Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What does Portugal need to do?

So Portugal has a problem - what does it do about it?

Well one thing for sure is that consumers need to be taught that Portuguese wine is not all pink, and that the best stuff is red or white.
I have a theory that there is a particular path that regions or countries take when they come to public prominence.

1. Wine writers and critics start to create a bit of a buzz.
2. Independent merchants pick up on it and build a range.
3. They then get consumers tasting more, and build a reputation built on quality.
4. Specialist chains join the fun, promoting wines, and getting them into the mouths of consumers.
5. Consumers start to buy the wines and the buzz builds.
6. Supermarket buyers pick up on the buzz and increase the range, promote and sell more wine from that region / country / grape and the buzz builds and builds.

It appears that ViniPortugal is most interested in trying to come in at stage 6, when in fact they ought to be trying to start at the top. There is also the "tourist" effect - thousands of British holiday makers go on holiday to Portugal every year - it is a tourist destination. If Vini Portugal wants to grow in the UK, then starting with tourists the Algarve could be a terrific way to start.

What ViniPortugal needs to do is a multi-path approach to take advantage of what has gone on before. Lessons can be learned from Argentinian Malbec for instance - the Portuguese are rightly proud of Touriga Nacional (and others) but they don't realise how little recognition the grape has outside Portugal.

So the plan should perhaps look at something like this.

1. Get journalists and writers buzzing - how many really get Portugal and can you wow them?
2. Market and Advertise generically - Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Vinho Verde, Douro and Alentejo would be a good start.
3. Pick some sites in the Algarve and either put in place some wine tourism attractions, or put in place wine bar type things - but get tourists tasting, and recognising what they are tasting. The problem at the moment is that a lot of wine sold in restaurants is jug wine which noone will recognise when they get back.
4. Support the independent sector, provide training for staff, funding for tastings, incentives for listings. Actually pick a specific month / period of time to do a promotion - and give indies a reason to get involved - that way the whole industry gets a push at the same time.
5. Work in specific arenas - Get Vinho Verde the reputation the best wines deserve by serving them at public events - take a note out of Spains Tapas Fantasticas event.
6. Get into restaurants - help wholesalers sell to the on trade.
7. Work with Majestic and Oddbins - get listings and support them to put them into the mouths of consumers. They can influence more people than almost anyone else, so use them. Get them to do a promotion that follows on from the Indies month - if you get the journos talking in week 1, indies working weeks 1-4 and then can follow it up with the multiples in weeks 5-8 then you might be in business.
8. Make the focus on "quality" wines not the £4.49 rubbish that is hawked in the supermarkets.
9. Think about Christmas - merchants across the country sell more wine and are more active with tastings than at any other time - give them money to pay for bottles of wine to be opened at as many events as possible.
10. Only go to the supermarkets with money as a last resort. If people want Portuguese wines the supermarkets will go that way anyhow, if you think the money you give them is doing you any good then you don't understand uk supermarkets who will take money from anyone, lie through their teeth about what it is spent on and will gain you nothing.
11. Remember Jacob's Creek got so big because of independent merchants, Oz Clarke and quality (then) and not because they sidled up to supermarkets. Argentine Malbec came first from Journalists.

All that is very conventional, however there are other routes. The internet is massive - get bloggers on side - host blogger events that are high quality and free to come to, ask bloggers if you can send samples of wines, work with online publications such as Wine-Pages to get editorial written, hit the national newspapers, think of viral advertising - make an intriguing film and post it on You Tube. Get James May and Oz Clarke to do some online live tastings with wines that can be bought in Tesco not Waitrose.

There is so much that can be done, some is happening and some is not, oh and if you are another country looking to get in on the act - then following this advice will work for you too.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Portugal's Wine Problem

Portuguese wine is having a bit of a crisis, in fact it's been having a bit of a crisis for a very long time. For a country that produces ten times the amount of wine as New Zealand, sales of Portuguese wines do not exactly set the world alight. (Now admittedly New Zealand out performs in this context) In fact sales of Portuguese wines represent only 1% of UK wine sales, now that in itself might not be a big problem - no the big problem is that 1/3 of those sales is one wine - Mateus Rose' , and another 1/3 is other Portuguese Rose' - the vast majority of which will be supermarket own label versions of Mateus - probably even bottled in similar bottles. What I don't have numbers for are what percentage of wines sold that are things like cheap supermarket own label Vinho Verde, but I'm guessing somewhere in the 10% region - that leaves very little room for wines of any quality.

