Heavy hitters from Portugal

 

Portuguese wines are enjoying the popularity they deserve, thanks in some measure to the work of two Irish wine importers, writes JOHN WILSON

THERE NEVER HAS been a shortage of wine importers trying to win us over to Portuguese wines. Sadly, many of the smaller operators fell by the wayside once the recession bit. However, two individuals can take credit for weathering the storm, and keeping the Portuguese flag flying in this country.

Ben Mason works for the Wicklow Wine Company, which operates a retail shop in Wicklow town, and also supplies shops and restaurants nationwide. The company imports some eclectic and very interesting wines from all over Europe, but Mason has always had a passion for Portuguese wine. “Studying wine, I couldn’t quite get the hang of Portugal – the regions and the grapes were all so different. I went on a field trip, and suddenly everything made sense. My eyes and tastebuds were opened to a whole new world.”

Mason met his (Irish) wife-to-be on the trip. “When I came back home, everyone was utterly dismissive of Portugal. There were a few exceptions: Redmond’s in Ranelagh always had a good selection, and at that time Superquinn had a decent range. But now I knew the quality was there.”

This was 2000. “Back then, Portugal was just emerging,” says Mason. “There were a few new producers coming forward, each making a name in a specific region. Since then, there has been an explosion of new talent.” Mason is adamant that Portugal should stick to its own indigenous grapes and not go down the “international” route with Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Kevin O’Hara originally ran a clothing manufacturer, employing 37 people. But around 2000, all of that moved to Bulgaria and China. “It was the end of the clothing business in Ireland,” he says, “and it was a tough decision.” O’Hara had been going to Portugal regularly on golf holidays, and had discovered some great wines in the restaurants there. “When I came back to Ireland, I couldn’t find them. Some 200,000 Irish people visit the Algarve every year. I wanted to bring them back the wines they drank over there.” And so, at the age of 47, he started up Grace Campbell Wines, a business dealing exclusively in Portuguese wines.

The pair agree on the two best wine regions in Portugal. Mason says: “For me, without question, it is the Douro Valley. It is a restricted area, and everything is terroir-driven.” O’Hara concurs: “The Douro produces the best wines, structured winter wines that need food. Alentejo is the most exciting region. The wines are fruit-driven and smooth, perfect for drinking young. It is the nearest thing to Australia.”

Mason backs this up, but warns against some trends. “Alentejo is much bigger, more modern and very exciting, but there is a danger it will get swallowed by international grape varieties. They should be careful to retain their identity.”

Portugal, says Mason, “has become niche trendy; you wouldn’t have had a hope getting it on a restaurant list 10 years ago.” Shops felt they had to have some sort of representation, but you never felt they really believed in it.”

O’Hara agrees. “When I started off, Portugal only had one or two wines in every shop, always on the bottom shelf where you couldn’t see them. That has all changed. O’Briens now list 26 Portuguese wines (including 10 from O’Hara); so does Donnybrook Fair, McCabes, Fallon Byrne.” Mason would add Redmond’s and The Corkscrew in Chatham Street to this list.

Both also give great credit to Martina Delaney, sommelier in l’Ecrivain. O’Hara now has his wines listed in some of Ireland’s leading establishments, including L’Ecrivain, Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, Neven Maguire’s MacNean House and Thornton’s.

“Restaurants are now actively seeking them out; there is a unique Portugueseness, a richness of fruit, and an individual style that marks them out.” says Mason. Sales seem to bear this out, showing a growth of almost 15 per cent in value for the first six months of this year.

O’Hara’s biggest supplier, Companhia das Quintas, has seven estates covering just about every region. They can be found on virtually every wine list in the Algarve. Overall, he now lists 80 wines and 15 ports, certainly the biggest range in this country. His best-selling wines are the Prova Regia and Pegos Claros mentioned below; he sells more of these two than anyone else world-wide outside of Portugal.

Ben Mason is probably the more intellectual of the two, very knowledgeable and passionate about the wines. O’Hara shares the same passion, and is probably the more business-driven of the pair. In addition to these two importers, Mitchell Son in Dublin, and Karwig in Cork have always been strong supporters of Portuguese wines.

Here are four great Portuguese wines to try.

BOTTLES OF THE WEEK

Prova Régia 2010 Arinto Vinho Regional Lisboa, 12.5%, €10.99A very attractive, light, fresh wine with lightly textured pears and peaches, an appealing bitter touch and a nice citrus edge. A great all-rounder at a very keen price. Stockists: The Corkscrew, Chatham Street; Donnybrook Fair; O’Briens; Fallon Byrne, Exchequer Street; La Touche Wines, Greystones; Fresh Outlets; McCabe’s; Nectar, Sandyford; Redmond’s,Ranelagh; Sweeney’s, Glasnevin; Morton’s, Ranelagh; Red Island, Skerries; The Wine Shop, Perrystown; The Coach House, Ballinteer; D-Six, Harold’s Cross; Liston’s, Camden Street; Cellarmaster, Sandyford; Fleming’s, Dundrum; Nolan’s Foodfair, Terenure.

Pegos Claros 2007, Palmela, 12.5%, €12.50A new vintage of a favourite wine. The 2007 is lighter in alcohol and doesn’t have the punch of 2005, but it more than makes up for this with some toothsome, dark cherry fruits, a refreshing note of acidity and real elegance. Try it with white meats. Stockists: As above.

Sá de Baixo 2008, Douro, 13%, €10.95This has lovely rich, smooth, meaty dark fruits, plenty of structure and some well-integrated tannins on the finish. Surprisingly sophisticated, this did very well in my blind tasting; I had it pegged for a €15-plus wine. Stockists: McHugh’s Kilbarrack and Raheny; Redmond’s, Ranelagh; Morton’s, Ranelagh; Martin’s, Fairview; Lilac Wines, Marino; Red Island, Skerries; Power Smullen, Lucan; 64 Wine, Glasthule; Liston’s, Camden Street; Gibney’s, Malahide; Bin No. 9, Clonskeagh; On the Grapevine, Dalkey; Sweeney’s, Glasnevin; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock; Wicklow Arms, Delgany; D-Six, Terenure; Deveney’s, Dundrum; Probus Wines, Fenian Street, Dublin, and Oughterard; Louis Albrouze, Donnybrook; Wicklow Wine Co.

Niepoort Vertente 2008, Douro, 13.5%, €20.50The 2008 Vertente is a beautifully-crafted wine, elegant and refined with cool, plum fruits enclosed in a firm cloak of tannin. It will improve further, but would be perfect now with grilled or roast red meats, lamb in particular. Stockists: As above.

wilsononwine.ie (where you’ll find additional tasting notes)

Portuguese tasting

Wines of Portugal will be holding a wine fair on Monday, October 24th, 6.30pm to 8.30pm in the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Golden Lane, Dublin 8. Tickets are €15 and can be purchased from Jean Smullen email jean@jeansmullen.com