The Past Meets the Future at Alentejo’s Historic José de Sousa Winery

P1110385The dynamic intersection of old and new was a theme of our recent visit to Portugal’s Alentejo wine region and there cannot be a better example of it that the work that winemaker Domingos Soares Franco is doing at at José Maria da Fonseca‘s José de Sousa winery. Here is a brief report.

Past & Present

Domingos Soares Franco’s roots in Portuguese wine run very deep. He is the sixth generation of his family to make wine. He is a quiet man, I would say, having met him just once, but also proud of all that he and his family have accomplished at José Maria da Fonseca. And rightly so (see video below).

Domingos is known for the innovations that he has introduced in winemaking here, which reflects the new. His technical training was in California at UC Davis (he was the first Portuguese Davis graduate), so it is no surprise that he brings the modern and experimental to his work here.

But we did not meet him in a high tech facility as you might imagine. Instead he took us into a deep cellar at the José de Sousa winery where we confronted Alentejo’s past and perhaps also its future.

Going Back in TimeP1110389

The Romans made wine in this region two millenia ago using huge clay jars not unlike the ones shown in the photo above and video below. Incredibly the ancient practice remained alive here over the centuries before fading away in the 20th century as the local wine industry suffered from adverse economic incentives (the Portuguese government promoted grain production over wine).

The reemergence of wine in this region is an important story and as we saw at Adega de Borba, modern technology and innovation have been key to that success. But many of those old 1000 liter clay jars still survive from a century ago and we saw them at several wineries that are experimenting with them to see if the past can provide insights for the future. I am not sure anyone has gone as far as Domingos, however.

We inspected the basement with the largest collection of jars that I saw on this trip and peered into a jar full with wine that Domingos was making based upon an ancient recipe. A layer of olive oil protected the wine from oxygen. It was like a look back into the past!

A Memorable BlendP1110401

Then we tasted and that was very interesting, too. Experimenting with both the past and the future, Domingos makes one wine using modern techniques and then another, using identical grapes, in the clay jars. You could sense the family resemblance, but there was a lot that is different, especially aroma and mouthfeel.

We tasted one and then the other and then improvised the blend that Domingos favors: half past, half future. Memorable. Not just a wine but an experience.

If you look closely at the photo you can see the shimmer of olive oil floating on the surface of the clay jar wine. That will be gone when the finished wine is made, Domingos said, but the sense of history will certainly remain.

>><<<

This video gives you a sense of the old and new that we experienced in Portugal.

Flashback Friday: Cracking the Chinese Wine Market

The news from my friends in Portugal is that exports to China are rising, which reminds me of the first time I wrote about Portuguese wine in China back in 2010. Here is a Flashback Friday reprise of that column.

Portuguese Wines in Beijing

President Obama wants to double U.S. exports within five years. With this in mind he recently sent Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to Hong Kong to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperation in Wine-Related Businesses. The press release says that

The United States is one of the leading wine-producing countries in the world, and American wines have been growing in stature internationally for decades as people around the world have learned what American wine producers and consumers have known for years: American wines are outstanding,” Locke said. “Working with the Hong Kong government, we want to create opportunities to heighten exposure to American wines in Hong Kong and the region. This MOU will help do just that.

“Hong Kong and the region” … I think that would be code for China. Everyone wants to crack the Chinese market, something that is easier said than done. I’ve written about this problem before (see “Wine and the China Syndrome”). Sean, one of our recent graduates, wrote his senior thesis on the challenges and opportunities of exporting Washington wine to China. Sean identified a number of significant political, economic and cultural barriers that American wine exporters must overcome. He was optimistic regarding the long term, but very cautious about short term success. (Secretary Locke, you might want to give Sean a call.)

Cracking the Chinese Market

Everyone looks hungrily at China with its growing economy and expanding consumer base. But it is hard to break in. Bulk wine imports are substantial (imported wines get blended with local products and labeled “Chinese wine”), but at unsustainably low prices. No future there.

France and Spain have had better luck. The French have been able to leverage their reputation and the prestige of their finest producers to carve out a attractive niche markets for Bordeaux and Champagne as luxury products.

The Spanish achieved success through old fashioned hard work. They have partnered with Chinese wine producers in both production and distribution. If Chinese wines are improving in quality (and I understand they are) then this is at least in part due to technical improvements facilitated by joint ventures.

