Travel & Tourism

The best wines from Portugal’s Alentejo region

Stephen Quinn, Digital Development Editor of South China Morning Post, poses to photographer in the studio Thursday, December 29th, 2011, at the SCMP Studio on Leighton Office in Causebay Bay.

The Alentejo wine region is Portugal’s largest, producing about two fifths of the country’s wine. A tasting in Lisbon in late October revealed how good the quality has gotten in recent years.

The Comissao Vitivinicola Regional Alentejana or CVRA, which translates as the Alentejo regional winegrowing commission, was created in 1989 with the mission to certify quality wine in the region. The CVRA, a privately run group, organized the Lisbon tasting.

Sixty-one producers showed their wares in the beautiful surroundings of the newly built cultural center in Belem. It is opposite the Jer?nimos Monastery, one of the city’s main tourist landmarks. It is said that monks invented the famous Portuguese egg tart.

Alentejo is in the southern half of Portugal, and covers about a third of the country. Though large, the Alentejo is sparsely populated. Perhaps 5 percent of the population live in the region and only about 5 percent of the land is planted with vines. Yet it still manages to have 21,970 hectares under cultivation. Four in five bottles produced are red.

Most vineyards are family run. CVRA figures put the total at about 355, of which 260 are producers.

Portugal has a bewildering number of grape varieties – perhaps 250 in total

Alentejo is divided into three administrative districts centred on major towns. The northeast corner, around the city of Portalegre, is mountainous and has a cooler climate than the rest of the Alentejo. Central Alentejo around the town of Evora is hotter and flatter with rolling hills. The Alentejo gets more than 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, well above the national average and the highest in Europe.

Further south, around Beja, it gets even warmer. During a visit in late October temperatures during the day reached 30 C in autumn. Beja was the capital when the Romans occupied Portugal 2,000 years ago.

The Romans introduced the idea of fermenting wine in clay jars known as “talhas de barro.” It is only in the Alentejo that this practice continues. Some clay jars weigh up to a tonne, are two meters high and hold 2,000 liters.

Almost all of Portugal’s soil types can be found in the mountains or rolling plains of Alentejo, from clay, granite and schist through to limestone and sand. Rainfall is low, an average of about 200 millimeters a year, meaning it is almost a desert. Temperature variations between night and day, known as the diurnal range, vary considerably and help to concentrate flavors in the grapes.

CVRA controls whether vineyards can use the Vinho Regional (VR) or higher level Denominacao de Origem Controlada (DOC) stickers on their bottles. These are effectively seals of guaranteed quality for consumers. VR is similar to the French IGP (which replaced vin de pays) while DOC is like the French Appellation d’Origine Protegee (AOP) system that regulates things like maximum yields per hectare and the kinds of grapes that can be used.

DOC Alentejo wines can only be made in certain areas within the greater Vinho Regional Alentejo region. DOC rules regulate grape growing and winemaking in the many meso-climates. DOC Alentejo is divided into eight sub-regions: Portalegre, Borba, Redondo, Vidigueira, Reguengos, Moura, Evora and Granja/Amareleja. All DOC wines are labeled “DOC Alentejo,” sometimes with the name of the sub-region as well.

Interestingly, the vintage is seldom detailed on the front label, and usually appears in tiny print on the back label.

DOC Alentejo insists that 75 percent of any red can only include eight stipulated grape varieties, while whites can only be made from nine varieties. Two international grapes, cabernet sauvignon and syrah, are included in the red group.

One of the best reds tasted was the 2011 Terra d’Alter Telhas, a blend of 97 percent syrah with the balance viognier. It is similar in style to the great reds of the Rhone.

Winemaker Peter Bright’s grapes are grown on a granite ridge of the company’s Anta vineyard. Bright said it was probably the site of a Roman villa and cemetery because this block is littered with terracotta tile fragments. “Hence the name Telhas, Portuguese for roof tiles.”

Bright has featured in this column in previous years. His 2012 Terra d’Alter Telhas white was named best white wine in Portugal at this year’s Mundus Vini international competition in Germany. It is made entirely from viognier and spends half a year in new American oak.

It is like a high-end Condrieu. Indeed, Bright said he “saw the light” about viognier after tasting Condrieu wines by George Vernay in 2009. Interestingly, viognier is not in the approved list of nine white varieties, so this wine cannot receive DOC certification.

Portugal has a bewildering number of grape varieties – perhaps 250 in total – and the names vary depending on the region. The arinto grape, which has spread through the country because of its acidity and ability to blend with other whites, is also known as pederna, cerceal, azal galego and branco espanhol.

Most wines are sealed with cork because Portugal has some of the world’s best cork trees. Most of these are in the Alentejo. Some producers are considering stelvin closures but of the 61 in Lisbon only a handful were actually employing them.

The Alentejo is also famous for its ham and pork made from the black pigs that forage among the cork forests, feeding on acorns. Many of the reds are designed to be drunk with these rich meats. The region also makes excellent olive oil.

Some of the best wines tasted at the CVRA-organized event in Lisbon included Herdade do Mouchao, Herdade das Serva, Herdade do Esporao, Carmim and Reynolds Wine Growers.

Disclosure: CVRA supplied accommodation and some meals for Stephen Quinn when he visited the Alentejo region.

 

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