Most sommeliers would struggle to find the Alentejo on a map of Portugal – if they even knew it was in Portugal to begin with. But, says Margaret Rand, these elegant, lifted wines from the country's eastern fringes are a secret that's worth exploring
Ah, the Alentejo! Don't you just love it? The sun, the hilltop villages, the, um – you did say Spain, didn't you? For the benefit of the friend who, after some years in the diplomatic service, thought that Alentejo was in Spain, let me just set the scene. You go down to Lisbon and turn left, following the cork trees. When you get to the Spanish border, stop, or you'll have gone too far. The cork trees continue, but the Alentejo stops.
And ah! The cork trees! Will you forgive me if I go into a short but poetic trance here? Rolling hills carpeted with blue and yellow flowers, and cork oaks with their short-back-and sides stripped bark; stretches of cistus flowering densely as a rose garden; fudge-coloured cattle wandering with their calves; storks high-stepping through the fields, fossicking in the streams – and all this for mile after mile after mile. It's an incredibly beautiful landscape.
People normally take a recommendation if you’re passionate about it. You can win people’s trust with these wines
If I haven't mentioned vines it's because they're in a minority. Farms we think of as wine estates will have more cork forest than vines, more olives, too, and more pines, for pine nuts; you can run sheep and cattle (and, most profitably, Iberian pigs) in cork forests, but you wouldn't let them loose in your vines.
Should those vines be taken seriously? Yes, they should. The Alentejo – and Portugal generally – is doing better and better in the Sommelier Wine Awards. This year the Alentejo garnered two golds, nine silvers and four bronzes, which is not bad going.
One reason, I would suggest, is that the wines are juicy and fresh, and deliver flavour and ripeness at moderate alcohol levels. Tannins here are silky, acidity is bright and refreshing, and the reds are drinkable young, without being jammy or over-soft; they have enough grip to be interesting, and they're not over-alcoholic either. Not to mention that neither reds nor whites reek of new oak.
White Arinto, in particular, says Ronan Sayburn MS, from 67 Pall Mall, 'holds oak very well, and gains texture and depth and complexity, yet the oak doesn't show. It should be up there with the greats.' They are absolutely and utterly modern.
The acidity, of course, helps the aromas, as does the moderate alcohol. Think of herbs, and black and red fruits, brightness and vigour – nothing shouts. If you want shouty wines, then look elsewhere. Alentejo wines just make you want to drink them.
Food-wise, they're a gift. 'Most are an easy food pairing,' says Ben Van de Meutter of London’s Shepherd Market Wine House. Deeply flavoured steak from the fighting-bull breed, cooked rare; honey-and-mustard-glazed gammon; tiny lamb cutlets with spinach; pata negra ham: I can vouch for the match of Alentejo reds with all of these.
Whites go with seafood: 'Richer fish dishes, monkfish or octopus,' says Jonathan Kleeman of Social Eating House, 'the dishes white Rhône would go with.'
As Susanna Esteban (pictured above with glass) says, the Alentejo is a big surprise. Esteban, having already fallen in love with the Douro and worked at Quinta do Côtto and Quinta do Crasto, spent two years looking for abandoned old vineyards in the north of the region, in the hills near Portalegre where it's cool. She's now making wines of great precision and complexity from the sites she's discovered: 60-year-old vines in field blends, 600m or 700m up.
She made her red Aventura because she couldn't find such a wine anywhere: 'I could only find 14% and oak, and I didn't want that,' she says.
Her wines are biodynamic, yeasts are indigenous, and every year she invites another (non-indigenous) winemaker to make a wine, and gives them free rein. Dirk Niepoort one year made 'a very crazy wine'; last year Filipa Pato made one in amphora, and included some Baga.
Alentejo at a glance
Area under vine: 14,698 ha (2014 figures)
Production in 2014 was 78.9% red, 19.7% white and 1.4% rosé
Principal red grapes: Alfrocheiro, Alicante Bouschet, Aragonez, Cabernet
Sauvignon, Castelão, Syrah, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira
Principal white grapes: Antão Vaz, Arinto, Fernão Pires, Roupeiro
PDO: Alentejo, with sub-regions Borba, Évora, Granja-Amareleja, Moura,
Portalegre, Redondo, Reguengos, Vidigueira
Soils: grey schist, especially in Redondo, Reguengos, Évora and Vidigueira; red or yellow schist almost everywhere; some quartz in Redondo, Reguengos, Évora and Vidigueira; granite in Portalegre, Évora, Redondo and Reguengos; sandy loam in Reguengos and Granja-Amareleja; some calcareous soil in Moura, Borba and Vidigueira
New old school
Portalegre, where huge granite boulders dot the fields and where they have more rain, colder winters and a bigger diurnal temperature difference in summer, boasts plenty of old vineyards because they survived phylloxera better than in other places.
The first Alicante Bouschet in Portugal was planted in Portalegre at Herdade do Mouchão, where they still tread nearly all of their wines by foot in lagar, and where owner Iain Reynolds Richardson would like to make all their wines this way. If you want stories, then the Alentejo has plenty of them.
Lagares are one such story. Sonho Lusitano, owned by British wine writer Richard Mayson and his partners, uses lagares; so does the organic Herdade dos Outeiros Altos. But producers tend to take lagares rather for granted: they aren’t trendy in the way that amphorae are.
Amphorae – here called talhas – are super-fashionable. Everybody wants them: the general view is that nobody is making them in the old way any more (the old way being by coiling a rope of clay round and round rather than forming them on a wheel; even Spanish tinajas are different, apparently). So old ones are like gold dust.
