The LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) is an Ontario government enterprise and one of the world’s largest buyers and retailers of beverage alcohol. Through more than 660 retail stores, catalogues, e-Commerce, special order services, close to 400 LCBO Convenience Outlets, which provide cost-effective, convenient and socially responsible access for rural consumers, and as a wholesaler to almost 450 Grocery stores, the LCBO offers more than 28,000 products annually, from more than 80 countries to consumers and licensed establishments. Paul Farrell – Senior Category Manager for European Wines at LCBO, talked with Vince Nigro about Portuguese wines integration in Canada.
Vince Nigro: Portuguese wines. You hear about the same regions, like Douro Valley and the big names. Are those regions still the key wine producers in Portugal?
Paul Farrell: Certainly the Douro and Dão are very important for the Portuguese wine industry but what I think we’re seeing in Portugal these days is a real development of understanding how to make wine all across Portugal. There’s a vast region called Alentejo that maybe 10 or 15 years ago wasn’t important in terms of quality international production, but now it’s probably equally as important in this market as Douro is. And it’s a vast region, and they’ve learned – not just the Portuguese but frankly the whole wine industry- how to make high, good quality wines in a lot more different regions than we used to know, like I said, 20 years ago.
VN: When I think of Portuguese wines, Port always comes to mind, but they have some beautiful table wines. Historically, Californian, Italian and French have been the go-tos but today, the Portuguese also have a place at the table.
PF: I think what we saw in Portugal was that maybe – and again, I’m talking 10 years ago – they lagged a little bit behind in terms of understanding what you needed to do to be successful for export. They made wines for people who lived in Portugal, and the Portuguese people enjoyed them. They made a lot of wines for Portuguese expatriates. But over the years, they’ve learned not just how to make them more international-style wines that have brought an appeal, but they’ve also really learned how to market wines to a broader audience. So, I find it interesting when you look on the shelf of the LCBO, at the Portuguese wine section, you can really clearly see what wines are like that old-style packaging, that is kind of really gear-draw to traditional Portuguese customers and who’s trying to do something different and stand out to a new customer, bring in new customers to the category. And I would say in this market it’s really been about the last six years that we’ve really started to see much better efforts from the Portuguese in breaking the traditional customer race and going out to a broader customer race.
VN: Mateus was always a well marketed wine that stood out on the shelves of the LCBO. I’ve noticed that recently, Portugal has been doing a much better job marketing their product.
PF: So certainly the increasing quality and increasing like the broader appeal style has increased faster than their kind of marketing savvy if you will, and there’s also some business constraints, the way that the law is working in Portugal. Do you mind if I tell you something about Mateus, though?
As someone who’s not only has worked in the wine industry for 20 years but has also studied wines for much of my career, Mateus plays a very interesting role in the world of wine – and back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, North-Americans didn’t really drink very much wine. It was something for the elite classes, and they drank smoothy wine, but the average person didn’t really drink a lot of wine. And Mateus – probably more than any other wine, at least in Canada – brought people to drink wine on a regular basis. And nowadays it has a bit of a reputation of being something that people sticker about under their breath because it’s that type that is pink and sweet, is something that our parents or grandparents drank but it actually played a crucial role in bringing wine into more normal everyday consumption, in North-American, especially in Canada. And it really has to be lauded for the role that it played.
VN: Vinho verde (green wine) is also another wine the Portuguese community is very proud of.
PF: And vinho verde is great. I drink a lot of vinho verde, and one of the things that I like about vinho verde is that stylistically is a very unique wine to Portugal. It’s low in alcohol, which it’s nice, it’s very fresh, dry, has just a little hint of prickle to it, it’s on purpose that they leave a little bit of sparkle – it’s not a sparkly wine or what they call a medium sparkling frizante – just with a little bit of a prickle, but it’s very unique to Portugal. Nobody really quite makes that style of wine anywhere else in the world, it’s a traditional wine that they made there, and there are some excellent examples at the LCBO, and really it’s also very affordable. That’s a scenario where they haven’t so much adapted to make a more modern style wine that more people would like but that people are discovering what they’ve always made and how great it really is, a great summertime refreshing wine.
VN: The big players–Italian wines, California wines, French wines—they’ve got big money behind them. In terms of restrictions and getting the product out to the people, is it truly the winery, the marketing and the money, or is it simply the product? If you have a good product, it will somehow find its way to the LCBO…
PF: I honestly believe the success of products in any market, not just at the LCBO, is really a combination of both. Those really great wines with great value, people will find them, but if you really want to be successful, you have to have not just a savvy marketing plan, but you need to understand your market. It’s not enough that you can produce a product that you’re proud of and think, “Oh, the world will like it”! You need to understand the consumer and the market that you’re trying to sell it to – whether they respond to, how do they think, how do they drink wine, what wines are they currently liking, currently buying – and if you don’t do your homework and understand the market you’re trying to sell in, the ceiling of opportunity is always going to be limited. That said, I honestly believe, even people who don’t have a lot of experience with wine, even people who don’t, you know, maybe don’t have any education, still, recognize quality. When you bite into an apple that it’s too old and mushy, you know it’s bad – it is the same with wine. When you have a wine that’s properly made, you may not be able to articulate why it’s good, but you can recognize quality.
