Monday, October 31, 2011

Travel to Quinta do Vesuvio (Douro Superior) by Rail: Decanter Great Port Wine Weekend

The March 2010 issue of Travel and Leisure described the ride on the Douro Line (Linho do Douro) as one of the 10 most scenic train rides in the world so it was with great anticipation that I set out to travel from Porto to Quinta do Vesuvio -- the Symington Family Estates property in Douro Superior -- as a part of Decanter's Great Port Wine Weekend.

The Douro Line runs between Porto and Pocinho, a town approximately 20 kilometers from the Spanish border.  The line is 160 kilometers long thanks to the enabling capabilities of 26 tunnels and 30 bridges  along its path.  The line was put into service in 1887 -- after a 12-year construction effort -- in order to speed up the carriage of Port wine, other goods, and passengers between Porto and the stops along the way.  At its inception, the journey from Pocinho to Porto was cut from 12 days to 5 hours.

Our day in Vila de Gaia had begun with tours of the Taylor's and Graham's Port Lodges, followed by a masterful Port wine Masterclass led by Paul Symington, CEO of Symington Family Estates, and lunch at the Symington Family Estates Executive Offices.  We were scheduled to travel by train to Quinto do Vesuvio where we would be spending Friday and Saturday nights.  With all of our scheduled activities, and the interest that these generated among our team members, we were perilously close to missing the train for which we had reservations.  We said hurried goodbyes and got into our waiting rides for a pell mell trip through Oporto streets to the Campanhã train station.

We arrived at the station and hurriedly disembarked, snatched up our luggage and headed for the platform.  One of the Symington staffers had ridden along with us to ensure that we went directly to the appropriate platform.  We helped each other get the luggage onto the train.  I cursed my wife under my breath (she has never met a jumbo-sized suitcase that she doesn't like) as I struggled to get her "weekender" aboard the train.  There were no luggage racks inside the passenger compartment so we stacked the suitcases in the loading areas outside the compartment (There was some overhead space within the compartment for small items.).  We made our way into the carriage and plunked ourselves into the seats that had not already been claimed by early-arriving passengers.  Shortly after we collapsed exhausted into our individual seats, the train moved out.

Our schedule called for us to leave Porto at 3:20 pm and travel to Régua, making a number of stops along the way.  We would arrive at Régua at 5:05 pm at which time we would be told whether we would have to change out trains for the remainder of the journey to Vesuvio, the stop for Quinto do Vesuvio.  We were scheduled to leave Régua at 5:30 pm and arrive at Vesuvio at 6:39 pm where Paul Symington -- who had gone ahead by car to make arrangements for our arrival -- would meet us.

It took me a while to stop breathing heavily (after my encounter with my wife's luggage) and take stock of my surroundings. Having boarded the train in a rush, I had not had the luxury of being strategic in my seat selection. I was facing away from the direction of travel and had limited visibility of the scenery to my right and even less so on my left.  So here I was, beginning one of the most scenic train rides in the world, and having no view.  A punch in the gut.  I would have to figure something out.  But not now.  I needed more resuscitation time.  I did have an excellent view of our carriage and noted that it seemed occupied by locals with members of the Decanter team sprinkled randomly throughout the carriage.

For the first (what I found out later to be) 60 kilometers, the scenery was pedestrian but this all changed when the line met the river at Mosteiro where it travels west to east along the river on its north bank.  We were sitting on the side of the train furthest from the river and saw everyone looking out and up.  My backward facing seat was not getting the job done for me.  After a few kilometers of fleeting glances of this scenery as it fled into the distance, I got out of my seat and went on the platform outside the passenger compartment in order to gain an unobstructed view.  This was a great move until I found out that this was also the access point for the onboard bathroom which, when flushed, flooded on to the floor inside and outside the bathroom.  I beat a hasty retreat.

There were a number of stops between Mosteiro and Régua and, at each stop, people would disembark and be replaced by new passengers.  But between each stop we were treated to kilometer after kilometer of beautifully terraced vineyards rising from the river's edge and working their way up the slopes to the tree line; and if the hill were below a certain height, along its crest.  Where vineyards were not planted, olive groves abounded.  In many cases they were interspersed.  In cases where vines or olive trees were not planted, the tree line reached down to the waters edge.  Or a forest of rocks.  At some points along the way a roadway paralleled the river.    The river itself is fairly tranquil and its even disposition and height sets it in stark contrast to the sometimes rocky, sometimes craggy, sometimes terraced hillsides that frame it along its entire length.

