A wine country on the up

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Booming UK sales, a healthy 2021 harvest, rave reviews from indies and now even a consumer show in London all testify to Portugal’s continuing ascendancy, as David Williams reports

 

The past two years have felt like a watershed for Portuguese wine. Commercially speaking, a country that was bubbling under for years, without ever quite joining the European establishment, has consistently posted sales figures that put the rest of the continent’s wine producers to shame.

According to data released by Wines of Portugal on the eve of the organisation’s London tasting in March, the country grew its exports by 8.2% in value in 2021, taking the total figure to just shy of a billion euros (€926m).

Importantly, this isn’t just a sign of a return to normality after the market-distorting effects of Covid in 2020. The country has been growing slowly but steadily at a little over 3% per year in value for the past decade, but even in 2020 itself Portuguese wines added some 4.5% in value.

Crucially, as generic body Wines of Portugal is happy to point out, this has made Portugal the only European country to have grown in both value and volume in the past year.

What’s more, Portugal’s performance in the UK has been particularly impressive: despite the teething problems of Brexit and other supply-side issues, exports to the UK grew by more than 12% in value in the first six months of 2021, consolidating the UK as the third biggest market for Portuguese wine after the US and France.

More pertinently for readers of this magazine, independent retailers have played a significant role in Portugal’s UK rise.

The sector’s enthusiasm was particularly evident in this year’s Wine Merchant reader survey, in which Portugal was way out in front as independents’ most exciting country. Some 56.3% of respondents listed Portugal in answer to a question about which of 19 countries and regions they find “most interesting at the moment”, far ahead of the 44.7% scored by South Africa in second place, and the 43.8% of Spain in third.

The positive pro-Portugal mood was also visible in a promotion run in 15 selected independent retailers by Wines of Portugal last summer. The promotion saw participating outlets grow their Portuguese sales by 286% in volume and 300% in value during the promotion, which ran for the whole of June.

Vineyards at Santa Marta de Penaguião
A World of Difference

The promotion was part of Wines of Portugal’s ongoing World of Difference campaign, which is designed to build the profile of Portugal as a source of value and quality, but also of wines with a distinct regional sense of place based on its unusually diverse selection of indigenous grape varieties.

That sense of diversity was very much on display at the annual Portuguese trade tasting in London, both in the topics of the free-pour tables and masterclasses and in the 600-plus wines, from 10 Portuguese regions, and 70 producers.

But, in a mark of how far Portugal has penetrated the British wine-drinking mainstream, diversity will also be at the heart of a new addition to the UK’s events calendar: the consumer fair, FESTA.

Described by its organisers as “a ground-breaking celebration of Portuguese wine, gastronomy and culture”, FESTA’s first outing will take place at held at Tobacco Dock in East London on June 24 and 25, and will feature more than 50 producers showing 250 wines produced from more than 100 grape varieties.

Reading down the event line-up, from Vinho Verde’s Aphros and Soalheiro to Alentejo’s Esporão and the Azores Wine Company, it’s hard to disagree when FESTA wine director, the Portugal-specialist wine writer and educator Sarah Ahmed, says “the calibre and range of wines and producers is extraordinary”. It’s a roster of the big names and rising stars of “artisan” Portugal that really does “represent everything that is exciting about the Portuguese wine scene today”.

Meeting demand

That Portugal is in the rare European position of having plentiful supply to work with only adds to the sense that its time has arrived. Certainly, the 2021 harvest in Portugal had none of the yield- and spirit-sapping extremes found in France and other parts of Europe, where frost and hail have led to the smallest crops in 30 years.

Portuguese grape growers instead oversaw a harvest that, while not without its challenges, was up by 15% on the previous decade’s average, with only Vinho Verde of the major regions seeing a drop in production versus 2021.

According to a report on the vintage by Liberty Wines, which has significantly increased its Portuguese presence since Sogrape took a majority stake in the London-based supplier in 2019, the 2021 vintage was characterised by much cooler conditions than 2020, with a later harvest.

“Despite the challenges posed by the 2021 vintage, winemakers across Portugal are excited about the quality of the wines produced as a result of hard work in the vineyards and the wineries,” the Liberty report says.

All of which suggests that Wines of Portugal’s bid to get exports past the landmark €1bn mark is likely to be a short-term rather than a long-term goal for a wine country that is clearly on the way up.

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