In Lisbon, Natural Wine is the Ultimate Cultural Connector

Libson illustration
Illustration by Barbara Spurll

As U.S. visitors started flooding Portugal, a funny thing happened: Expats started opening shops and bars. One American wine professional explains from the inside how and why.

There is one consistent question I am asked when people find out that I am from New York City and based in Lisbon. It doesn’t matter if they’re locals or foreigners, but especially Portuguese whose dream is to save up to relocate to the Big Apple: “Why Lisbon?” My reply always starts with the same word. WINE.

My travels throughout South Africa, South America and especially Europe proved to me that wine was the ultimate connector for people in many cultures. As an explorer, before I travel, I always research where I can find fellow wine lovers to geek out with, and ask for their local food recs and must-sees and -dos. And Portugal was no different.

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My first visit was in 2018, which was the same year Lisbon received a record 12.8 million foreign visitors. I stayed for a month and repeatedly visited the highly sought out wine bars and restaurants which just so happened to be natural-wine focused. I realized I was witnessing the growth of the natural wine movement in Lisbon—a little burst that’s being replicated in cities around the world. Another common thread between these fellow wine lovers, is that they were mostly expatriates.

Now, many of them have opened their own establishments, and I find myself asking the same question so many have asked me, “Why Lisbon?” and “Why now?”

Natural wine is not new to Portugal. However, over the last two years, the growth of the movement is compounded by wine lovers who followed their instincts to relocate to Lisbon in search of a connection to nature, a slower pace and an honest lifestyle.

I’ve witnessed wine students relocate for staging opportunity in order to learn more about the industry and market in Portugal; top U.S.-based wine importers and distributors make multiple trips to Portugal hunting for new Portuguese wines, especially since the tariff threats to other EU countries; and I have even bumped into a Master Sommelier visiting from the U.S. to connect in person with some of the natural wines they have on their list at an indie fair for low-intervention wine.

In the barrios of Lisbon, I met people hailing from Berlin, Seattle and points in between, all in search of community. Everyone I met fostered a growing affection for low-intervention wine.

I realized I was witnessing the growth of the natural wine movement in Lisbon—a little burst that’s being replicated in cities around the world.

Among these natural-wine-centric expats is Jenifer Duke. Born in America but previously based in Berlin, Duke anchored herself here three years ago to launch Rebel Rebel, a natural-wine shop dedicated to European wines from outside of Portugal. While visiting Lisbon for a work trip, she says Lisbon chose her. After relocating, she realized it was difficult to find the styles of natural wine she enjoyed from Spain. She jokes that, in the beginning, she was motivated to bring in the wines she wanted to buy.

Brian and Jen Patterson, also American, own a wine bar called Black Sheep that’s focused on Portuguese low-intervention wine and small producers. Brian first came to Lisbon in 2006 while working for a large importer. Now, their bar in an idyllic section of Lisbon, Praça das Flores, highlights local microclimates and terroir.

There’s Florian Tonello, the natural wine veteran, French by way of San Francisco, London and Berlin. It was the acceptance and overall enthusiasm of fellow natural wine entrepreneurs that convinced him to close his Berlin operation and reopen LaDiDaDi wine and record shop last year in Lisbon. To promote and grow the community, his inaugural natural-wine fair, Pura Sede. took place in Lisbon on March 8.

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Finally, there’s Giulia and Massimo Capaccioli, Italian, and owners of Portuguese and Italian natural-wine bar, Vino Vero. They opened a second location in Lisbon after success with their first in Venice. They were ready to test the market outside of Italy, and originally thought of Barcelona and Paris before visiting Portugal.

I believe, when tourism returns, natural wine will help Portugal become a sought-after destination again. Today, low-intervention wine and small producers are the common ground and connection to a Portugal. It’s part of what turned me from a visitor to Portugal to a Lisbon resident—and ambassador. We are building a larger community of believers in this country and attracting more people to Lisbon, our very own, homegrown natural-wine destination.

Published on June 10, 2020
Topics: Outpourings