Are you a curious wine drinker? Do you have a keen eye for new wine regions, grape varieties or styles of wine? Then, if you haven’t already become acquainted, allow us to introduce you to the Portuguese wine region of Alentejo. This taste of five wines from Alentejo, which we received as tasting samples, includes one white and four red wines. Both varietal and blended wines are represented with lots of potentially new grape varieties in play. The price range offers something for most budgets as well.
Alentejo (pronounced ah-len-TAY-zhoo) lies in the southern part of Portugal east of Lisboa along the border with Spain. The region covers one-third of Portugal but it is not planted entirely to grapes. Wheat fields and cork-oak trees cover much of the land. Vineyard plantings cover about 51,000 acres, a few thousand acres less than Napa Valley plantings.
This inland region of rolling hills is hot and dry in summer and very cold in winter. The climate is described as continental with an average annual rainfall of 23 inches, again not very different from rainfall in Napa Valley.
Soil is variable over this very large region and includes schist, limestone, granite and pink marble. In some areas the sub-soil includes clay. The northeast portion of Alentejo near the town of Portalegre is mountainous where the São Mamede mountains rise from the rolling hills.
Eight sub-regions have been named within the larger Alentejo region in recognition of each areas’ unique growing conditions.
The Grapes and Wine Certification
The list of grape varieties allowed is long and local for both red and white wine production. Red varieties include Alfrocheiro, Aragonez, Castelão and Trincadeira. Outsiders include Alicante Bouschet, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. White varieties include the highly regarded Antão Vaz along with Arinto and Fernão Pires to name but a few.
Wine produced in Alentejo is certified, by tasting and chemical analysis, according to standards established by the Alentejo Regional Winegrowing Commission (Comissão Vitivinícola Regional Alentejana – CVRA). Vineyards must be registered within the region along with the number of vines and varieties planted. Vineyard yield is regulated as well. Every bottle of wine certified by the CVRA carries the appropriate label on the back.
Two levels of certification are represented in this group of wines. Wine certified as Denominação de Origem Alentejo (Denominação de Origem Controlada Alentejo also DOC Alentejo) must meet the most restrictive vineyard yields, allowed blending varieties and blending proportion requirements.
Indicação Geogràfica Alentejano (Vinho Regional Alentejano) allows higher vineyard yields and more flexibility in the use of blending grapes.
One of the eight sub-regions may be added to the label if it meets the requirements, although this is not very common.
Red wine comprises nearly 80% of production with white (less than 20%) and rosé wine (less than 2%) making up the balance. Blended wines are the rule rather than the exception.
A Taste of Alentejo
2014 Herdade do Rocim Olho de Mocho Reserva Branco, Vinho Regional Alentejano — dark straw color in the glass with generous aromas of bruised apple. Interesting flavors of tart pineapple and dried apricot mingle with stony minerality and juicy acidity. The wine is a bit round in the mouth and cedar spice lingers on the very long finish. 13.5% abv. SRP $30
This is such an interesting wine. It offers a contrast of flavors along with a pleasing roundness and juicy acidity. The flavors are nuanced and will keep you thinking.
This wine is made with 100% Antão Vaz. Fermentation took place in new French oak barrels followed by five months in barrel with daily stirring. The wine aged a further four months in the bottle before release.
According to Jancis Robinson et al in Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours, Antão Vaz probably originated southeast of Lisboa. This variety produces large clusters of large, thick-skinned grapes that thrive in the heat of the Alentejo. Antão Vaz is know for producing high-quality wine with tropical fruit flavors and good balance. If picked later the wine can benefit from barrel fermentation. It is sometimes blended with other varieties as well.
2014 Piteira Tinto de Talha, DOC Alentejo — light ruby in the glass with generous aromas of red fruit, primarily berries. Tart red fruit flavors of cranberries and raspberries follow and are supported by drying tannins, and juicy acidity. The body is on the light side of medium. 13.5% abv. SRP $23
This wine is lean and lively and completely unique in this group of heavier red wines. It won’t be for every palate, but it is an interesting wine I would reach for in summer. It’s also very good slightly chilled.