Miguel Torres has been particularly active in partnerships and ventures of all sorts. You might be interested in their everwines project, which was recently launched in an attempt to develop a western style Chinese wine culture. If you check out the site be sure to click on the Online Shopping link to purchase a variety of international wines in the $20 range and also Opus One for about $550 and a first growth Bordeaux for more than $1200.

Any Port in a Storm

The U.S. is obviously not the only wine producing country with China on its mind and  I was pleased to receive an invitation from ViniPortugal to participate in their recent China seminar program and tasting of Portuguese wines. Sixteen winemakers flew from Lisbon to Beijing to present and promote their wines. A good chance to observe this Old World wine country’s China strategy in action.

Beijing is a long way to go for an afternoon tasting, so I was represented by my crack China wine research team, Matt Ferchen (Assistant Professor of International Relations at Tsinghua University) and Steve Burckhalter (who works as a translator for the Chinese public relations firm BlueFocus). Matt and Steve are former students of mine at the University of Puget Sound and keen observers of rapidly changing Chinese markets.

Matt said that he was impressed with the wines he tasted.

The first wines I tasted, and the ones I ended up liking the best, were from a cooperative called Adega Coop. De Borba.  A couple of the wineries were family owned and there was a kind of earthiness to the wines that I really enjoyed.  I was especially impressed with the Portuguese whites, which were all very crisp and I think would go very well with spicy Chinese food.

I find that most of the wines available in Beijing, both foreign and Chinese, are expensive and mediocre or cheap and bad.   Across the board the price to quality ratio was just excellent and I really hope that some of these wineries can find distributors here … [but] …there was only one of the wineries that had any presence in Beijing.

So the product is good and a good value. But that doesn’t necessarily solve the Chinese market puzzle.

Most of the representatives seemed rather disappointed that the turnout at the tasting was quite small and that many of those who were in attendance weren’t in the wine business (i.e. they didn’t see many prospects for finding distributors even if they found possible retail customers).  I was asking some of the representatives why Portugal seemed so far behind Spain in terms of entering the Chinese market, especially given what seemed to me the outstanding quality of their product.  The answer mostly just seemed to me a question of focus, that somehow the Spanish wine organization was just more aggressive about getting Spanish wines to China and advertising.

Steve also commented on quality and value — and the problem of focus and establishing reputation.

The[seminar] speaker, who I believe was a Chinese man from Macau, noted the long history of wine making in Portugal, the long time presence and popularity in Macau (“We drink this all the time in Macau”), the diversity of wines they are able to grow thanks to the wide range of different climates in Portugal, wines unique to Portugal – such as a “green wine” they grow in the North, which he reasoned would do well in China, being ‘fruity and sweet’ – and finally he also stressed that “Nearly all Portuguese wines are reasonably priced. It’s hard to find any in excess of 2000 RMB.”

He also expounded on why Chinese outside of the Southeast regions don’t care for white wines, which I found interesting. As for the growers and the distributors, there was some diversity to be found in “Brand Portugal”. Interestingly, some were insistent on showing tasters how they straddled both New and Old World wine making (actually, the speaker also touched on this, going on about a vineyard that had invited Australian winemakers to teach them in the ways of new world wine). Others, however, were insistent that they were exclusively Old World – “Portugal is Old World. How can it be New World – that’s not us.”

In response to how they were looking to position their wines, one of the winery reps said that they were looking to focus on promoting, above all, their grapes: the varieties, why they grow so well in Portugal, etc. And their other edge (which I heard from several people) is in pricing, “what you get for X RMB in a Portuguese wine is better than what you get for X RMB in a French wine.” That tended to be the dual answer whenever someone brought up how Chinese people generally went straight for French or Italian wines.

A Wineglass Half Full. Red or White?

Based on Matt and Steve’s reports you can be either an optimist or a pessimist regarding Portuguese wines in China. The upside is that there are many potential advantages, cost being one of them. It is obvious that Portuguese winemakers would like to be seen as a “value” fine wine and avoid the cheap and anonymous bulk wine trap. Good thinking.

But then there is a bit of an identity crisis. Old World or New? Well, both – a harder sell. Focus on regions or grapes (or both)? That requires a substantial sustained education program.

Even the most basic question is problematic: red or white?  Westerners know that crisp whites like Vinho Verde taste great with Asian foods – great to westerners, anyway. But, as has often been said, the first duty of wine in Asia is to be red.

