Portugal's go-getting young winemakers

By Joao Pedro Pereira and Will Smale
Business reporters

Image caption,
Each bottle of Virgo wine comes with a blank label, so the buyer can design his or her own

For a country famous around the world for the quality of its fortified wine, Portugal's table wines are often overlooked on the global stage.

So while Port and Madeira - both made by adding a clear brandy to the fermented grape juice to "fortify" them - are much enjoyed and well-known in export markets, the country's red, white and rose wines remain significantly less popular.

With a wine-making history going back centuries, and more indigenous grape varieties than any other country, Portugal's table wines should be much better known on the international stage.

That they are not is down to a number of factors, but perhaps most importantly the fact that until the past decade or so, most were made in an old-fashioned way that had little mass-market appeal overseas.

The wines were often a bit too rustic, or rough around the edges, and didn't have the bright fruit flavours most drinkers wanted.

Image source, Extra
Image caption,
Joao Almeida now exports his wine to nine countries

Also, Portuguese wineries, typically small family-run operations, didn't pay much attention (if any) to marketing or packaging.

But much has changed over the past 10 years, and now there is a new generation of Portuguese winemakers who are both using the most up-to-date winemaking techniques, and thinking of ways in which they can visually stand out from the crowd.

Thermal ink

Joao Almeida, 33, is a professor of viticulture (the growing of grapes) who started making and selling his own wines four years ago.

In creating his white wine brand Camaleao (Portuguese for "chameleon"), he decided to borrow a labelling trick he had seen in the beer world.

Thanks to the use of thermal ink, the chameleon drawing on the label of each bottle changes colour from green to blue when the wine is at the right serving temperature, which is below 11C.

And while some traditionalists in Portugal might moan, Mr Almeida makes Camaleao from the globally popular sauvignon blanc grape, which is native to France.

The wine, which is made near the town of Viseu, in central Portugal, has been a hit overseas in places such as Spain, the UK, the Netherlands, Japan and Brazil.

Image source, Camaleao
Image caption,
Camaleao's label changes colour when chilled

"I'm now exporting to nine countries without having made much of an effort," says Mr Almeida.

Now making a decent profit, Mr Almeida is thinking about cutting back on his lecturing work to devote more time to his winemaking.

"Only now am I considering changing my life to dedicate myself to these kind of projects," he says.

"I have three kids and had to start very slowly."

In the first year, he recalls, only 1,350 bottles were made. Now he produces about 27,000.

Experience overseas

Rita Marques, 32, is another winemaker using more modern methods to make and sell her wine.

Based in north-eastern Portugal, she did a degree in winemaking, before then working at wineries and vineyards in France, California, New Zealand and South Africa.

Now back at her family's vineyards in north eastern Portugal, she mixes the most up-to-date winemaking techniques with traditional Portuguese grape varieties.

Instead of simply naming her wines after the property, she has chosen to call them Conceito (Portuguese for "concept") and Contraste (contrast).

Image caption,
Rita Marques trained abroad before returning to her family's vineyard

After starting out in 2008, and surviving the peak of the global financial crisis, Ms Marques decided to focus on exports.

She now exports 95% of the 150,000 bottles she makes, on average, each year.

"The world of oenology [winemaking] has evolved a lot in recent years," she says.

"Our generation is a bit more pragmatic. It is good that people make the kind of wine they believe in, but in the end, they have to sell it."

'Interactive wine'

Diogo Albino, 32, has been helping his father make wine at their Torre do Frade estate in southern Portugal since 2004.

In addition to his work in the vineyard and cellar, Mr Albino has been putting his marketing degree to good use.

Image caption,
Diogo Albino has a background in marketing

One of the firm's wines is called Virgo, and each bottle comes with a blank, detachable label, to enable customers to design their own.

Virgo drinkers can then submit their personalised labels, with the best drawings or messages appearing on the following year's back labels.

"I wanted an interactive wine," says Mr Albino. "Each bottle we drink represents a moment.

"There are friends, family, conversations. We should have something physical to remember that moment."

The family business now makes 20,000 bottles a year, with one out of five exported.

Outside of the big Port houses based in the northern city of Porto, Portugal only has one large wine company, a business called Sogrape, which continues to make Mateus, the lightly sparkling wine beloved by UK drinkers in the 1970s.

Otherwise the country's wine industry is "completely atomised", says wine expert Tomas Caldeira Cabral.

He adds that while the country's wine industry can still be "really conservative" and was slow to develop internationally recognised wines, a lot of small Portuguese producers are now "making the most experimental wines".

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