Selling Portugal to wine lovers

Max Graham

Tourism has been the key to making Portuguese table wine a thing. A slightly shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Above, Max Graham shows off his own-label Portuguese olive oil at the City Bar Douro.

Like any wine writer, I am frequently asked, ‘Which wine regions should I be looking out for?’

My standard response for the last few years has been Greece and Portugal, for much the same reasons: that, thanks to their array of indigenous grape varieties combined with dramatically improved winemaking and less-than-established reputations, they can both offer real originality and value.

Max Working of importer Skurnik in New York is responsible for selling wine from both countries and is pleased by how well Greek wine is selling but says of Portuguese wine, ‘This is a category we couldn’t be more bullish on. In the last five years sales increased by 65 to 70%. It’s been a great success story and so far this has been the best year ever.’

France still imports huge quantities of basic port, a popular aperitif there, but for Portugal’s increasingly exciting array of table wines, the only market more valuable than the US – just – is Brazil, which has substantially increased its imports of Portuguese table wine over the last few years, and is prepared to pay for them. (Angola, also Portuguese-speaking, imports the biggest volume by far but it tends to be much more basic stuff.)

Working sees his role as ‘getting people to take the leap from Vinho Verde’, the crisp dry white from the far north of Portugal that has dominated US imports for years thanks to brands such as Gazela and Casal Garcia. The new-wave reds of Filipa Pato and her husband William Wouters from Bairrada are apparently going down especially well with trend-conscious New Yorkers, despite the fact that the region’s signature grape, Baga, is relatively uncompromising in youth.

Rui Abecassis, now of Olé & Obrigado, began importing Portuguese wine into the US as long ago as 2008 and commonly encountered the word ‘obscure’. He observed in an email, ‘The US being the US, there are thousands of gatekeeping sommeliers in American cities. They are young, experimental, early adopters. They know quality and saw value: better Vinho Verdes, then still Douros, then … The tipping point has been the US discovering Portugal itself. Portugal became a brand and a desired destination and this made all the difference. I have not heard the word obscure in a while! And allocation is a new word in our vocabulary.’

All of those selling Portuguese wine to whom I spoke credited the tourism revamp of Lisbon and Oporto from about 2012 with persuading more and more people to try it. ‘The amount of US tourism to Portugal has exploded; it’s like what Santorini has done for Greek wine', observed Working happily. 

The UK is also hugely important for both Portuguese wine and tourism. The leading specialist wine importer since the early 1990s Raymond Reynolds agrees. ‘We owe the tourist industry quite a lot’, he enthused. ‘Our customers are definitely more receptive to Portuguese wine now. And consumers are more comfortable with experimenting and recreating the fun they had in those cities where the locals have suddenly realised what they have and are passionate about sharing it.’ 

Reynolds was educated in the UK but brought up in Portugal, where his family own the exceptional Mouchão wine estate in the Alentejo. When he was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, most other Portuguese table wine was rough stuff, carelessly made and rarely even branded. Armed with a degree in chemistry, he thought he’d explore career options in Portugal and ended up spending the 1980s working in quality control and then winemaking for Taylor’s port.

‘While I was working with Taylor’s and finding out about the unique expressions of its indigenous grapes and wine potential in Portugal, this light went on in my head. I thought, “I want to get involved here because I view the future as exciting”. I kept coming to the UK and saw all that was available was very cheap supermarket wine. But in Portugal there were pioneering growers waking up to the treasures they had, with wonderful terrain and grapes, making very, very unusual wines. I thought, “we’ve got to tell the UK wine trade about this”. Portugal had just joined the EU in 1986 so this new generation of wine producers benefited from considerable inward investment in wineries and so on.'

In the first decade of his eponymous wine import company based in a village in Derbyshire it was all about potential and building a critical mass of top-quality producers. Two of his first signings were Dirk Niepoort from the Douro and Luis Pato (Filipa’s father) from Bairrada. Reynolds remembers, ‘They explored the traditions, used worldly knowledge to make wines rooted in their own terroirs that just kept getting better and better, and they spawned a whole new generation of accomplished producers. This is a phenomenon that has just built and built.’

