If New Yorkers had any concept of Portuguese dining before George Mendes took up residence, it likely didn’t include the adjective “sexy.” Rustic seafood-and-chorizo-based fare, simple quaffing wines, and gruff old-timers engaged in banter with career waiters, dominated institutions such as those found in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood.
But Mendes’s first entry six years ago, Aldea (31 West 17th Street, 212-675-7223), and more recently, Lupulo (835 Avenue of the Americas, 212-290-7600), have modernized the experience, lifting both the environs and food — wine included — to cosmopolitan levels.
A mix of stylish, post-work men and women flock to Lupulo’s U-shaped bar, along with Eventi Hotel guests and the occasional Nomad tourist, drawn to the room’s lofty industrial ceilings, dim lighting, and palpable energy. Attractive and buzzy, the setting helps the cause of unfamiliar wines by lending them a little sheen and glamor.
Portuguese wine has been in a desperate need of a makeover in the U.S. market. Not so much to replace traditional offerings as to supplement them to accurately reflect the dynamic, evolving industry across the Atlantic. Most American wine lovers know about the stunning ports and lighthearted vinho verdes. A few have tried the dry, tannic reds sprung from the schistose rock of the Douro. But what about aromatic moscatel? Or vibrant expressions of jaen and alfrocheiro from the Dao?
To showcase such wines produced by the country’s growing crop of small, forward-thinking producers, Mendes engaged NYC-based restaurant consultant and sommelier Doreen Winkler of Diamond Sommelier Services. He first discovered — and liked — her work at now-shuttered Nordic eatery Aska. Winkler tackled the wine programs at both Mendes restaurants. In September 2014, she began injecting fresh chapters into Aldea’s lengthy volume to include more natural and organic wines, and show off Iberian rarities like the 1995 Caves Sao Joao ‘Poco do Lobo,’ made from age-worthy white grape arinto (and a deal at $95).
But Winkler found building a concise all-Portuguese program at Lupulo (which means “hops,” as in beer), a challenge. “It’s easier to keep adding wines than it is to cut them,” she says.
To make her selections, Winkler sampled “hundreds of bottles.” Initially, she included five reds, five whites, and a couple of sparkling wines. (She did not pick the craft beers which, by the way, include the deservedly hyped and hard to find Hill Farmstead.) Thus, she was dismayed to see her program reviewed as merely “short and solid” by Pete Wells in the New York Times in July. “People think that when you have a small list, it’s a shitty list. Plus, Portuguese wine doesn’t have the best image,” Winkler explains.
While she hasn’t bulked up the offering since that first review, a few wines have changed – but only in response to the seasonal shift. To provide drinkers a glimpse of the entire country, Winkler has doggedly tried to incorporate every region and only local varieties, at reasonable prices. “I didn’t want to put $100 bottles on the list. It’s not necessary in order to drink great Portuguese wine.” None of the current wines surpass $72.
Fortunately, the benefits derived from a tightly edited, well-priced program are reaped by both staff and customer. Servers can more quickly and easily understand what they are selling, becoming better ambassadors to the wines, while reduced financial risk opens customers up to trying new things. The winemaking community’s estimable commitment to indigenous grapes, of which there are many, makes the Iberian nation a difficult one for consumers (even wine professionals) to understand. How often have you seen Portuguese pinot noir? Rather, the grape names are exotic, and, at times, maddeningly switch synonyms from region to region. Fernão pires in the Ribatejo becomes maria gomes in the Bairrada. Who can keep track of that?
In addition to choosing wines with an interesting viewpoint, Winkler strove to sync selections with Mendes’s fresh take on traditional flavors. For example, she sourced a Loureiro-based 2012 sparkler from vinho verde producer Aphros ($13/$52), securing it exclusively as a by-the-glass pour for the restaurant. Its bright acidity serves as foil to the spicy mayo on salt cod croquettes, while its yeasty notes balance the wine against the weight of the dish. Matched to the hearty squid ink rice with clams, the touriga nacional-dominant Quinta da Serradinha, 2010 ($12/$48), from an organic winery north of Lisbon, rinses away the saltiness of the sea in each bite.
Another sustainably-farmed wine comes from the Dao — the Casa de Mouraz 2011 ($14/$55), a field blend that includes touriga nacional, alfrocheiro, jaen, and tinta roriz. This wine quashes misconceptions of Portuguese reds as dull, dusty, or clunky, especially when drunk alongside the duck heart skewer. Presented with ripe mango and green pepper, the rich organ — with its tropical fruit accent — highlight the wine’s juiciness, while the bell pepper echoes the gentle alpine herb on the finish of each sip.
For pinot people (and there are always pinot people) the Filipa Pata Nossa Calcario 2013, the most expensive wine listed ($18/$72), attempts to please. “I hear ‘I love Burgundy, what can you recommend’ a lot. This wine is nothing like it. It’s unique and special, but can speak to that audience” Winkler explains. Made from baga, the grape’s earthiness mirrors the smoky, charred skin of the wood-grilled chicken, its acidity cutting the bird’s spicy piri piri sauce.
The least satisfying wine, however, is one that customers order most. Niepoort’s ‘Twisted’ 2013, ($12/$48), a red blend from the Douro, lacks the freshness or intrigue of the other choices. Name recognition factors into healthy sales. But if Niepoort’s name can induce a cautious drinker to wade into unfamiliar waters, then it serves a valuable purpose on the list. The hope is drinkers will continue exploring Portugal beyond brand borders, and Lupulo offers an accessible platform for guests to do exactly that.
Editor’s note: Since we interviewed her for this story, Doreen Winkler informs us she’s no longer employed at Lupulo.