At Régua we found out that we would not have to change trains after all (This was a relief as I wanted to delay re-tangling with my wife's "weekender" for as long as possible.).  Régua had been a very important stop in the olden days as the town had been the capital of the Port wine trade.  Another important stop along the way is Pinhão.  This station is decorated with blue and white glazed tiles (azauelos) which depict local river and harvest scenes.


Shortly after leaving the Alegria stop, we see an imposing granite formation, the signature of the Valeria Canyon.  The longest tunnel on the line (712 m) had to be blasted through the granite to allow passage of the rail line.  Passage through this tunnel gets us into Douro Superior, the region that is home to Quinta do Vesuvio.  And four stops later we arrive at our destination.  We are the only ones to get off at the station.  And then it hits me.  This stop is expressly for the use of this estate.  Paul is there to meet us.  He has shed his corporate trappings and is now attired in blue jeans and a land rover.  The look of gentleman farmer fits him.  He welcomes us and then sets about loading our luggage into the vehicles.  We rush in to help.

Oh and about the trip.  It is the most scenic train ride I have ever taken.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Potential Marketing Approaches to the French Occasional/Non-Wine Drinker Segments

French wine consumption has been in a steady downward spiral since the 1970s, fueled to a large extent by an increase in occasional and non-wine drinkers.  In previous posts I have examined institutional and market-level initiatives aimed at stemming the tide.  In this post I will propose some approaches to long-term exploitation of the occasional and non-wine-drinking segments.

According to the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), of the 51 million potential wine drinkers in France in 2010, 41% were non-wine-drinkers while 43% were occasional drinkers.  According to Lorey and Poutet, most of the members of these two segments are 40 years of age or younger.  Further, according to the same source, 46.7% of French women are occasional drinkers while 40.8% are non-wine-drinkers.  These categories are of interest to the wine producer because, according to INRA, occasional winer drinkers consume five to six times less wine than does a regular consumer.  Further, they are of interest because the regular consumer segment is declining.  According to INRA, "Since 1980, each generation includes a lesser number of regular consumers than the previous and the share of the regular consumers within a same generation does not increase with aging" (CCE).

A number of reasons have been advanced (Demoisser, Lorey and Poutet, (5/2/08)) for the reduction in French wine consumption but the one that stands out for me is the disassociation of wine from meals.  Historically wine was viewed as a part of the meal in France and everyone participated in all aspects of the meal.  This not only contributed to high wine consumption levels, it also provided a template for the next generation.   The meal was a vehicle for culture transmission.  And, according to Lorey and Poutet, the father was the driver of that vehicle.

In recent years fast food has gained in popularity (damned American culture).  According to the Wine Spectator (2/20/08), in the preceding 10 years the number of family meals and business lunches had decreased by 50%.  The key takeaways here are (i) that there was a loss of the main wine culture transmitting vehicle and (ii) the people who would have been in that vehicle are somewhere else drinking something else.

Wine consumption in France has suffered because it has fallen off the wall; and no one has tried to put it back together again.  No attempt has been made to position the category wine in the mind of the consumer.  Instead, winemakers have pursued Parker scores in order to build their brand (and their sales) while the larger population, who know nothing about Parker (and couldn't care less), have been left to their own devices.  This is, I feel, is one of the opportunity areas for targeting the segments of interest.  The regular drinker knows why he/she drinks wine; the occasional/non-wine drinker should be advised towards this end because, for the neophyte, wine is not easily approached.  I believe that the wine industry in France needs to undertake an effort to re-establish a tight linkage between food and wine.  It should partner with the food industry, grocery chains, and restaurants to speak to the symbiotic relationship between wine and food with events, advertising, road shows, etc., all targeted at this point.  Rather than the focus being on where wine is from, it should shift to what it goes well with.  This approach provides the targeted segments a reason to pursue wine and would be equally relevant for eating in or out.

A second key opportunity is the opening up of wine regions to broad-based tourist activities as a way of attracting and converting occasional/non-wine drinkers.  If a locale is easily accessible, has a lot of wineries that can be easily visited, and has high quality food options, either at the wineries or close by, people will come.  And many of these people will be other than regular drinkers.  And if they have a great time, they will want to be part of that culture.  They will want to do it again.  And they may even go to their favorite restaurant back home and order wine with a meal.  Or go to their favorite after-work hangout and order a glass of wine.  A classic example of this phenomena is Napa Valley which with its tasting rooms, restaurants, and events has played a pivotal role in the growth of wine drinking in the US.  And wine drinking regions in places like Long Island, Virginia, and other places across the globe are pursuing that model in spades (For more detail on this trend see George Taber's book, In Search of Bacchus.).

