We like to think of wine as a pastoral and refined enterprise, floating above financial concerns. But wine has long been a big business, and the world’s premier wine fairs and trade shows (like Italy’s Vinitaly, Germany’s Prowein, and France’s Vinexpo) have become enormous, each showcasing thousands of producers.
And the producers tend to be giants themselves, industrial-scale concerns representing millions of bottles of production and aimed squarely at the mass market.
In the late ’90s and early aughts, as a backlash against the homogenization, commodification, and snob-ification of the wine industry began to quietly take hold, a number of alternative wine fairs sprang up.
They began modestly, as a few small “salons” for insiders and rebels in France’s Loire Valley. Those salons, which tend to be clustered in a single week in the winter, have since been joined by many other fairs promoting small wineries that are dedicated to responsible farming and low-intervention winemaking methods.
And as so-called natural wine has itself become an increasingly big business, “indie” fairs in Berlin, London, New York, and Tokyo that were niche events only a decade ago are now mobbed by aficionados from all over the world.
Portugal’s winemakers were relatively slow to catch the natural wine bug, and consumers in Lisbon and Porto are only now beginning to show interest in low-tech wines made with no additives.
But the past few years have seen a surge in the number and quality of alternative fairs showcasing Portuguese and international producers of organically grown, naturally made juice.
Here are some of the best.
The original: Vinho Ao Vivo
When Nadir Bensmail and Silvia Bastos moved from Paris to Lisbon in 2005, they brought with them an enthusiasm for the new breed of authentic, terroir-focused wines that were increasingly reaching public consciousness in the City of Light.
It was slow going at first: Portuguese consumers were resistant to foreign wine in general, and to a style of wine that struck many of them as too old-fashioned and too subtle.
For years, their import company Os Goliardos sold discouragingly little in the local market. But they pressed on doggedly, spreading the gospel of real wine by hosting tasting groups and classes, winning converts one glass at a time.
As a result of these years of often thankless effort, it is no exaggeration to say that Nadir and Silvia are primarily responsible for creating interest in small-production, low-intervention wine in Portugal, and especially among the local professional wine community. Most of Lisbon’s forward-thinking wine professionals today have some connection to Os Goliardos.
The company also worked hard to promote and encourage the few Portuguese producers who were rejecting industrial viticulture and production – mentoring them, pushing their wines to OG’s growing Lisbon network, and selling them in export markets.
In 2010, Os Goliardos mounted the first edition of Vinho ao Vivo, which they characterize as a “European Festival of Terroir.” (They also run a wine fair with their friends the Rinaldi family in Barolo.) The annual festival brings together an eclectic group of about 30 passionate winemakers from across the continent.
Last year’s gathering drew names like Jean-Pierre Frick, Alessandra Bera, David and Frederic Giachino, Saša Radikon, and Julien Guillot. And of course, OG’s stable of Portuguese producers is always well represented, with winemakers such as Tiago Teles, Fernando Paiva, Antonio Madeira, and Marta Soares.
The details of the 2020 Vinho ao Vivo have not been released, but the festival is always held in July at À Margem, a restaurant occupying a white modernist cube in Belém.
It’s a spectacular spot for a summer wine festival, with the producer tables occupying a terrace right on the Rio Tejo. As the sun sets over the river, the always-animated crowd snacks on urbane petiscos provided by the restaurant and gets down to live music until the wee hours.
If Vinho ao Vivo is the O.G. of alternative wine fairs in Portugal, Pura Sede (“pure thirst”) is the young upstart. It is a collaboration among four small Lisbon-based importers (Caverna do Vinho, Ladidadi Wines, Rebel Rebel, and Vino Vero), all of whom have opened their doors within the past two years.
The quartet has brought an exuberant energy and creativity to the fledgling natural wine scene in Lisbon, and this is the fair to go to for the truly offbeat, daring, and impossible-to-find cult wines.
While Pura Sede may be a debut act by importers who are still in their infancy, the festival has managed to put together an impressive lineup of 50 or so heavy hitters in the natural wine world.
Among the stars pouring their wares will be Valentina Passalacqua, Sébastien “Babass” Dervieux, Michael Völker of 2Naturkinder, and the folks from Partida Creus.
Pura Sede will be held at Suspenso, in an old foundry in Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood, an atmospheric venue in keeping with the raw aesthetic of the wines. Food to soak up the booze will be offered from several of the city’s best “slow food” eateries, ranging from meat-centric Pigmeu to mostly meat-free Senhor Uva.
The fair is scheduled for March 8, but there will also be various events at restaurants and bars around town in the week leading up to it. And of course, there will be an after-party at Vino Vero.
Class is in session: Vinhos Com Sentido
- March 28-30, 2020
- Pestana Palace, Lisbon
- Tickets available here
Alejandro Chavarro moved to Lisbon and started his import company Vinhos Livres just a couple of years ago. Before that, he had spent his career working as a sommelier in a number of Europe’s top Michelin-starred restaurants, including Mugaritz and L’Astrance.
Alejandro’s import portfolio reflects that background: it is more classically focused than the others on this list, with particular attention going to Champagne and Burgundy. He would no doubt be wary of the “natural wine” label, preferring the name he has given his three-day annual event: “wines with feeling.” Nevertheless, nearly all of his winemakers farm organically and follow natural practices in the cellar.
Alejandro is also a passionate teacher, and unlike most wine fairs, Vinhos Com Sentido will have a strong educational component.
The first day is dedicated entirely to moderated debates on soil health, agronomy, and biodynamics. The second and third days will feature in-depth “master classes” on various European wine regions, taught by the winemakers themselves.
The list of winemaker/teachers giving these presentations reads like a who’s-who of the top winemakers on the continent. To name just a few: Athénaïs de Beru, Jo Landron, Marie Zusslin, Chiara Pepe, David Léclapart, and Olivier Horiot.
Vinhos Com Sentido takes place March 28-30 at the spectacular Pestana Palace, a former royal palace that is now a luxury hotel in Lisbon’s Ajuda neighborhood. In addition to the tastings and classes, each day will include a lunch put on by a number of top-flight chefs, including L’Astrance’s Pascal Barbot.
The big Kahuna: simplesmente…Vinho
- Feb. 21-22
- Cais Novo, Porto
The simplesmente… Vinho event is the largest of the wine fairs listed here, boasting 101 wineries. And despite a handful of French and Spanish producers (and one token American, Joe Swick), it is focused squarely on homegrown wines.
Nearly every terroir-focused and organic Portuguese winery will be there, presenting what the festival calls “compelling wines with a dose of madness and poetry.”
The organizers of simplesmente…Vinho always go all out to entertain. Several restaurants will provide petiscos in a food court throughout the two days, and Lisbon chef Leopoldo Calhau will present a pop-up dinner.
The famous international sommelier and wine writer Pascaline Lepeltier will be on hand for a reading and signing of “The Dirty Guide to Wine,” the book she co-authored with Alice Feiring. Local art dealer Nuno Pinto Leite will oversee a program bringing the work of five artists to the venue’s walls. And both nights will be capped by live music.
Simplesmente has been peripatetic, but this year’s edition (their eighth) will be held back in Porto, at Cais Novo, an imposing vaulted space in an 18th century wine warehouse.
Mike Healan is a Lisbon resident, recovering lawyer, natural wine lover, and fan of all things Portuguese (except the bureaucracy and the taxi drivers).