The Great Red Hope: Portugal Bets On Touriga Nacional, But Is It A Winning Hand?

Vinted on December 27, 2010 binned in commentary, on the road

The first thing that you need to know about the recently-awarded Top 10 Touriga Nacional wines from Portugal is that there area actually 12 of them.

Such is the strangeness of Portuguese wine politics that a contest selecting the top ten single-varietal bottlings of Touriga Nacional – the grape on which Portugal’s red table wine future seems to be staked (according to the focus attended to it at the 2010 Wines of Portugal International Conference in Porto) couldn’t actually stick to the rules of its namesake.

The Top 10 TNs were winnowed down from a list of thirty TN bottlings selected by ViniPortugal (the group who organized the conference and who are charged with promoting Portuguese wines internationally, who got the list down from 80 submitted samples) through a panel of tasters that included MWs Jancis Robinson, Doug Frost and Mary Ewing-Mulligan (among others).  The 12 winners of the 10 were then presented at a gala dinner event at the stunning Palácio da Bolsa in Porto, following Day One of the conference.

While the dinner and surroundings at the Palácio da Bolsa were both stunning, I wouldn’t use the same word to describe the vast majority of the Touriga Nacional wines that I tasted…

Put simply, I don’t “get” the Portuguese wine industry’s fascination with Touriga Nacional. Actually, I do “get” the reasons behind the push – they want to rally around a fine wine grape for promotion of their table wines, just as Austria has so successfully done with Grüner Veltliner – but I just don’t agree with the choice of TN for that push, and I think the focus is liable to end up wasting a lot of time, money and effort on the part of the Portuguese wine industry.

In a way, when someone says “Portuguese wine” they want you to think of Touriga Nacional instead of prickly and delightful Vinho Verde, or instead of Port – which, apparently after a couple of hundred of years of being the world’s best after-dinner drink, we should just forget about.

Touriga Nacional is widely regarded as the finest of the fine wine grapes used in the blend that makes the most beguiling and long-lived Ports on the planet.  Among the Port cognoscenti, there can be little doubt of TNs place at the top of the blending pyramid.  The trouble is that on its own, TN is no Grüner Veltliner, and as such it’s a poor choice for a rallying cry of Portuguese wine identity – something that I hinted at in a brief audio interview I did for during the conference. That conversation ended without me explaining my thoughts on why rallying behind TN is a bad choice, so I wanted to expand on those thoughts here (you can listen to the brief audio interview below).

Touriga Nacional is an interesting grape, or at least offers interesting components in its wines – violets, pepper, red and black fruits, and gripping tannic structure.  You more or less can’t make Vintage Port without it, as it’s usually responsible for the largest balance of extracted fruit and structure for long-term aging potential.  But on its own, based on my experience with the Top Ten (sorry, twelve!) winners, Touriga Nacional comes on in a flash of florals, peppery spice and dark fruit, and leaves with punch-in-the-gut tannins, and offers precious little in the middle.

The disappointing part I think is that Portuguese wine is absolutely on the cusp of an International renaissance, if given the right marketing focus, precisely because it offers interesting alternatives to the  “same old, same old” offerings that plague wine store shelves.  As Jancis Robinson noted in the introduction to the Portugal Wine Guide (which is freely download-able and worth a few minutes of your time if you’re interested in an succinct introduction to what Portuguese wine has to offer):

“In a world in which national distinctions are constantly being eroded, with depressingly similar wines being produced everywhere from much the same palette of grape varieties, Portuguese  wine is some of the most distinctive produced today.”

Of course the same things that make TN a bit of an oddity on its own also make it a prime candidate for blending, during which it helps wines achieve lofty heights of potential. But on its own? Not so hot – at least, that was my assessment, and it was shared by some of the Top Ten tasters and several Conference participants (based on my own quick, totally unscientific and very informal poll, mind you).

TN feels more a recipe for an interesting regional curiosity, and much less a product to which you hitch your marketing horses, crack the whip and scream “show us the meaning of haste, fair beasts!”  Are they bad wines?  For the most part, No.  But do they define a national wine identity? Probably not – or at least, not yet.

And so I found myself wondering… in a country with as much beauty, culinary prowess, and fine wine history as Portugal, why not promote blended wines – better than the sum of their constituent parts, more pleasing and eminently versatile – as being an extension of the combination of the varied, rich heritages of this gorgeous country?

I mean, in a market like the U.S., do we really need another barely-pronounceable wine grape on the shelves, especially when on its own it can’t stand up next to single-varietal wines with which we’re already comfortably familiar? Why not play up the fact that Port provides one of the best wine-value-for-money ratios on the planet? Why not promote the rich red blends of the Douro as a more evocative alternative to Cab Sauv with your next steak?

Why not go with what works? Why not dance with the guys dat brung ya?

I suspect the real answer exists somewhere in the halls of Portuguese politics…






  • 1WineDude

    Thanks, Marco.

    I think (well, I'm > 90% sure actually) that the focus on TN has to do with the quality of the wine produced from it. It's widely regarded as the #1 bad-ass Port grape with the most fine wine mojo. Of course, Port reaches its lofty heights of awesomeness when blended, but those with more TN tend to be deemed the best, especially for Vintage Ports.

    As you point out (rightly I think!), it's easier to promote one grape as an identity, but TN doesn't seem to be the true identity of Portugal (blended wines, or a style that features blending, would probably be a better candidate for that).


  • Thomas Pellechia


    In my view, blended wines are the true identity of the majority of wine regions. It's just so much easier to market a grape name to people unwilling and uninterested in finding out about regions.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Thomas. I'm inclined t agree with you on both points. BUT… other regions have had some success promoting themselves as wine destinations that (like blending!) are part of a larger whole. Finger Lakes have done this, as has Tuscany. I'm wondering if Portugal would be better served following those examples, rather than following Austria's example with GV?