Many years ago, 60 Minutes ( a CBS news magazine) ran a segment on what it called the French Paradox which highlighted the fact that even though the French consumed higher amounts of saturated fats than US residents, their incidence of coronary heart disease was lower than in the US case.  The show implied that this effect was due to the higher amounts of red wine consumed by French citizens and this been borne out by subsequent research which attributes a beneficial effect of 1-2 glasses of red wine per day.  There is a clear health benefit associated with moderate consumption and there is some concern that this turn away from wine by, especially the young French, are causing them to lose this "Paradox" benefit.  According to the Wine Spectator (2/20/08), if the potential drinkers were consuming one to two glasses of wine per day, French per capita consumption would be at 90 liters versus the current 54.  The health benefits of moderate wine drinking should be emphasized as part of the long-term positioning of the beverage with occasional/non-wine drinkers.

Today's generation communicates by Twitter, Facebook, etc., and go out on the web to collect data for purposes of comparison.  I have sought out many a small French producer online only to come up blank.  In addition to investing in vineyard renewal projects, the French government should also invest in a technology infrastructure for some of these small producers, thus improving their visibility, especially to this youngest generation.

In a study by Liz Thach and Francois d'Hauteville (see, 5/2/08), French Millenials (aged 21 to 31) were asked why they did not drink wine.  Their answers were as follows: Wine is old; wine is expensive; they did not like its taste; it was confusing; and they had strong anti-alcohol sentiments.  These answers provide additional avenues of focus for a specific sub-segment of the segments of interest.  If wine is viewed as old, producers need to find a way to make it appear hip to youngsters (this would most likely require advertising programs which associate wine with a life style or with an iconic individual); if wine is viewed as expensive, then there may need to be entry-level alternatives, or pricing by market segment; if they do not like the taste then we may need to use fruitier wines to encourage initial participation, knowing full well that palates change as people are exposed to different things.  And finally, producers may have to experiment with packaging options to appeal to the lifestyle and habits of this generation.

These potential approaches are advanced as a means of starting a dialogue on the topic because exploiting the occasional/non-wine drinker market is not a problem unique to France.  I look forward to your views on this matter.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

French Producer Strategies for Combatting Domestic Wine Consumption Declines

The much-heralded French wine drinking culture has died, as evidenced by a significant and continuing decline in domestic wine consumption.  A number of institutional initiatives have been implemented in order to stem the tide and producers are moving to take advantage of the openings provided by these initiatives.  This post will examine examples of these market-level initiatives and options.

The 2009 CMO allows for the production of Vin de Table wines without Geographical Indication and with/without varietal names indicated on the label.  Consumers around the world have been responsive to labels which indicate the varietal(s) included in the wine.  Some French producers have embarked on this path.  For example, Cahors, the home of the Malbec grape, and famed for its long-maturing "black wine", has moved to take advantage of Argentina's popularization of the grape, and its associated style, by producing a fruitier, easy-drinking style of wine which is labeled Cahors Malbec.

Italian wine makers in Bolgheri saw DOC rules as too restrictive and created non-DOC compliant wines which they sold as the lower-classified IGT wines.  These so-called Super Tuscans were high-quality wines and were rewarded with overwhelming market demand even at relatively high price levels.  Some French wine makers are taking a page out of the Super Tuscan book, but at the other end of the spectrum, and are producing their everyday wines under the less restrictive Vin de Pays -- now called Indication Géographique Protégéa IGP) -- level.

A "terminal option" available to individual producers is the sale of the estate.  And Chinese investors, with a different market in mind, appear to be ready buyers.  According to The Daily Telegraph (3/20/11), the recent purchase of the Cru Bourgeois property Chateau Laulan Ducos by Chinese businessman Richard Shen Dongjun brings to six the number of Chinese-owned vineyards in Bordeaux.  According to the article, the production of these estates is modified to meet Chinese tastes -- smooth, fruity, and deep-colored -- and then shipped in its entirety to China to meet that market's need for Bordeaux wines.  This approach is a win-win for all parties: the French owner cashes out; the gap between production and consumption in France is narrowed; and the wine that is sent to China is counted as French wine exports.

At this time it is not clear how/if France tourist wine consumption is included in national consumption figures.  Nor is it clear whether tourist wine consumption over the period of interest has been steady, increasing, or declining.  Regardless, tourists should be viewed as a viable target market by French wine producers.