I wondered whether we’d reached peak Portuguese wine? ‘I don’t know’, Reynolds, an acute observer of the evolution of Portuguese wine, admitted. ‘The diversity now is extraordinary – it’s slightly confusing even for me. We hoped this would happen, and now we’re trying to make sense of what’s there, things like different ways of fermenting the rare Viosinho grape or planting Alvarinho in the Algarve. Today’s wine producers are not quite throwing mud at walls, but we’ve seen facets of grape varieties we never imagined would emerge yet focused on quality. The good thing is we’re just at the beginning of this journey.

He’s a particular fan currently of the new generation of wines emerging from the Dão region in northern Portugal whose wines used to be tough as old boots but is now making whites and reds of real sophistication.

Max Graham is a generation younger than Raymond Reynolds and has followed a very similar path, but in hospitality. Son of Johnny Graham of Churchill’s port, he, too, is Anglo-Portuguese and, after studying fine art at Newcastle university, opened a pop-up port bar in London’s Soho in 2014, which opened his eyes to how under-represented Portugal then was in the UK restaurant scene.

By 2016 he had persuaded his father’s backer Stephen Phipps to back him in the first of two Bar Douros, a wine bar near London Bridge specialising in Portuguese table wine.  For him, the ‘pivotal moment in new Portuguese wine’ had been Portugal’s first alternative wine fair, Simplesmente Vinho in 2012. Held in Oporto, it was designed to celebrate the emergence of the army of smaller producers working their own vineyards that Reynolds had predicted. ‘I loved that fair and so did [UK-based Portuguese specialist wine writer] Sarah Ahmed’, Graham told me recently during a packed Wednesday lunchtime service in the second Bar Douro by a building site next to Liverpool Street Station in the City of London.

This opened, most unfortunately, in January 2020 – and had to close soon after thanks to the pandemic. It was natural therefore that Graham, like so many in hospitality, would turn to selling wine online, thereby presumably converting quite a few British wine drinkers to the newfound glory of Portuguese wine.

Meanwhile Graham, with Ahmed as his wine consultant, was plotting an answer to Simplesmente Vinho in London. Festa finally took place in June last year with 55 winemakers flying in from Portugal. Its lasting legacy is a London-based online source of Portuguese wine, It currently sells to consumers but mostly to the trade. I was planning to list the best avant-garde Portuguese wine producers here but I must admit that the 65 producers listed on the Festa site would make a very good start – and I would not have room for 65 anyway. 

(Incidentally, Sarah Ahmed, Portuguese Regional Chair of the Decanter World Wine Awards, reports that in this year's judging, just over, more than 40% of the awarded Portuguese wines were white, and many more white wines (13) than red (eight) won top medals (although one was sweet and one was fortified), and that at DWWA 2023 Portuguese white wines were given more gold medals than at any other time in the competition's 20 years.)

Perhaps should be added to this discussion of avant-garde producers the notable efforts of the few sizeable Portuguese wine companies to produce exciting small-scale wines such as Sogrape’s Legado from a spectacular Douro vineyard and Symington Family Estates’ new venture in the Alentejo, Quinta da Fonte Souto. Esporão and Howard’s Folly are also producing exciting Alentejo wine. As are Quinta do Crasto and Quinta de la Rosa in the Douro. In fact, come to think of it, virtually every reputable quinta in the Douro is making great table wine.

Forget it. I couldn’t possibly list every worthwhile Portuguese wine producer here. You’ll just have to explore for yourself via a good specialist importer such as those listed here – who have so far only just scratched the surface.

Portuguese specialist wine importers


Festa, London SE1 0NQ

Marta Vine, Southwell NG25 0NN

Nick Oakley Wine Agencies, Colchester CO3 3EN

Portuguese Story, London EC1N 6TD

Raymond Reynolds, Furness Vale SK23 7SW

Wineline, Manchester M15 4JE 


GK Selections, Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522

Grape2Glass, Newark, NJ 07114, and Freeport, NY 11520

P R Grisley, Salt Lake City, UT 84115

HGC Imports, San Jose, CA 95110 

Olé & Obrigado, New Rochelle, NY 10801

Saraiva, New Bedford, MA 02740

Skurnik, New York, NY 10010

Tri-Vin, New Rochelle, NY 10801

See more than 6,000 tasting notes, scores and suggested drinking dates on Portuguese table wines on Purple Pages. Between us, Julia and I have written 140 articles tagged Portugal and on Monday Julia was garlanded as Wines of Portugal's Personality of the Year in Europe. Today Tara Q Thomas and I are presenting a Portuguese wine tasting at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC as part of the FT Weekend Festival.