The Alentejo — the largest of Portugal’s 13 wine regions, occupying about a third of the country’s land mass — is a major player in the national wine market.
The Alentejo produces about 45 per cent of all wines consumed in the domestic market in terms of both volume and value. Yet only six per cent of the population lives on this vast, mostly flat plain.
Alentejo has almost 21,000 hectares of vines. The region is divided into eight sub-regions but all wines have much in common: They are full-bodied, aromatic and smooth meaning they can be enjoyed young as well as cellared. About four in five bottles produced are red.
The climate is typically Mediterranean, with very hot summers and temperate winters. Dry breezes and low humidity mean the region does not need to use pesticides and as a result the region has embraced sustainable vineyard practices.
Portugal has the second highest number of grape varieties in the world, after Italy. Many of the country’s great wines are blends, and winemakers are known for their blending skills.
Aragonez is one of the few grapes planted in both countries of the Iberian Peninsula. In Spain it is known as Tempranillo, from the word for early ripening, and in northern Portugal its name is Tinta Roriz. Touriga Nacional is Portugal’s flagship red grape, though it has made its name in blends because of the powerful aromas it gives to table wines and port.
Alicante Bouschet’s nickname of “tinta de escrever” or “writing ink” indicates its main role, to give colour in blends. It is a “teinturier” grape meaning its flesh and juice are red, unlike most red grapes whose flesh is clear and whose colour comes from maceration with grape skins.
Castelao was once the most-planted red grape but its popularity has declined and other varieties have been grafted onto its rootstock. A handful of producers are resurrecting it, and these have been the subject of an earlier column. Syrah is the main non-indigenous variety. It has adapted successfully to the Alentejo because it enjoys the hot summers, where it produces wines similar in style to New World shiraz: full-bodied, fruity and spicy.
Antao Vaz is the star white variety. It is made as a single variety as well as serving as the major partner in blends. In hot climates like Alentejo it sometimes lacks acidity, which is why it is blended with Arinto because of that grape’s high acidity and mineral profile. Blends of these grapes produce excellent wines for ageing.
Roupeiro is the most planted white in the Alentejo, and works beautifully in blends because of its aromas of citrus, bay leaf and peach. Flavours vary depending on the level of ripeness when picked.
Wine tourism is developing, especially around the city of Evora, the regional capital that is one of the best-preserved medieval cities. Evora, a Roman city 2,000 years ago, has UNESCO World Heritage status. Wine tourism routes go past 66 of the region’s 263 vineyards.
The Tartessians started winemaking in the Alentejo, followed by the Phoenicians and later the Romans. One of the Roman traditions still followed involves fermenting and storing wine in “talhas de barro” or clay containers in a range of shapes and sizes. Some clay vessels weigh up to a tonne, are two metres high and can store up to 2,000 litres. Locals use a natural pine resin known as “pes” to seal the porous clay vessels.
Some of the best wines encountered this month included the Fitapreta range by a talented young winemaker, Antonio Macanita. His 2007 Palpite (the name means hunch or intuition) blends Antoa Vaz with Arinto in an almost Burgundian style. “Grapes are easy to ripen here, but the challenge always is to make balanced wine,” he said. His wines more than meet that challenge.
Wines from the Herdade dos Grous estate also impressed. The company started the four-year process to become bio-dynamic this year. Grou is the Portuguese word for crane and two cranes appear on the label. Huge nests dominate the landscape. The Reserva white, a blend of Antoa Vaz, Viognier and Alvarinho, is a smooth and tempting wine. Chief winemaker Luis Duarte has thrice been named Portugal’s best winemaker.
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova is a relatively new estate whose first vintage was in 2003. Their wines show a new world style. “Alentejo is new old world,” noted winemaker Nuno Gonzalez. His 2012 Malhadinha Nova red blend was voted best red at the national competition in Porto earlier this year.
Herdade do Vau is even newer. Owner Miguel de Sousa Otto produced his first vintage in 2010. “At the time we thought it was the middle of the economic crisis. Now we know we are just at the beginning,” he laughed. Sousa Otto named his wines Riso, Portuguese for laugh, working on the principle that “it is better to laugh than to cry”. His estate combines 5.5 hectares of carefully-crafted wines with a boutique hotel in a beautiful valley.
Hedade do Mingorra has some of the oldest vines in the region and produces lovely wines. Winemaker Pedro Hipolito said he always picks his grapes earlier than anyone in his area “to retain freshness and acidity”. Mingorra is one of the biggest estates, with production of about one million bottles a year.
The Alentejo Regional Winegrowing Commission, known as the CVRA, certifies the best wines in the region. These are easily identified by a seal of guarantee with the letters CVRA on the back of each bottle. The CVRA also approves all information provided on front and back labels.
Alentejo’s exports remain relatively low at 14 per cent of production but are rising. Main export markets are Angola, Brazil, the USA, Canada, Switzerland and China. The last includes the former Portuguese colony of Macau and also Hong Kong.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of the CVRA and a judge at this year’s Vinipax wine competition in Beja, one of the main cites in Alentejo.