The light fantastic

When big wines from the new world invaded UK shelves in the mid-1990s they introduced consumers to powerful styles from warm regions that packed a hangover-inducing punch. UK shelves had previously been dominated by old world aristocrats from the likes of France and Italy, which came with typical abv range of 11-13%, and strength was never a major issue. But with much of the old world order barged into oblivion alcohol levels began to creep up and 14-15.5% wines from countries like Australia and South Africa grew so commonplace the Government had to change its unit guidelines on a glass of wine.

Then came the backlash against these behemoths – driven by an increasingly vocal health lobby – and nowadays consumers are going in the opposite direction in a race to the bottom. Wine Intelligence’s June 2013 report “Lower alcohol wine” shows 40% of UK consumers are now seeking out lighter styles around the 10% abv mark.

But it also said penetration falls to just 16% at alcohol levels of 5.5% and below – where a tax break reduces the duty from £1.90 to just 81p. Many consumers are put off by wine that may have been “dealcoholised” in a crude and unbalanced fashion, with some likening it to Ribena, cough syrup, sugary grape juice or Frankenstein’s monster. Instead these drinkers could be directed towards wines that are naturally lower in alcohol – the likes of dry Australian Hunter Semillon, sparkling Moscato d’Asti from northern Italy and German Rieslings.

One region that has the potential to grow exponentially in the increasingly health-conscious UK is Vinho Verde, the mitten-shaped area of northwest Portugal.

While hills protect the nearby Douro from the Atlantic – causing it to remain hot, dry and liable to produce behemoth wines of its own – the exposed Vinho Verde bears the full brunt of rains swept across the ocean, leaving the region lush, green, wet and cool. Its wines generally have alcohol levels between 8.5-11% and are fresh, easy-to-drink and elegant at entry level.

They are a perfect match for light fish dishes and salads, thus bringing the health drive full circle and causing an explosion of healthiness mirrored by the tiny occasional bubbles that gently break on your tongue when you sip these slightly carbonated wines.

“The region is building up a reputation for its freshness and lightness,” says George Sandeman, director at Sogrape, which owns Quinta de Azevedo and Quinta de Gazela in the region. “People are looking for wines that don’t have that much alcohol and Vinho Verde is nice because it’s naturally low in alcohol. It’s nice to be able to drink two or three glasses rather than just one.”

Vinho Verde offers inexpensive pleasures and the region could well become the easy-drinking symbol of summer. “Exports to the UK have been growing again as consumer demand for fresh, aromatic wines both still and sparkling – which are lighter in style and lower in alcohol – continues to grow,” says Manuel Pinheiro, executive president of CVRVV, the region’s generic body. Consumers are crying out for this type of wine. Vinho Verde has all the credentials to become the next big thing in white wine.”

Covela vineyards

Producers in the region agree and they are all ramping up their focus on the UK.

Victor Mendes, export manager at Quinta de Gomariz, says: “Portuguese consumption is decreasing a lot because of the crisis so we are investing in the export market. We know we have to be in the UK as it’s the most important market in the world, with the most opinion-makers.”

Vinho Verde has a unique selling point, not just in its lightness, but in its unusual grape varieties – Loureiro, Arinto, Trajadura, Avesso and Azal and so on. But the producers also acknowledge that the UK is the hardest market to break into due to global competition, supermarket dominance and price-driven promotions.

“The biggest obstacle in the UK is the big brands the supermarkets sell at cheap prices,” says Mendes. “We are small and trying to get to the market so we face a pricing problem. Our wine is retailing at £8.80. It’s not easy. Add to that the competition from Australia and the other big producers. But we know this is a work in progress and we have to be persistent.”

The biggest producer in the region is Quinta de Avelada. It churns out 14 million bottles per year and exports 70%.

“We sell a lot in Germany and the USA but not so much in the UK,” says UK area manager Francisco Guedes. “The prices the retailers are looking for are a bit lower than what we had hoped but we need to find a way to be there because the UK is a really important market. We need to find a new partner in the UK to push into the market and work out a price with the supermarkets.”

The region held a generic tasting at London’s Millbank Tower in June and Tony Smith, manager at Quinta de Covela, says this has helped make vital contacts in the UK. Many of the 23 producers were seeking a UK agent but others used it as a chance to strengthen relationships already proving profitable.

Diogo Coelho, owner of Quinta de Raza, which is imported by Raymond Reynolds, says: “The UK is one of our main markets – it represents about 15% of our total sales and we have increased exports there every year. UK consumers are open to trying new wines. In UK supermarkets there are more expensive Vinho Verde wines appearing at £6-7. “It’s quite fashionable to have lighter wines with good acidity. The feedback we have had from importers is that the price to quality ratio is very good.”

When asked why retailers should stock Vinho Verde wines, Carlos Teixeira, winemaker at Quinta da Lixa – perhaps in a thinly veiled pitch to Sainsbury’s – says: “I would say: taste the difference. See the originality, the grapes, the terroir.”

He adds: “The best thing we have in Vinho Verde is our own grape varieties and because of that we have a strong identity. We have refreshing, easy styles of wine. We are very versatile and always try to give each market what it is looking for. The “UK is looking for gastronomy and flexibility and we can provide it. Everyone can make money on these wines and still have a good bottle on the shelf.”

Consumers are looking lighter wines around 10% abv, Vinho Verde producers want to be in the UK market, and retailers certainly like making money – is seems like a perfect match. 

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