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Wapping: How Festa is set to bring Portuguese wines and flavours to London

Tobacco Dock will host the inaugural gathering of winemakers, organised by Bar Douro’s Max Graham

Festa creator and Bar Douro founder Max Graham
Festa creator and Bar Douro founder Max Graham

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

As a child, Max Graham would dip his fingers in glasses of wine and port made by his family in the Douro Valley near Porto.

His passion for Portuguese food and drink followed him to school in England where he later founded Bar Douro to offer Londoners a taste of his homeland.

Now the 35-year-old has created an entire festival so those in the capital can fully submerge themselves in Portuguese flavours.

Festa, set to be held at Tobacco Dock in Wapping from June 24-25, will offer the chance to meet 54 winemakers from across Portugal, with a line-up of established names and young pioneers. 

A £35 ticket grants visitors unlimited access to the 300 varieties of wine on show with a backdrop of Portuguese food, music and crafts.

Once I get Max talking about the winemakers he has gathered for the event, he can’t stop.

“Every single one of our producers has a story,” said the Highbury resident.

“Portugal’s wine scene has been evolving at such a speed over the last 20 years and now what we’re seeing is the fruits of that. 

“There are some really cutting-edge projects exploring and expanding what Portuguese wines are. They have a character of their own.

“All of these winemakers are proud of their vineyards and their regions and they’re trying to be as true to that place as possible.”

Festa is being held to coincide with São João, a wild annual celebration in Porto, where Max grew up.

His dad, Johnny, will be in London to show off the port made by the family business – Churchill’s – which he set up in 1981 and named after his wife. 

“He was the first person to set up a port company in over 50 years,” said Max.

“But my dad’s side of the family have made Graham’s port wine in the Douro for more than 200 years.

“As a child I’d often just put my whole hand in a glass of wine at dinner – it was normal from a young age.

“I’d go to the lodges in Gaia where the wine is stored and play hide and seek in these vast rooms full of barrels.

“Every birthday, Christmas and Easter the vintage decanter would come out and you had to guess who made it and what year it was.

“I’ve got lots and lots of memories like that and, while I’m not a winemaker, I know how it all works and love tasting wine.”

Churchill's port, was set up by Max's father 40 years ago
Churchill’s port, was set up by Max’s father 40 years ago

The married father-of-two almost took another path. After completing boarding school in England, he studied for a degree in fine art and then a Masters at the Royal Drawing School.

“I was living in London trying to make it as an artist for a while and realised it wasn’t the right direction,” said Max.

“I was working at bars and restaurants and put on a big event called the Art Cellar, a mini festival of emerging art and food and then launched a pop-up for our family during  2012 to engage the younger generation.

“It was during that period I really became aware of the lack of representation of Portugal in London. 

“There was nothing reflecting the energy of Porto and Lisbon. That’s when I started building my business plan for Bar Douro.”

He launched the first bar in London Bridge in November 2016 and the second in Finsbury Park in 2020, just before Covid hit.

“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” said Max. “When lockdown happened and our restaurants closed, we said: ‘What are we going to do with this?’.

“We import a lot of wines directly from producers across Portugal, so we decided to set up a wine shop – and that quickly led into a wine club.”

The shop sells more than 100 Portuguese wines while club subscribers receive six on a quarterly basis, curated by Bar Douro’s wine guru Sarah Ahmed, who is also Festa’s co-founder.

“We had the idea for it back in 2018,” said Max. “But we were thinking about doing it in a much smaller way.

“Launching the shop and club brought us into even closer contact with the traders and we realised we wanted to put on a proper wine festival for them.

“There have been Portuguese trade fairs but never a wine festival and it was important to put the products in the cultural context, so the festival will have aspects of Portuguese culture, music, food, wine and crafts.

“It feels like we had been gearing up to this as everyone’s been at home and needs to have a bit of a celebration. The winemakers are gagging for it and I hope London is too.”

Max with wine guru Sarah Ahmed
Max with wine guru Sarah Ahmed

The event is expected to attract 3,400 people with Sarah leading four red carpet-themed tastings for rarer wines and visitors able to buy some of the wines through pop-up and online shops.

“Sarah and I chose the most exciting parts of Portugal’s wine scene, which is really exploding,” said Max.

