A couple months ago, Lettie Teague wrote this rather ill-informed article on Portuguese wine in the Wall Street Journal. Beyond being written in the willfully ignorant “I haven’t heard of this place so therefore nobody’s heard of this place” tone that pervades most mainstream writing about wine regions outside of the US, France, Italy and Spain, it also belies another commonality in writing about these “lesser” regions: the lure of a flagship producer.
Teague expresses her frustration at not being able to find “Barca Velha” at any of the Portuguese wine shops she visited in Newark, New Jersey–home to America’s largest Portuguese community. Barca Velha was one of the first producers of dry table wine in Portugal’s Douro Valley (home of Port wine) to be exported and in the subsequent years has become the closest thing to a “cult” Portuguese wine for collectors abroad.
Teague is then baffled that the wine merchant in question calls Barca Velha “overrated,” insisting that a Frenchman or Australian would never say such a thing about his country’s most famous wine. She attributes the comment either to low self-esteem or a “realistic” view of Portugal’s role in the wine world. What realistic role is that, exactly? A middling producer of pleasant wines? Rage-inducingly condescending and myopic. And if she thinks the French aren’t equally dismissive of their top producers as overrated, clearly she’s never talked to anyone but a Bordelais about top Bordeaux.
(The fact is, Portugal is the 11th biggest wine producing nation by volume and given its relative position in terms of population–less than 11 million–and size to the others, that seems wholly appropriate. It’s also a top ten exporter by value and is rapidly gaining market share in the US.)
When you compare Teague’s article with the thoughtful, reasoned explication on Portuguese wines Jancis Robinson published a couple weeks later, the former’s paucity of critical rigor is vividly obvious.
But so ends my long-overdue criticism of Teague’s article and back to my point about “flagship producers.” Certain wine regions have a single producer that eclipse all others in terms of column inches written about it. In Rioja, it’s Lopez de Herredia (aged Reserva and Gran Reserva wines, anyway). In Ribera del Duero, it’s Vega Sicilia. In Portugal it’s the aforementioned Barca Velha. In Australia, Penfold’s. In Lebanon, Chateau Musar.
Sometimes, these producers help to elevate others around them–Vega Sicilia and Penfold’s helped increase awareness of their respective regions and the wine press delved deeper. Meanwhile, Lopez de Herredia remains virtually synonymous with Old Rioja in the American wine press and producers like Barca Velha and Musar remain for writers, even those as experienced as Teague, wines apart from their neighbors–the quintessence of Portugal or Lebanon.
(At least in the case of Musar, that winery’s one of only 30 or so producers in Lebanon, not one of hundreds in Portugal.)
And that’s the danger of a single pre-eminent producer in a country or region. Sometimes the rising tide raises all ships, but often it doesn’t. Often they serve as convenient shorthand–I’ve had Lopez de Herredia, so I’ve had Old Rioja–that stifles further exploration of the region by consumers and journalists alike.
I don’t fault the producers, they’re doing nothing more then producing good wine and spending their marketing and publicity budgets shrewdly. I fault the journalists who latch on to these single producers without giving attention to their equally talented neighbors. How you could have a Herredia Vina Tondonia Reserva and not want to explore every centenary Rioja around is baffling to me.
And why would you want to start an article on the underexplored world of dry Portuguese red wine by talking about the one dry red wine that is already widely known? Why then would you be derisive of the Portuguese-American merchant’s rightful assertion that said wine is overrated?
It’s like she’s writing about wine for a publication whose audience is a bunch of entitled self-important culture-deprived dingbats with skewed perceptions of their own knowledge, or lack thereof.