Portugal’s Tejo region has become synonymous with good wine, cork forests and beautiful Lusitano horses. For publication in week of 17 October 2016.
Central Portugal’s Tejo wine region is named after the magnificent river that adorns the middle of the country the way the Loire dominates central France. The Tejo reaches the sea near the capital, Lisbon. Vines have been grown along its banks since Roman times.
Until 2009 the region was known as Ribatejo. The new name acknowledges the fact the river has defined the landscape and economy for centuries. The region has three distinct terroirs. The Bairro north of the river consists of rolling hills and wide plains with rich limestone and clay soils. Charneca to the south of the Tejo is dry and flat with poor, sandy soils that force vines to struggle and produce complex wines. The Campo along the edges of the river offers acidic, fruity and fresh wines.
The main white grapes are Fernao Pires, Arinto, Verdelho, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, while the main red varieties include Touring Nacional, Trincadeira, Cabernet Sauvignon, Castelao, Aragonez, Merlot, Alicante Bouschet and Syrah.
The town of Santarem is regarded as the capital of the Tejo region. Quinta da Alorna, located on the other side of the river to the town, makes excellent wine. Dom Pedro de Almeida helped establish Portuguese dominance of India’s west coast in the early eighteenth century, and in 1723 was named Marquis of Alorna after capturing Fort Alorna in Goa. He established Quinta da Alorna that year on 2,800 hectares of land. About 1,900 of these are forests.
Alorna has 220 hectares of vines as well as fruit and olive trees. Much work has been done to make the property sustainable. The left-overs from winemaking become fertiliser for the vines, grape pips are used for biodiesel production, and grape skins are incorporated in antioxidant products.
Unusually for the Tejo region, Alorna focuses on white wines. About 5.5 million euros were spent in recent years upgrading cellar facilities. General manager Pedro Lufinha said the quinta exports 45 per cent of its 2.2 million bottles to 28 nations. Main markets are China, Brazil and the United States.
Alorna makes a tangy liqueur wine known as Abafado from Fernao Pires grapes. The fermenting wine is “muffled” with grape spirit which stops the fermentation process and retains sugar sweetness. Abafado spends five years in old barrels where it gains flavours of figs and almonds, and an aroma of slightly burned honey. The colour is golden brown. It is a delicious wine that pairs well with local tarts made with sugar and eggs, or creme brulee.
Winemaker Martta Reis Simoes is fast making a name for herself and was named the country’s best young winemaker last year. Her reserve white, a 50:50 blend of Arinto and Chardonnay, has been served in business class on TAP, the national airline, since 2012.
Simoes’ 2013 Marquesa de Alorna grande reserva is her best white. The cepage varies each year and includes the four best grapes produced that year. It is designed to age in the cellar for about a decade, and offers a marvellous combination of restrained oak and ripe fruit encased in intense aromas of peaches and loquats. The wine is named in honour of Leonor de Almeida (1750-1839), who set up the country’s first school for underprivileged girls.
Another formidable personality in Tejo was Joaquim Mascarenhas Fiuza, a winemaker with a passion for sailing who represented Portugal at three Olympics. He established the Fiuza brand in 1920 and was the father of the current owners of the estate.Half of the 1 million bottles produced each year are exported to 25 countries.
In 1985 Fiuza partnered with Australian winemaker Peter Bright. (Bright’s wines have been the subject of previous columns.) The Fiuza & Bright company has become known as a pioneer of single variety wines in Portugal. Traditionally Portuguese winemakers have been the world’s master blenders. The estate has revived the fortunes of the Tinta Miuda grape in Portugal. In Spain it is known as Graciano where it is usually part of the Rioja blend. The Fiuza 2015 Tinta Miuda is the first offering as a single variety and is delicious with its zingy acidity and black cherry colour and sour cherry flavours.
Fiuza’s winery and cellars are fascinating places to visit because of the scores of large paintings that adorn the walls. It is one of the few estate’s in the world that employs a full-time painter. The current artist is Francisco Camilo. Many paintings employ the “trompe l’oeil” or trick-of-the-eye technique, a visual illusion designed to make the observer believe they are seeing a painted detail as a three-dimensional object.
Insufficient space makes it difficult to talk at length about the many excellent wineries in the Tejo. One of the best was Casal Branco, a family-owned estate established in 1775. It produces about 400,000 bottles a year and staff still tread grapes in lagares for the best wines, such as the Wolf & Falcon reds. Both the entry level 2015 and the 2013 reserva are a blend of Alicante Bouschet, Castelao, Touriga Nacional and Cabernet Sauvignon. These are powerful and intense wines that pair majestically with game.
Encosta do Sobral makes about 600,000 bottles a year, about 70 per cent of them red. Winemaker Pedro Sereno was named the region’s oenologist of the year in 2013. The vineyard is close to the town of Tomar, the site of the magnificent Convent of Christ built in 1160 and home of the Knights Templar who escorted pilgrims to the Holy Land.
Quinta da Lagoalva has been part of the Palmela family since 1846 and occupies 7,000 hectares, with 45 hectares of vines. Their wines represent excellent value for money, especially the 2015 reserva white, a 50:50 blend of Arinto and Chardonnay. The estate has experimented with growing grapes from the Dao region to the north, and the 2011 Alfrocheiro represents one of their successes.
The Vale de Lobos winery should be noted for its skill in making a sparkling wine from the Fernao Pires grape using traditional methods. It is fresh and zingy with a succulent mousse, the result of five years on lees before being bottled.
Disclaimer: Stephen Quinn was a guest of the Wine Commission of Tejo, the Comissao Vitivincola Regional do Tejo, who provided accommodation and some meals.