Why Portugal? Mother Vine and History

Ξ April 25th, 2011 | → 12 Comments | ∇ PORTUGAL, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News |

Não digas que, sepulto, já não sente
O corpo, ou que a alma vive eternamente
Que sabes tu do que não sabes? Bebe!
Só tens por tudo o nada do presente
Don’t say that, buried, the body feels
No more, or that the soul forever lives
What do you know of the unknown? Drink!
You have the all and nothing that the present gives.

Fernando Pessoa
My documentary, really more of a collaboration with the esteemed Virgilio Loureiro, will premier at the Instituto Superior de Agronomia in Lisbon, Portugal on May 6th. Titled Mother Vine, A Mátria do Vinho, it is the work product of a year and a half. A first trailer may be seen here. The film ostensibly centers on historical Portuguese wines but is about much more: the very survival of select wine-making cultures and their wines. It seeks to fill in, however modestly, substantial gaps in our understanding of Portugal.
What I would like to do here is offer a few thoughts on the problem of historical reflection in social media, certainly as it bears upon the themes of Mother Vine. I hasten to add that it is written with tongue in cheek even though the stakes are high. Cheers.
What Is Social Media?
Advice offered to wineries by wine retail business gurus, especially pronounced with the rise of social media, include the importance of a quick wit, flexible responsiveness to fickle consumer pleasures and appetites, and the value added by generating the appearance of intimacy and exclusivity. Create a conversation with your customers. And we often hear from the finest critical minds, professed champions of the consumer, that all that ultimately matters is what is in the bottle. Wineries may have pretty labels and agreeable critical scores, deep, august libraries or brought to market just yesterday; their products may be green-washed or achieved through costly environmental stewardship; but, bottom line, it is the consumer who decides. Of course, with a little help. Social media adds punch, verve, and specificity, a personality as it were. Most importantly, it is only through shear repetition via popular social media channels that many wineries may win over consumers who would otherwise be lost in darkness where all bottles are black. Absent third party headlines, social media insists you make your own. Though my sketch is brief, nevertheless I think I may safely call the above social media’s ‘messianic mission statement’.
Wine bloggers, as much as wineries, are direct participants in the propagation of social media’s new testament. They perform it everyday, many quite well. But there are trade-offs. For example, the popularity of a given wine-related website is as often a function of innovative marketing and promotion as it is of its entertaining brevity. Let’s call it the short form. Well advanced in its development and routine, rarely do we now ask of social media acolytes that they provide sustained reflection or detail of any particular wine-related subject. Of course, some websites buck the trend and write with elegance, literacy, and knowledge. I am thinking of Tom Wark’s Fermentation, Charlie Olken and Steve Eliot’s Connoisseur’s Guide, Ryan and Gabriella Opaz’ Catavino, Bertrand Celce’s superb Wine Terroirs, to name but a few. Still, by and large we must look to the long form, predictably the domain of writers beyond a certain age, let’s simply say those who’ve lived years before the internet’s domination of media; but also the domain of traditional media.
The problem of the dominance of the short form is particularly obvious when countries become involved in social media promotion. Let us take Portugal as an example (we might have as easily chosen Austria, for they have much in common). Last year I was in Porto for a conference on both the importance of social media for the Portuguese wine industry and the possibilities of Touriga Nacional as one of a few grapes worthy to carry forward the fortunes of the nation. Of the latter, leaving aside acreage, volume, and the marketing wisdom of such a move, there was a limited Twitter exchange about ‘history’. Portugal is not only a treasure trove of rare and mysterious grape varieties, most unknown to the modern palate, but its winemaking history is deeply tangled in the larger culture. A tweet from a prominent British wine writer rhetorically asked — and I paraphrase — ‘Must the Portuguese always talk about history when discussing their wines?’ This comment perfectly captures, in my view, the dangers inherent in the short form’s eclipse of the long form.
While in Porto I heard variations of that refrain time and time again: How to streamline the Portuguese message? How to break through tradition and habit? How to modernize? How to get Robert Parker to visit the country? For the simple fact of the matter is that the common British (and American) perception of the Portuguese wine industry is that it is without focus, theme, or vision. But is this true? Or is it a consequence of social media emerging as the dominant means of cultural self-explanation? Might there be unsuspected depths to the story?
The Long Way Around
Let’s take the long way around, via a sober look at one man’s history of British involvement in the Portuguese wine trade. With the approach of the Royal wedding, I thought it might be amusing to use wine authority P. Morton Shand’s 1929 A Book Of Other Wines — Than French. (P. Morton Shand is the grandfather of usurper Camilla Parker Bowles.) In his chapter on Portugal, Port takes up the lion’s share. He recounts its checkered, thoroughly compromised disposition carried into the post-WW1 era. The section is historically dense, bristling with an insider’s understanding. And cynical.
“Port, then, as an institution in English life, dates from the Methuen Treaty of 1703…. But the wine trade with Portugal is much older than the shipment of the first pipe of Port to England, that is said to have been made in 1678, for there is mention of a wine called Charneco, which comes from a village near Lisbon, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. The precursor of the Oporto trade of Bristol and London was the West of England commerce in Minho wine, in the XVI. Century, with Vianna do Castello, the Port of Monçao, a town that was the centre of a considerable wine-growing district in the province of Entre-Minho-e-Douro….
“The difficulty in the Upper Douro is that the best vines, or ‘plants nobles’ such as the Touriga, Bastardo, Alvarelhao, and Mourisco, have all of them one of two cardinal defects: either their juice is too pale in colour or else they yield a must which does not keep well. Port is a naturally light red wine, but as the British public, for which the Alto Douro is a sort of helot [slave] domain, obeying its least whim, considers the Port should be dark red, dark red it is.”