I’m cautiously optimistic about Portuguese wines in China, especially if they can settle on the right focus and sustain the education/marketing efforts. But they have a long way to go.  Steve reports that “I noticed at a store (targeting Western tastes) last night the only Portuguese wines (out of hundreds and hundreds) were four Ports. Haven’t been to Carrefour in a while, but I bet it’s the same deal.”

Good luck to Portugal – and to American winemakers, too, of course.  China is a key market for the future. But scaling the Great Wall is a real challenge and many will fail in the attempt.

“Money, Taste & Wine” Honored as 2016 “Best in the World” Wine Writing

yantai

My new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated received this  year’s prize for “Best in the World” Wine Writing from Gourmand at the awards ceremony in Yantai, China on May 28, 2016.

My University of Puget Sound colleague Prof. Pierre Ly (shown above) accepted the award on my behalf, speaking in both English and Chinese. Pierre is in China lecturing and gathering material for the book that he and Cynthia Howson are writing about the Chinese wine industry.

Congratulations to all the winners, especially Gerard Bertrand (Le Vin à la belle étoile) and Andrea Zanfi (Prosecco on the Road) for best wine book and Suzanne Mustacich for best digital wine book (Thirsty Dragon).gourmand

Congratulations and a personal shout-out to Beate Joubert. Her book Taste of the Little Karoo won the “best in the world” bronze medal in the Local Cuisine cookbook category. We had a delicious lunch at Beate’s restaurant at the Joubert-Tradauw winery in Barrydale when we visited South Africa. Her husband Meyer and son Andreas are featured in the final chapter of Money, Taste, and Wine.

Thanks to Gourmand International for this honor. Thanks to my publisher Rowman & Littlefied and my editor Susan McEachern their valuable contributions to Money, Taste, and Wine. Special thanks to Pierre Ly for teaching me so much and representing me at the awards ceremony and to Édouard Cointreau for his encouragement and support.

Portugal’s Adega de Borba: the Very Model of a Modern Cooperative Winery

P1110444They say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and I think this applies to wineries, too. We visited Adega de Borba as part of a brief tour of wineries active in the Alentejo vine and wine sustainability program and found ourselves led astray by our first impressions.

Adega de Borba is a cooperative winery founded in 1955 and was a pioneer at the time. All the economic incentives in those days were stacked against wine and in favor of grain production in this part of Portugal in those days. It took some effort and determination to nurture and expand wine production here.

Beyond the First Glance

At first glance the original 12,000 square meter facility was what I expected from a “mid-century modern” winery, but on closer inspection I began to realize that this was both more and different than it seemed. More because the winery is a surprisingly large operation. The 300 members together farm 2000 hectares of vineyards and the winery produces over 15 million bottles a year.

And different because while the winery dates from mid-century, the ideas are not frozen in time. Looking closely, we saw that everything was meticulously clean and well-maintained as it should be but so often is not in the case of “vintage” production facilities.

And the answers to our questions about economic incentives were the right ones, too. Do the members have to sell their grapes to the cooperative, or are they allowed to hold back some (usually the best ones)? No, they must sell to us. How are they paid? By weight, of course, but with substantial adjustments plus and minus based upon objective measures of quality. Are the premiums enough to motivate a movement to quality? Yes, they are very high for the finest grapes.

Adjusting to New Market Realities

The large scale is important because wine in Portugal is low-priced by U.S. standards and price pressure is increasingly intense. Consumers who bought €3 wine (that’s where the mass market is here) before the global financial crisis are spending €2 instead and margins for exports to some markets can be low as well. So efficient production is key as well as quality that will allow sales in the higher-price categories. imagem_rotulo_cortica_reserva_tinto13_pagina

Former Portuguese colonies Angola and Brazil have been the largest export markets for Alentenjo wines in past years, but both are going through difficult times at the moment (especially Angola with its dependence on petroleum export income), so attention is shifting to other markets such as the U.S., Canada, and Switzerland, which demand higher quality, and Russia and China, where low price is a powerful factor.

Adega de Borda has moved in both directions. The Rótulo de Cortiça wines, which are easy to spot because the label is printed on a thin sheet of real cork (cortiça in Portuguese), are a good case in point. The winery sells about a million bottles of this wine each year at the astounding (for Portugal) price of €9 and even more for the reserve bottling.

That €9 price won’t seem like much to my Napa Valley friends, but it is a stunning achievement for this volume of wine in the context of the Portuguese market and is only possible because of the care and attention that goes into every stage of the process.

