Alentejo, Portugal’s vast southern province, is a feudal land. Estates, some many thousands of acres, mainly produce the cork for which the region is known and olives. Cattle, pigs and cereal crops also fill large swaths stretching into the distant horizon. Vines cover a relatively small area, but economically they are becoming the most important crop as the reputation of the wines they yield has grown in the last 20 years after a decade-long interruption.
The historically feudal nature of Alentejo farming, with its large paternal estates, were a prime target for the communists who ran Portugal briefly after the end of the fascist regime in 1974. Many properties were nationalized for as long as 10 years, their crops sold to cooperatives. After this, estates had to be restored before they could begin seriously producing and making wine again. That’s why, while the legacies of the herdades (the word means homesteads) in Alentejo are often long, many of their stories take more recent twists, often under new ownership. These estates represent a fascinating intertwining of the ancient and modern—a paradigm for Portugal’s wine.
Herdade do Mouchão
Enter Alicante Bouschet
Amidst the hills and cork forests of northern Alentejo, Herdade do Mouchão is a legendary place. Its wine is revered, and the estate steeped in history.
Nearly 200 years ago, Briton Thomas Reynolds arrived in Porto ready to trade. In 1830, his son—also named Thomas—found there was a future in Alentejo trading in cork. “Few foreigners had dared to travel to the southern hinterland, as it was considered dangerous,” current owner Iain Reynolds Richardson says. But Thomas the elder saw a business opportunity: In 1834, he rented the 2,200-acre Herdade do Mouchão, where he established his cork business and made wine.
In the 1880s, the family made its major contribution to the Portuguese wine industry. While fighting phylloxera as a member of the Portuguese phylloxera commission, William Reynolds (who then owned the estate), contacted Montpellier University in France, which sent two experts along with cuttings of a new red-fleshed crossing of Petit Bouschet and Grenache, Alicante Bouschet. With its high yields and ease of propagation, the grape became a popular choice in certain regions devastated by phylloxera. It’s thanks to Mouchão and the Reynolds family who introduced it that this vine is now so widely planted in Alentejo. Alicante Bouschet forms the base of the red wine of Mouchão and has become the signature grape of the region, making dark-colored wines full of fruit and tannins that can age for many years.
Around this time, the family built a single-level farmstead. Today, this same farmstead, lined with family photos, houses its fifth generation of Reynoldses. In 1904, the winery, also still in use, was built, although its first bottle was not sold until 1949.
A brief interregnum in 1975, when the estate was nationalized, ended in 1986. During that period, however, then-owner Albert Reynolds returned every weekend to check on the workers and the property, reinforcing the family’s attachment to the estate.
The simplicity of Mouchão—such as the whitewashed winery, where little has changed since 1904 and where air conditioning consists of opening the windows in the early morning—is a part of what makes the estate a slice of Portuguese history that is still so alive and vibrant today.
Herdade do Esporão
The Vintage that Took 10 Years
After a long drive from the gates of Esporão on the edge of the low-slung whitewashed town of Reguengos de Monsaraz, you’ll find yourself at the winery and the heart of the estate. The property sprawls 4,547 acres—all organic, 1,087 of them vines, the rest olive trees and other crops.
Three medieval monuments still stand testament to the estate’s rich history, of which the fortified tower is the most familiar, appearing on many of the wine labels. There is also an arch and the chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios. All date from the period just after the Christian reconquest of this part of Portugal from the Moors in 1232.
Vines have been planted at Esporão since as far back as the 13th century, and were thriving when José Roquette and Joaquim Bandeira purchased it just in time for it to be nationalized in 1975 by the communist government. The estate wasn’t returned to them until 1982, so the first vintage released under the “new” owners was 1985. Soon after, José Roquette bought out his partner and the Roquettes remain the sole owners today.
Forty different grape varieties are grown at Esporão, accounting for a bewildering array of wines. The construction of a new winery in 1987, since modernized many times, set the course for its winemaking, which was further established in 1992 when Australian David Baverstock was appointed head of winemaking. Chairman João Roquette describes the wines as “classic with a modern twist, made from traditional varieties in what we believe to be a very special place.”
With its proximity to the Alqueva Dark Sky Center, one of the darkest night skies in Europe, the vineyards at Esporão roll over gentle slopes in wide open spaces, conjuring a feeling of remoteness. Perhaps adding to that impression is its long history, stretching back over 3,500 years, as witnessed by the archaeological museum in the Esporão tower. This combination of modern wines in an ancient place connects Esporão to its past while looking forward.