Shand’s narrative continues in this vein. We learn of a long-shared commercial and cultural history with respect to Port. And then there is this,
“The methods of vinification still employed are likewise pretty primitive, and include the filthy custom of treading the grapes (which are still dusted over with gypsum) by foot in large stone vats, called Lagar, usually to the accompaniment of some sort of primitive orchestra, the lilt of the vintage songs giving the impetus of a sort of slow corybantic rhythm to the motions of the treaders, especially when they grow weary, or dazed by the rising fumes.”
In addition to Port’s commercial history, the passage above indicates casual anthropological speculation for which the British of a certain class were justly infamous. Finally,
“Tawny Port is simply Port that has been kept in the wood for sometime, whereby it loses much of its colour and and appreciable amount of its added spirit. It is the best of a bad lot. So-called Ruby Port is intermediate between a vintage wine and a Tawny Port. Some people think ‘Crusted’ Port is a separate variety. The name implies no more than a Port that has been bottled early and thrown down a considerable crust, consisting of argol, tartarate of lime and superfluous or extraneous colouring matter, a phenomenon which can be produced artificially to please those who are naive enough to think it a criterion of superlative quality. New Port bottles used to be filled with shot and well shaken before wine was put into them, in order to roughen the inside surface, and so encourage the wine to throw down a heavy crust of deposit.”
After 16 pages of amusingly cynical text on Port, Shand next turns to ‘Other Portuguese Wines’. Madeira enjoys 3 1/2 pages. The rest of the country?
“Port, it is too often forgotten in England, is far from being the only Portuguese wine. Lisbon Wine, red and white, is a familiar name in City wine-rooms and merely denotes an inferior species of Port which has received every whit as much fortification on the Tagus as though it were the legitimate offspring of the Duoro. Let us turn rather to the Vinhos do Pasto, which the poor ignorant Portuguese drink themselves in preference to the heavier vinhos liquorosos of the goût anglais.
Shand briefly discusses Bucellas, Carcavellos, Setubal, and Collares, all near Lisbon. Mere passing reference is made to wines produced in the balance of the nation. And what discussion there is is virtually devoid of historical references. Yet when we turn to ‘The Wines Of The British Empire’, again, an enormous amount of historical detail, supported by textual references, is marshaled to demonstrate beyond all doubt the august traditions of what he calls ‘Bacchus In Britain’.
“Tacitus remarks that in the island of Britain there was no intense cold and the soil produced the olive, vine, and other fruit-trees natural to warmer climates. There are references to vine-lands in the Laws of Alfred. King Edgar made a gift of a vineyard at Wyeil. Some thirty-eight vineyards are scheduled in the Doomsday Book. At the Norman Conquest, a new vineyard had just been planted in the village of Westminster. Geoffrey of Monmouth states that, ‘without the city walls of London the old Roman vines still put forth their green leaves and crude clusters in the plains of East Smithfield, in the fields of St. Giles’s, and on the site where now stands Hatton Garden.’ In the reign of King Stephen, the Exchequer rolls show that there was a royal vineyard at Rockingham.”
On and on he writes before exploring the deep viticultural histories of the British Empire: South Africa, Australia, Cyprus, and Mandated Palestine. Canada and New Zealand are mentioned in passing as promising prospects. The obvious takeaway from Shand is the idea that insofar as a wine region or country has a direct commercial/historical relationship with Britain, they deserve the full historical treatment. So to the tweet paraphrased above, ‘Must the Portuguese always talk about history when discussing their wines?’, I would ask, “Can the British talk about anything other than their history?” An estimated 2 billion people will tune into the Royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. I wonder what Camilla Parker Bowles will wear?
I would argue that the majority of English-speaking wine drinkers know next to nothing about Portugal, its history, complex language, variable customs. I certainly knew nothing when I began down this road. Yet everyone knows, as P. Morton Shand writes in his wistful section on America,
“It is hard to imagine Frenchmen inhabiting any part of the globe without setting to work to try and make a vineyard, just as a golf course inevitably follows the British flag…”


