A few weeks ago, I arrived at the historic High Line Hotel in New York City with a mission: to learn about the region and wines of Alentejo. Authentic Alentejo, the aptly named event for reasons I soon discovered, introduced exclusive members of the press and trade to this area in Portugal. Led by Evan Goldstein MS, renown wide educator and our country’s leading expert on Portuguese wines, as well as Joshua Greene, Editor and Publisher of Wine & Spirits Magazine, sommeliers, distributors, importers, wine writers, and others in the industry participated in entertaining, informative, and engaging seminars in the stunning setting of the hotel’s former refectory. We swirled, sipped, and savored tastes of 36 wines exuding character and style. Each was full bodied, aromatic, and ever-so smooth. Let it be known that these wines, that are delightful to drink now or cellar for a few years, are on our radar and in the glass.
“Where in Portugal is Alentejo?”
The area covers much of the southern half of Portugal (about 1/3 the country’s size) – only about 5% of the land is covered with vines. The Alentejo is divided into three administrative districts: Beja, Evora, and Portalegre; they comprise the Vinho Regional Alentejano (PGI). Considering that the country of Portugal is about the size of Indiana or Maine, the region of Alentejo isn’t vast by American standards…it’s approximately the size of Belgium.
Northern Alentejo, around the city of Portalegre and towards Spain, is mountainous and cooler than other parts of the region. Wide rolling terrain and a hot climate are found in the central portion of the region and the southern area, near the coast, offers plenty of sun for its grapes to ripen. Soils vary greatly in the region; schist, granite, limestone, and pink marble may be atop a sub-layer of water-retaining clay. From the north to the south and the east to the west, travelers may note olive groves and cork forests, sunflowers, wheat, corn, lavender fields, livestock…and wide-open spaces. I was surprised to learn that less than 5% of the Portuguese people live in the Alentejo.
“What are the red grapes grown in the Alentejo?”
In general, 79% of the wine produced in the Alentejo is red, 20% is white, and a scant 1% is Rosado. There are over 4000 varieties of grapes grown throughout the world and Portugal has, as a claim to fame, the world’s second largest number of indigenous grape varieties. Many of those varieties are found in the Alentejo. Authentic? Absolutely!
Aragonez, also known as Tinta Roriz, is the most planted grape in Portugal. It’s believed to have originated in Rioja, Spain where you’ll easily recognize its name: Tempranillo. Aragonez produces wines with a low level of acidity and is usually blended with other Alentejo grape varieties such as Trincadeira offering floral, red fruit, and often vegetal notes and Alicante Bouschet (one of my palate pleasing discoveries) suggesting notes of forest fruit, cocoa, olives, and at times, vegetal aromas. When Alicante Bouschet is blended, its intense color and structure help the wine burst with flavor and complexity.
Other red grape varieties include Afrocheiro with its aromas of blackberries and strawberries and firm yet delicate tannins adding structure to wine and Touriga Nacional, an indigenous grape that is best when combined with other varieties; it offers deep, concentrated color and aromatic depth to a final blend. Cabernet Sauvignon adds beautiful aromas, spice, fruit, body, and consistency to blends as well as ageability.
Yet, the darling of the Alentejo appears to be Syrah, a variety that has adapted quite nicely to the range of climates in the region. Goldstein remarked that we should “keep an eye out for this in the Alentejo” since it produces robust wines with balance, power, spice, and fruit. Currently, small amounts of Syrah are used in “the most prestigious wines of the Alentejo”.
“I love my white wines. Are there any white grapes?”
Of the wines I swirled and sipped, only seven were white and all were part of blends. Antao Vaz is the most important white grape in the region due to its ability to withstand the hot Alentejo climate, to be resistant to disease and drought, and to consistently produce aromatic, structured, full-bodied wines. Often bottled as a single varietal, wine lovers may note juicy tropical fruit and minerality with each sip. In particular, I enjoyed the 2015 Luis Duarte Rubrica Branco, a blend of Antao Vaz, Gouveio, and Viognier from Reguengos. Striking aromas of overripe citrus and yellow flowers led to flavorful spice, tropical fruit, bananas, and pineapple notes on the palate.
