Just back from a week in Alentejo, Portugal, one of the country’s hottest wine regions--and I mean that literally, considering they were in a steamy heat wave while we were there. Hosted by the Wines of Alentejo, the trip was an eye-opening deep dive into the power and quality the wines from this historic area can deliver. With more than 250 indigenous grape varieties, Portugal has the highest density of native grapes per square mile of any country in the world, including Italy. Just more than an hour east of Lisbon, the region of Alentejo (ah-len-TAY-zhoo) accounts for one-third of Portugal’s land mass and is considered one of its star regions.
Considering its location more than 70 kilometers east of the ocean, the hot, sunny climate of the region is not for the faint of heart, and that includes grape varieties, so it should be no surprise that many of the prized wines from the region are big, robust reds. But with a range of elevations along with significantly cooler evenings during the growing season, wines are also able to retain enough acidity to yield fresh and vibrant red and white wines. The region has some of the most varied soils of any area in the country. While most are non-calcareous, the intermingling of the plains with mountains, hills and valleys, reveals everything from clay, limestone and quartz to granite, schist, sandstone and others. Indeed, Alentejo had much to reveal about its culture, landscape, and versatility wine as we sped along the winding roads of the region for a week. Below are a few of my top takeaways:
1). Red Blends Give Way to Single Variety Offerings, But It’s Not All Alicante Bouschet
By and large, Alentejo is most often associated with big red wines dominated by the Alicante Bouschet grape variety. This, thick, fleshy grape is actually a native of Southwest France. It appeared in the late 19th century as a cross between Petit Bouschet and Grenache. And while you can still occasionally run across it in France, the grape was brought to Alentejo more than 100 years ago and has flourished in its new home. An early ripening grape with rich aromas of brambly forest fruit, black plum, and cassis along with black olive, baking spice and cocoa powder, Alicante Bouschet is considered a “teinturier,” which means that the pulp as well as the skin is pigmented. Dark, inky, and often bold and robust, with powerful tannins, Alicante Bouschet is typically softened in a blend with other native varieties. But more and more producers have found ways to tame the grape without compromising its vibrancy and fruit character.
But Alicante Bouschet isn’t the only one to earn single-variety status. Other common Alentejo grapes include Touriga Nacional, Portugal’s unofficial “national” grape, known for its big structure with dark fruit, floral, and herbaceous characteristics; Alfrochiero a similar grape to Syrah with its blue fruit and meaty characteristics; the lighter-bodied Castelão a medium-bodied grape known for its fleshy, red fruit character; and my personal favorite, Trincadiero, a common sidekick to Alicante Bouschet that delivers on fruit and structure without as much punch.
2). Whites for the Win!
While it’s true Alentejo is most associated with red wines, the secret is the white wines--which only account for about 20% of the regions production--are true show stoppers. There’s some debate over whether or not the higher acidity in the non-calcareous soils contributes to a certain vibrancy in the white wines, but others believe it’s the unique elevations of the region coupled with the dry climate and a corridor of seabreeze that makes its way from the Western Atlantic coast. Whatever the reason, the white wines of Alentejo are stunning. While white varieties in Alentejo are often picked early to retain higher acidity, you could argue that the distinctive minerality in the grapes is also what contributes to the vibrancy of the wines.
White grape varieties are led by Antão Vaz, a beautifully aromatic white with particular floral characteristics of white jasmine and yellow daffodil followed by lemon pulp, lime leaf, and tropical mango and guava. Because of its medium body profile, producers often play with Antão Vaz either vinifying on stainless steel for crisp, refreshing wines, or barrel fermenting and aging sur lie to draw out more depth and roundness. Regardless of the style, this grape consistently rises to the occasion.
Notable supporting white grapes in Alentejo are Arinto and Verdehlo. Although grown in multiple regions throughout Portugal, Arinto’s place in Alentejo is in adding an added jolt of acidity to white blends complimented by lemony-peach characteristics. Verdehlo is often most associated with the island of Madeira and in the Dão region of Portugal as Godello. But it also serves as a cornerstone grape in Alentejo making light, fresh, easy drinking wines with a touch of salinity, making for a perfect seafood pairing.
