Portugal’s Wine Frontier

Portugal's Wine Frontier

It’s easy to characterize the Alentejo in Portugal in the same way as the American west. It has the same sense of space, the red earth, big skies, sparse population and sprawling ranches. And this vast region that stretches from just outside Lisbon east to the Spanish border has the same “anything goes” recipe for great, big wines.

Separated from the rest of the country by the Tagus River, this is Portugal’s wine frontier. Most notable as the source of much of the wine world’s corks, the region now boasts great tasting, richly fruity, good value wines. These wines keep firmly to their Portuguese roots with traditional grape varieties but are New World in style. At the same time, this is where the country’s latest icon wines are being made, making Alentejo the most recent of the many exciting Portuguese wine regions to hit the international stage.

Tastes new to the American palate are coming from every direction, thanks to the flavors of indigenous Portuguese grapes. The varietal names may not be familiar, but red grapes such as Trincadeira, with its richness and soft tannins, the firmer tannins of Aragonês (aka the Spanish Tempranillo), Alicante Bouschet’s juicy fruit, and the peppery character of Castelão all lend a distinctive flavor and are a treat for those who like exploratory tasting. The same holds true with the white varieties. The star is the Chardonnay look-alike, creamy Antão Vaz, followed by the lighter, fresher Arinto and the zingy, crisp Roupeiro.

This doesn’t leave much room for international varieties. While Syrah/Shiraz has begun to take a hold, benefiting from the hot, dry growing conditions of the Alentejo, and Portugal’s own Touriga Nacional from the Douro is being planted because it is the fashion, other grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, have been pretty much kept at arm’s length.

These are all powerful wines, especially the reds. But for wine drinkers brought up on California and, more recently Chile and Australia as a taste base, these are understandable, even familiar styles that are just plain enjoyable. The development of the Alentejo as a wine—and not just a cork—region is still so recent that the pioneers are still in place. One of those who has guided the region is João Portugal Ramos. For many years, he was to the Alentejo what Michel Rolland is to Bordeaux—the preeminent consultant. He is now firmly established in his eponymous winery at beautiful marble-soil Estremoz, and consulting has taken a back seat.

“When I first started in 1981, Alentejo was not on the map. It was all Douro, Dão and Bairrada. Now Alentejo has the best known table wine in Portugal,” says Ramos.

João Portugal Ramos

He has seen the trends change as well. When once nearly all Alentejo wine was blended, today’s market—particularly overseas markets—is keen on varietally labeled wines. So while all producers make blends, both as their entry-level and top wines, in the middle they all have a varietal range. Yes, it can be risky from a marketing standpoint, but any exercise in good taste is destined to be a pleasant brain-building exercise as well.

Another of the pioneers of the new Alentejo is Denmark’s Hans Jorgensen. In 1991 he planted vines at Cortes de Cima in Vidigueira, Alentejo’s southernmost demarcated wine region. Jorgensen planted Syrah when it was still illegal in the region, and called the subsequent wine Incógnito. He aimed to produce fruity wines, of which Chaminé, a juicy ripe, easy-drinking wine, is the most obvious example. Jorgensen is in the process of more pioneering, as he plants a vineyard on the Atlantic coast of the Alentejo, in a cooler, damper climate.

Though João Portugal Ramos in Estremoz and Cortes de Cima in Vidigueira are at least an hour’s drive apart, there are recognizable similarities in the landscape. Most important are the huge groves of cork oaks; in fact, in terms of acreage, the vine comes a poor third after cereal crops and cork trees.

The biggest concentrations of vines are in the central areas of the Alentejo, around the towns of Evora, Estremoz, Borba, Reguengos and, a little further south, Vidigueira, a swathe of countryside somewhat larger than Sonoma County. This is where hills break up the flat plains, and where the schist soils come into prominence, similar to the soils of the Port vineyards of the Douro. It’s also the source of most of Portugal’s marble—the mines are famed (the city has marble paving on the sidewalks).

Unlike the rest of Portugal, this is a region of large estates, a legacy of the way the Romans divided up the country 2,000 years ago. Until Portugal’s revolution, these estates were feudal fiefdoms, controlled by wealthy families. Not surprisingly, this was the region with the biggest expropriations in 1974, when Communists took control for a nearly a year. The owners got their land back shortly afterwards. In some way the shock of the revolution galvanized the whole region into action, so that even while it remains Portugal’s least populated region, it is also becoming excitingly dynamic, as new fast highways have opened it up to the coast, Lisbon and Spain.