According to (8/12/11), France has: the most cultural sites of any European country; some of the best food in Europe; the most spectacular scenery; and the liveliest city life.  The country played host to 75 million tourists (Germany, Britain, and Scandinavia are the largest sources) in 2010, notwithstanding its reputation of being an unwelcoming destination for visitors.  This apparent lack of appreciation for tourists is blamed for shorter stays and lower tourism revenues.  The Ministry of Tourism recognizes the problem and has initiated a long-term program to improve the country's performance in this area.  If successful, and longer tourist stays result, tourist wine consumption, it follows, will increase.  But, beyond these macro-level forces, producers need to mount marketing campaigns aimed at getting tourists to drink French wine while in France.  Every drinker of French wines while in France is a potential French wine drinker when they return home.

While many New World wine producers are vigorously pursuing wine tourists, French producers still largely view tourists as a bother.  The Joseph Report (4/21/08) ascribes this to the French philosophy of "to each his own craft."  In practice this means that the wine maker grows grapes, crushes them, and makes wine.  He then negotiates with someone else to do the selling of the wine to the consumer.  Selling wine at the cellar door thus does not fit easily into the French winemaker's psyche.  Further, in the cases where it is done, the focus is on selling wine while New World producers are seeking to provide a broader range of activities (food, picnic areas, events) to keep the wine tourist engaged.

In my next post I will discuss the issue of the occasional/non-drinker and their potential as target markets.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Stemming the Decline of French Wine Consumption: Institutional Initiatives

In dialogue with @GrapeConviction following his reading of my post on Generational Roles in the Demise of the French Wine Drinking Culture, two questions were raised: (i) did I expect to see continuing  declines in French wine consumption? and (ii) what steps could producers take to mitigate this problem? I will address these two questions over the course of my next two posts, this one inclusive.

First, as regards future consumption, French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and Viniflhor projections (in Comité national des conseillers du commerce exterieurs de la France (CCE), "Wine in the world as we approach 2050: the 21st century market challenges," September 2009) show that, in a market of 51 million wine drinkers: regular drinkers will decline from 20% in 2005 to 17% in 2010 and 13% in 2015; non-consumers will represent 39%, 41%, and 43% of the market, respectively, in the same years; and occasional drinkers will rise from a base of 41% in 2005 to 43% over the forecast period. The projected decline in regular drinkers, and the increase in occasional drinkers, signals further erosion in consumption as, according to INRA (CCE), occasional drinkers consume five to six times less wine than does a regular consumer.

The CCE report has identified two fronts on which the French wine industry should battle the decline in wine consumption: (i) seek growth in international markets to offset the declines at home and (ii) target the large, and growing, occasional and non-wine-drinking segments.  To these I will add the options of (i) exiting the market completely (available only to individual producers) and (ii) seeking to increase the amount of wine drunk by foreign tourists while in France  (At this time it is not clear how tourist consumption maps into the overall domestic consumption figures.).

Initiatives focused on combating the consumption problem can be broadly categorized as being at the institutional or producer level.  In this post I will cover institutional initiatives.

Initially the European Union saw declining consumption as a supply problem and sought to address it by mandating the grubbing up of vineyards and reducing subsidies to farmers.   In its August 2000 Common Market Organization (CMO) for wine, the EU began to take a broader view of the problem.  The 2000 CMO sought to (i) enhance quality, (ii) protect quality wines produced in specified geographic areas, (iii) increase industry market orientation, and (iv) subsidize renewal of old vineyards.  As the data have shown, this initiative did not solve the declining-consumption problem.  This then led to the August 2009 CMO for wine.

The August 2009 CMO sees improving wine producer competitiveness as both a foil against foreign wines in the domestic market as well as a tool for helping to win business in foreign markets.  One of the significant aspects of the CMA is its simplification of the quality level scheme (to essentially three levels: AOP, IGT, and Vin de Table; the German sweet wine levels is retained) with the option of using varietal names at the Vin de Table level.  In this scheme, a producer who wants to use a varietal name can do so providing the wine is labeled VdT, regardless of actual quality level.  This initiative seeks to protect the domestic market by protecting place names (something the local consumer would, ostensibly, be familiar with) while giving the local producer the flexibility of using varietal names where that is the preferred mode for communicating the contents of the bottle.