Some people will tell you that the situation has got better - thirty years ago Mateus accounted for two of every three bottles of Portuguese wines - but thirty years ago we sold more Portuguese wines, we didn't sell many New World wines, so there was less consumer choice and the supermarkets didn't have the hold they have now, and nor did own label wines represent as big a sector.

So there is the problem, Portugal makes terrific, diverse, different wines, quality is improving, infrastructure and investment is happening all the time - now could be Portugal's time - France is struggling, Australia is in disarray - there is market share available to be won but sadly as it stands I can't see Portugal being the ones to take advantage.

Too few companies control too much of the promotional budget - the Consejor Reguladors are answerable to their producers on how they market their wines, but all too often one large producer dominates and prevents money being spent that could take a region global.
ViniPortugal does it's best, but too much money is thrown at supermarkets - and yet Sainsbury sell own label Vinho Verde, Mateus Rose and own label red. Tesco sell a few more, but the range is not exactly mind blowing. What ViniPortugal need to understand is that it is not the supermarkets who set the agenda for what is going to sell, trends start with independents and specialist chains like Majestic (who stock 9 wines which although I haven't tasted all look interesting at least) and Oddbins (7 wines, cheaper but reasonable looking).

What ViniPortugal need to do is to start making a noise, spend the money getting consumers to taste wines and trying to get people to understand them.

I'll soon write my plan for getting Portugals wines taking off.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A delicious inexpensive Portugese red

I happen to love great value wines, and love a lot of Portuguese wines, reds in particular. The Portugese have all the right attributes for making terrific wine - they have a rich history of viticulture and some of the finest native varieties out there. Commercially their varieties are relatively unknown which means the average consumer has difficulty with the wines because they are far more comfortable with things like Chardonnay or Merlot. Anyway I digress - I'm planning to post more on what I think Vini Portugal and the producers in the country need to do to take a greater part in the global wine argument.

The wine I'm drinking tonight is the basic wine from Herdade San Miguel called Ciconia (which is taken from the latin for Stork, which nest all over the region) from the Alentejano towards the southern end of Portugal. Made from a blend of Touriga Nacional, Syrah and Arragonez (Spain's Tempranillo) and costing somewhere around £7.50 a bottle it is really delicious.

A nose of raspberry ripple ice cream, with some nice spicy notes, very smooth in the mouth with great freshness but not astringent in the slightest. Medium to full bodied there is a nice degree of complexity for a wine that costs so little and for me it shows the extra warmth that Portugal has over France for instance with some real richness in the fruit character but is definately not as hot as Australia in that the fruit is much fresher but you get the point - for me that is what I love Portugal for - there is more guts to the wines that a lot of Northern Europe but they are more refined and have greater finesse than a lot of Australia. 89 Points.

Master of Wine

Some of you will know that when I passed the WSET Diploma I did reasonably well, and some of you will also know that I was then asked to go for a scholarship which included part funding of MW study (as well as a trip and various other bits) but after not a lot of thought I decided against it, with no guarantee that I might get offered something else instead.
The good news is that I've now been offered a trip to Austria next summer - it wouldn't be my first choice of trip if I was going to make a holiday of it, but as my practical experience of Austria is virtually nill (I've learned the theory) it will actually be a trip that really broadens my horizons and gives me further education rather than just being a worklike holiday. It's also somewhere I'd be very unlikely to travel to and do myself in that way whereas many other places I may get a trip to through another channel at some stage in the next 30 years or may end up taking myself there - so all in all probably the right place to be going to.

And now for some explanation - many friends and family have wondered why on earth I didn't decide to go for the MW at this stage - well there's lots of reasons but let me start by saying that doing the MW is most definately not off the radar but I am still (relatively) young and there is plenty of time to do it - but it may be ten years before I decide to give it a go.
Other reasons for not going for it now include :-

1. I have just finished some pretty intense study for the diploma and by then end of it found the study for a theory exam a bit of a chore rather than pure enjoyment - I want to make sure I still enjoy wine and learning about it and a pause in education should allow the fun to return.

2. I have a little family, who when I was spending between 1 and 2 hours every evening studying missed out on me spending time with them - now it's important for me to give them my focus and attention - they are more important than wine! (With a little one our routine became so that we ate together and then watched a bit of TV before bed together and not much more - one of us was either studying or bathing Anna or putting her to bed)

3. Whilst the scholarship is very generous the MW is still very expensive - around £3000 per year plus the cost of travel to tastings and the cost of attending paid for tastings (at around £50 per time) and then there are the MW Symposium's overseas to go to etc etc etc - it would all be pretty expensive to do.