Uphill / Downhill

But this doesn’t explain how Adega de Borba is able to compete in markets where margins are razor thin and competition from other producers and other wine regions fierce. To understand that we had to walk up a gentle hillside to the biggest surprise of the day, a stunning  140,000 square meter state-of-the-art production and storage facility that was completed in 2011 at a cost of €12 million. A system of underground pipes connects the new winery with the old one down the hill so that the wines can be bottled there.

Everything is big about the new facility from its crushing capacity (1200 metric tons of grapes a day) to the fermentation and storage capabilities. But it is the technical efficiency that it creates that is most impressive since it allows both volume and margin-boosting quality to co-exist.

Thought and Action

I said at the start that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but this big modern building might be an exception to that rule because the exterior of the new building gives away something of its high-tech interior. It is blistering hot in this region in the summer, so the building is clad in white ceramic tiles to reflect the sun with horizontal rows of white marble from a nearby quarry that, a bit like radiator fins,  provide a certain amount of natural heat control as well. Very cool (pun intended) and not necessarily what you would expect from a wine cooperative.

We came to Adega de Borba because it has embraced the Alentejo region’s sustainability initiative, but it is easy to see that this is part of an overall approach to wine growing and production, with attention to every detail and eyes firmly set on horizon. Cooperatives tend to struggle when they get the incentives wrong, fail to note changing market environments, and hesitate to invest for the future. Adega de Borba shows us how wine cooperatives must think and act to be relevant and successful in today’s markets. It is how all wine enterprises must think and act.

>>><<<

As you probably guessed, this column’s title was inspired by the Gilbert & Sullivan tune from Pirates of Penzance. Enjoy.

Money, Taste, and Wine Short-Listed for Two Gourmand International Awards

gourmandMy recent book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated has been short-listed for two Gourmand International awards.. The winners will be announced in ceremonies in Yantai, China later this month.

The awards are for best wine book and best wine writing. I’ll paste the list of finalists in these categories below.Click on this link to see all the award listings.

Thanks to Gourmand International for this honor. Congratulations and good luck to all the finalists.1442234636

Best book of the year

Australia – Varietal Wines, James Halliday (Harper Collins)
Belgium – All Belgium beers, Stichting Kunstboek
France – Le Vin a la bonne etoile, Gerard Bertrand ( La Martiniere )
Germany – Deutsche Wein und Deutsche Kuche ( Callwey )
Italy – Prosecco on the road, Andrea Zanfi ( S & B )
South Korea Korean Wines and Spirits, Jeff Koehler ( Seoul Selection )
Spain – Economía del vino en España y el Mundo ( Cajamar Valencia )
Sweden – Whisky Rebellion, Richard Lundborg ( Bladh by bladh )
USA – Money, taste and wine, Mike Veseth (Rowman & Littlefield)

 Wine writing

Australia – True stories, Barossa winemakers, Bernadette Kaeding
Bolivia – Diccionario Enciclopedico universal Del vino, Roberto Arce
Chile – Patrimonio vitivinicola ( Biblioteca Nacional )
France-Grainsensible, Olivier Humbrecht, ( Tonnerre de l’ Est )
USA – Money, taste and wine, Mike Veseth (Rowman & Littlefield)

Alentejo Wine in Transition: History and Changing Times in Portugal’s “Lodi”

seloSue and I recently returned from historic Évora, Portugal where I am spoke at the 10th Alentejo Vine and Wine Symposium. We spent about a week in the Alentejo wine region and learned a lot. This is the first of a short series of columns loosely organized around the theme of the disruptive intersection of old and new which I have found in many corners of the wine world, but none more clearly than Alentejo.

Portugal’s Lodi

The map gives you an idea of Alentejo’s location. Évora is about an hour east of Lisbon and give hours south of the Douro Valley. Portuguese leaders once thought that this region would be Europe’s grainery (more Kansas than Lodi, I suppose), but the landscape we saw was more pastures dotted with cork trees and vineyards, some of which are quite large by Portuguese standards.lisboa-alentejo

I think of Alentejo as the Portugal’s Lodi for several reasons. The first is the summer heat, which reaches up to 40 or 45 degrees Centigrade (100 to 110 Fahrenheit) or even higher in July. Difficult to grow high quality wine grapes in such baking heat. But, as markets shift, both regions feel the need to increase quality and so producers are pushing hard. And both regions are implementing important sustainability initiatives that are part of their new identities.

