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In a Portuguese town, the wine flows as free as a river — but no one is drinking it

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On Sunday morning, the wine was flowing freely in Portugal, but nobody was drinking.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nearly 600,000 gallons of red wine coursed like a burgundy river downhill through the streets of the small Portuguese town of Sao Lourenco do Bairro. It literally painted the town red, as you can see on social media videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Portuguese).

(SOUNDBITE OF WINE FLOWING)

CHANG: It sounds like a supernatural calamity or a biblical parable, though the official explanation is an industrial accident - two burst storage tanks. A nearby distillery was storing this wine to convert it into a more pure form of alcohol, part of an effort to solve an even bigger problem - that there is too much wine in Portugal.

ELIZABETH CARTER: So this is huge. People in Europe are drinking less wine, especially in the countries that used to drink the most, right? And those would be the wine-producing countries.

KELLY: Elizabeth Carter is a professor at the University of New Hampshire who studies Europe's political economy, especially the wine business. She says Portugal, like other major European producers - France, Italy - that it's currently suffering from a wine surplus. Too much production - perish the thought, Ailsa - not enough demand.

CHANG: Well, in the first quarter of this year, wine exports were about 8% lower than they were last year. And according to the European Commission, wine consumption is falling in Europe. Elizabeth Carter says this has to do in part with changing habits over a long time.

CARTER: It's just not so standard to have that weak glass of wine with lunch, maybe unfortunately (laughter).

KELLY: So governments are collecting some of this surplus, especially at the low end of the market, and turning it into other products like alcohol for pharmaceutical products and cosmetics. That gets some income to the producers for their grape production.

CHANG: As for the flash flood of wine, well, authorities managed to divert the red tide before it got into the nearby river, but not before it left some stunning images.

CARTER: I saw the picture of the wine river in Portugal, and it's like, I wouldn't mind being there, although it's not great wine, so maybe it wouldn't be so great.

CHANG: Meanwhile, if any European vintners are listening, we know a place you could send some surplus.

KELLY: Yeah. Just contact us, you know, after today's show, obviously.

CHANG: Oh, obviously. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
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