Our Travels In Portugal
As autumn sets in, it occurred to me that almost a year ago today, Patricia and I went on one of the very best educational wine tours we have ever experienced. We have taken many exciting trips around the world, but this trip to Portugal with our friend, Richard Hewitt who owns Vino Tours, was perhaps one of favorites.
Let me tell you about Richard. Richard is one of Charlottesville’s unsung heroes and a very definite character in our local wine world. Richard spends half his life in Portugal where he and his wife, Barbara, have a farm close to the Portugal/Spain border in the province of Alentejo (pronounced “Alenteejoo” in Portuguese). He is virtually a native to Alentejo, which I can honestly say is one of the most unspoiled and underappreciated areas of Portugal. (You can read more about the region in his book “A Cottage in Portugal”.) The other half of the year he spends in Charlottesville. Coincidentally, both places that Richard calls home lie on the 38th Parallel, which, to give it some context, not only runs through Virginia and The Alentejo, but also the Northern wine regions of Sicily.
The Alentejo is to Portugal as the Loire Valley is to France: both are described as being the “breadbasket” of their countries where the majority of the wines are for everyday drinking. What has recently put the Alentejo on the map is the emergence of modern viticultural practices with modern winemaking techniques that because of the scale of the landscape have enabled larger estates to flourish with high quality wine at lower prices.
The region is huge, accounting for one third of the surface area of Portugal. Did you know that Port from Portugal accounts for only 25% of the wine made in Portugal? Put another way 75% of the wine coming from Portugal is your regular non-fortified light wine and two thirds of that is red wine.
When it comes to wine production in Portugal you should think of three main regions: The Douro, The Minho, and The Alentejo.
The Douro of course is the most famous and legendary producer of fortified red wine simply known as Port.
The Minho region of northern Portugal produces most of Portugal’s white wines the most popular of which are Vinho Verde and Alvarinho. Believe it or or not there are records of Minho wines being exported to the UK dating back to the twelfth century.
Then there is The Alentejo region, which is probably the least well known of Portugal’s wine regions and yet the second largest producer of Portuguese wine.
The key to understanding the geography of The Alentejo is the Tejo River, which is actually the largest river in Portugal, and splits the country almost in half: 60% to the north and 40% to the south. The Tejo drains into the Atlantic Ocean in the region around the capital city of Lisbon. There is a small wine region on the banks of the river called the Tejo but much more importantly is the much larger region beyond the Tejo called “away from the Tejo” or the Alentejo, which is a vast, relatively arid region with almost deserted roads and cork trees interspersed amongst the rolling hills. The region totals 28,000 hectares of grapes in eight different sub regions (described further in part II).
To understand the region better, a bit more historical background is always helpful. Portugal joined the EU in 1986. Prior to that, the country had been under the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar. Under his regime rural areas like The Alentejo produced large volumes of low quality wine, that at the time were similar to wines made in the Soviet dominated countries like Romania and Croatia. 1986, the year Portugal joined the European Union (EU), was the equivalent of the liberation of the wine growing regions except for the Douro that had for centuries been making wines independent of any ruling class. With the EU came EU money and with EU money came modernization of infrastructure, and most important of all: investment in the otherwise neglected wine growing regions of Portugal.
There have been parallels drawn between the Alentejo and California in the post–prohibition era. Indeed, some have called the Alentejo the California of Portugal such is the excitement and logarithmic growth of the wine industry. The pattern parallels new-growth wine areas worldwide.
As in California, the big name producers come in first and set up large-scale production in the most favorable regions. Then the “young maverick” groups of usually young, educated wine savvy individuals “rediscover” the latent indigenous varieties of the region.These rediscovered wines capture the imagination of the wine media, always looking for the latest “emerging” region to promote as the latest and greatest wine region that you have never heard of. That in a nutshell is the wine story of the Alentejo since 1986.
Although the primary focus of our trip was wine, we were also impressed the multitude of cultural artifacts. Wine is an integral theme throughout Portuguese history and boy what a history, a history that mirrors the entire history of Europe from the Greek origins to the Roman Empire, the invasion of the Ottomans and by the middle ages Portugal emerges as its own state with its own language.The country is scattered with remnants of the past, perhaps, scars of the past but fascinating nevertheless.
Some of my favorite of the Cultural Highlights:
We witnessed so much cultural heritage in so many different places it is difficult to highlight any one specific location but the towns of Evora and Bejo were the standouts, where we saw this incredible artifacts.
Evora is the regional capital boasting a UNESCO World heritage site with impressive 15th century Manueline architecture as well as a Roman Temple (under repair on our visit)
Some have claimed that Evora is to Portugal what Lyon is to France when it comes to gastronomic delight and if that is the case and you are a “foodie” Evora needs to be on your bucket list. The cuisine unlike Lyon was born out of poverty and capitalizes on wonderful local ingredients: meats, notably black pig, game, wild herbs, sheep and goats’ cheeses and wood-oven baked breads all imbued with what might be some of the best extra virgin oil I have ever experienced!
Stay tuned next week for my post on the wines of the Alentejo.