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Os Goliardos, photo by Rodrigo Cabrita

The up-and-coming, terroir-obsessed wine distributor Os Goliardos is reached through a tiny alley that opens into a courtyard behind an apartment block in Campolide, a residential Lisbon neighborhood just north of the Amoreiras shopping mall. The company keeps a low profile, hiding Lisbon’s greatest wine storeroom in a narrow garage that counts several auto body shops as its neighbors.

Since they keep odd hours, we were told to find a mechanic named Senhor Rui who would let us in with his key to pick up our order. We looked for him in a dark garage, where a man sat, listening to fado on the radio, beside a distressed Fiat. Wrong mechanic. Suddenly a large, smiling man in work clothes appeared in the yard jangling a set of keys. He opened the door and our box of bottles was waiting right there on the floor with our name scribbled on it. We collected the box, thanked Rui, folded in the side mirrors of our car and managed to back the car through the alley without having to return for body work.

We’d come to love many of the unique wines distributed by Os Goliardos after first finding them on the wine list at Prado, on the shelves of Comida Independente and more recently at Vino Vero, a wine bar in the Graça neighborhood. Since then, the wines they champion seem to have entered every aspect of our lives. At home, our go-to white (though, thanks to its maceration is really closer to the color of Fanta) is a wine by Humus with what can only be described as delicious notes of onion. A small Portuguese organic winemaker, Humus is gaining prominence thanks to Os Goliardos. A 2017 rosé by Quinta da Serradinha, another small producer that’s part of OG’s stable, hits the same funky yet satisfying spot, hard. Then there’s another Os Goliardos selection, the bracingly dry Aphros pet-nat from way up north, which we like to bring to brunches at friends’ houses just to shake things up a bit. And on special occasions, we open one of those lovely little bottles of Viuva Gomes branco, a glass which recalls being thrashed around in the Atlantic surf off of Sintra.

Os Goliardos, photo by Rodrigo Cabrita

Each of these wines tell a singular story, loud and clear, introducing us to an iconoclastic winemaker working some particular patch of land. That is the stated mission of Goliardos – to distribute unique and “authentic” wines which express a certain terroir – but we tend to think of their wines as a team, one which we support fanatically. More so than any particular bottle, the curation of the sampler boxes we now receive (thankfully, by delivery) seems to speak to us so accurately that they must have plundered our data.

We sat down recently with Silvia Bastos, co-founder of Os Goliardos, in her bright home office up on the Graça hill to find out how they do it. OG is much more than a wine distributor. For almost a decade it was a wine bar in Lisbon. They make their own wine and offer workshops on wine education. They organize the annual Vinho ao Vivo conference in Lisbon, a gathering of a very specific set of independent-minded natural winemakers from Portugal and other parts of Europe. They also run a similar event in Barolo, Italy.

“Wine has a special ability to connect the land and the people. We want to make accurate wines – the taste of grandpa’s wines, without the defects.”

“They are the biggest importer here but also the most influential in the way they promote their wines but also in the way they learned how to gather their clients around them,” says Camille Pichery, the Sommelier at Prado, which has emerged as one of Lisbon’s most inventive restaurants, in large part because of its forward-thinking wine list. “It doesn’t really feel like a commercial relation at all but really like a small Lisboan wine family.”

It all began while Silvia and her partner Nadir Bensmail were living in Paris, spending all of their free time visiting wine producers across Europe and developing relationships in the field. Silvia has a background in sociology and Nadir in economics, but both had developed a deep fascination with the world of small-scale winemaking. There, in the realm of smaller wine producers, well-established in France at the time, they felt – or rather, tasted – the connection between humans and land that lives in a bottle. They witnessed what Silvia describes as “ethical, humanistic winemaking with a deep respect for the land” and dreamed to dedicate their lives to sharing that with others. In 2005, they took a chance, moving back to Lisbon to share their message locally.

Os Goliardos, photo by Rodrigo Cabrita

In everything they do, Os Goliardos proselytize the concept of “terroir.” This doesn’t necessarily mean organic or bio-dynamic or any other trendy label. Terroir, as Silvia describes it, is a fuller expression of the environment in which the grapes live and the wine is made. This is achieved through less chemical intervention in the vineyard and the winery.

Although wines in this category have found a niche market worldwide, the gospel of Os Goliardos largely fell on deaf ears in Portugal, at least initially. When Silvia and Nadir moved back to Lisbon from Paris with this project in mind, the Portuguese wine industry was all about “big projects” with an industrial approach, using chemical manipulation to create mass market wines, largely disregarding the expression of terroir. The domestic wine industry’s growing profile at the time was a point of pride for many Portuguese and the taste of those wines was considered the taste of success, a repudiation of the country’s poor rural past, Silvia explains. When Silvia and Nadir opened a wine bar in Lisbon in 2005 featuring small producers of terroir wines, what they were pouring was considered “crap” she says.

Many Portuguese grew up close to a rural past and had likely experienced a harvest with their grandparents in the village. “We have a nostalgia or saudade for the rural, for being connected to the landscape,” Silvia says. A couple of generations ago, many villagers were producing their own wine, using less interventions and pesticides, making simple village wines that were more authentic but volatile and not very well finished.  She says that when the Portuguese tasted their wines, they say: “These remind me of the wines of my grandfather. Not good.”

Silvia and Nadir kept pouring their wine, though, and slowly built a network of producers who were interested in the project. They built what she described as a debate group whose members were challenged to make more experimental wines in small quantities. The Portuguese producers, as much as they liked the idea, couldn’t assume the risk on wines they didn’t think would sell. So Os Goliardos promised to sell them. From this project, many of the wines of the Os Goliardos cellar were born.

For years, their business and that of the winemakers she worked with in Portugal struggled to sell anything on the local market. Ten years ago, the Portuguese market represented five percent of their business, she estimates, and now it’s only up to 20 percent. You’d be more likely to encounter one of their bottles on a Tokyo wine list than in a bar in Lisbon (and keep in keep in mind that the Portuguese lead the world in wine consumption per capita).

Os Goliardos, photo by Rodrigo Cabrita

But that growth has encouraged a new generation of independent Portuguese producers focused intensely on terroir. These winemakers have begun preserving small, sometimes abandoned heritage vineyards with old vines, plots that are hard to manage due to the landscape and are not easily worked with machinery but that yield superior grapes. These may be vineyards similar to the ones their grandfathers worked, but unlike the previous generations, these emerging winemakers have been able to learn techniques and best practices in other countries and also have greater knowledge of the science behind what makes a good wine.

As OG’s annual Lisbon event, Vinho ao Vivo, enters its 10th year, Silvia remains cautiously optimistic about the trajectory of Portugal’s terroir wine movement. “It’s a very traditional country. Very hard to change [its] mentality. I know many highly educated people who want to eat well. They love the idea of organic food, but they want a 2 or 3-euro bottle of wine. If you want a 2-euro bottle, you are paying for a system that doesn’t respect the land and the people,” she says.

These days, Silvia and Nadir are focusing more on making their own wine and introducing their own children to the land that they so cherish. “Wine has a special ability to connect the land and the people. We want to make accurate wines – the taste of grandpa’s wines, without the defects,” she says. “That’s the good moment. We should get there.”

This article was originally published on July 3, 2019. 

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