It may be a statement of the obvious but the French wine industry is important to France. According to CCE, the industry: is responsible for 350,000 upstream and downstream jobs; is a key part of France's heritage; is, in some rural areas, the only economic activity; and is a key contributor to the country's balance of payments.  Given the industry's importance, one would expect the French government to seek a role in addressing the declining-consumption problem. And it has.  As a direct offshoot of the 2009 CMO, the French wine authorities have launched a 5-year program to modernize French viticulture.  In addition, the Inspector General of French agriculture has been charged with developing programs aimed at improving industry promotional activity in international markets.

These initiatives by themselves will not solve the problem (assuming it is soluble).  They are, instead, designed to create an environment wherein producers and marketers can apply creative solutions.  The task is daunting, however, as they attempt to change course in the face of implacable competitors, unenthusiastic consumers, and tepidly religious marketers and producers.  My next post will focus in on this area.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Generational Roles in the Demise of the French Wine Drinking Culture

French wine drinking culture is dead.  So says Marion Demoisser in her book French Wine Drinking Culture ..., where she details a number of changes in French wine production and consumption which have had material, deleterious effects on the "strong national wine drinking culture."  According to Demoisser, a key indicator of the death of the French wine drinking culture is a decline in consumption, a decline that can be attributed to a number of factors: (i) wine has been replaced by water and other beverages in many instances as the liquid accompaniment to meals; (ii) a government clampdown on drinking and driving; (iii) an increased focus on healthy living, especially among the younger generation; and (iv) an increase in beer consumption among young people.  In a recent journal article ("The representation of wine in France from generation to generation: a dual generation gap." Int. J. Etntrepreunership and Small Business 13(2), pp. 162-180, 2011), Lorey and Poutet provide additional insight into French wine consumption and the roles played by successive generations in its decline.  We examine the Lorey and Poutet research and findings in this post.

The table below shows the decline in French wine consumption using a number of different indicators.  The table shows both overall and per capita consumption declining markedly, even in the face of an almost 50% population increase since the beginning of WWII.  It also shows the precipitous decline in people who drink wine on a daily basis and a significant increase in the people who self-identify as non-drinkers of wine.

Looking at the declines in consumption, the authors wondered whether they were reflective of a shift in the way that wine was imagined or thought of (The way of thinking or imagining about an item is called representation and is "... a dynamic structure which evolves and becomes different with the passing years and social changes, under the influence of culture and social practices.").  Further if such a shift had taken place, could its tracks be followed across generational cohorts.

In order to answer these questions, the authors undertook a research study whose objectives were to (i) describe and assess the representation of wine, and its relation to consumption, for a generational cohort comprised of people over 65 years of age; (ii) conduct similar exercises for a 30-40-year-old cohort and a post-1980-birth cohort; and (iii) compare and contrast the results.  Data for the study were collected from subjects in face-to-face interviews.

The research shows the over-65 generation as key markers for a French wine drinking culture: they consume wine on a daily basis; they view wine as a symbol of French culture; they feel very strongly about the generational transmission of this very French patrimony and were very forceful in identifying the father as the person responsible for transmission; they see wine as a healthy, therapeutic drink; and they are not impacted by drunk-driving campaigns.

In examining the data for the 30-40 year-old cohort, the authors note what they call "the first generational gap."  This group drinks wine occasionally and wine becomes the preserve of social groups -- rather than society wide as in the older generation -- that seek to promote it as a status symbol.  It is also in this group that we first begin to see concerns about drunk-driving beginning to take hold.

There is a second generation gap for the cohort born after 1980.  Wine drinking in this group is reminiscent of the way that champagne is drunk in the US -- occasionally and for special events -- and wine loses its cultural identity as fathers from the prior generation fail to pass on the patrimony.  It is in this group that wine begins to take on the mantle of a "hazardous product."

With the insights provided by this data, the demise of the French wine drinking culture is easily tracked.  The baseline group (over-65) represents the epitome of French wine drinking culture; and they continue to consume wine according to their beliefs but in declining amounts as members of their cohort die off.  The 30-45 group has elements of the wine drinking culture passed on to them but they begin to go their own way and drink wine occasionally or as a part of a special group.  So during the time when these two generations are in their "wine-drinking years," the over-65 generation is fully engaged while the 30-40 group is only partially so.  And the consumption numbers reflect this situation.  Then along comes the post-1980 generation and they contribute almost nothing to the pot: occasional/exceptional drinkers; no wine culture; and, furthermore, beginning to look at wine with upturned noses.  So now in society as a whole, we have the older generation fully engaged (but their numbers declining), the middle generation partially engaged, and the post-1980s acting as a drag on the system.  The picture that emerges is of a declining national engagement in wine drinking with the resultant decline in consumption.  Hence the statement regarding the death of the French wine drinking culture.

