The three-unit Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Dallas and Houston recently upgraded its by-the-glass selections of Portuguese wine, trading from Crasto Red ($10 a glass) to Crasto Superior Red ($18). The higher-priced Douro blend is a bit of a hand-sell, but master sommelier Jack Mason says the wine over-delivers on quality and value. “You have to ask the customer if they’ve ever tried Port and explain that it’s the dry style of it,” Mason says. “But people are interested.”
Barteca Restaurant Group—which operates the Barcelona Wine Bar and Bartaco chains—carries around 15 Portuguese table wines at each of its venues. The company is also seeing increased demand for the offerings, and wine and spirits director Gretchen Thomas is enthusiastic about the category. “The wines are accessible,” Thomas says. “There are a lot of grapes that you don’t really find anywhere else. For the wine drinker who’s looking for something unique, Portugal offers a lot.” Thomas adds that the average price point (about $35 a 750-ml. at Barcelona Wine Bar) is appealing. “Pricing in general is very value-oriented, even for incredibly high-quality wines,” she says.
Such support has importers and marketers breathing a collective sigh of relief. Portuguese table wines played on the periphery of the wine market for years, but in the past decade shipments more than doubled as sommeliers and consumers rediscovered the category.
“Portugal is finally moving forward,” says Rui Abecassis, co-owner of importer Obrigado Vinhos Portugal, noting a number of lean years before interest sparked in a big way. “Many of us have been selling these wines for a while, and now we have a much more welcoming market.”
The volume of Portuguese table wines in the United States is still minuscule compared to imports from other major wine-producing European countries, but the upward trend is notable. Shipments reached 1.56 million cases in 2016, up from 1.47 million cases in the previous year, according to Impact Databank. The more aggressive growth came in the previous decade, with volume more than doubling from 700,000 cases in 2005
Ripe for Exploration
Nuno Vale, marketing director for the trade group Wines of Portugal, says the excitement surrounding Portuguese table wines took hold a few years ago. “It started first within the sommelier community that discovered the uniqueness of Portuguese native grapes and the diversity of its typical blends,” he says. “Then importers and distributors got excited, and now that excitement has spread to retailers and consumers.”
A combination of factors is contributing to the current enthusiasm surrounding Portuguese table wines. Diego Lo Prete, general manager and senior vice president of The Winebow Group’s MundoVino, agrees with Vale that Portuguese wines have managed to win the attention of sommeliers. “This generation of wine professionals is creating innovative wine lists and portfolios that are compelling to their peers,” Lo Prete says. “They understand this demographic’s desire for new and exciting flavor profiles and unexplored regions. Portugal’s wines consistently deliver exceptional value at all price levels and provide a safe ground for exploration and the opportunity to curate unique wine selections.”
The positive buzz about Portugal is also helping, Lo Prete says, noting that the country has gained international media attention as a food, wine and travel destination over the past five years or so. In addition, he points to beneficial macroeconomic factors, such as a favorable exchange rate and the health of the Portuguese wine industry. “Portuguese exports to the rest of the European Union are steady and domestic demand is soft, creating a considerable wine surplus,” he notes.
The environment is ripe for further expansion, says Michael Preis, vice president of marketing at Palm Bay International. Preis sees “a lot of white space” for Portugal because of its current small market share. “There’s very little chain distribution, so there’s upside there,” he explains. “The challenge is convincing more gatekeepers to take it on. Getting more of these gatekeepers over to Portugal is an important part of the strategy.”
Portugal’s table wines are known more for their regions than for their brand names. While some brands are starting to gain recognition in the United States—and some are familiar from the Port world—consumer knowledge is still in its infancy. “Only those highly involved in wine will show awareness of any region beyond Vinho Verde, Douro and Dão,” says Lo Prete. “The selection of most Portuguese wines is driven by the trade at this point.”
The country’s top-selling table wine is from the Vinho Verde region, which produces crisp, low-alcohol white blends. About 50 percent of the bottled table wine coming into the U.S. market carries the Vinho Verde DOC. “Vinho Verde is far and away the market leader,” says Ian Louisignau, brand manager at Maverick Wine Co. “It’s a summertime patio pounder that’s inexpensive, which makes it easy for new wine drinkers to check out.”
Wines of Portugal’s Vale describes Vinho Verde as having “a unique and easy, social drinking profile that relates to the American consumer.” But Lo Prete contends that Vinho Verde faces an image problem in the United States—so much so that some producers are shying away. “Vinho Verde faces a branding issue,” he says. “It’s a region—not a style—and has been associated with a cheap, fizzy wine. Quality-conscious producers are facing this dilemma. While fresh, zesty and light are great attributes, for some, having grape varietals like Alvarinho or Loureiro on the label is preferable. Some producers even label their wines with IGP Minho instead of DOC Vinho Verde for this reason.”
