It takes a lot of bottle to succeed as a wine merchant in Northern Ireland - but thanks to the indefatigable McAlindon family, DWS has done it
If it weren't for the McAlindon family who run Direct Wines Shipments, Belfast would be something of a wine-drinker's wasteland. True, Northern Ireland is served by Winemark, the off-licence chain. And Sainsbury's, Tesco and Safeway bring comforting everyday wines to the province, but for anyone serious about wine, DWS, along with its rival James Nicholson & Co, is an essential port of call.

DWS's wines may be serious but the family presence generates fun and enthusiasm. Sticking out a mile from the dreary surrounds of the Lagan docks, its gaudily painted warehouse announces its presence to commuters driving into Belfast. Inside, atmosphere oozes from the pores of the whitewashed walls and ancient floor planks. There's a deceptively old-fashioned air about the extensive ground-floor premises. A breezy, pile-it-high informality blends with the cosy feel of a traditional wine cellar. Tempting tasting notes describe the contents of bottles stashed under arches, next to pillars and in barrels, and there's a little cove of wooden racks stuffed with vintage port.

DWS's story is one of gritty survival and gradual transformation from Fifties corner shop to thoroughly modern wine merchant. To drum up trade, the McAlindon brothers, Kevin, Denis and Ciaran, used to stick wine lists through the letterboxes of professors and lecturers at the university. Guinness, sherry, whisky, wine and brandy were all bottled by hand on the premises. Hold-ups, by IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries alike, were part of the way of life.

The modern business took off when DWS started contacting suppliers direct. First Johnnie Hugel in Alsace and Max Chapoutier in the Rhone took an interest, then Spain's Miguel Torres. "These were the pin-ups of the wine trade," says Kevin. New agencies followed: Marques de Cceres, Bernard Clement in the Loire, Robert Mondavi and Chile's Santa Rita. In the late 1970s, DWS took a gamble and bought the vast Corporation Square warehouse.

It proved the making of DWS. Using the spacious top floor fashioned from ship's timbers, the company has made wine appreciation one of its major strengths, with regular tastings and tutored dinners. The New World connection has been strengthened since Kevin's sons, Peter and Neal, came into the business. After working in Australia, Peter helped bring Brown Brothers, Xanadu, Chatsfield, Cullens and Green Point on board. Modern Spain is well represented, too, with the dazzling reds of Abadia Retuerta, Alion, Vega Sicilia and Pesquera all being featured.

New Zealander Jane Hunter's husband, Ernie, was a Belfast man, so the Hunters connection is strong. I'm particularly impressed by the considerable staying power of its 1997 Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 9.99, a Marlborough Sauvignon with assertive tropical and gooseberry flavours. From Australia, the 1997 Stonier's Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir, pounds 10.75, is a deliciously generous red with undertones of damson and loganberry jam flecked with a cool-climate mintiness, while Chatsfield's 1995 Mount Barker Shiraz, pounds 9.49, is a model of Rhone-like liquorice spice, cracked pepper and rich black-cherry fruitiness. I can't do justice here to the breadth of the DWS range, but give Corporation Square a try if you want to see where Irish eyes are smiling

Direct Wine Shipments: 01232 238700

White of the Week

1996 Albacora Verdejo-Chardonnay, pounds 5.49, Waitrose. From Spain's arid northern region of Rueda, this is a new-wave Spanish blend of the local Verdejo grape and Chardonnay, creating a full-bodied, full-flavoured smoky, almost charry dry white with the Chardonnay grape adding an appealing vanilla fudge-like character.

Red of the Week

1997 Diego Murillo Family Reserve Malbec, pounds 5.99, Safeway. This is a good example of what Argentina does so well: a red wine made from the Malbec grape (the grape of the ancient Black Wine of Cahors) which is smooth-textured, rich in blackberry fruit and just a hint of the tarry note which is the Malbec's hallmark.