The French wine drinking culture has given way to what I call the Unitary wine drinking architecture.  According to Demoisser, the forces in France have led to the culture transitioning from a perception of ubiquitous wine knowledge to a three-tiered society with (i) 38% of the population (2005 figures) self-identifying as non-wine-drinkers; (ii) a middle grouping -- which she characterizes as the "wandering drinker" -- that has limited knowledge and only drinks occasionally; and (iii) the wine lover.  Given the technologies available today, and the international nature of wine opinion making, this architecture will likely prevail.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Douro (Portugal) Wine Region

In my most recent post I elaborated on the formulation and evolution of the Douro Valley as a wine region.  In this post I will discuss the physical characteristics of the region and its viniviticulture.

The Douro wine region runs from Mesao Frio, about 100 km inland from Porto, to Freixo do Espada a Cinto on the Spanish border, a distance of approximately 70 km.  The 250,000 hectares of the Douro are broken down into three sub-regions: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo, and Douro Superieur.


Baixo Corgo is the westernmost of the sub-regions and, being closest to the Atlantic, is also the coolest and wettest.  This sub-region runs eastward along the Douro from Barquaros/Barro to Régua, where the Corgo River flows into the Douro.  Baixo Corgio has a surface area of 45,000 hectares of which 14,582 are under vine.  Cima Corgo runs between the Corgo River and the Valeria Canyon and covers 95,000 ha (20,969 under vine).  This sub-region is centered around the town of Pinhão, and is considered the heart of the broader Douro producing, as it does, most of the region's high-quality Port.  Douro Superieur, the area to the east of Valeria Canyon, is the warmest and most rugged of the regions.  It has a surface area of 110,000 hectares, 10,175 of which are under vine.

The Douro climate is continental with hot, dry summers and bitingly cold winters but  is protected from the cool Atlantic winds by the Marāo and Montemuro mountains.

The Douro soil is primarily schist with granite at the edges.  There is no natural topsoil so this has to be manufactured by breakage of the schist and the addition of fertilizer (This type of soil is called anthroposoil.).  This anthroposoil is a fine dusty soil mixed with stones and bricks and this composition allows: the absorption of heat and its radiation to the grapes; rain to seep deep into the ground; vine roots to dive vertically into the ground in search of that moisture.

Given the steepness of the hillsides, vineyards in the Douro are, for the most part, terraced.  Prior to the phylloxera outbreak in 1863, these terraces were narrow, irregular, and buttressed with stone walls and had one or two vines per terrace.  Vine density was low at 3000-3500 vines/hectare.  The Douro was rebuilt at the end of the 19th century and the new terraces were continuous with monumental walls.  They had a slight slope (for better sun exposure) and supported 6000 vines/hectare.

A third terracing system was introduced in the late 60s, early 70s in order to take advantage of the possibilities afforded by mechanization.  These terraces are horizontal and are supported by earthen walls with one or two rows of vines per terrace.  In the cases where there are two rows of vines, they are far enough apart to allow a tractor to pass between them.  This type of system, called patamares, allows for 3000-3500 vines per hectare and is best suited for larger estates.

A non-terrace planting style is used in areas where the slopes are not very steep.  In this approach the vines are planted up the hillside vertically as shown in the mid- and foreground of the below picture.

Vines are trained single- or double-Guyot and close to the ground.  Constant care is required to ensure a healthy vineyard.  A particular requirement is frequent spraying with copper sulfate to protect against mildew.  Earth around the vines have to be loosened in March and April and and some of this loose earth is banked up against the roots to protect against the dryness of July and August.

Grapes grown in the region are primarily native varietals which are grafted onto American rootstock.  The varietals suited to the harsh conditions tend to yield small, thick-skinned berries.  The primary red varietals are Tourega Nacional, Tourega Francesa, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela, and Tinto Cāo.  The notable white varietals are Malvasia Fina, Viosinho, Donzelinho, Rabigato, and Gouveio.  The authorized maximum yield is 55 hl/ha.

Harvesting in the Douro occurs during September and October.  Given the nature of the vineyards, hand harvesting is the norm with a first level of selection done in the field.  The selected grapes are transported down to the winery where another level of sorting is applied before de-stemming and/or crushing.