The volume, branded wines from the larger wineries—Monte Velho from Herdade do Esporão, Marques de Borba from Portugal Ramos, Dom Martinho from Quinta do Carmo, EA from Cartuxa—are the ones that have initially placed Alentejo on the map in Portuguese restaurants. They are value wines, which sell in the United States for well under $20.

Hans Jorgensen of Cortes de Cima; photo Carlos Cezane

But at the other end of the scale, the Alentejo has been attracting new money from outside investors. And it is with these wineries, small in scale but high in the awareness of collectors, that the new wave is coming from Alentejo. The best example is Herdade da Malhadinha Nova. The Soares family owns a large chain of retails stores and a wholesale wine business in the Algarve, Portugal’s southern vacation region. So Malhadinha Nova, a two hour drive to the north, is both a retreat and a new project.

“At least some of us spend every weekend here,” says Rita Soares. She is a skilled marketer as well as creator of the latest projects on the estate; a restaurant and a 10-room hotel. Paulo Soares is more involved with the wine, working with the region’s new star consultant, Luis Duarte. They have created an impressive, state-of-the-art gravity-fed winery (including, in a nod to tradition, a stainless-steel lagar and a stainless-steel basket press) from which has come a stream of stunning wines since the first releases from the 2003 vintage.

“We have a New World approach to wine,” admits Rita Soares. “But at the same time, this is a place where we can feel very close to the region, and we want to share our passion. Here you can rest, relax, watch the stars.”

Wineries like Malhadinha Nova (Portugese for “spotted cow”) are producing the icon wines of the new Alentejo. They have joined existing icons from the region, such as Cortes de Cima’s Syrah-based Incógnito and Cartuxa’s Pêra-Manca, both highly sought after by Portuguese collectors.

Malhadinha Nova is not alone. Luis Duarte also consults at Herdade de São Miguel, an 86-acre vineyard in Redondo in the center of Alentejo wine production. The first crush here was also in 2003. Despite being born in Luanda, Angola, a son of the Portuguese empire, owner Alexandre Relvas, with his $4 million investment, now feels himself part of the Alentejo. “We have enormous potential here, it’s just beginning to be realized not only in Portugal but on the international scene,” says Relvas.

With the top quality strand now becoming established in the Alentejo, the region is able to compete on many levels. That’s what makes it so exhilarating today. When you watch the grapes arriving at the 10,000 ton crush winery of Herdade de Esporão, you know that the Alentejo is a major player. When you see the immaculate vineyards and winery of the Lafite-Rothschild run Quinta do Carmo, you feel the international importance of the region. And when you step into the newly-built winery at Adega Cartuxa, inaugurated this year next to the ancient walls of a Carthusian monastery, you can sense the excitement that runs through all strands of winemaking in Portugal’s wine frontier.

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When you go:

The Alentejo is a two-hour drive from Lisbon, by the A6 highway (take signs marked Evora and Espanha-Spain). Evora, the capital of the region, is one hour from Spain on the same highway.

The best centers for staying and touring are Evora and Estremoz. Both have Pousadas (the formerly government-owned hotels located in historic buildings). The Pousada at Estremoz has the better rooms.

Other hotels in the region include the Pateo dos Solares in Estremoz (rooms from $170 a night). If you are staying in Estremoz, don’t eat in your hotel, but make a beeline for A Cadeia, close by the Pousada in the old city and housed in the old city jail. This is almost certainly the best, as well as the most innovative, restaurant in the Alentejo (tel. 351 268323400).

Evora, a world heritage site, is the larger city, with plenty of eating opportunities from the simplest upwards. It also has a range of hotels, from the historic Pousada (housed in a former monastery, so the rooms are small monks’ cells) to the modern.

The new hotel at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova is being geared for 4-5 day themed stays, with activities ranging from horseriding to gastronomy. Visit www.malhadinhanova.pt.

For more information on wineries, visit www.vinhosdoalentejo.pt.