VN: Franco Prevedello, who has had numerous restaurants, and is world-acclaimed within the wine industry, once told me that a good bottle of wine doesn’t necessarily have to be very expensive. There are a lot of reasonably priced wines, including the Portuguese wines. You don’t have to spend an exorbitant amount of money to get a good bottle of wine!
PF: I’m a big believer that wine needs to suit a person on occasion. I enjoy wine on a Tuesday night with some pasta, and I might have something pretty affordable, and then I also have expensive wines that I celebrate occasions with. And it’s great when your wine suits the occasion. In terms of quality of wine, the world and Portugal have never been producing better quality wine at lower prices. As someone who has been in the business for 20 years, the consistency of quality at the low end was really quite poor, but we understand the science now, we understand what it takes to produce quality international style wines, and really there’s very little excuse to produce a poor wine with what winemakers have at their disposition today. And I think you see that reflected in most of the wines you can buy on the LCBO shelves, where the minimum standard of wines at any price is very high.
VN: One of the country’s most famous wines is Port. Like in Ontario’s Ice Wine, Port is always a nice treat to finish off a meal. Usually when we think of Port, we think of dark Port, but the light Port is quite interesting. Can you tell us a little about Port wines and their evolution?
PF: Port wine is really an ancient wine, it’s been around for hundreds of years, and to be honest with you, they often claim in Portugal that Port wine, the wine from Douro, were the first wines to really develop the idea of the Appalachian system where if you wanted to call a wine something specific, then the grapes need to come from that area. And really, the Douro and the Port wine were at the forefront of understanding that they had something special here, and they had to protect the name of it so that nobody else could use that name – I believe that happened in the 50’s. Port wine is a wine that’s made through, typically, with dark heavy red grapes, and it’s fortified with a spirit to bring the alcohol level up to about 20%, and that also arrests the fermentation process, so there’s some residual sugar left in the product, so the wines are often quite sweet. And then they age it in one of two ways – they age them in bottles, which is vintaged charactered wine and which the wine might spend two or three years in an oak barrel and the rest of its time being aged in a bottle, in which it really preserves the fresh fruit flavours of the wine, but they also age wines for extended periods of time in the barrel. And those are called Tawny Ports, and they will spend 10, 20, 50 years in a barrel, and they lose a lot of that fresh fruit flavour that you get in the bottled aged Ports, and they develop these, well, Tawny flavours that are caramelized apple, dried apple or dried fruit flavours, and nuts and spices, dark warm flavours, like warm spices. They’re two very distinct styles of Port, which are kind of equally popular, I would say, and then as you mentioned, there are white Ports, which is actually a slightly off-dry white version that is typically an option in the summer. You drink it on ice, and it’s even mixed with like a little bit of tonic water sometimes – makes it a very refreshing summer drink.
VN: I know the LCBO stayed open during Covid and did a great job. Has Covid hindered the import of more wines into the country?
PF: Covid has played havoc, and not just Covid specifically but some other side-effects of Covid have played havoc with the distribution of wines and, frankly all merchandise around the world. It has led to shortages of dry goods, like bottles and labels, it has led to shortages of containers where we can ship product from Europe because we can’t find a container to ship it on, it has led to a changing in demands, where customers what they were asking for the previous year is not what customers are asking for, so the trends have been very volatile. You can imagine that everyone involved in the supply chain has been working with the new Covid protocol, so where we used to have ten people working on a particular job, you now had to do social distancing, and four people would work on it, so it was taking twice as long. So it’s been a very tumultuous year in trying to make sure that we understand what customers are looking for and making sure that we bring the right products to the customers when they want it.
VN: The LCBO has stores across the province everywhere. In terms of getting a variety of Portuguese wines, are there particular locations that would specialize more with the Portuguese wines?
PF: There is. And there’s one store in particular at Dovercourt and Dundas, in Toronto, and it’s an older store, it’s one of those that’s been around, it’s not a fancy store because it’s not a new rebuild like the store at Summerhill, but they actually have a large extended Portuguese selection there, and they’ve actually dedicated nearly half of the length of the store to additional Portuguese products that are not part of the regular LCBO or vintages assortment. And it has got parking in downtown Toronto! It’s pretty good!
VN: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you about Portuguese wineries or wine that you might want to add?
PF: The only thing that I may add is that we talked about buying wines at different price points and the quality there is. I really think that there is a sweet spot for Portuguese wines at that 12 to 13 to 14 dollars price range, where they are really not just competitive but a leader, especially for European wines in terms of price-quality ratio. When you get up into some more expensive wines, like 25 dollars, 30 or 40 dollars a bottle, you’re competing with Brunello and Bordeaux, and some of the best wine regions in all of Europe. But there seems to be a price point around $12 to $14.95 where they really seem to be at the leading edge of delivering price-quality ratio. And the second thing I love to say of Portuguese wines is people think of them as a red wine-producing country – and vinho verde – but really I think they are underrated for their whites, especially again at that same kind of introductory price range of $12.95 to $14.95 they offer some of the best values in all of the world of wines with their whites.