The Portuguese drink more wine per capita than anyone else: 51.9 litres per year, according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. But once upon a time, says internationally renowned sommelier, exporter and consultant Rodolfo Tristão, it wasn’t always of the highest quality: ‘Salazar said wine was to feed the masses, not to enjoy’.
While next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution that brought Salazar’s Estado Novo to an end, Portugal has long maintained a reputation for plonk: quantity over quality. Wine in Lisbon – and all over the country – is remarkably inexpensive. At bars, tascas and restaurants you can still find bottles for under €5 and they’re often very drinkable.
Since the 2000s, however, there has been a culture shift in Portugal, explains Tristão, who runs vinha.co.uk, which exports Portuguese wines to the UK. Producers travelled abroad to gain experience and wine bars popped up all over Lisbon. Wine was no longer something to wash down lunch but to enjoy in its own right. Michelin-starred restaurants like Belcanto, where Tristão spent four years as wine director, served lists heavy with quality Portuguese bottles.
While prices are higher than in family-run tascas, wines often start at an affordable €5 a glass
In the past five years – spurred on partially by ever-growing expat communities – wine bars focusing on natural, minimal-intervention styles, have popped up in the trendy neighbourhoods of Estrela and Santos just to the west of the centre, and Alfama and Graça to the east. These areas are replete with drinking spots, from the packed Vino Vero, an outcrop of a Venetian original, to the Senhor Uva mini-empire, where two bars and a shop sit side by side on a small stretch of road. While prices are higher than in family-run tascas, wines often start at an affordable €5 a glass.
What to drink? You’ll find plenty of interesting international wines but Lisbon is the ideal place to try Portugal’s wonderful bounty. For a country with around 250 indigenous grape varieties, you’ll find plenty of unique wines, from famous areas like Vinho Verde and Douro to more overlooked locations, including Beira Atlântico, the Algarve, which is rapidly improving, and Lisbon itself. Look for Arinto, which Tristão describes as a ‘fantastic grape’, full of lemony, appley notes and chalky minerality, and Loureiro, which is behind some of the best single-variety Vinho Verde.
Six top natural wine bars to visit in Lisbon
Prado Mercearia is one of Lisbon’s hottest wine bars. A few doors down from the sister restaurant Prado, run by a former chef at Nuno Mendes’ Taberna do Mercado in London, the pair focus on local producers and seasonality. At Prado Mercearia, geometric tiled floors, communal tables and walls stacked with wines and produce to take home give the bar a relaxed feel. The list is all Portuguese, constantly changing, with wines from around €7 a glass. An excellent Chinado Branco, a mix of Vital and Fernão Pires grapes, was moderately funky, slightly dry, with nods of sherry, while a João Barbosa Ninfa from the nearby Tejo region was pleasantly spritzy, apply and citrusy.
Like Prado Mercearia, Comida Independente is a grocery store-cum wine bar full of Portuguese treats, from preserves and nuts to – of course – tinned fish. Since 2018, it has sold some of the best wines from the country and beyond, available to drink in or take away. There’s always a fine selection of wines by the glass, starting from around €5, with dishes including cold cuts and sandwiches. A dark Saroto rosé from the Arribas Wine Company in the Douro, made from a blend of traditional regional grapes, was tart yet refreshing.
There’s a Gallic air to Insaciável in trendy Santos, from the pâtés and rillettes on the small plates menu to the French-accented waiters. Grab a spot on the tree-shaded esplanade, order fresh, local Setúbal oysters and wash them down with a stunning array of wines advertised as ‘vibrant’ from around €5 a glass, including the excellent Antonio Lopes Ribeiro chilled red Vinho Verde, with hints of fresh strawberry, made predominantly from the red Vinhão grape.
In a meat- and fish-heavy city, vegetarians will rejoice at the inventive meat-free small plates on show at Senhor Uva, a stone’s throw from the charming Jardim da Estrela park. But wine is king here, as at Senhor Manuel across the road, both owned by Quebec natives Stéphanie Audet and Marc Davidson. A shop a few doors down completes this natural wine trio. Wines hail from around the world but there’s a strong Portuguese selection, with some gems like the minerally Dão Textura Pura white.
This blink-and-you-miss-it spot on the steep Calçada da Estrela, a spot popular with tram watchers, is well worth a stop on any wine lover’s visit to Lisbon. From a tiny bar, an impressive range of wines from Portugal and further afield is poured. Bartenders offer plenty of samples, with a crisp Pet Nat from Czech producers 7 Riadkov impressing. It may only accomodate a handful of drinkers but there’s still room to serve cheese and charcuterie boards.
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SEM Restaurant & Wine Bar
Founded in 2021, Alfama’s SEM is a zero-waste tasting menu restaurant where homemade ferments (Worcestershire sauce made from vegetable scraps; egg white garum) and sustainable ingredients (retired dairy cow) are a serious endeavour. Next to the more formal restaurant is a casual wine bar where you can get your hands on some seriously interesting organic and low-intervention wines. The Portuguese-leaning list includes classics like Aphros Loureiro Vinho Verde and Quinta do Javali’s excellent Clos Fonte do Santo Douro red.