Portugal – more than a ”bunch of funky people”

The natural wine scene in Portugal is not shouting out loud, but scratch the surface and you will find. Listen to João Palma, researcher and founder of Wine A Lot, a platform for these personal wines with star potential.

Words by: Lena Särnholm, @sarnholmlena, main photo: Antonio Madeira

Talking about natural wines, and your thoughts goes to countries like Italy, France, Austria and maybe Spain. But Portugal? It’s time to discover their treasures of grapes, sites and people.
During my research for an article in the Swedish winezine Törst, I found João Palma, who told me the truth and recommended some awesome winemakers. More about that later, now let’s figure out what the buzz is about.

How is the natural wine scene in Portugal, in general? Is it concentrated to specific regions or is it for hipsters in big cities?
”The natural wine in Portugal is growing, but still giving the first steps when compared to other European cities, explains João Palma. 
He says that the public can find natural stuff in niche bistros, wine bars and shops in Lisbon and Oporto.
”The rest of the country is a sort of a desert with regards to this. I wouldn’t say it is a ’hipster thing’, the customers are usually a mix of wine geeks, professionals and tourists (maybe the hipster side of it).”
It’s undeniable that the natural movement is a trend and cities like Lisbon and Oporto will be totally into it sooner or later, regarding to him.

When did natural wines in Portugal started to kick off, and why?
”I guess Portugal just started to follow the global trend. Before ten years ago it was barely impossible to have access to natural foreign wine in Portugal – even now the access is pretty limited. There were of course a bunch of Portuguese producers, but completely unknown and most of them didn’t even care to communicate the way they were making their wines.”
He explains that the number of producers is quickly growing, especially in regions which lands are typically ”Burgundy-size”. Very interesting stuff is popping up from Dão, Bairrada, Lisbon and Vinhos Verdes. You also have some other respectable natural producers around Portugal, but Douro for instance is mostly owned by old and very traditional companies. 
”On the other hand, the large properties, very common in Alentejo for instance, are mainly focused on conventional productions. The new projects are both coming from a new generation vignerons or young talented winemakers that are buying quality grapes to organic farmers.”

To give some insights:
Dão – Projects are mostly around showing the terroir. During the 50’s and 60’s Dão was the high-end wine region in Portugal. The climate, granite soil, and altitude vines were more than enough to make great wines with lots of ageing potential. Going back to old days farming and wine making techniques sounded like a brilliant idea for some people. The autochthonous varieties (the vines in Dão are typically field blends, where you can mainly find Touriga Nacional, Jaen, Alfrocheiro and Tinta Roriz for reds) are perfectly adapted to the terroir, expressing it in an outstanding way. Expect high acidity and minerality.

Bairrada – The thing here is basically around the red Baga, the queen grape of the region. This variety is hard to work with but can be expressed in multiple styles: less extracted, low alcohol, to be approachable sooner; versions based on very low yields with incredible ageing potential; red sparkling; funky wines… Natural wine producers are mainly trying to show Baga at its pure state.

Vinhos Verdes – This is the place where people are recovering ancient viticulture and winemaking techniques. Also, new-age wine makers are bringing pet nat back resulting in very interesting sparklings. The work is mostly around Alvarinho and Loureiro (whites) and Vinhão (red). Vinhão is a must-try for being so traditional, rustic and unique – its not an easy one, but simply delicious when someone manage to understand it.

Back to the questions.
 Why is natural wine still a niche in Portugal – which has long traditions of growing wines – compare to countries like France and Italy where it’s more common?

”In my opinion this is very related to the wine culture we have in Portugal and I must say that the typical consumer over here is not a wine lover, but a wine drinker. We are a poor country when compared to most of our European neighbours, and wine is our national drink, followed by tap water… It happens that people buy the wine they can afford, get used to it and love it in the end.”
He says that of course this can not be applied to everyone, but even the majority of quite informed people only buy wine at the supermarket, paying 5€ for everyday wine and 15€ for a special dinner (and it is possible to find very decent everyday wine for 5€). This trend is being followed by the younger generation in most cases.

João Palma continues:
”In my case, the shift happened some years ago at a random dinner in Lisbon where I’ve randomly met a Swedish guy, also a wine lover. A great conversation led to wine exchanges that have really opened my ’wine boundaries’ – today he is a very good friend of mine. Just to say that I’ve also needed external help to discover a whole new world.”
”I guess price, traditional consumption and little communication from the natural movement is stopping Portugal to move faster on this, but new people are bringing new ideas… let’s see!”

Talking about traditions; doesn’t the small wine growers i Portugal work in i ”natural” way, as natural wine is how we made wine until the 50’s?

”Some of them actually do, but simply do not have any communication strategy align with their practices. I suspect that even the older ones don’t want to be seen together with ’that bunch of freak people’.”
But he doesn’t see any conflicts between natural winegrowers and the conventional ones.
”Not really. I think everyone in general realises that both sides are needed for the Portuguese consumer. There is actually a very interesting and well succeeded project – Nat Cool –promoted by Niepoort, together with several smaller producers. They’re doing fairly priced, highly enjoyable natural wine bottled in en litre bottles to maximise the enjoyment.”
”Generally speaking, I believe that there is more a sort of a gentleman’s deal than a conflict.”
There you have the history and context. Let’s go to the fun side – the producers! João Palma mentions three producers, and what a luck – all of them are available in Sweden. 

Antonio Madeira – Biodynamic from Dão. A star, making astonishing terroir driven wines. Some of the parcels with 100+ years.
Duckman – From Bairrada. Probably the funkiest project across Portugal, but a serious thing. Playing around winemaking methods, but always showing the potential of their region and autochthonous varieties.
Vasco Croft – Vinhos Verdes. The former architect is bringing back old winemaking techniques, showing the potential of Loureiro grape and doing some great pet nat. A pioneer project in the region and a relevant name in the natural wine scene.

Last but not least – if you are in Stockholm, eager to dig into the Portugal wine sea, head to Cork in Old Town or the little wine jewel Savant, whose owner also happens to import Duckman. While going there, be sure to bring the next issue of magazinet Törst (out early December) which will focus on this incredible country.