Veronica Litton, wine buyer at Florida’s Crown Wine & Spirits chain, says Vinho Verde is a strong seller at her stores. “On weekends during summer months, we chill the wines and then sample our clientele on them,” she says. Seasonality and style are appealing aspects, notes Augusto Ferrarese, wine director at San Diego’s Urban Kitchen Group. “These wines are really low-alcohol, so they fit well with what the market is looking for right now, especially in California,” he says. “The wines are great with salads or as an aperitif with a seafood appetizer.”
As with the country’s white wines, many Portuguese reds are blends. “We do have a few red grapes and a few white grapes that are relevant, but I think the most important thing in Portugal is the blends,” Abecassis of Obrigado Vinhos says. “Americans are finally welcoming blends a bit more.”
Maverick’s Louisignau agrees. “Blending tends to be the name of the game,” he says. Two key regions are Douro and Dão, the higher-altitude region just south of the Douro Valley. Barteca’s Thomas says she sees the appeal of the blends, and one of the top-selling wines at the group is Quinta do Mondego ($7 a glass), a Touriga Nacional blend from Dão. But she’s also enthusiastic about varietal wines. “There are some really beautiful Alvarinho wines coming from the Vinho Verde area,” she says, adding that other grape varieties are carving out niches as well.
Wines of Portugal’s Vale sees promise for Portuguese varietal wines going forward. “Blends are at the heart of Portuguese wines and will always be the cornerstone of the industry—it’s where we shine as winemakers and where we explore all the diversity of the country,” he says. “However, this does not say that some varietals will not shine in the United States.” Vale points to Alvarinho and Loureiro from Vinho Verde, Arinto from Lisbõa, Touriga National and Encruzado from Dão, and Baga from Bairrada. However, sales growth for these types of wines “probably will be more at restaurants then at retail,” he notes.
For the past several years Portuguese wines have been known for their quality-to-price ratio, and that reputation continues even as some wines push upward. “The fact that people buy Portuguese wines because they offer good value is still relevant, but no longer hot news,” Abecassis of Obrigado Vinhos says. “Consumers are now buying wines at higher prices based on their deliciousness rather than their region. The good news is they’re willing to pay $18 or $20 for a higher-end Portuguese wine.”
Vale agrees, saying, “Portuguese wines have a great price-quality relationship at any price point, from entry-level to super-premium, and this is definitely one of the category’s strengths. But the truth is that the sweet spot for pricing has been continually moving up. We are definitely strong in the $10-to-$25 price point.”
The value of Portuguese table wine exports to the United States grew 18.4 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to Impact Databank, while volume advanced 8.2 percent in the same period, indicating a move toward higher priced wine. For many, though, the still relatively low prices really resonate. “For what you get on the retail shelves for $15 a bottle, it’s hard to compete elsewhere in terms of the quality you get in the glass,” says Maverick’s Louisignau.
Mason of Pappas Bros. says he has always found value in Portuguese wines, noting that “they’re just getting better” as time goes on. “The entry point is the cheaper wines, but once people realize the level of quality, they’ll try trading up to the more expensive entrants,” he explains. On the retail side, Saurabh Abrol, CEO and president of the four-unit Wine Chateau retail chain in New Jersey, says the best price band in his store is still $7 to $10. “There’s always room to evaluate our Portuguese inventory and see if we need to move to a few more upscale items,” he adds, noting that overall demand for the category has increased over the last several quarters.
Crown’s Litton also relies on Portuguese offerings to meet demand for quality inexpensive wines. “It’s nice to see that we can sell wines under $15 that are terrific, as well as some very famous names which can still sell under $80,” she says.
With attractive pricing, unusual grape varieties and general consumer enthusiasm about all things Portuguese, the country’s wines are ripe for discovery. However, there are some hurdles to overcome. “Part of the issue is that the grapes are hard to pronounce, and there are regions that Americans aren’t familiar with,” Louisignau says. Yet generally, marketers are bullish about future prospects.
Preis of Palm Bay says that millennials are prime targets. “Millennials are all about trying something different,” he explains. “There’s a general excitement about Portugal as a tourist destination. People who visit then seek out the wines.” Abecassis of Obrigado Vinhos agrees, saying millennials are “moving the needle” as they travel to Portugal or simply grab a bottle at retail. “There’s a lot of interest,” he says. “And not just for wine, but also our culture, our food, our cities. It’s amazing to feel the energy.”