Out of Africa
The rise of Casa Relvas and its two estates of Herdade de São Miguel and Herdade da Pimenta is a sign of how recently some of the Alentejo wine producers have come onto the scene. But their rise is built on a storied foundation.
The arrival of the Relvas family and vineyards here may be firmly grounded in the 21st century, but the development of São Miguel stretches much further. When Angola became independent from Portugal in 1975, the colonial Portuguese settlers left. Among them: Alexandre Relvas, a crop farmer who, in 1977, returned to Portugal from Africa, settling in Lisbon.
City life was not for Relvas. It wasn’t long before he was called to farming and moved east to Alentejo. “He was seduced by the light and by the landscape, which reminded him of Africa,” says his son, Alexandre Jr., the winemaker of Casa Relvas, who together with his brother António now runs Casa Relvas. “São Miguel is an estate where the vineyards and forest develop in harmony. A place where you can listen to the silence.”
The 3,200-acre estate was once a cattle farm. So, though the land had been untouched for many years, it was fertile. Today the cattle are gone, replaced by olive and cork trees, planted in the 1990s, covering the bulk of the estate.
The 700 acres of vines weren’t planted until 2001. A modern winery followed in 2003. Other nearby estates were purchased. A flock of 500 sheep roam the vines, fertilizing the land and keeping the grass down, as well as serving as a reminder of a more pastoral history.
The estate lies in the shadow of the Serra d’Ossa mountains, close to Redondo, one of Alentejo’s most intense viticulture regions. The gently rolling landscape of São Miguel, three miles from the nearest road, still attracts the eyes of Alexandre Jr. and António, who oversees the vineyards. For the Relvas family, Africa may have been a place of past inspiration, but Alexandre Relvas’ agrarian drive bears fruit the present.
Medieval Meets Modern
There is a strong sense of continuity at Fitapreta, even if its current steward is of more recent vintage. The estate, on the edge of Évora, the capital of Alentejo, was once owned by the church. It is based around the Paço do Morgado de Oliveira, which dates at least to 1347 when it was controlled by the archbishop Dom Martinho Pires de Oliveira.
The archbishop drew up rules for wine production in Évora, which were then approved by King D. Dinis. His descendants still have an involvement at the estate, under the Saldanha surname, in the person of Dom João Saldanha—surely a record for consistency in Portugal.
Physical evidence of winemaking taking place here long ago exists in the form of a medieval lagare (a shallow, granite tank used for foot-treading grapes) as well as amphoras from the 15th century. And there are records of wine being sold in barrel in the 19th century under the brand name Enxarrama, before vines disappeared due to phylloxera. Vines again grew from the 1940s onward, and today there are 75 acres planted.
António Maçanita, a native of the Azores, trained as a winemaker in France, California and Australia. Since 2004, with a yen to make a mark on the Alentejo wine scene, he has produced wine in various facilities under his own label, Fitapreta.
He found a permanent home for his wines at this historic estate in 2016 when he bought 87% of the Morgado de Oliveira from the Saldanha family and built a cork-lined winery just across the courtyard from the medieval palace. It will soon become his actual home: Maçanita is currently restoring the medieval buildings, and his family will move in later this year.
Maçanita describes himself as a “slow winemaker,” eschewing modern techniques as much as possible, so it is appropriate that the place where he has settled should have so much evidence of ancient winemaking. During the restoration project, Maçanita says they’ve “discovered what must be the oldest and largest winery remains in Evora.” It is as if history is demanding that wine should be made here.
Herdade das Servas
The Living Past
Family wineries are still the norm in Alentejo. Few multinationals have taken an interest in even the largest estates. In this respect, Herdade das Servas is typical. In others, not so much.
The Serrano Mira family’s connection to wine is old, going back at least 350 years to the Estremoz and Borba regions. Both sides of the family have ties going back to at least the 1660s. The great-grandfather of the current, 13th generation defended the entire property after the 1974 revolution.
In 1998, Luis and Carlos Serrano Mira, along with their father, Francisco, combined the land of both sides of the family into a new project, Herdade das Servas, with 800 acres of vines.
They broke away from the cooperative their grandfather had helped create and built their own winery. It is a modern structure, but designed on traditional Alentejo principles. It sits all on one level. A long, whitewashed building with a clay-tiled roof sits next to an open-sided winery, partly buried in the ground to avoid the heat of the summers when temperatures often reach over 100°F. Small stainless-steel tanks surround a nod to the living past—marble open-top fermenters where the grapes are foot trod at harvest time.
“We are always searching for our origins,” says Luis Serrano Mira, the CEO and winemaker.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!