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.

Anatomy of Wine Profit and (Mainly) Loss: South Africa versus Australia

Australia and South Africa are rivals on the rugby field, where they compete at the highest levels, and on your store’s wine shelves, too, where they fight for shelf space and consumer attention.

It is a good idea to study your opponent to see similarities and differences and that is just what Christo Conradie did earlier this year at the  Vinpro Information Day meetings in the Cape Winelands in a talk called “Producer and Winery Realities.” Conradie revealed the results of a study of profitability within South Africa’s wine industry and the data were sobering. (You can download a pdf of the presentation here.)rsa

Profit and Loss

Overall, only about 15% of South African producers are making strong profits while 49% have what might be unsustainably low profitability and 6% are breaking even. Fully 30% of producers reported losses. That’s a lot of red ink.

That news got my attention, but Conradie’s comparison with Australia really made me sit up. Breaking profitability down by region, the data for Australia show what you might expect. Profitability is best in some of the premium wine areas — Barossa, Yarra Valley, McLaren Vale, Coonawarra — where a majority of producers are profitable. But in Riverland and even in Mudgee the red ink flows and flows. Almost no one reported a profit in 2014 in these two regions.

Lots of reason for red ink. Weather, exchange rates, market momentum, problems in China and so on. Margins are the key to profitability and the premium prices that Barossa and Coonawarra producers are able to earn are certainly an important factor in their success.oz

The Premium Premium Problem

Now turn to an analysis of South Africa’s regions and a somewhat different picture emerges. Stellebosch is a premium wine production zone but also a high cost area. The price premium that  Stellebosch wines receive in the market does not appear to be enough to offset higher per bottle costs, eating into margins. Only 8% of Stellenbosch producers reported strong profits while 56% indicated loss.

The South Africa regions with the best profitability were generally those where higher yields were possible, which brings down cost, although Conradie made a point to show that the problem is not as simple as getting higher yields. A balance of many factors is needed to produce sustainable profit levels.

Supermarket Empiricism

Sue and I last visited South Africa in 2014 (I was a VinPro Information Day speaker) and we were surprised by the wine prices we saw. Converted into dollars, the inexpensive wines (including a South Africa-sourced Gallo Barefoot that we spotted in one supermarket) were about where we expected them to be. But premium RSA wines, many of them world-class, seemed  under-priced, especially when converted to U.S. dollar amounts.

In other words, it seems that the quality price premium for South African wines is relatively low and I think this is true in the export market as well as for domestic sales. Higher quality South African wines get higher prices, but not always to the same extent as producers in other countries. Or at least that our unscientific observation.

This is not news to the South African winemakers, who seem divided about whether to focus on the profitable higher-yield sector of the industry or to invest in reputation  and regional identity to differentiate products and raise the premium premium (if you know what I mean). Selling more is important in the short term, but earning higher prices is key in the long term.

Swirling Wine Export Currents: China, Australia, Portugal, Angola, USA, Brazil

wine-glass-swirlSue and I are in historic Évora, Portugal where I am speaking at the 10th Alentejo Vine and Wine Symposium. This visit has given me an excuse to learn more about Portugal’s wine export markets and it is eye-opening to see how the economic landscape is changing.

Australia Plays the China Card

International wine trade patterns are changing rapidly and in surprising ways for Portugal and other wine-producing nations. I have many friends who still are not convinced that China is now or ever will be an important factor in global wine trade beyond high end Burgundy and Bordeaux, for example. They just can’t imagine China as a wine power.

They will be surprised at the news from Australia that exports to China now exceed sales to the big U.K. market, putting China #2 after the U.S.for Australian producers  And if you combine exports to China with those to Hong Kong, this market rises to #1 on the Australian wine export league table, surpassing both the US and UK. Imagine that!

This dramatic change, which Kym Anderson predicted a few years ago, is the result of rising Chinese interest in wines in the middle market — not just cheap bulk imports and not just high end trophy wines. Australia is benefiting from this movement and earning a return on their determined investment in the Chinese market in terms of branding and reputation.

Here in Portugal, the currents are shifting, too, and China is part of the story. Consider the latest international trade data provided by “Wine by Numbers,” a project of Il Corriere Vinicola and the Unione Italiana Vini, an association of Italian wine producers.


