THE first I heard about Portovino was an email invitation from Paul Raven to a tasting of Portuguese wines. “I just want your help,” he wrote, “in choosing some wines from about 40 I have sourced, with a view to starting a new importing venture with a few like-minded individuals.”
It was not an offer to refuse, even though I’d already spent the earlier part of the afternoon in Edinburgh tasting 50 Portuguese wines chosen by fellow wine writer Jamie Goode.
It was a tough act to follow, but Paul’s tasting was highly congenial and the general standard of wines very good, though my notes became even less coherent than usual.
Paul owns a furniture business, Newcastle Furniture Company, which manufactures high-quality kitchens. As well as showrooms in other parts of the UK, they have three dealerships abroad. One of these is in Portugal.
“I’ve been going over there every year for the past 12 years,” Paul told me, “and discovered that everyone there seems to know someone in the wine trade.
“We’d make a kitchen for someone and then see their name on a bottle of wine.”
A succession of happy winemakers with sparkling new kitchens, gently suggested that Paul might like to sell their wine back in the UK. Last year he finally decided to have a go.
He teamed up with Alan Holmes, like Paul a keen member of the North East Wine Tasting Society, and to learn more, got an invitation to the London version of the annual Fifty Best Wines of Portugal tasting.
At another London tasting they were so impressed by an enterprising group of Portuguese winemakers, that they followed them back to Portugal for a closer look.
Their Companhia das Quintas unites seven up-and-coming wine estates, which they market together with the help of local businessmen. Paul and Alan are now delighted to be their sole UK outlet.
To add more variety and to bring their list up to around 25 wines, Paul and Alan also stock a few wines bought from larger UK shippers, but they would prefer to source all their wines themselves.
“There’s no point doing the same as everyone else,” Paul says. So they’re off to Portugal again soon to hunt for more goodies.
Kitchen sales also continue to bring new contacts. Paul discovered that Alison Luiz Gomes, an English client in the Alentejo, near the Spanish border, turned out to be a very talented winemaker.
Her highly unusual but delicious pure Petit Verdot (a Bordeaux grape that seems far happier in Portugal) is now on the list.
When I sampled the previous vintage at a Top Fifty tasting in London two years ago, I rated it one of the very best reds in the show. Azamor Petit Verdot 2006 is a bargain indeed at £16.
The wines are not sold in any retail outlet, but all can be ordered online through the website, www.portovino.co.uk. They’re keen to attract new customers through tastings, specially arranged for private groups, corporate bodies and wine clubs.
Feedback from the first round of tastings is very positive. “People seem very pleasantly surprised by the wines and find them very approachable and easy to enjoy,” says Paul.
Expectations that do exist are often confounded: “If folk know anything about Portuguese wines at all, they expect reds, but they’ve been impressed by our whites.”
And as he admitted to me, Paul himself has also had to think again: “Though we said at the outset the only wines we’d never sell were port and Mateus Rosé, we ended up shifting lots of port in the run-up to Christmas. We’ve discovered that a lot of ladies really enjoy tawny port, and everyone loves the sweet Moscatel de Setúbal. Its crisp acidity and lovely orangey flavour is irresistible.” They still don’t list Mateus, but their one rosé, Casal Garcia 2008 (£8.50), is dry, crisp and very attractive.
Most of their wines fall in a price range from £7 to £16, but Paul is keen to add a few finer wines to the list. Although reserva-quality wines are not cheap, they can be very good.
“It can be hard enough to sell Portuguese wine,” he admits, “but what else would you get for that quality at £25?” He’s convinced that the market for such special bottles is growing. “We’re not going to go mad. We’d just like to add about 10 more lines to the list.”
Paul is also keen to work with other small importers in our region to put on tasting events and market their wine together to the on-trade.
Another option is a wine club to offer more variety than that of the restricted range of the individual partners – all of which is very good news for local wine lovers.
If folk know anything about Portuguese wines at all, they expect reds, but they’ve been impressed by our whites
WINE OF THE WEEK
Beaujolais Villages 2008, £5.35 Morrisons
Light, juicy red, with an inviting smell and taste of red fruits – a surprisingly satisfying mouthful.
Ideal with white meat or pork dishes.
I was very tempted to choose Quinta de Pancas, Touriga Nacional Reserva 2007 as wine of the week, but wanted to say a bit more about it. It’s quite wonderful. I had a bit of a cold when I tasted it and was bothered that I might not fully appreciate its smell. I needn't have worried. I was overwhelmed by a heady scent of black cherries in alcohol – huge and intense. And the flavour is fab too – powerful and just as concentrated, but with lovely juicy acidity and fine-grained, silky tannins. It’s £18 from Portovino (www.portovino.co.uk) and better than many a bottle costing twice as much.
If you can’t afford quite that much but still want something special, Quinta da Fronteira 2006 from the Douro Valley, which includes the superb Touriga Nacional grape in a rather more traditional blend, has great depth of ripe, black fruit, also with soft, silky tannins and a long spicy finish. It’s £11 from Portovino. Highly recommended.