I’ve been busy working on a revision to my 2011 book Wine Wars and I had one of those deja vu moments. I was reading the chapter on “The China Syndrome,” which includes a report from my friend and former student Matt Ferchen, who was working in China at the time the book was published. Matt attended a wine fair in Beijing sponsored by Portuguese producers and sent me a report of what he found, which I included in Wine Wars. Matt said that he was impressed with the Portuguese wines.
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.
Adega de Borga? Sue and I visited that winery when we were in Alentejo in 2016. I had forgotten that Matt made a point to call it out in his report. It impressed us, too, so much so that I devoted an entire column to our 2016 experience, which I re-print here. Re-discovering Matt’s reference reminded me how surprised we were to discover this excellent example of a modern cooperative winery.
They 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.
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.