Portugal Plays the Angola Card

The first table shows total Portuguese bottled wine exports (including both table wine and Port) for 2015 and it is fascinating to see the huge shifts that are taking place. Note strong gains in both volume and revenue in the U.S., Canada, Poland, China and Sweden. Portuguese wines have definitely gained traction in some key markets as quality has continued to improve and distribution and marketing become more effective.

Some of these gains are offset by declining exports to Angola, however. A former Portuguese colony, Angola has benefited from a petroleum-fueled economic boom in recently years and become a good  market for Portuguese wine producers. These data indicate that the oil bust has severely affected the wine market. It is a good thing that the rising exports to other countries offset the falling sales here.

You may be surprised to see Angola on this list, but Africa is a diverse continent in terms of its economic profile and has experienced rapid economic growth creating a number of significant wine markets. A recent Economist newspaper survey forecasts continued robust growth in Africa’s key middle class consumer market, even taking the oil impacts in Nigeria and Angola into account.

exports 2

[Not] Any Port in a Storm

The second table breaks out Port exports and adds an important dimension to our understanding of Portugal’s export environment. Although the bottom line shows that Port exports are relatively stagnant overall, there are tremendous market shifts, particular falling exports to Brazil and Germany and rising sales to Ireland, Denmark, Poland, Sweden and the UK. The U.S. is a rising market for Port, but only #5 on the list.

Now please compare the two tables, mentally subtracting Port exports from total bottled wine exports to get a sense of where Portuguese table wines are being sold. A number of interesting patterns are revealed. The first is the critical importance of Angola, despite its recent economic problems, and also Brazil. According to these data, Angola imports more bottled Portuguese table wine than the U.S., U.K. or France.

The U.S. is a somewhat distant #2 on the bottled table wine list, but of great importance because the market is growing and prices are on the rise. Taken together, the U.S. and Canada are as large a market for Portuguese table wines as Angola and, unlike Angola, a  source of growth both in terms of revenue and rising unit price.


Follow the Money (and Growth)

Finally, I thought you would be interested in these bulk wine export data. U.S. bulk wine imports from Portugal grew dramatically in 2015, but from a very low base (similar to the stories in Norway and the U.K.). Other bulk wine export markets (especially Angola) experienced significant declines, however, so that the bottom line is negative.

I’m speaking to the Alentejo region wine producers and data for Alentejo (click here to download a pdf) indicate the importance of the U.S. market to this region, too. Angola and Brazil were Alentejo’s leading non-EU export markets in 2014 followed by the U.S., Canada and China.

Follow the money, that’s what Deep Throat said, and follow the growth is good advice, too. For Portuguese table wine producers, the biggest markets are Angola and Brazil but the biggest growth opportunities may lie in China, Canada and the United States.


China, Oz, Portugal, Angola, USA and Brazil? Is it just my imagination?

Flashback Friday: A Rainy Day in Porto

We have been in Porto this week and so it seems right to flash back to my first visit there in 2014. It had been raining in Portugal that year. Lots of rain. For a long, long time. It was pretty wet!


fp0621I had one free day during my recent visit to Porto and as much as I wanted to go up the Douro to the vineyards, a  torrential downpour kept me in the city. So I set out to see what sort of wine tourism experience Porto had to offer and I learned a lot. Here is my report.

Sign of The Don

There is much to see and do in Porto itself, but serious wine tourists need to cross the bridge spanning the Douro and enter Vila Nova de Gaia where the Port houses are found lined up along the river and up the hillside.

The riverside was brightly decorated — a welcome touch given the weather — and featured many of  the small boats that traditionally transported the wines from the vineyard areas down to the city, where they are aged and blended and sent to market. The wines are moved by more modern means today, although there is still a gala race, with much honor to the Port house with the winning boat.

My first stop was Quinta do Noval, where I took refuge from the rain and tasted through the wines while drying out. I have to say that there cannot be a better way to warm up than this! No tour or museum or sophistical wine tourist presentation at this stop — just nice wines, friendly and well-informed staff.

My next stop was Sandeman, one of the oldest and best known Port houses.  You see “The Don,” the famous Sandeman logo, everywhere in Porto. Founded in 1790 by George Sandeman, a Scottish wine merchant, Sandeman has interests both in Portugal (Port) and Spain (Sherry). The Don’s distinctive outfit pays tribute to both sides of the business — the Spanish hat paired with the cape worn by university students then and  now in Porto (I saw them myself on exam day). If you thought the logo was a tribute to Zoro, think again.