“There are some famous wines from the 1960s, but the majority of producers have only really been working for 20 years. 

“Then you’ve got a new generation, who have worked at some of the great wine regions of the world and brought back a wealth of experience to Portugal.

“So you’ve got this really exciting melting pot of creativity and exploration.

“We don’t feel this is fully translating to the UK, so we’re trying to bring all that energy here and give those guys a platform to show their wines in London.”

Max hopes the event will change people’s view of what his homeland has to offer.

“There’s very much a preconception in the UK of Portuguese wine as being really good value, which is great but it’s also quite limiting,” said Max.

“Sometimes I don’t think people appreciate that there are some slightly higher-end wines.

“These winemakers are not holding back, they are showing the top end of their portfolio and our line up is unparalleled to anything seen in the UK before.

“It covers absolutely every single wine growing region in Portugal, including the Azores and Madeira and really obscure regions like Távora Varosa, where Titan is made to Beira Interior where Quinta Da Biaia is made.

“We’ve also got really good representation from the big areas, like Herdade do Rocim from Alentejo which is a more established company.”

Max said the experience of creating Festa from scratch has been a sharp learning curve. It has been entirely funded by Bar Douro and he is expecting to make a loss.

“But for him, it is about something bigger than profit.

“Whatever happens at the core, we know that we’ve got an unbelievable lineup and we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, for Portugal, that we’re all proud of,” said Max.

“It might not be the most financially sensible decision, but it’s worth it for the bigger picture.

“This is an event to make Portugal bigger and better and that’s going to benefit everyone, I hope.”

MAX’S MAKERS – APPEARING AT FESTA

BIG NAMES

  • Soalheiro, Filipa Pato, Wine & Soul. 

PIONEERS

  • Niepoort: “They trained a new generation of winemakers who are now at the cutting edge of Portugal’s wine scene.”
  • Pierre de Rocimhas: “He’s really led the charge on Tahlia wine made in clay pots.”

NEW DISCOVERIES

  • Geographic Wines: “His first production’s just being boxed now and I don’t think anyone’s tried his wines before.”

YOUNG GUNS

  • Arribas Wine Company: “Based in the Trás-os-Montes, they are doing such cool wines”
  • Mateus Nicolau de Almeida: “He comes from a serious lineage of winemakers. His grandfather created Barca Velha, the most famous Portuguese wine and its makers Casa Ferreirinha will also be at Festa.”
Bar Douro
Bar Douro

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Canary Wharf: How Humble Grape is raising its food to the level of its wine offering

The Canary Wharf wine bar and bottle shop in Mackenzie Walk has a fresh focus on its dishes

Humble Grape executive chef Dane Barnard
Humble Grape executive chef Dane Barnard

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There’s a subtle shift taking place at Humble Grape.

The bottle shop and wine bar, which has its Canary Wharf branch at Mackenzie Walk overlooking Newfoundland and Middle Dock, will always be focused on supplying bottles and glasses you just can’t get anywhere else.

But the venue is also increasingly focused on the variety and flavours of the food it serves to its customers.

The man whose blue eyes are tasked with overseeing that operation across the company’s five locations is executive chef Dane Barnard.

“I started off as the head chef at the Battersea branch and, back then, there was no executive chef or a real food identity across the business,” he said.

“Each branch was doing its own thing. To an extent we still do, because you should be able to taste each head chef’s personality on the plate but as we’re becoming more and more about food – it’s about coming up with that identity.

“Now we know what we are and where we’re going – to really drive that side of Humble Grape.

“We’re not food-led, but it’s about half our business now, which is where we want to be.

“Humble Grape is a place you can come with friends or colleagues to enjoy wine along with something to eat.

Humble Grape is located in Mackenzie Walk in Canary Wharf
Humble Grape is located in Mackenzie Walk in Canary Wharf

“Our founder and CEO, James Dawson has done such an amazing job finding all these niche wine suppliers that you can’t find anywhere else in the UK.

“My vision is to bring the food in line with that – to use as much free-range, organic and sustainable produce as we can and to really try to mirror what we’re doing with the wine.

“That starts with our suppliers – it takes a long time to find the right ones and to build that relationship.