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The names to watch for in the Alentejo

The Established Cartuxa
In 1963 Eugenio Almeida, a local businessman and philanthropist left his fortune to fund a charity aimed at education and assistance in the area around Evora. One major asset of the foundation is a 16,000-acre estate that produces every conceivable crop as well as wine from a 1,000-acre vineyard, planted in 1981. Nothing is small here, including the ultramodern winery, in use for the first time with the 2007 harvest. Profits from wine sales go back into the Eugenio Almeida Foundation.

Cartuxa (the name of the farm, derived from the Carthusian monks who used to live here) produces Portugal’s hottest cult wine, Pêra-Manca, in white and red, made only in exceptional vintages. Other wines are Cartuxa, the estate wine, Foral de Evora and the entry-level EA.

Cortes de Cima
Hans Jorgensen’s early life was that of a colonial adventurer, sugar planter and world traveler, as he and his California-born wife, Carrie sailed the seas in their yacht. They finally landed in the Alentejo, in 1988, where Hans’s main travels are by small plane over the estate, checking on vines, olive trees and cork oaks.

Having broken the local rules by using a high canopy trellising to give the grapes more air, as well as by introducing Syrah, the Jorgensens have morphed their winery into one; its wines range from the fresh and fruity Chaminé to the Syrah-based Incógnito, with a varietal line and the estate blends of Cortes de Cima and Cortes de Cima Reserva.

Herdade dO Esporão
The Roquete family is one of Portugal’s richest, so money has been lavished on the Esporão estate since its purchase in the 1970s. The size of the operation is huge. The 1,500 acres of vines supply half Esporão’s grape needs; the rest is brought in from local growers.

Monte Velho is the big brand with five million bottles of red produced. Varietal wines and the top estate wines make up the rest of production, overseen by Australian born and trained (but now long-term Portuguese resident), winemaker David Baverstock.

João Portugal Ramos
Portugal’s original flying winemaker (only, as he points out, he did most of his traveling by car, not plane), João Portugal Ramos set up his own wine operation in 1997. He now owns 800 acres of vines and a modern winery set in the old Monte da Caldeira farm, just outside Estremoz. Visitors can see his name on the wall of the impeccable vineyard at the entrance to the ancient city.

His wines include a famous brand in Portugal, Marques de Borba, as well as a fruit-driven varietal range with a more complex edge (almost everybody in the Alentejo is making one).

Quinta do Carmo
Any vineyard run by the Domaines Barons de Rothschild of Lafite in Bordeaux should look impeccable. And Quinta do Carmo’s 370 acres of vines look as smart as a suburban front yard. Since taking over the old estate in 1992, the Rothschild team (now in partnership with one of Portugal’s richest entrepreneurs, José Berardo) has introduced a Bordeaux model of winemaking with two estate wines (one a Reserva) and a third, inexpensive brand, Dom Martinho, on the side.

The style has taken a while to evolve, but it now sits between old and new, very terroir driven, and less fruit forward than many wines coming from the Alentejo today.
The Newcomers

Herdade dA Malhadinha Nova
This is one of the new generation of Alentejo estates that is propelling the region into the highest quality ranks. The Soares family, which has a chain of wine stores in the Algarve region of southern Portugal, bought the abandoned 500-acre estate in 1998. They planted vines and olives, and began rearing the famed black pigs for Pata Negra ham, cattle breeding and a horse stud. This year, they have opened a restaurant and a beautifully designed 10-room hotel.

Since the first vintage of Malhadinha Nova in 2003, this 68-acre vineyard has shot rapidly to stardom, making one of the finest wines in the Alentejo. It succeeds with both red and white, a tough challenge in a region with such a hot, dry climate. With the expertise of consultant Luis Duarte, everything has been done with impressive attention. The fun, memorable labels are designed by Rita Soares’ kids.

Herdade de São Miguel
With vineyards planted in 2001, and the first wine released from the 2003 harvest, this is a brand new operation. In the heart of the large vineyard area of Redondo, dominated by a cooperative, this is the new face of the Alentejo. Cork oaks mark the boundaries of the vineyards, while endangered animal species from northern Portugal are given a sanctuary here.

The range runs from the simple, fruity, stainless-steel fermented Merino, to the estate wine Herdade de São Miguel, topped by a Reserva. Owner Alexandre Relvas has been in many places, but the Alentejo is where he has decided to settle. “This is where you get the true Portuguese character, where the culture and life are still on a human scale.”

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Click here for reviews: A case from Alentejo.

Published on November 15, 2007
Topics: Portuguese Wine, Wine Destinations

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