12 Responses to ' Why Portugal? Mother Vine and History '

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  1. on April 26th, 2011 at 12:11 am

    I think you could expand that umbrella of ignorance of cultural norms to encapsulate the majority of people who haven’t lived afar or have worked extensively in another country. To be honest, I don’t think that Portugal is any more or less understood than Spain, Italy, the USA or various other cultures, it’s just that some have better marketing tactics typically thanks to Hollywood :) That said, I’m eager to see your film, and I’m sure your passion and love for Portugal has shown through 10 fold. Congrats again!

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 26th, 2011 at 6:53 am

    Thank you for comment, Gabriella. Tongue in cheek caveat aside, when I began my film project I discovered that popularly available information rarely existed for the wines and the community producers we filmed. And where the information was available, established authorities often got the details wrong. My larger concern is the way the dominance of the internet and social media with respect to a culture’s wines compromises or interrupts intellectual curiosity owing to its form. Brief snippets of advertorial happy talk does not make for intimate cultural exchange. I will make sure to get a copy of the film to Catavino. As one of the best sources of info on Iberia, I wish you and yours the greatest success.

  3. Katie said,

    on April 27th, 2011 at 9:15 am

    While I might agree with Gab that Portugal is no less understood than Spain or Italy, unfortunately the majority of everyday wine buyers don’t care to understand much. They may not understand Spain any better than they do Portugal, but they have at the very least heard of Rioja for example…or Chianti if we are discussing Italy. What they lack in understanding they make up for with a basic working knowledge of those household-name regions (hell, most aren’t even aware that they are regions). That comfort, in at least the smallest bit of recognition, is why Portugal isn’t on their buying radar. A shame with the incredible diversity, value and history to be found in its wines.

  4. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 27th, 2011 at 9:42 am

    Well said, Katie. Thank you for adding to the discussion.