In the case of Port production, the crushed grapes are fed into a square concrete structure where they are crushed by the treading action of human feet for rapid extraction of color and flavor from the skins.  The must is fortified by the addition of 20% by volume of pure grape alcohol.  This fortified port is then stored in wooden barrels until the next spring when they are shipped downriver to Vila Nova de Gaia for aging, blending, and classification.

While the region is best known for Port, the Douro is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the table wine arena.  Its red wines are primarily blends of the major native varietals mentioned earlier and are notable for their complexity and richness.  Its white wines are also blends while Rosés are made from light maceration of red grapes. Moscato do Douro is a fortified white wine made from the Moscatel Galego grape while Espumante do Douro -- a sparkling wine -- and Colheita Tardia -- a late-harvest wine -- round out the Douro region's offerings.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Douro: The Making of a Wine Region

Decanter's Great Port Wine Weekend revolved around immersion of 11 of the magazine's readers into the production and enjoyment of the namesake wine.  After a welcome lunch and a tour and dinner at The Factory House, we turned our attention fully to the wines of the region.  Before describing these adventures, I will spend some time detailing the wine region, beginning with its formulation and evolution.

Portugal is home to a large number of indigenous grape varietals but is best known for its Port wine; and it is in the Douro region that the production of this fortified wine has reached its pinnacle.  Wine has been produced in the Douro for thousands of years but its importance on the world trade market came about as a direct result of the ongoing conflicts between France and England.  The British have historically been partial to "claret" from Bordeaux but supplies ebbed and flowed depending on the state of affairs that existed between these two countries at any point in time.  Seeking alternative sources of supply, British merchants seized upon the wines of Douro which were robust and could be easily shipped from Porto to England.  These wines did not stand up well to the Atlantic voyage, however, and brandy was added to the mix to stabilize it.  This solution worked and, over time, it was seen to improve the acceptability of the wines to British palates.  Under the Methuen Treaty of 1703, England granted preferential duties to the Portuguese and, for the next 100 years, became the largest market for Douro wines.

For many a year, trade between the British Port shippers and Portuguese growers followed a pattern where the wine was brought down-river by the growers and then fortified by the shippers prior to export.  Over time, incursion into each others traditional role occurred.  Shippers began travelling upriver in search of land for their own vineyards while growers began fortifying wine before shipping it down to Porto.  The shippers did not like this incursion into their area of responsibility as they felt that it provided scope for adulteration of the wine.  The issue came to a head after a particularly bad harvest in 1955 when the shippers told the growers that they would not purchase any more Duero wines if adulteration did not cease.  The growers sent a delegation to the Prime Minister, Marques de Pombal, who promptly established a company under royal charter (Companhia Geral de Agricultura dos Vinhos do Alto Douro) with the power to set prices and regulate the production of Port. 

As a part of this process, Pombal demarcated the boundaries of the Port region and classified the estates as to suitability for production of export wines.  The Port region was demarcated with 335 granite markers, each with the word FEITORIA and the date (either 1758 or 1761) carved on the side facing the road.  The vineyards were classified A-F based on points awarded in categories to include: altitude, productivity, incline, aspect, sun exposure, and vine age.  The Douro thus became the third region in the world to be demarcated -- after Chianti (1716) and Tokaj (1730) -- but the first to be both demarcated and protected.

Travel on the Douro beyond the Valeria cataract was historically very difficult and dangerous and, as a result, very little vine-growing activity took place beyond the cataract.  The offending block of granite was removed from the Valeria canyon between 1780 and 1791, opening up the area beyond for vine planting.  This area came to be known as the Upper Douro.  When the dictator Franco took office in 1907, he signed a decree regulating Port production and sale based on the principles established by Pombal 150 years earlier.  In that decree he extended the Douro demarcation zone to include the Upper Douro sub-region.

In 1936 Portugal adopted a new provincial scheme, based on the work of geographer Amorim Girão, which divided the the country into 13 natural regions.  Under this new schema, what had been the Douro now fell into two provinces: Duoro Litoral and Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro.  The demarcation point between these two provinces was thus used to divide the sub-Valeria Douro into the Baixo Corgo and Cima Corgo sub-regions of the Douro region.

In my next post I will discuss the physical characteristics of the Douro wine region.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tour of The Factory House (Porto, Portugal) and Dinner: Decanter Great Port Wine Weekend

The second official item on the Decanter Great Port Wine Weekend itinerary was a tour of The Factory House in Porto and an in-place dinner.  Before getting to the tour and dinner, a brief review of The Factory House is in order. 

