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Port O’Plenty: Xisto & the Bristol sail cargo alliance

Aside from the fact that Xisto Wines are downright delicious, there’s another important reason why we should develop a taste for them. Melissa Blease meets the independent Portuguese wine importer bringing the lovely stuff to Bristol from its twin city by sea and sail to make food and drink transportation more environmentally positive

“Life is good, but wine is better” – thus spake Portuguese writer, poet and philosopher Fernando Pessoa, a man who was arguably one of the most significant European literary figures of the 20th century. A fifth of the way through the 21st century, and Xisto Wines welcome us to their Port O’Bristol enterprise with a thoroughly modern maxim of their own: “Made by rebels, shipped by pirates, drunk by heroes…” And it’s a motto that Pessoa would surely heartily endorse.

“Xisto has pioneered sail cargo between Porto and Bristol, reinstating old trade links by ship and reconnecting Bristol with its twin city,” says Lela McTernan, who founded the company with her husband Anton Mann in autumn last year. “But the initiative hasn’t been without its challenges. With our first cargo – a collaborative effort between us, sail cargo initiative New Dawn Traders, the management team at Underfall Yard and the owners of historic Devon-built cargo shop the Bessie Allen – the authorities thoroughly questioned every legal document, which was exhausting. One barrel went to the Caribbean and, by no fault except the wind and Mother Nature, wasn’t landed in time, so it was kept in Holland for some months before it could be sailed back to the UK. Fortunately the sea-ageing produced the most insanely delicious Douro, so good that the wine maker wanted us to sail it back to him in Portugal. He’s not getting it back though!” Ah, spoken like a proper pirate. But where did this new take on old Bristol traditions begin?

“…The sea-ageing produced the most insanely delicious Douro, so good that the wine maker wanted us to sail it back to him in Portugal…”

“Anton is a maverick who grew up in a family that encouraged curiosity, innovation and thinking outside the box. He also has an instinctive love for wines,” says Lela. “A combination of life-changing circumstances led us to start a sail cargo Portuguese wine company, and although the business took around nine years of planning, I’m really glad we did.”

So, too, are Xisto’s ever-increasing circle of supporters: Bristol Tasting Circle, The Canteen, Clifton Cellars and Birch have all hosted Xisto events, as have The Forge, No1 Harbourside and The Pickle during this year’s Bristol Food Connections week. The company also supplies many of Bristol’s loveliest restaurants, bars and stores including Grape & Grind, Bottles and Books and Aimee’s Wine House, and website sales are booming. But aside from the fact that Xisto Wines are downright delicious, there’s another very important reason why we should all develop a taste for them.

“The whole principle of Xisto Wines Port O’Bristol is to respect the process and passion of the wine makers, and the environment,” says Lela. “We sustain a Circle of Zero Waste ethos: we run our delivery vehicle on fuel made from the waste oil we collect from the restaurants and bars we supply. We reuse the sparkling wine bottles to bottle the barrelled wine, the blue glass white wine bottles are made into tapas dishes, and there’s a waiting list of beer, cider, soya and kimchi makers who want our barrels. Everything we use is valued, reused, and requisitioned. We work and think long term; nothing is wasted.”

Lela and Anton

Anton and Lela only work with like-minded producers, too. “When we were seeking out innovative wine makers and the alternative wine scene in Portugal, we were very lucky to meet Mateus Nicolau de Almeida, who won the prestigious Renegade Wine Maker of the Year award. He introduced us to wine-making friends who share his and our values: small production wine makers who oversee the whole process from vineyard to bottle themselves. These producers mostly come from generations of wine makers who are passionate about the land, soil, climate care and nurturing of the grapes even before they get to the winery. These people do not compromise for certification; they are organic, biodynamic, low-intervention wine makers that produce wines in quantities that they can personally oversee, not huge numbers of bottles and definitely not factory wines. We have personal relationships with each one of them and their families; we’re all very good friends.”

Little wonder, then, that Anton is fast developing hero status in wine world. “Anton wanted to transport the wines in the most environmentally positive way he could find, and he will never compromise his principles,” says Lela, proudly. “He’s proved that people really do care about where their wine is from, and how it gets to their table. It’s really exciting when another restaurant or bar is inspired by our wines and how we import them, and it’s lovely seeing customers actively making the choice to drink better, more ethical wines too. Bristol has a thoughtful food and drink scene, with a focus on sustainability and ethical practices; we love nothing better than working with partners with the same positive outlook. And Anton is always encouraging our Portuguese friends to love Bristol cider and beer too, so who knows: maybe in the future, we’ll be sending the barrels back full of West Country gold!”

But right here, right now: Collares, Serradinha and Vale de Capucha from Lisboa, Dao wines from Darei, Romeu from Douro, sparkling wines from the Minho/Douro border, unique wines that have been sea-aged especially for Port O’Bristol – Xisto is sailing them all to Bristol, raising a glass to our planet, our environment and our good health along the way. Fernando Pessoa would definitely say “felicidades” to that.

Lead image: Anton with Carlos Ruivo, from Casa de Darei, in Porto with the sail cargo wine