3). Cork Talk
It’s quite possible that cork, perhaps the most widely-used material for stopping a wine bottle, is one of the most misunderstood natural resources in our general culture. But it’s almost inescapable to realize its profundity in Alentejo. As it turns out, the region is home to about one-third of the world’s cork trees. From dedicated forestland, to the endless miles of scattered cork trees growing along the roadside, it’s impossible to miss the image of long stretches of eerily dark tree trunks that graduate to fuller, more normal looking bark-baring tree canopies upwards as branches begin to split and spread above the main trunk. The odd image looks like vaguely like freshly shorn sheep or a groomed poodle.
Cork is simply the bark of a tree that is peeled away like the skin of an onion. Once it has reached its maturity, it is peeled off of the main trunk to the tree up to where the branches begin to split. Depending on its age and level of quality, it’s used to make an infinite number of products beyond just wine stoppers. (Furniture, fabric, house insulation, jewelry, bags, and lamps, you name it, you can probably make it with cork.)
Each year, the bark of cork trees is assessed to determine its readiness for harvest. Most of this is done based on the age of the tree. It takes about 10 years to get a harvest off of a cork tree, and the cork used for wine stoppers isn’t at the right quality until after about 30-40 years. As the saying goes “you plant a vineyard for yourself, an olive grove for your kids, and cork trees for your grandkids.”
Driving around the region, it’s not uncommon to see trees that have been freshly harvested from the trunk, with the tops of the trees still intact. Farmers spray paint the bark-less trunk the last number of the year to track when the next harvest can happen. The 2019 harvest has not yet begun, so most of what you see is the number “8” for 2018. This means that those particular trees will not have mature enough bark to be harvested for another 9 years.
It’s worth noting that the chemical fault “TCA” or “Cork Taint” is typically found in parts of the tree closest to the ground. Good harvesters know to begin stripping the bark more than 12 inches above the ground to prevent selling tainted bark.
4). Amphora Wines - Tahlas de barro
It seems everyone in the new world has experimented with fermenting and/or aging wine in concrete. But the topic of clay jars is one primarily reserved for only a few places in the Old World. Alentejo is one of the few places in the world where you can find wines made in Amphora (Tahlas de barro), based on an ancient Roman technique of making wine in clay pots. (Georgia and Lebanon are others.) Many producers -- new and old -- display these old tahlas in some way, either for actual wine production or simply for decoration. Either way, their presence in the region is hard to miss.
The jars are relics of the region, often older than 50 or 100 years. Made from local clays and coated inside with a resin mixture including beeswax and other natural materials. Most wines--red and white--are fermented in the clay pots with many left to age here before being transferred to age longer in oak. The wine is drawn out from a small opening at the bottom of the pot, often taking days to drain because of the remnant grape particles blocking the way, which coincidentally also serves as the only filtration many of these wines ever see. The use of the talhas gives added spice character, and an unusually alluring texture to the wines.
Some producers employ both traditional and modern winemaking for their brands, offering at least one or two Tahla-style wines in their portfolio. But others, such as Adega José de Sousa
devote almost their entire program to amphora winemaking. With the largest collection of Tahlas in the region--more than 140 in use--they believe the history in this style of winemaking is too precious to be forgotten.
Sadly, these clay pots may eventually become extinct. There are virtually no artisans left in the region who know how to make them, and once a pot is cracked, it is gone forever.
If there’s anything you can say about Alentejo it’s that is a region firmly rooted in both its history and its future. Rich, delicious, and expressive examples are balanced by fresh, vibrant, and nimble others. Swirl in its history, warm and welcoming people, and an equally alluring culinary culture and you have a truly enchanting wine region. Such may be the case for many of the wine regions around the world, but I’m fairly certain I’ll keep Alentejo high on my list of memorable places worth revisiting.