“For example, we use Donald Russell, which is a big one but they source produce from individual farms. We go to them with a detailed spec and they come back if they can help us.

“We certainly don’t know everything, so if they give us an ingredient then we can always try to do something with it.

“Even though I’m executive chef, I’m learning from my head chefs every single day – we have people from Spain and France and we’re constantly teaching each other. There’s a lot of passion and knowledge.

“We meet up for menu development and swap ideas – that’s what we’re looking for here and we’re always looking for talented chefs.”

Octopus carpaccio at Humble Grape (£14.50)
Octopus carpaccio at Humble Grape (£14.50)

That process has led to a menu of small plates at the Canary Wharf branch, including baked Camembert with sourdough bread, octopus carpaccio with compressed cucumber, stem broccoli with a lemon dressing and crab on a flatbread with chilli.

“My style of cooking is more about flavour than delicate presentation,” said Dane.

“A lot of my training was with a chef from America and we used the whole animal – that’s something we are teaching our teams at Humble Grape.

“For example, if we get a whole pig we take it apart, cure the legs use the cheeks and render the fat down to use when cooking.

“Every part of it has something to offer, you can even use the skin. You can see it on the menu where we’re using lamb neck for a small plate, served with freekeh.

“That’s more of a common cut but it has loads of flavour and you’re starting to see the upper echelons of the restaurant world jumping on that bandwagon.”

Stem broccoli with lemon dressing at Humble Grape (£8)
Stem broccoli with lemon dressing at Humble Grape (£8)

Dane, who joined Humble Grape in 2018 following stints at The Lockhart and Shotgun BBQ, is also keen to showcase vegetables.

“Spring is amazing,” he said. “If you can’t cook in this season, you can’t cook – there’s such a range of flavours and we try to use English seasonal ingredients.

“Vegan food had already come along big time before the pandemic hit – back then it was about 10% of diners and now we’re looking at perhaps 30%.

“We don’t go down the route of using products that look like meat – we’d rather use vegetables that look and taste like vegetables and try to enhance those flavours.”

With around 400 wines available at Humble Grape, the majority exclusively available through the business, the emphasis is on accessibility rather than prescriptive pairing.

“We regularly taste the wines,” said Dane.

“It’s a hard job, but somebody has to do it and it really helps when we’re developing new dishes.

“Our staff will be on hand to help with suggestions, of course, but we don’t tell people what wine to have with a particular dish – this is a place where people choose.”

Lamb neck with freekeh at Humble Grape (£13.50)
Lamb neck with freekeh at Humble Grape (£13.50)

The venue, which offers bar snacks, sharing boards, sweets and a range of meats and cheeses, also serves more substantial dishes such as herb-crusted chalk stream trout with Jersey royals, steaks and a spring pea and asparagus pasta.

“The Sunday roasts are probably the best place to start here,” said Dane.

“We serve lamb, chicken, pork, beef and nut roast – all sustainable and organic – as something traditional but more in a sharing style with Yorkshire pudding, grilled cauliflower cheese, roast root veg and gravy for £18.

“We used to do a bottomless brunch, but everybody does that, so now we do a bottomless lunch on Saturdays.

“I didn’t become a chef to cook eggs for people, so we thought it would be better to showcase our small plates

“You get three plus unlimited Prosecco, red wine, white wine or beer for 90 minutes for £35 between noon and 4pm.

“Our intention is, when the summer comes, that we will expand the food offering a bit more.

“We’ve got a massive grill in the kitchen, so when it’s sunny and people are on the terrace, we’ll be looking to maximise the use of that and really make it a place to come and sit outside.”

Herb-crusted chalk stream trout with Jersey royals (£20)
Herb-crusted chalk stream trout with Jersey royals (£20)

To go with the food, Humble Grape boasts plenty of regular wine offers including Retail Monday (our favourite), where bottles can be drunk at takeaway prices, Tasting Tuesday – a mini flight of four wines for £15 per person, and Icon Thursday And Friday, where more expensive bottles are sold by the glass.

Booking is not required to participate in any of these events – just drop in and place an order.

  • The Canary Wharf branch of Humble Grape is also launching an Express Lunch menu from Wednesday–Friday with a main course for £14, two courses for £19 or three for £22.
Humble Grape sells around 400 wines

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