A Finicky French Grape is Now an Unlikely Star in Portugal

Bunches of Alicante Bouschet grapes
Alicante Bouschet / Getty

There’s an unlikely new star among Portuguese grapes.

Alicante Bouschet has a long history but, until recently, was typically only appreciated in one iconic wine: MouchĂŁo. But increasingly, wine producers in Alentejo, east of Lisbon, have decided that this teinturier grape, one of the very few where both the flesh and skin are red, is their new variety of the moment.

How a French crossbreed became Portugal’s hidden star

The history of this unlikely diva began in the 1850s in the South of France. Henri Bouschet, at Domaine de la Calmette, north of Nîmes, crossed Grenache with Petit Bouschet. The latter is itself a crossbreed Henri’s father, Louis Bouchet, created from Aramon Noir and an unknown red-fleshed grape.

In Mediterranean France, Spain and California, Alicante Bouschet sometimes pops up in blends that look for serious color.

Now, Portugal has become its spiritual home.

“We think Alicante Bouschet was planted at Mouchão in the late 1800s,” says Iain Reynolds Richardson, managing director and member of the family that owns Herdade do Mouchão. The winery has been nestled in the wild cork-oak hills of northern Alentejo, two hours northeast of Lisbon, since 1901. “My family is recognized as one of the pioneers of the grape in Portugal,” he says.

The Truth Behind Your Favorite Wines

Richardson describes Alicante Bouschet wines as “dark, rich and concentrated.”

Today’s Mouchão is one of the great wines of Portugal. Its flagship blend is Alicante Bouschet with just a drip of Trincadeira. Traditionally fermented in open stone lagars after foot treading, Mouchão exhibits all the pluses and minuses of Alicante Bouschet.

When young, it’s shy and lacks effusiveness, says Richardson. The wines need to age in huge old-wood barrels for several years, after which the wine begins to shine. Mouchão’s most recent release is their 2013 vintage.

A new era for Alicante Bouschet

David Baverstock, director of oenology at Herdade do EsporĂŁo, the largest estate in Alentejo, says Alicante Bouschet has many advantages over most red varieties.

“Compared to other Alentejo varieties it has better color, better natural acidity and a better tannin structure,” he says. “The wines have great ageability.”

Baverstock planted Alicante Bouschet at Esporão in the 1990s. He was inspired, he says, “by Mouchão, which created a great impression on me when I arrived in Portugal 40-odd years ago.”

Alexandre Relvas, owner of Herdade de SĂŁo Miguel in Alentejo, believes in the importance of Alicante Bouschet in his Reservas.

“Planted on our schist soils, it is the grape that gives the structure and power,” he says. “Ripe and full-bodied, while its acidity still keeps freshness.”

The grape has its challenges. It needs to be picked at just the right time, says Richardson, when both the stems as well as the berries are ripe.

Peter Bright, winemaker at Terras de Alter, was also inspired by Mouchão when he first tasted it. He says that as the wines age, Alicante Bouschet changes “from rustic, stewed beetroot, plum to a floral, spice with silky tannins. The Grenache in the cross comes out after 10 years.”

Portuguese winemakers are some of the most skilled blenders in the world. Confronted with Alicante Bouschet, however, even they proceed with caution.

Baverstock blends the grape with Syrah in Esporão’s Private Selection wines. Relvas prefers it act as the main grape in a wine. And both Bright and Richardson tend to keep it to a minimum in blends or not use it at all.

Yet, for all its challenges and its sometimes-petulant behavior, Alicante Bouschet produces magnificent wines. Created more than 150 years ago in a small vineyard in the French Languedoc, it has turned from an ugly duckling into a swan. Best of all, the results are increasingly available to taste.

Six Alicante Bouschets from Portugal to Try

MouchĂŁo 2013 Red (Alentejo); $60, 96 points. Fermented in traditional open-top granite tanks and aged for three years in large wood barrels, this wine celebrates Alicante Bouschet. It has power, dense tannins and a powerfully rich texture. These contrast well with the solid black fruits and the impressive poise and elegance. Wine in Motion. Cellar Selection.

Symington Family Estates 2017 Quinta da Fonte Souto Vinho do Souto (Alentejo); $55, 94 points. A blend this is among the first releases from the Alentejo estate bought in 2017 by the Douro’s Symington Family. This flagship wine is densely powerful with massive tannins that are masked by the concentrated black fruits. There is juiciness along with the richness and the promise of considerable aging. Drink from 2023. Premium Port Wines. Cellar Selection.

Herdade do Esporão 2014 Private Selection (Alentejo); $65, 93 points. This impressive wine is built by rich tannins, ripe dark fruit and smooth oak tones. While it shows dense concentration on the midpalate, the finish ends elegant and rounded. Drink now. Now Imports. Editors’ Choice.

Monte da Ravasqueira 2014 Premium Alicante Bouschet (Alentejano); $60, 93 points. The dense dark color is a hallmark of a wine made exclusively from the red-flesh grape Alicante Bouschet. Big tannins and a rich texture give the wine its weight and density paralleling the black-plum flavors. The wine is impressive, rich and still needing a little time. Drink from late 2019. LGL Imports. Editors’ Choice.

Herdade do Rocim 2017 Rocim Alicante Bouschet (Alentejano); $22, 92 points. This densely colored wine from Alicante Bouschet is packed with tannins, a black plum flavor and a firm structure. All of which suggests that this Catarina Vieira wine, from a warm south-facing vineyard, will age very well. Certainly don’t drink before 2021, when the tannins will have softened. Shiverick Imports.

Ribafreixo 2015 Herdade do Moinho Branco Alicante Bouschet (Alentejo); $38, 92 points. Fermented and aged in oak, the wine is powerful and dense. It shows the richness as well as the dark color that comes from the Alicante Bouschet. The bold fruit and dense texture are just now coming to maturity. Drink now. Dionysos Imports.

Published on March 16, 2020
Topics: Portugal