So whilst I am a little sad not to be doing the MW right now, current circumstances mean that it isn't really an option, and more than anything I certainly couldn't afford to do it. It may be that I never do it, but it is most certainly not off the radar totally.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dalmore and the £1300 malt

We've bought a bit of Dalmore through a wholesaler in the last twelve months, and it's been relatively well received but because of a few movements in agencies we're going to be able to buy direct from Whyte and Mackay (so we'll get to offer Jura at decent prices too) and the rep popped in to talk to us about Dalmore and let us taste the range. Because we wholesale on a reasonable scale and will look to take W&M's basic blend and Vladivar vodka for that market our rep looks after cash and carry customers almost exclusively so for him we're an interesting distraction.

So we got to taste through the malts, the vial of 12 in his little pack was empty but we did get to try the 15, Gran Reserva, 1973, King Alexander III and 40 year old (which retails between £1300 and £1400).
What was really interesting for me, a relative novice to all things malt (despite buying the things - this is done more with commercial acumen than with huge amounts of knowledge) was that despite being sherry cask matured these were not massive rich, sweet malts. Far from it, yes they hinted at richness but there was a level of refinement and complexity that was just stunning. For me I loved the 40 year old (of course) but I also really dug the Grand Reserva. This used to be called the Cigar Malt and it's easy to see why but political powers made it foolish to continue to brand the whisky in this way so the liquid is the same but the name has changed.
Having tasted the range, I now hope that I'll be able to do a Dalmore tasting for Burns Night in Banbury with some of our customers - we probably won't get to try the 40, unless someone is feeling very generous to our cause but it should still be a terrific night.

Speciality Brands

After the trials of trying to get technical things working on Monday and Tuesday, on Wednesday the rep from Speciality Brands popped in. This is the agency arm of The Whisky Exchange, but they insist that they sell to their sister company at the same price that we can buy at so it looks like we might be able to do a bit of business.

We tasted through an interesting (and a little eclectic) range of spirits starting with the Diplomatico Rum range. Now I'm not really a rum drinker, and whilst the Anejo and Reserva were fine, I found it hard to get excited but the Reserva Exclusiva was the reason the Robert got called back in to talk business. When he inititally popped in to say hello and see whether we might be able to do any business he left a bottle behind for me to try with colleagues and see what we all thought. And I have to say I was really impressed. Whilst it isn't sweet, it does have that feeling of sweetness from the rich flavours given off, with dramatic intensity and complexity of spirit I could quite happily sit and sup this after dinner with no problem at all (and if I smoked Cigars I'd probably have one with it).

XM Rums from Guyana I have to say I was less impressed with, I've tasted the El Dorado rums (at least some of them) particularly the 15 year old and for me it knocks this into the dirt but it was interesting none the less.
Tapatio Tequila's were next and I was totally out of my depth - what is a good tequila? Can't say I really have a clue - we probably won't be adding to our range anytime soon anyway...
Jensen Gins are an interesting proposal, the Bermondsey I thought was actually pretty jummy, but I didn't really get the Old Tom - for me it came across as dirty tasting and not the most pleasant.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's not all fun and games

You always have good days and bad days in the wine and spirit business. Monday wasn't a great day, I spent almost all the day wrestling with .php code and trying to get a shopping cart to accept paypal credit card payments for a Wine Gifts Site on the side. is a further channel of S H Jones as we look to expand into the gift market - here people pay a single price for a bottle (or bottles) of wine, spirits or often Champagne delivered, often in gift packaging. It's an expensive way to buy - but it's probably the cheapest way to send gifts like this. And we're making sure we selling things cheaper than Majestic are - we can do it by operating on a low margin, but because it's gift all in pricing it doesn't affect our day to day pricing policies. Once the site is ticking over it would be nice to think it might take a bit of money - the trick will be getting customers in the first place.

What I was meant to be doing on Monday was going up to London to the 'Trinity' tasting - a trade tasting of three pretty smart importers including Raymond Reynolds who import some of hte best (and some of the most interesting) wines from Portugal. They have lost some agencies in the past, but always come up trumps with as good (if not better) replacements. Raymond and Danny know the scene better than anyone and when a new winery gets added to the Portfolio you can bet it's top quality.

We've got a Portuguese tasting tomorrow night in Leamington, and some of the wines we know and love, and others I had to look at my notes from a tasting earlier in the year - having left that tasting feeling underwhelmed I supprised because I was full of admiration for the wines and loved most of them from the little ones to the more expensive. Now we've bought some in do I buy a lot of the cheap bottles of a few of the pricey ones?