  5. Virgílio Loureiro said,

    on April 27th, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Dear Ken,
    Congratulations for your reflection on Portuguese wines and their relationship with British opinion makers. As you know, it is necessary to fully smell and taste our genuine wines (mainly the historical ones) to understand them…and the country.
    Did you know that Fernando Pessoa was a real wine expert? He invented a new word as synonym of to drink, which is “to deciliter” (wine).

  6. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 27th, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Thank you, Virgilio. It was a pleasure to write. I shall see you in a few days for the premier of our film. Warmest regards.

  7. on April 28th, 2011 at 12:55 am

    Kate, very good point and I agree wholeheartedly. Hence, why I believe in pushing tourism over wine knowledge – or to Ken’s point, culture. The only way to break stereotypes, or enhance one’s overall knowledge of a region, is by hitting the pavement and staying with locals (not your sterile Marriott that’s a cookie-cutter rendition of every chain hotel on the planet). Granted, this is a tougher sell, but it’s heaps better than thinking that Rioja embodies Spain’s entire culture. Sad really when you get down to it, but there’s hope yet we can attract more people to the big, beautiful peninsula :)

  8. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 28th, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Gabriella, your point about promoting tourism is spot on. Indeed, the shadow falling over Mr. Shand’s reflections, his preoccupation with wine regions near Lisbon, strongly suggests that neither he nor the writers upon whom he presumably depended had ever ventured far from that city. As you and I both know, signage throughout Portugal, especially off the beaten path, seems principally designed for local residents.

  9. Peter F May said,

    on April 30th, 2011 at 7:24 am

    Don’t really know where you are going here and your (seeming?) criticism of Shand for concentrating on those “wine region or country has a direct commercial/historical relationship with Britain”, seems to me that there is nothing unusual in a wine writer concentrating on areas that produce wines that are available to their readers.

    Yours is an exception, but how many US based blogs write almost exclusively about American wines? Naturally, because that is what they and their readers drink and want to know about.

    Also don’t understand your mentions of Camilla – “usurper”? ‘to take or assume by force or without right??

  10. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on April 30th, 2011 at 8:45 am

    Very good to hear from you, Peter. A couple of comments: The point of the tongue-in-cheek exercise was to illustrate why it might be that a demonstrable disinterest in a country’s wines and its history has carried over into our era. First of all, Shand’s book is not an analysis of wines available in Britain; neither was the book written to assist the drinker in selecting a wine. For example, he devotes pages to a historical reflection on the wine history of Persia, Japan, Africa, and the United States. I do not know how many American wines were commonly available in Britain 1929! It fact, it was Shand’s intent to provide a popular historical account of wines other than French. And in this he succeeds, up to a point. Moving ahead to our era, it seems to me that Shand’s indifference to historical Portuguese wines from the balance of the country, apart from those I mentioned, directly follows from an absence of curiosity in the country itself, an indifference it is now Portugal’s responsibility to overcome.
    What is doubtless true is that Portuguese winemakers and wine writers can hardly be faulted for trying to tell a story, reveal a history, that, in the main, has not been told. At the Porto wine conference mentioned, I can assure you many English-speaking participants were really repeating a hyper-modern refrain: ‘We just don’t care about Portuguese history. It is too late to be bothered by such nonsense.’ I would argue that the rules of the commercial game of social media reinforce and legitimize such an ahistoricism. Now, from my perspective this notion is terribly amusing, especially when comes from British wine writers for whom their nation’s history haunts the entirety of their project. Cheers, Peter.

  11. Gonçalo Loureiro said,

    on May 4th, 2011 at 4:19 am

    You wrote this article on the anniversary of the portuguese Revolution of ‘74. It’s a good point: now, we celebrate the revolution of Mother Vine. Good luck and congratulations. Great job. And thank you, of course. Cheers!

  12. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on May 4th, 2011 at 4:27 am

    You caught that, Gonçalo! Thanks for the comment.

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