Back in 2015 I drove from Olhão, a small coastal town in the Algarve, to this beautiful, Alentejo in Portugal. What struck me were the incredible open roads which make the journey very comfortable, but also the stunning scenery of olive groves, cereal farms, lavender fields and, of course, mile upon mile of gorgeous vineyards. Alentejo is a huge, sparsely populated, sun-drenched area of rolling hills, whose centuries-long link to wine was in fact cork, but as you’ll find out, things have changed.
The Portuguese answer to ‘New World’ Wines
The climate is hot, peaking at over 35 degrees in the summer months, so producing elegant, fine wines has historically been an issue. However, modern technology has enabled clever wine-makers to create some excellent wines; sophisticated irrigation systems now combat the lack of rain in the area, and temperature control equipment stops any fermentation after harvest whilst the grapes travel from the vineyard to the winery. All this means that if you like full bodied, fruity reds at sensible prices, you shouldn’t ignore Alentejo.
Portugal’s love affair with Alentejo
Alentejo covers a third of Portugal. Renowned for producing rich quaffing wines, you won’t struggle to find a bottle in many restaurants and cafes across the country, especially Lisbon. The Portuguese drink more wine from Alentejo than any other region in the country. It is often said that wine-makers across Portugal are slightly jealous of the popularity of Alentejo wines, but their easy-drinking and lush style is undisputed. Demand for Alentejo wines is such that vineyard land prices in the region are among the most expensive in Portugal. The economies of scale created by the region’s fairly large estates and consistent climate mean that Alentejo wines can combine quality with affordability, which is much more challenging for wine producers in Portugal’s more northerly regions.
What always draws me to the wines of Portugal is their passion to celebrate their indigenous grape varieties. Although you will see international varieties, they are rare. If you’re fed up with Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, Portugal will provide you with years of discovery! Along with 200+ grape varieties here, Alentejo’s main red-producing grapes are Alicante Bouschet (origin: France) and Aragonez/Tinta Roriz, the same as Tempranillo. Although white wines account for just 25% of production, Antão Vaz is the star of the show. Named after the grape-grower in whose vineyard the variety was discovered, Antão Vaz creates citrusy wines when harvested early, but can also produce age-worthy, plumper wines if the grapes are left on the vine a little longer. These are food-friendly wines, too. The region’s cuisine is incredibly delicious, and the wine compliments the food phenomenally well. Think roast pork or beef and vegetables, or hearty soups and stews with proper bread. It’s not fancy, but it’s definitely comforting!