Yesterday was better, had a new supplier in tasting some Rums, Tequilas and Whisky and today I tasted through the Dalmore range - but more on that in the next few days.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

What a difference a little time makes

Yesterday I found a file on my computer - "Wines to try" . Apparently it's a list I compiles in February 2007 little knowing that in 3 months time I'd be working in the wine trade. What is interesting is not that I've now tasted a lot of the wines on the list - which were probably lifted from one of the many wine buying guides I used to buy / ask for Christmas but those wines I haven't yet got around to. Three were from Western Australia, Suckfizzle Shiraz and both Cabernet and Chardonnay from Moss Wood.

I've tasted things like Musar, Condado de Haza and Pesquera Tinto which were on the list along with Chateauneuf du Papes and Claret that I fancied but those few things I'm not sure now that I would get all that excited about trying - I doubt it's because I have changed what I like particularly and I doubt it's because I think the wine isn't that good. I suspect that it comes down to a couple of things, the first is that I've tasted a lot of things like them and the other is that I don't read as many wine reviews now, and instead tend to take things as I find them at tastings and get excited when something special comes along. The essence is probably that I know more now and have more experience and so what someone else tells me to buy is less interesting - I'd rather discover myself.

This of course means as a merchant I have to ask whether customers are looking at books, newspapers or would they rather have a recommendation from a merchant who knows all their wines well? A book may tell me to a particular wine sold by my local merchant - but the merchant may know that there is more value to be had from another producer or indeed another wine by the same producer.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Chateau Maurel Fonsalade Cuvee Frederic 2004, St Chinian

I last tasted this wine on holiday around St. Chinian back in 2006 and so four years later I've opened the single bottle that I brought back to see how it was getting along. I had a bottle of another wine bought on the same holiday a couple of months ago and to be perfectly honest it had dried up and not fared at all well - and originally it was a more expensive wine than this so I was pretty unsure what it would have done - although it relies on a lot less Carignan than that wine and instead is more of a Rhone style blend of Syrah and Grenache. On opening the wine immediately was a lot more showy and full of deep fruit, and hour or so later and the wine was really beginning to sing. I don't think it's going to get any better, in fact it is almost certainly at it's peak and much longer it'll start to lost some of the depth of fruit that it's got at the moment.
And despite the fact that this is a wine with some pretty serious styling, and is a lot of money for your buck, it's almost impossible to get hold of - in fact I would imagine Lafite '82 or a top Romanee Conti is probably easier to find than this - nowhere in the UK is currently selling the wine. I did get a bit on an insight into why on visiting the domaine (calling it a Chateau is perhaps a little grand!) the proprietor's father complained that they could not compete with Australian wine in the UK market - it was too cheap! Of course that supposes that they ought to be trying to compete with inexpensive mass produced, branded wines - this is so much better that it has to be worth the premium on the UK market. In fact the 8 Euro I paid for a bottle seems very cheap indeed - purely in wine terms I would imagine that you could sell this happily around £12 a bottle so there is an opportunity - in fact if you are a UK merchant or importer is there a reason you don't sell these wines?

On the nose the wine has rich aromas of fresh tobacco and deep damson fruit that develops on the palate to show a little mineral character, some real intensity of deep black cherry and licorice with some terrific length. Drink now or in the next six months. (92/100) 3.10.10

Ardbeg Supernova 2 vs Bruichladdich Octomore3.1

For those in the know, Bruichladdich have been cranking up the levels of peat in their Octomore whiskies to unknown levels. The latest release comes in at a massive 152 parts per million peat. To give you an idea the 'normal' level of heavily peated Ardbeg is 50ppm.
Ardbeg too have come out with 'Supernova' peated to 95ppm. Both whiskies are relatively young, and both have been sought after on previous release. The first release of Octomore sold out in days and Supernova didn't last much longer. This release is the fourth release of Octomore and follows versions 1 and 2 in style and makeup - but with more peat. The third release came out last December and was finished in Petrus casks and came under the moniker of Octomore 2.2 Orpheus.
Both came to the tasting with big reputations, but Octomore perhaps is the one that has had people more excited in the past and perhaps had the bigger reputation but would they live up to it. Well we served it blind to 18 whisky lovers to find out what they thought - and the Ardbeg did not disapoint - balanced, yet fruity and very obviously Ardbeg - following it the Octomore for me was a bit of a let down. On the night all the talk was about the Supernova, and how amazingly good it was - and sales figures don't often lie, and with noone buying Octomore it's a bit damning. In all honesty it was pretty good, but I know where I would spend my money if it came to it.