This light, red wine is made with 100% Moreto. Most of what I’ve read about the variety doesn’t describe it in glowing terms, rather descriptors like lackluster or neutral are used. The variety thrives in the hot, arid Alentejo region where it originated. It is also called Moreto do Alentejo and is often used as a blending grape.
The tradition of making wine in clay amphorae, called talhas in Portuguese, is a long one in Alentejo. This video from the Wines of Alentejo website explains the process and you hear the beautiful Portuguese language spoken (no worries there are subtitles).
The talha wines made by José Piteira aim to preserve the old winemaking techniques and save old vines. The 5-hectare vineyard that is the source of grapes for this wine is located in the Granja-Amareleja sub-region of Alentejo.
2014 Herdade do Esporão Reserve Red, DOC Alentejo — inky dark ruby in the glass with generous aromas of cedar spice, dill, celery salt and ripe red fruit. Complex flavors of red and dark fruit gain complexity with cedar spice notes, dried mint and chocolate. Tannins are grippy and drying throughout the very long finish in this medium-bodied wine. Nice acidity keeps it all in balance. 14.5% SRP $28
This is the richest and most complex wine in this group. It’s bold flavors and textures along with those lovely aromas are a charming combination.
Each variety in this delightful blend of Aragonez, Trincadeira, Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouschet was vinified separately in stainless steel before aging for 12 months in a combination of American and French oak. The wine rested for a further eight months in bottle before release.
Beginning in 2008 the vineyards of Herdade do Esporão have been in conversion to organic viticulture. By 2017 over 1400 acres were being farmed organically and the goal is to convert 100% to organic by 2018. Acreage is planted to vineyards, olive groves, orchards and kitchen gardens.
In addition to Herdade do Esporão located in Reguengos de Monsaraz (in the Évora district) a second property, Quinta dos Murças, is part of the winemaking family in the center of DOC Douro. Organic viticulture is being undertaken in the Douro as well.
2013 Cartuxa Évora Tinto Colheita, DOC Alentejo-Évora — dark ruby in the glass with ripe red fruit, dusty earth and black pepper aromas. Flavors lead with a combination of red and dark fruit seasoned with baking spices. Tannins are drying and grippy, but once again, well integrated with the complex flavors. The medium+ finish is warming. 14.5% abv. SRP $25
The combination of fruit flavors and spiciness in this wine is very pleasing. It is a blend of Aragonez (Tempranillo), Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira and Cabernet Sauvignon fermented in stainless steel then aged in vats and barrels for 12 months. Finally, the wine is aged in bottle for 12 months before release.
Cartuxa is comprised of several ranges of wine made by the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation. The foundation is named for the family that rescued and renovated the ruins of the Cartuxa Monastery (Cartuxa de Santa Maria Scala Coeli), which was built for the Carthusian Order between 1587 and 1598 near Évora.
2015 Herdade da Malhadinha Nova Monte da Peceguina, Vinho Regional Alentejano — medium ruby in the glass with aromas of blackberries and plums. Generous blackberry and plum flavors continue into the flavors with a bit of black pepper spice and dusty earth. Tannins are drying and significant, but well integrated into the flavors. Nice acidity keeps this wine bright and lively. 14.5% abv. SRP $18.99
In addition for winning the prize for the cutest label, this wine shows the most bright, pure fruit flavor with an interesting earthy quality. It is complex and easy drinking at the same time.
From the Herdade da Malhadinha Nova website I gather this is a family operation that includes winemaking, agriculture (purebred Alentejana cattle, the Alentejo Black Pig and olive trees) as well as a hotel and spa. Something for everyone in the beautiful climate of Alentejo 60-plus miles south of Évora.
I hope this collection of wines from Alentejo piques your interest in the wine from this expansive Portuguese region. Judging by this group of wine I can say these are ripe red wines, but not overly ripe, too heavy or too alcoholic. These are wines that will accompany a variety of meals from pizza to pasta and grilled or braised meats. We cheated a bit and nibbled on grilled linguiça as we tasted though these wines, but they really deserve a fine meal to accompany them.
Thank you to the ladies from Creative Palate Communications for providing this educational and enjoyable opportunity to explore the wines of Alentejo.