According to the literature, in 1827, the British Port shippers formed an association called The Factory House whose express purpose was promoting their interests and defending their priveleges.  A structure to house the association was designed and built in the neo-Palladian style (following on the work of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio 1508-1580) by the British Consul John Whitehead with construction completed in 1790.  The Factory House was closed in 1807 when the French invaded Portugal and was reconstituted in 1810 as the British Association, an organization limited to British Port wine shippers. The building was re-opened in 1811 to house the new organization. Today the British Association functions solely as a private club of the Port wine shippers and has 10 male and one (new) female members.

Our transportation the The Factory House was scheduled for 7:15 pm and we were picked up at that time and transported to our destination without incident.  We were welcomed outside the building by Paul Symington, CEO Symington Family Estates, and Nick Heath, Marketing Director, Taylor Fladgate and Yeatman.  We were ushered into the building foyer where the tour was kicked off with a very warm welcome from these two gentlemen.

According to Paul, The Factory House was built in 1790 and was maintained by merchant contributions which varied in relation to the value of a member's exports.  The British Association currently has three sustaining companies.

One of the prized possessions of The Factory House is the first detailed map of the Douro region drawn by Baron Joseph James Forrester 160 years ago.  The map shows the river and quintas from San Joao da Foz near the Atlantic coast to Barca d'Alva close to the Spanish border.  Baron Forrester was a formidable cartographer and photographer who drowned in the river when his boat hit the rapids and capsized.  While alive he had been opposed to fortification of the Douro wine and it is likely that his death eased the way for the advancement of that process.  A 21st century edition of the Forrester map by English artist David Eley was introduced to the public in a ceremony held at the Yeatman Hotel on March 3, 2011.

Port shippers were British and sought every opportunity to remind themselves of that fact and to keep as tight a link as possible to the motherland.  The practice of all families was to school kids in Portugal up to a certain age and then to send them to England to complete their education and acculturation (a practice that is still followed to this day).  The Factory House was a key manifestation of that Britishness.  The furnishings and color schemes are reminiscent of a British gentleman's club of yore and, as you walk through the structure, you are transported back to the days when members would congregate here to do business, catch up on the news, read papers of the day, and have lunch.  Paul indicated that they had copies of the Times going back over 100 years and on their traditional Wednesday lunches, copies of the paper for that same date 100 years ago are pulled out for members to read.  As an aside he mentioned that the same issues we are wrestling with today were being discussed and debated 100 years ago.

Beginning in the 1820s, a library of English books was established at The Factory House to meet the reading needs of the British families living in and around Porto.  A fiction library was established initially and books were acquired as published based on librarian perception of need, reader requests, or London book agent initiative.  Over the next 70 years the collection grew to over 1000 books.  As the number of families declined and reader tastes changed, many of the earliest books were moved to shelves and back rooms to make way for more current material.  According to University of Tulsa McFarlane Library, this old fiction library built between 1820 and 1890 lay forgotten until rediscovered in the 1970s.  This 2500-volume, 1000-title library now resides at the University of Tulsa.  Notwithstanding this fact, The Factory House is still endowed with an extensive library which, according to Paul, is the most valuable item in its inventory.  The collection was recently assessed and valued by an English company flown in for that express purpose.

The member's penchant for locking things up and then forgetting about them was once again on display as we were toured through a fully equipped period kitchen.  According to Paul, someone had apparently walked out and closed the door to the kitchen and it was forgotten; lost in its own house.  But what a gain for us.  We were able to see a working kitchen as it functioned rather than the way some curator thought that the pieces might have been arranged.

One can imagine the types of parties that were thrown here based on the splendor of the ballroom and the extensive collection of dance cards on display.

At the conclusion of the tour we were led into a salon for aperitifs and butler-passed hors d'oeuvres.  Dinner was a two-room affair with the major courses in the formal dining room and the cheese course in the Port Room.

The menu for the evening's dinner was as follows:

  • Course 1: Scallop Tartar with Prawns and Avocado Puree; paired with Symington Family Estates Altano 2010 Douro DOC Branco
  • Course 2: Beef Tournedo with Sauteed Potatoes and Vegetables; paired with Symington Family Estates Chryseia 2008 Douro DOC 
  • Course 3: Trilogy of Traditional Portuguese Puddings with Lemon Sorbet; paired with Taylor's 20 Year Old Tawny
  • Cheese Course: Serra and Ilhas Cheese; paired with Graham's 1970 Vintage Port
I sat next to Paul Symington for dinner and thus began three days of intensive education at his hands regarding the history of his family, the land, the business, and his blood.  Because all of this is in his blood.