conference was held in the austere and historical Alfandega do Porto, a former customs building constructed in 1859, by the French architect Jean F. G. Colson. Approximately 450 participants gathered in Oporto, 200 of which traveled from numerous countries including: US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, China and Japan. Along with hearing from internationally renowned wine industry leaders, the program allowed for several wine tastings both at the principle Wine Fair and at several guided tastings outside of the main building. Side trips included visits to a handful of Vinho Verde producers, including Quinta da Aveleda and Afros, along with a tour with the largest cork producer in the world, Amorim.

This year’s conference pitched a controversial and highly charged theme, Touriga Nacional, defended as Portugal’s prized grape that should be both preserved and marketed internationally. During the preliminary conference program, a panel of expert judges including Jancis Robinson and Doug Frost MS MW, gathered in Portugal’s first ever luxury wine hotel, The Yeatman, to select the Top 10 Touriga Nacional wines from 7 different countries. According to Jancis, the final results had an interesting twist: “when it came to announcing the final Top 10 Tourigas, which for political reasons could not be ranked, the ten had suddenly morphed into 12, because, we were told, 3 wines gained exactly the same number of points.” Read Jancis’ entire rant and perspective on the wines here: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a201012162.html

The WoPIC Conference officially opened on Friday, Dec. 10th with a warm welcome by ViniPortugal’s President, Francisco Borba, followed by Secretary of Commerce Fernando Serrasqueiro and Agriculture Minister António Serrano, both of whom spoke passionately about the rapid increase in exports, highlighting the warm reception to Portuguese wines internationally. Portuguese wine’s influence on both development and culture was highlighted in relationship to the rest of the world, emphasized by Portugal stepping up as a “player” in the Global Top 10 Wine sector. To prove their points, an incredibly well produced video from the Turismo de Portugal was shown called, “Taste Portugal”, which beautifully highlighted the intersection between Portuguese gastronomy, agriculture, tourism and culture.

Participants also received an overview of Wines of Portugal in the Wine Industry from speakers José Bento dos Santos and Charles Metcalfe. Santos, a winemaker and renowned Portuguese wine and food writer, gave an inspiring lecture on the vast and diverse wines of Portugal; while UK wine critic and Portuguese wine author, Charles Metcalfe followed with this same sentiment in “Wines of Portugal- a view from overseas”. Unfortunately, the audience came to a united understanding that, according to Charles Metcalfe, “In this noisy world, Portugal’s quiet message is overwhelmed by most of the others.” So what can Portugal do to get louder?  “One of the ways to overcome this is for all of Portugal’s sectors to work together – wine, gastronomy, sports, tourism and so on.” And since most UK tourists think of “golf and beaches” when asked about Portugal, due to the popularity of the Algarve as a vacation spot, it was suggested that ViniPortugal’s tasting room, Sala Ogival, should open in popular tourism locations across Portugal. The last piece of advice for Portugal was, “Keep telling the world about your grapes, otherwise, these star varietals [such as Touriga Nacional among 300 others) will never be known.”

Jancis Robinson cautioned the Portuguese wine industry to avoid over thinking or over complicating the promotion of their region in her session, Wines of Portugal Challenges and Opportunities. By simply promoting Portuguese wine through its vast culinary landscape, wine sales would increase. However, if we don’t find English speakers willing to communicate Portugal’s gastronomic message, Jancis feared that it would forever remain in niche markets, as opposed to a worldwide brand.

We heard three different perspectives on how Portuguese wines are being covered by International Media from Kristine Baeder, Meininger – Germany, Elin McCoy, Bloomberg – USA and Simon Tam, Independent Wine Center – China. Baeder pitched a convincing argument on how Meininger has done some impressive layouts and reports on Portuguese wine in recent years, suggesting that Portuguese wine continues to grow in popularity among the Germans. On the other hand, Elin McCoy lamented that “Portuguese wines still don’t resonate much with US consumers,” but at the very least, they are “generally seen as great value wines”.  It was said that even though most people have the belief that wines featured in Wine Spectator are the ones that get noticed, in truth, “only 5% of US wine consumers actually read magazines like Wine Spectator. 5%! While Bloomburg reaches millions of consumers.”  And with future wine consumers being the younger generation, and women in general who are more open-minded in their wine selection and seek out international wines, Elin pointed out that the first place they look for information is on winery websites. However, she fears the perpetual lack of distribution across the country, “So many consumers read about Portuguese wine online and get excited about it but have become increasingly frustrated that they can’t find them anywhere to buy near their home……I can’t write about a wine if it’s not available on the (US) market.” If and when distribution does finally come up to par in the USA, Elin stresses that it’s the winery websites with accurate information, bottle shots and a compelling personal story about the wine itself that will be the ones who will reap the rewards.

To conclude the session, Simon Tam brought an interesting and entertaining look at how long engrained stereotypes about China are inhibiting the industry from reaching their consumer base to promote Portuguese wines. “Do you want to sell wine to China or to the Chinese?” he debated, showing three photos of three very different Chinese consumers, from the rural pig farmer to the average middle class family, ending with a young, affluent Chinese woman who has both studied and worked oversea – to which he suggested that the young woman would be the key market for any wine producer. He followed this argument with a photo of a case of wine designed specifically with the “Chinese consumer”. Highlighting the bright splashes of gold and red, and adorned with dragons, Simon remarked, “I’ve lived in China a long time and I’ve never seen a dragon in my life!”; suggesting that the ever present cliché continually gets in the way of successful marketing. “Don’t stereotype, and you’ll go much farther in promoting your wines to consumers.”

Catavino’s very own Ryan Opaz led a roundtable entitled “The Internet Wine Revolution”, along with speakers Louise Hurren, Joe Roberts, Robert McIntosh, Neal Martin and Andre Ribeirinho. We’ll be posting more information about this topic in the near future, but the main thrust of the argument pertained to the absolute need for Portuguese producers to get online, and the longer they stall, the worst off they’ll be in getting their product to the outside world.

The remainder of the conference was filled with various Portuguese wine tastings, including a tasting on whether Touriga Nacional should be blended or tasted alone. Hosted by Michael Weiss, Wine Professor at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Weiss selected 8 different red wines that contained various amounts of Touriga Nacional, from the Alentejo, Bairrada, Dão and Douro. Having more than twenty years in wine education, Weiss demonstrated his teaching ability by using Power Point slides of maps of each region with the general facts about the region’s climate, soil and common grape varieties to help participants understand each wine’s background clearly.  He also brought some of the notable winemakers of the wines tasted, such as his good friend Luis Pato of Luis Pato winery from Bairrada, who not only talked about the little details of his own wine(s) but the details of the region he worked in.  At the end of the tasting, Michael Weiss admitted that he believed Touriga Nacional showed well in both blends and by itself and they were all intriguing in their own way.

So what would be nice to see improved upon for next year’s conference?  Well, for the wineries sake who participated in the wine fair, perhaps a better ratio of wineries to participants to make it doable for the amount of people attending. I found that there were far too many wineries to visit and explore! Additionally, I wish that there was more communication about the program during the conference for people to easily confirm what they want to attend and when. There were several times when participants tried to glean information from one another, but unfortunately, it led to the blind leading the blind. However, the conference presented extremely well for a first run and showed great potential for only getting even better in the coming years.

Andrea Smith

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