White grapes also cultivated in the region are Arinto with its crisp profile and minerality, Fernao Pires that produces fragrant, perfume-like aromatics, Gouveio that is highly acidic with a creamy, full-bodied palate, and Roupeiro boasting fragrance and citrus, stone fruit, and floral notes.
“So, you tasted 36 wines – any recommendations?”
Absolutely! Besides the many wines listed above in bold italics, I loved each taste of partially barrel fermented 2015 Joao Portugal Ramos Vila Santa Reserva Branco, a vibrant white grape blend of Arinto, Albarino, and Sauvignon Blanc from Borba. Intense aromas of spice, honey, and citrus and flavors of herbs, more citrus, yellow flowers, lemon, and toffee led to a lingering finish. One of my favorite reds was 2014 Cortes de Cima Trincadeira of 100% Trincadeira from Vidiguera; aromas of earth and flavors of spice and savory herbs with a delicious finish were notable.
The Piteira is a wine of 100% Moreta, a signature talha grape in the region that presented notes of cloves and currants on the nose and flavors that were light, bright, and refreshing. The Jose de Sousa, a blend of Trincadeira, Aragones, and Grand Noir, offered fascinating spice notes on both nose and palate as well as brilliant acidity, a soft, round mouthfeel, rich red and black fruit flavors, and a long finish.
“What would be fantastic food pairings with these wines?”
There are a plethora of foods that complement the wines from this region. Alentejo cuisine consists of seasonal and local produce, garlic, oregano, tomatoes, chick peas, and grains…along with olive oil and bread, two regional staples. The Alentejo pig (black pig) roams freely in the countryside and feeds on acorns of the cork tree and oaks. Sausage, olives, plums, mutton, goat meat, chestnuts, and cherries are just a few foods to consider.
Our luncheon at the High Line Hotel may offer inspiration, too. Featured were 12 red wines paired with the hotel chef’s riff of traditional Portuguese fare. Bursting with flavor were deliciously savory caldo verde with shrimp sausage and baby spinach in a chicken and shrimp broth, Portuguese duck in a rice casserole with bacon and leeks, and pork cheek with clams paired with glasses upon glasses of beautiful wines. My best-loved choices included 2014 Cartuxa Pera Manca Branco from Evora, 2012 Esporao Private Selection Tinto from Reguengos, and 2007 Mouchao Tinto Sousel from Estremoz, considered one of the great wines of Portugal.
White wines from the Alentejo are well suited to anything from the sea, a range of poultry dishes and salads, and an assortment of cheeses. The evening prior to the Master Classes, I was part of a small group who attended a wine pairing dinner at Morimoto, a short walk from the High Line Hotel. There, appetizers of tuna tartare taco, buffalo mozzarella with “sundried” pineapple, morimoto fishwich of crispy black cod and white truffle aioli, and rock shrimp tempura were complemented with pours of 2016 Herdade de Sao Miguel Colheita Seleccionada Branco from Redondo and 2015 Fita Preta Branco from Evora, two flavorful, refreshing white wines.
When you choose your bottle of Alicante Bouschet or another red wine selection from Alentejo, you may want to light the grill and sizzle a juicy steak, create a beautiful lamb or rabbit stew from a time-worn recipe, or pack a picnic with meats and cheeses.
“I’m interested in going to the Alentejo. What should I do first?”
The region is steeped in history and is known as a premier tourist destination. You’ll want to explore the Alentejo Wine Route that covers over 60 wineries offering a range of experiences including tastings, tours, and traditional cuisine. Evora, in the central portion of the region and a World Heritage site, is a mecca for art, history, gastronomy, and wine. Don’t forget to explore the thousands of miles of cork forests in the Alentejo…cork from the trees provides over half of the world’s cork supply.
Discover the food friendly wines, traditional cuisine, authentic people, the range of climate and terroir, the culture, and anything else that comes your way as you travel throughout the Alentejo – I’m jealous!
The last question was mine.
“How do you pronounce the word, Alentejo?”
Cheers! ~ Cindy