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Buyer’s Spotlight with Jason Millar: Portugal needs a boost

Published:  16 April, 2024

When I first visited Lisbon in 2014, I was able to get an Airbnb in Bairro Alto for €20 a night and there was only one cool wine spot in town. Now there’s an official Wines of Portugal tasting room on the waterfront, a decade of tourism has transformed the country and contemporary wine bars are as easy to find as bacalhau.

Given the progress in the last decade, it felt to me that the recent Wines of Portugal tasting didn’t truly showcase the many reasons for excitement around Portuguese wine, despite tables highlighting the lesser-known regions of Tejo and the Algarve. There were plenty of good wines, but the energy and buzz was missing, perhaps because while some small, specialist importers had tables, others – Clark Foyster and Raymond Reynolds, for example – were notably absent. One importer remarked to me that they no longer recommend their producers register for the fair, given costs of €2-3,000 per stand, before flights and accommodation.

All this made me think of Festa, a highly collaborative, no-holds-barred celebration of Portuguese wine organised in 2022 by Max Graham and inspired by Porto’s artisan wine fair Simplesmente Vinhos. Today, Festa has evolved into the trade and importation arm of Graham’s Bar Douro restaurants, working closely with Portugal specialist Sarah Ahmed, who acts as a buying consultant.

Like other Portugal specialists, Festa is highly active in the market and the portfolio is offered to both on and off-trade buyers. But, rather than stake a table at the main Wines of Portugal fair, Festa put on its own small but lively tasting of portfolio highlights the week before. Here the focus was on smaller producers, indigenous grapes (Negra Mole from Algarve, Barcelo from Dão) and premium wines that represent the diversity and creativity at the vanguard of Portuguese wine. A series of wine dinners are also planned to engage consumers directly and the Festa wines are, of course, strongly represented on the wine lists at multiple Bar Douro locations.

This is all crucial work for the wines of Portugal. But, given the success of events like Spain-focused Viñateros and New Wave South Africa, it seems that what’s missing now is another headline-grabbing, Festa-style event for buyers that’s affordable for producers and showcases the latest developments. With the Wines of Portugal tasting not scheduled for 2025, there couldn’t be a better time to try to make that happen than next year.

There’s no doubting the energy and dynamism of Portuguese wine in Portugal, but the wine trade in Britain needs to feel it.