Tree Ages of Port

The wine tourism experience at Sandeman begins as you enter the house, which feels and smells exactly like what it is — a great old warehouse where wines wait patiently in their barrels, often for decades, for the moment when they will be bottled and go to market. Very atmospheric, immediately communicating a sense of time and place (much like the vintage tv advertisement below).

The first stop once you’ve come through the great doors is a colorful museum dedicated to Sandeman’s great success in branding and marketing. The Don must be one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable trademarks in wine and the museum tells the icon’s story from the first images in 1928 through the present day. It’s an art exhibit at heart, but with a commercial agenda and it is interesting to see how the images and messages evolved over the years.

Next came the tour through the big building. The young woman who guided us was dressed as The Don, of course, but she was more professor than student as she made sure, though example and strategic repetition, that we all understood the nature of the different types of Port — Vintage, LBV, Tawny and so on — how they are made and how they are best consumed. She was very skilled at bringing her students into the story.

Wine Tourism Keys

Walking through the barrel rooms was like walking back in history (which is what we were doing, I suppose), but this is a working operation not a museum and we would have seen the cellar hands going about their business if it hadn’t been Sunday. The tour ended with an opportunity to taste a couple of wines at long tables adjacent to the cellar door sales room and gift shop.

I spent some time talking with a family from Tokyo who were making a European tour and had spent three days in Porto, enjoying experiences like this. Each of the Port houses seems to tell its story in a different way, some focusing on their history, others on the production process. Many, like Sandeman and Graham’s, offer a variety of tasting experiences in addition to the basic tour. Port pairing seminars (cheese, chocolate) are popular, for example, as well as opportunities to taste Tawny Port blends of 10, 20 and 40 years or more. Something for everyone and a satisfying experience even on a sunny day, I’ll bet.

What should a wine tourism experience do? I think of wine as a relationship business and a winery or tasting room visit succeeds when it helps establish new relationships and deepen or renews existing ones. From the tourists’ point of view, it should be enjoyable and informative — and of course offer the opportunity to taste new wines or to share familiar ones with traveling companions and provide stories to tell the folks back home.

From a producer viewpoint, the goals are to get visitors to slow down and absorb the message and this of course requires that there actually be a coherent message presented (too often it seems the objective is simply to attract numbers of visitors). Cellar door sales and wine club memberships are obviously important, too, but only come if the first goals are met.

The Sandeman experience and others like it in Porto succeed from both standpoints. Certainly there was clear and coherent messaging on my tour — about both Port the category, Ports (the various types of Port wines) and the Sandeman brand in particular. (How can you miss that when your tour guide is costumed like the company logo?) When it works it really works. No wonder the major Port houses have invested so much in wine tourism as a way develop their international brands.

Little Frenchie: A Culinary Side-Trip

Soon it was lunchtime and I could not really expect to top the meal I had the day before at Vinum, the great restaurant up the hill at Graham’s, so instead I went for the distinctive meal of Porto: the Francesinha or “Little Frenchie” sandwich.

My Francesinha started with thin layers of cheese on the plate, which was topped with white bread and then roast pork, sliced ham, a bit of chorizo, more cheese, another slice of bread, more cheese, and then a thin reddish beer-based sauce (think enchilada sauce and you will be in the ballpark).

Because I apparently am  not a very good judge of these things, I went over the top and ordered the deluxe version which added a fried egg and a plate of french fries. It was wonderful in the way that Canada’s famous poutaine (french fries, cheese curd, gravy) can be wonderful and I didn’t have room for anything else (except a little Port) for the rest of the day.

I had a great time, learned a lot, met some interesting people. I promise I will get to the Douro vineyards next time, but I wouldn’t miss touring the Port houses for anything.  The variety of experiences available if you visit several houses provides something for everyone, from Port novice to seasoned connoisseur.


Thanks to George Sandeman for his hospitality while I was in Porto and his help with this project. I found this YouTube video that captures a bit of the Francesinha experience. Would I eat it again? Yes, but I’d choose the traditional beer to go with it rather than the red wine I enjoyed at my riverfront restaurant, which claimed to have the best Franceshina in town.