As a new resident of Portugal, I have found myself climbing a lot of learning curves… from how to work an ATM with our new Portuguese debit card (without knowing the language), getting our cell phone and internet service established and puzzling over indecipherable little icons on the charging stations that stand between us and range anxiety with our Peugeot 2008 electric car.
A Learning Curve That's a Slippery Slope
One learning curve that we climbed with ease was drinking wine! But it's a learning curve that's a slippery slope to be sure. Wine is everywhere and as one of our new Portuguese friends observed, "In Portugal, wine is cheaper than water."
Shockingly, you can buy a bottle of (decent) wine for as little as €2.50 (roughly about $2.50). Actually even less than that – American friends who've been living here for about a year, buy Portuguese boxed "green wine" for like 99 cents. And in a restaurant it's usually cheaper to buy a full bottle of wine than a single glass. So, what the heck, right? Just buy the bottle.
The Social and Cultural Traditions of Wine in Portugal
As an American, it's intriguing to observe how culturally embedded wine drinking is in the Portuguese culture. Of course, it's nothing new as wine has been an integral part of European life and culture dating back to the Roman era.
But the Portuguese are super achievers! They top the list of countries that drink the most wine per person.
Take a look at this list compiled by the International Organisation of Vine & Wine - Countries that Drink the Most Wine Per Person (per capita):
Portugal: 51.9 litres
France: 46.9 litres
Italy: 46 litres
Switzerland: 35.3 litres
Austria: 30.6 litres
Australia: 28.7 litres
Germany: 27.5 litres
Spain: 26.2 litres
Netherlands: 26.1 litres
Belgium: 26 litres
(Interestingly, note that Portuguese wine drinkers consume nearly twice as much as neighboring Spain!)
Drinking Wine is a Way of Life
In a fascinating science journal article looking at wine consumption in Portugal, it reports that the Portuguese mostly drink wine with meals, and in equal measure with lunch and dinner. The research also points out, they tend to drink the same amount whether it's on weekdays or weekends.
So you can imagine, for newly arrived Americans, wine is wall-to-wall ubiquitous. And with its cheap prices and fine quality, it's quite seductive. It flows so smoothly. At restaurants, the wine bottles are wrapped in cooler sleeves so you can't see the amount in the bottle, hence it's easy to keep pouring (or the wait staff pouring) and before you know it, the bottle is emptied by the end of the meal.
About a month in, Ron and I started questioning our consumption as we were ordering wine with dinner every day! A far cry from our life in the U.S. where a couple glasses of wine was a special occasion a couple times a week.
I wondered if we were the only ones encountering this "newbie culture shock"! So I took a little informal survey. There are numerous Facebook pages for U.S. expats that I belong to – so I put the question about wine drinking to American expats now living in Portugal. Nearly 70 people weighed-in (thank you very much!), and while there was a wide variety of responses, a pattern emerged that reflected that Ron and I weren't the only ones seduced by free flowing wine.
Some anonymous quotes from this survey:
• "I too pondered this because I'm drinking sooooo much more here than I ever did!"
• "More wine drunk generally when I first moved here, as it was always offered instead of a cup of coffee!"
• "I drink much more wine after moving to Portugal."
• "I drank more when I first arrived. I would always have a wine box and a few glasses at night. Then I stopped. Now rarely touch it."
• "After a year of really enjoying the wine – I have reset my consumption levels. I still enjoy it but sparkling water mostly for me."
We've pro-actively dialed the wine drinking back too, making it an occasional indulgence, not one every day.
The Irony of a Culture Steeped in Wine
Nonetheless for all this talk about how much wine the Portuguese drink, the research points out that the majority of Portuguese adults drink 3 glasses of wine per day. That's hardly excessive. But it is every day – so cumulatively, the Portuguese drink more wine than the rest of us.
But the big moderating factor here is that the Portuguese nearly always have their alcohol with food. As one Portuguese woman commented in my survey, the majority of the Portuguese have wine with their meal but cocktail hour doesn't exist. Adults in Portugal don't have the habit of a few martinis before dinner and then wine.
As for rates of alcoholism, it's not a thing in Portugal. In the latest World Population Review 2022 Portugal shows up in the #50 position for "Rates of Alcohol Use Disorder/Alcoholism".
Here's the kicker, the United States meantime, is in the top 10 of "Countries with the Highest Rates of Alcohol Use Disorder/Alcoholism" and is tied for 5th place with South Korea and Slovenia.
What do you make of all this? The contrast is amazing isn't it? What comes up for you? I invite you to drop down to the comments section and share your thoughts!
bio: Becca Williams is settling into small town living in Lagos, a seaside town on Portugal’s southern coast.
Becca Williams is originally from America but is now settling into small town living in Lagos, a seaside town on Portugal’s southern coast. Contact her at AlgarveBecca@gmail.com