  • Thomas Pellechia


    One of the things you have to remember is that much of the time, it's U.S. or other foreign importers calling the shots; they tell exporters what will sell in their markets (I'm not saying that this is absolutely true in Portugal, but it is absolutely possible in this case).

    In the 90s, on my first of many trips to the annual VinItalia in Verona, I was taken to Bolla's welcome center in the heart of the city. There, we tasted wines that the company does not ship to the U.S.–and wines that it does.

    At the time, Bolla, under the arms of Brown Forman, had released new varietal wines: Cabernet, Chardonnay, et al., that "you must taste." I hated them. They tasted like California knock-offs and, to me, were not at all necessary products. But I kept my thoughts to myself until the Brown Forman rep asked if I'd like to meet the winemaker, which I did.

    When I asked the winemaker why he was producing wines at Bolla in Valpolicella that taste like wines from Napa Valley, he pointed to the rep and said that the importer tells them that's what Americans want.

    • 1WineDude

      Great point, Thomas. But… isn't that approach in itself also one doomed to failure? If the products aren't that good, and they're competing against better options produced elsewhere for the same price or less… well then sooner or later they're going to be forced to change their strategy! :)

  • Pedro Martins

    From someone following the portuguese wine scene for some years now, I believe that the Touriga Nacional fever is actually disappearing – a couple of years ago Tourigas seemed to crawl off the floor in every producer and wine shop.

    Not all are bad, some are good and there are a few excellent ones (surprisingly or not, they did not make the top 10 or 12) – try the Quinta do Castro Touriga Nacional for a Touriga that actually offers something in the middle.

    It's a simplistic marketing strategy to focus all efforts in Touriga Nacional. From the blends of the Douro old vines, passing the Dão delicate blends and some great Syrah in RIbatejo to the classical Alicante Bouschet from the Alentejo, portuguese wines have so much more to offer. Maybe the diversity you can find in such a small country could be our marketing strategy. :-)

  • @viniculture_pl

    This time I need to disagree with you concerning your concept about Touriga Nacional. During conference I had longer discussion with one person who was in charge and directly responsible for this event. I asked the same question: "why TN???". Answer was simple: "No rush. We won't promote our wines only through TN. This is our first conference and we decided to pick this theme. Next will be different. We have a lot of things to communicate and thanks to our diversity we are able to do something completely new and refreshing on the next year".

    Of course we can discuss whether is it a good strategy or not – but it's a another story. But we should be aware, TN won't be some kind of flagship star promoting and encouraging people to taste Portugal.

    I agree with you on your points about marketing strategy – but usually strategy means long process, and in my opinion Portugal is on the very beginning of their journey. Time will be the best judge!;)


  • 1WineDude

    Guys – thanks for chiming in and giving us more of the European perspective on this!

    I'm glad to hear that TN isn't the be-all-end-all marketing strategy for Portugal's wines (and I am also sure that Pedro is right in that some excellent TN wines exist that for whatever reason – probably political! – didn't make the cut or decided not to participate in the Top 10 TN competition). But I'm also totally confused, because the conference certainly sent the message during/before/after that TN *was* getting a big marketing push, to the point where some producers were actually concerned that there would be pressure to rip up other lesser-known indigenous grape plantings in favor of planting TN and in some cases possibly endangering those other varieties. That's fourth-hand information coming to me so we shouldn't blow it out of proportion or treat it as ultimate truth, but it does speak to the fact that if TN isn't getting the big marketing push then I'm not the only one who got convinced that it was.


  • @viniculture_pl

    If so, we fan do nothing more than just following news and trends from Portugal to know why is really going on there. As you said, for sure there might be plenty of reasons "why TN as a first topic?", we know only part of the "truth"…

  • Cristiano van Zeller

    Hi Joe. I am really happy not to be the odd one out against this policy decision to promote Touiga Nacional as "the Portuguese grape". You are quite right in saying that Portugal's diference and best advantage is its uniqueness of having so many different grape varieties and being "the country of blended wines".
    Where else in the world can you find such diversity and richness? Where else in the world can a blend of well over 20 grape varieties produce world class wines (the Douro being its maximum representative of this "caos")?
    Touriga Nacional is, undoubtedly, one of the best Portuuese grape varieties but it is not its most representative. Blended wines are the "mark" o Porugal.

  • Cristiano van Zeller

    Even in the Douro it does not represent more than 5% o the plantings. In Port, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz are far more important, for instance. There is so much more that could be argued that I'm afraid I would be occupying to much of this space for far too long. I did, however, have the chance to give my opinion during one of the discussions last month in Oporto, at the Wines of Porugal Conference. I ended up saying that I should really support TN as the image of Portugal and then continue to sell and pomote my own wines internationally as the ones that have very little or no TN in them. I am sure my success wold be easier and guaranteed.
    I am very happy and thankful that you and so many others keep supporting Portuguese wines in spite of our shots in the feet. All in all we do make great wines.
    Cristiano van Zeller

  • 1WineDude

    Thanks, Cristiano – we may still be the odd ones out, but at least we are there together. :-)


  • colin

    Hi 1WineDude. Interesting article and comments from others. I'm a bit of an innocent in wine things, but at least I hate Chardonnay and surely that's a start? :-) But seriously, I visited Vinopolis at London Bridge, England and paid for ther expenso wine tour that takes in how to appreciate wines, and there were no Portugeuse wines on offer!

    Now I know that wines are susceptible to fashion like everything else, but are the conglomerates or those with the dosh dictating fashion rather than letting it come from the groundswell of opinion?

    I dunno. As I say,I'm no expert. Nice site. Thanks. Colin

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