This ain't Georgia, boy
Talha-lovers stress that the only two places never to have stopped using amphorae are Georgia and Alentejo, but the way they use them is different. In Georgia, grapes are thrown in, the lid sealed, and the kvevri (which are buried in the ground) are not opened again until the wine is ready.
In Alentejo, the grapes are crushed and usually destemmed before they're put into the talhas (here the talhas are kept above ground), and the cap is punched down several times a day during fermentation. The wine is left there until St Martin's Day, 11 November, at which point it is run off from a hole in the bottom of the talha, and the locals gather for the inevitable party.
If we like it ourselves, it's an easy sell. And Portugal usually has a very good price-to-quality ratio
Basically, what you're getting with a wine made this way is one made in a gently porous, rounded, more-or-less egg-shaped vessel, with whatever benefits that confers. Reds have a marked softness of texture, a silkiness. But in the Alentejo a talha is a vessel more than a philosophy.
Not everything is made in talhas, by any means. If you consider lagares normal (in a sort of normal-for-Norfolk way), then most winemaking is normal: steel, used oak barrels, big oak vats. Extraction is gentle.
Alentejo identity, to my mind, rests mostly in this style of freshness and poise. All grape varieties, whether local or international, seem to give it. Of the international grapes, Syrah, predictably, does well – where does it not? – and may have a touch of Viognier blended in. There is Cabernet and Merlot and Chardonnay.
But mostly there is Aragonez, alias Tempranillo; Alicante Bouschet, which shines here in a way it seldom does in its native France; and aromatic Trincadeira and savoury Alfrocheiro Preto, the most local pair of all. Some Touriga Nacional can also be found, some Touriga Franca, and some Periquita.
For whites, there's citrus-pith Arinto, tropical-fruit Antão Vaz, some Sauvignon Blanc, though Alexandre Relvas Jr of Herdade de São Miguel suggests that this is mostly grown in response to tourist demand in the Algarve. Winemaker Paulo Laureano has some Verdelho vines he brought in from Madeira. (He also has some rare red Tinto Grossa.)
Blends are the norm: the very old vineyards are usually field blends anyway. Different parts of the region favour different grapes: Portalegre, for example, can be too cool for Touriga Nacional and Alicante Bouschet, though Aragonez does well there – it loses acidity easily in warmer spots. White Antão Vaz is happy in the hotter temperatures of the south, according to Laureano. Trincadeira, too, supports heat very well.
How to introduce them to customers? Kleeman reckons it's not that difficult: 'Most people go for Vinho Verde or Douro, especially Douro. Alentejo isn't recognised yet, but Portugal generally is getting easier,' he says.
Van de Meutter will be listing some Alentejo at Shepherd Market Wine House any day now. He says: 'We're a small environment, so we can hand sell. If we like it ourselves, it's an easy sell. And Portugal usually has a very good price-to-quality ratio.'
'They're incredible value for money, and they're original,' agrees Sayburn. 'They're not for the faint-hearted, or for beginners: they're for people already on their wine journey, looking for something more challenging.
'Selling is always about finding things that people like,' he goes on. 'People normally take a recommendation if you're passionate about it. You can win people's trust with these wines, and winning trust is what you need to do.'
'An interesting mix of red and black fruits with spice and herbal notes. A blend of Aragonez, Trincadeira, Castelão, Alicante Bouschet and Syrah.' Ronan Sayburn MS, 67 Pall Mall
£13.49, Atlantico UK, 020 8649 7444
Cartuxa Scala Coeli 2011
A rare 100% Alfrocheiro with very fine, silky tannins and lovely transparent fruit. Tar, earth and herbal flavours, very long and sleek.
£34.50, Atlantico UK, 020 8649 7444
Herdade de São Miguel Colheita Seleccionada Tinto 2014
Quite tight and closed yet; grippy, with good spicy fruit: a mix of roasted fruit and fresh crunchiness. A vertical of this wine back to 2003 revealed that it ages well, getting silkier while maintaining its juiciness and freshness.
£10.50, Raymond Reynolds, 01663 742230
Herdade do Mouchão Dom Rafael Tinto 2013
A classic blend of Trincadeira, Aragonez and Alicante Bouschet with a little Periquita: firm, juicy, black-fruited and tight; appetising and moreish.
£12.95 for the 2012 vintage, Berry Bros & Rudd, 020 7022 8973
Monte da Ravasqueira Alvarinho 2013
'An impressive wine from a well-run, forward-thinking winery.' Jonathan Kleeman, Social Eating House.
£9.95, ABS Wine Agencies, 01780 755810
Paulo Laureano Dolium Escolha 2014
'Full of tropical flavours, warm citrus notes and gentle spice: the complexity of a white Bordeaux but with different flavours – and money well spent.' Ben Van de Meutter, Shepherd's Market Wine House.
£17.91 inc VAT for 2013 vintage, Uvinum, 020 3514 0552
Sonho Lusitano Pedra e Alma 2011
Concentrated, complex and polished red; silky tannins and lovely balance, with everything well integrated. It's a blend of Trincadeira, Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet and Grand Noir, co-fermented in lagares.
£17.60, Fields, Morris & Verdin, 020 7819 0360
Susana Esteban Procura 2014
A white field blend full of yellow fruits, honey and herbs, very fresh, detailed and long. Beautiful and individual. High altitude, 60-year-old vines.
£23.20, Raymond Reynolds, 01663 742230
Susana Esteban, Felipa Pato and William Wouters, Sidecar Tinto 2015
'A field blend plus Baga, fermented and aged in amphora. Soft and berry-flavoured, perfect slightly chilled.' Ben Van de Meutter, Shepherd's Market Wine House.
£35.90, Raymond Reynolds, 01663 742230