They both produce quite a lot of wine, too. Alentejo accounts for more than 40 percent of the wine consumed in Portugal. But the market is changing and the region must adjust and evolve. The domestic market has not fully recovered from the global financial crisis and price pressure is extreme, especially in the lower price tiers. At the same time, the traditional export markets — especially former Portuguese colonies Angola (#1 on the export list) and Brazil — are struggling.

Drawing Strength from the Old and the New

Alentejo is drawing strength from its past in this transition and from new ideas and initiatives, too. The sense of history is never far below the surface here. Évora is a Unesco World Heritage site, for example, with Roman ruins around every corner. The Romans made wine in this region and the big clay pots they employed are inspiring today’s winemakers (watch for a future column on this).

Portugal was once part of the Arab world (“Portugal,” we were told, means “orange” in Arabic and this was not hard to believe with orange trees everywhere). The name Alentejo itself reflects this history. Alentejo comes from Al Entejo (just as mathematic’s algebra was originally al gebra).

Old practices and a wealth of indigenous grape varieties are more than living history — they form building blocks, but bold initiative is needed for glue. The next three columns will explore this dynamic.

First I will introduce you to Adega de Borba, a big cooperative winery that is moving decisively into the future. Then I will take you into the world of cork by visiting Amorim cork’s processing plant in Alentejo and its high tech labs and production facilities in the north. Finally, we will go back in time to the wines made in big clay pots when we meet with winemaker Domingos Soares Franco at José Maria da Fonseca‘s José de Sousa winery.

>><<<

One of the highlights of the conference was a dinner that featured a group of men who sang the famous Cante Alentejano that is unique to this region. It was a moving experience to hear the singing that turned to pure joy when we learned that the singers were winegrowers — members of the Vidigueira  cooperative. And to top it off, we were drinking their excellent wines. What an experience!

Are You Going to the UNWTO Global Wine Tourism Conference in Georgia?

unwtoI’ve recently accepted an invitation to speak at the first global wine tourism conference to be organized by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The event is set for September 7-9, 2016 in the Republic of Georgia, which is the cradle of wine and an emerging wine tourism destination. Here are links to the preliminary program and registration information.

I will be on a panel that includes representatives from Argentina, France, Japan, Italy and South Africa to talk about best practices in wine tourism in each country. I plan to focus on Napa Valley and the many and quite diverse lessons both that this wine tourism hot spot provides. Should be an interesting discussion!

Are any of you in the Napa or California wine tourism sector (either individual wineries or regional groups) planning to attend the UNWTO conference? I am curious to know who else will be there to represent the U.S. industry.

I like to think that we in the U.S. are in the lead when it comes to wine tourism, but I have seen (and written about) some fabulous and innovative programs in other countries.  Sue and I were recently in Portugal, for example, and were impressed with wine tourism initiatives at Sandeman in Porto, Quinta do Bomfim in the Douro and at Esporão in the Alentejo. The global standard is rising and everyone needs to up their game.

Wine tourism is only going to become more important in the future and opportunities for global dialogue are potentially very valuable. With this in mind, here is a “Flashback Friday” column from 2015 when the UNWTO conference was first announced.

>>><<<

I think the United Nations has a thing about wine. I recently wrote about the surprising number of wine regions that have received Unesco World Heritage site recognition, for example. Now the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is getting into the act.

The 1st UNWTO Global Conference on Wine Tourism will be held in the Kakheti wine region of Georgia from 7-9 September 2016. “Wine tourism represents a growing segment with immense opportunities to diversify demand. In the case of Georgia, this potential is well-known and we are very pleased to be holding the first UNWTO Global Conference on Wine Tourism in the country,” according to UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai.

Why Georgia? History is part of the story, but it is also true that wine is an effective way to promote tourism and economic development. Come for the wine (and food) and stay for the people, culture, history and geography. Trade and investment flows may follow the wine route, too. Georgian officials appreciate this logic.

“Georgia’s unique wine-making traditions date back 8,000 years and are part of UNESCO’s intangible heritage, creating the ideal base to host the Wine Tourism Conference. Herewith, the country’s recent success in attracting a growing number of tourists, its development in terms of tourism products, branding and marketing present an excellent platform to share best practices, experience and knowledge¨ according to Dimitry Kumsishvili, Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia.

U.S. regional wine associations with a strong interest in wine tourism may be able to participate in the Georgia program, but I am not sure about the details.  More information can be found here.

I wrote about wine tourism in my book Extreme Wine, so I am going to be following this initiative closely. Best wishes to Georgia and the UNWTO for a successful inaugural conference.