Wine Innovation: Lessons from Portugal

Innovation is a hot topic in the wine industry these days. While some wine brands can depend upon their traditional markets, messages and products, many producers find themselves under increasing attack from “the crafts” — craft beer, craft cider and craft spirits.

One advantage that these alcoholic alternatives seem to possess is the heightened ability to adapt, evolve and excite — to innovate in various ways that keep customers coming back to see what’s new.

How wine got in this situation is a long story that I will tell another time and whether wine should even enter the innovation wars is something that is hotly debated. Some new wine products have been criticized as “pop wines” that debase and therefore threaten the whole product category — not a view that I endorse, but I can understand the concern behind it.

So I was very interested in looking at innovation during my visit to Portugal and I found it in many different forms. I thought you might be interested in a little of what I discovered.

Port: No Wine Before Its Time

Port, which is arguably Portugal’s signature wine, is an example of a wine category that is both timeless and highly innovative.  Timeless in the sense that Port wines have in many ways remained much the same for several centuries. White Ports, Ruby Ports, Tawny Ports — in fundamental respects these are the same today as they were 100 or 200 years ago. Almost nothing is as traditional as Port, with its stenciled bottles and historic brands.

This is a plus and also a minus. The plus of course is brand recognition — only Champagne was a stronger brand than Port from a name recognition standpoint. But it’s a minus, too, because that brand, like Sherry, is wrongly associated with one-note sweet wines. Like Rodney Dangerfield, they sometimes don’t get the respect they deserve.

And it is a minus because the traditional Port wine styles are exercises in patience in a very impatient world. Tawny Ports must be held by the maker until they are mature in 10, 20 or even 40 years. That’s a lot of time to wait with the investment time clock running. Vintage Ports need time, too, but this time the buyer is expected to patiently wait for the wine to mature.

Time is Port’s friend because of what they do together in terms of the quality of the final product but, from an economic and market standpoint, time is also an inconvenient enemy and seemed to limit Port’s potential in the postwar years.

The answer to the time problem was an innovation that appeared in 1970, when Taylor Fladgate released their  1965 Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port.  LBV has the character of Vintage Port but is ready to drink when released, not 20 years later. It was not quite the Chateau Cash Flow killer app of the wine world, but it certainly breathed new life into the Port market at a moment when this was especially welcome. Some say that LBV saved the Port industry and I think this might be true.

Colorful Port

Red and white are the traditional colors of Port, but recently some makers have innovated to try to get the attention of younger consumers who have as little interest in their notion of grandfather’s Port as they do in their stereotype of granny’s Cream Sherry. Croft Pink Port and Quinta de Noval Black Port are examples of this innovative trend.

Pink Port is made in a Rosé style, with less skin contact and therefore fewer grippy tannins than Ruby Port. The Croft website is fully of cocktail ideas so perhaps this is a Pink Martini killer wine? Richard Hemmings, writing on the JancisRobinson.com website, makes the wine sound like an excellent option for the many Moscato lovers in your life.

97g/l RS, 4.2g/l TA. Raspberry juice, bubblegum, pink apples and fresh strawberries. Sweet and full on the palate, good concentration. Well balanced and smooth, creamy texture with a mouth-watering burst of fruit on the finish. Very good, not massively complex but a worthy product. (RH)

Noval Black is more traditional in style and color, with more of the tannins than the Pink. Less complex than my favorite LBVs, but interesting. I agree with the website’s chocolate pairing suggestions, although I haven’t tried any of the cocktail-type recipes. Here is Hemmings’ take on Noval Black:

Ruby reserve in style, with an average age of 2-3 years old. Aimed at younger consumers, as the flashy website attests! Fruity, jammy, figs and dates. Sweet and supple, with a glacé cherry flavour and a simple, satisfying style. (RH)

Product versus Process Innovation

So far I have focused on product innovation but I haven’t mentioned process innovation and that is a mistake ,as I learned from a winemaker during my stay in Porto.

George Sandeman of the famous Port & Sherry family invited me to taste through the Ferreira line of wines and Ports and of course the Sandeman Ports. How could I resist? Even better, we would be joined by Luis Sottomayor, Porto Ferreira’s award-winning winemaker.

The bottles and glassware filled the big table as we began to taste through the Casa Ferreirinha wines then the Ferreira and Sandeman Ports. The wines were eye-opening. From the most basic wines selling for just a few Euro on up to the super-premium products they were well-balance, distinctive and delicious. Not all the Portuguese wines that make it to the US market have these qualities.

I have a star in my notebook next to the entry for the Casa Ferreirinha Vinha Grande Red 2010, for example. A blend of classic Portuguese grape varieties from two Douro regions, it spent twelve months in second the third use oak. Easy drinking, soft tannins, nice finish, classy, well-made. Cost? About Euro 10. in the home market or $19.99 in the US.

“Delicious” I wrote next to the note for the Casa Ferreirinha Quita Da Leda Red, which comes from an estate vineyard just 1 kilometer from the Spanish border. It is the product of a small winery located within the company’s larger facility. Spectacular wine, special terroir, I wrote. US price is $64.99 and worth it.

As we tasted through the Ports I started to talk about innovation — Pink, Black and so on. Sottomayor stopped me in my tracks. If you want to really understand innovation in Portugal, he said, you have to look beyond new products to the work that is being done to improve the process in the vineyard and the cellar. This is where the real gains are, as seen in the table wines I had just tasted and the Ports I was about to sample.

Taste this LBV, Sottomayor said. The LBVs we make today are of the same quality as the Vintage Ports we made 15 years ago. And the Vintage Ports are that much better, too.  New products are part of the story of Portuguese wine innovation, but improved winegrowing and winemaking are just as important now and probably more important in the long run. Lesson learned!

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I came away from the tasting described above both richer and poorer. Richer because Sottomayor’s lesson about innovation will save me some money — as much as I enjoy Vintage Port and will continue to buy it, I now have LBV centered on my radar screen and it sells for a good deal less.

And poorer? Well, Sandeman and Sottomayor set up a little experiment for me, first letting me taste their 10-year old Tawny Ports and then the 20-year-olds. We like the 20s, George Sandeman said, because you can taste where they’ve been (the 10-year old wines) and also where they are going  (the 40-year old Tawny that I tasted next). The tension between youth and old age makes the 20-year old Tawny particularly interesting, he said.

And I am sad to say that I could taste exactly what he was describing. Sad? Yes, because 20-year old Tawny costs a good deal more than the 10 and for the rest of my life I am going to be paying that extra sum!

Congratulations to George and Luis on the great ratings that their 2011 Vintage Ports have received! And thanks to them and to Joana Pais for their help and hospitality.

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One response

  1. Innovation in general in the context of the wine industry is an interesting topic, both with regrard to product and process methodologies but also in respect of channels of distribution, information channels and many other aspects of the end-to end business. With certain exceptions including Traders Joe’s aka Aldi Nord the industry world wide suffers from the vaste expansion of brands and difficulty in demonstrating ‘value for money’, perhaps it is time for some wider business innovation in approach to market.

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