Our Travels in Portugal Part 2 – The Red Wines
The Red Wines of Alentejo
As I outlined in part one of the blog The Alentejo is a vast area of Portugal that is relatively uninhabited except for vineyards, olive groves and cork-bearing oak trees. Within this vast area there are 29,000 hectares of vineyards – an area almost as large as the whole of Champagne (remember Virginia has about 1,500 hectares!). There are two distinct growing regions Portalgere to the north and a cluster of seven growing regions in the south.
Portalgere is distinct in that the region is in the foothills of the Serra de Sao Mamedes with cooler growing conditions and soils that are more granitic. We toured the more southern regions characterized by arid rolling hills with soil types as varied as the number of indigenous grapes. There was little talk of terroir in relation to wine production and very little to distinguish one growing area from the next. We visited a dozen or so producers more remarkable based on their food and art exhibits than by the wines that, as I have emphasized, were mostly formulated for the target demographic.
As everyone does we started out from Evora and worked our way around the region visiting the major producers with international reputation like Joao Portugal Ramos close to Estremoz that produces as much wine as the whole of Virginia.
The other two biggies were Cortes de Cima and Herdade de Esporao both located in Reguengos. Not only were we blown away by the big wine producers, but also, the innumerable artisanal wine, food, and olive oil producers. On top of that was the presence of the largest cork producing area in the world!
“A world of difference” is the Portuguese tagline and the difference refers to the multitude of indigenous grape varieties that exist in Portugal.
It is not just that they are difficult to pronounce, but the names vary according to where you are in the country. The Alentejo specializes in four indigent red grapes that I have concluded you have to remember: Tricandeira, Castelão, Alfrocheiro and Alicante Bouschet. Not that these grapes are unique to the Alentejo they are found in different areas throughout Portugal. It is just that these grapes do best in Alentejo.
Aragonez aka Tempranillo is probably the most planted red grape but the most planted indigenous grapes are Tricandeira followed by Castelao.
Tricandeira goes by Tinta Amerela in the Douro; Tricandeira has a thick skin making deeply colored wines with soft tannins and lots and lots of black fruit, blackberry and black plum.
Castelao equally as prevalent throughout Portugal is the second most planted grape that adds flavors of red fruits and blueberries. It comes in all styles from Rosado to the light and quaffable, to deep and intense wines that are capable of long aging in oak
Alfrocheiro is used primarily as a blending grape being notable for early ripening and high yields it is deep in color adding precious high acidity to any blend.
Alicante Bouschet finds its home in the Alentejo though it is more commonly found in Spain under the name of Garnacha Tintorera. I was impressed by how much the grape featured in most of the blends. Outside of Spain and Portugal it is a fairly unknown grape. Alicante Bouschet is one of those grapes that come up in Trivial Pursuit questions– as in “What is the only vitis vinifera grape that has red pulp?”
You guessed it Alicante Bouschet.
According to Jancis Robinson it is a descendent of Savignin that was originally produced by Monsieur Louis Bouschet by crossing Aramon with Teinturier du Cher to (Teinturier means “dyer” in French) to produce Petit Bouschet that was then crossed by his son Henri with Grenache to produce Alicante Bouschet. You can imagine with red pulp the grape makes intensely deep purple wines tasting of black cherry, blackberry bramble, black plum and even black pepper with a touch of sweet tobacco. The wines are full bodied with surprisingly soft tannins.
If you like Parker wines like big deep Shiraz, Zinfandel and NAPA Cabs Alicante Bouschet as a single varietal from Alentejo is the wine for you!
Herdade do Mouchao and Cartuxa were the first wineries of the region to gain notoriety using the stalwart, indigenous varieties Tricandeira, Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet, Alfrocheiro, and Castelão.
Cartuxa produces one of the most expensive and traditional wines in Portugal -Pera Manca a Portuguese wine of lore rather like Vega Sicilia is to Spain.
Later in the 1990s the modern pioneers Herdade Esporao, Jaoa Portugal Ramos and Cortes de Cima upped the ante with indigent varieties blended with the traditional varieties to produce fruity easy drinking wines with soft tannins and a much broader appeal. All the big wineries were equipped with cutting edge technological wine making equipment. However, one producer Jose Souza of the Adega Jose Souza is still using what were the equivalent of cutting-edge Roman technology: Amphorae – more on that in my next post.
To try to simplify: the Portuguese tagline “A World of Difference” I found it easiest to group the wines in the following categories
1) Indigenous rustic blends: becoming less and less popular and most affordable.
2) Single varietal indigenous wines: like Alicante Bouschet and Tricandeira are the next quality level up and probably the very best value.
3) Indigenous blends with international varieties: by far the most common blends that we encountered, the most common being Aragonez with Tricandeira and or Alicante Bouschet with Syrah.
4) International blends: usually higher-end, and typically Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon based, but there was nothing to distinguish these wines from any international blends from anywhere in the world.
Indigenous Rustic Blend
I have picked tasting notes from different producers to illustrate the best examples of these wines.
Herdade Mouchao is known for the high proportion of Alicante Bouschet up to 80%, which in the region has a reputation for being a bit rustic but not from this producer.
This is a blend of 70% Alicante Bouschet with 30% Tricandeira. The wine shows very savory, dark, intense spicy nose with a strong savory meaty streak. The palate is dark, savory and spicy with firm tannic structure and a distinctive meaty, spicy edge. This is a wine with real appeal.
Indigenous Single Varietal:
Cortes de Cima one of the leading big brands utilizes modern viticulture in consultation with the Australian Flying viticulturist Richard Smart.
Cortes de Cima Tricandeira 2003
Fresh red berry fruits dominate the nose, which is ripe and rounded with a subtle tarry edge. The wine has vivid acidity on the palate that has a slightly spritzy edge to it.
Esporao AB Alicante Bouschet 2007 Alentejo
The wine spends 12 months in new American oak it is an intense dark wine with brooding blackberry fruit on the nose as well as savory, spicy tannins and sweet vanilla oak that balances the sweet ripe fruit very effectively.
Indigenous Blend with International Varieties
Cortes de Cima Chaminé 2003
A blend of Aragonez, Syrah and Touriga Nacional fermented and aged in stainless steel.
Lovely forward fresh berry fruit on the nose, which is vivid and quite bright. The palate is juicy, rich and fruity, but with some nice chewy structure resulting in a fantastically fresh and vivid wine.
Cartuxa Floral de Evora Tinto 2003
Fantastic bright nose of vivid raspberry and blackcurrant fruit. Really delicious and appealing. The palate is juicy and rich with a lovely freshness and some spicy structure. Finishes with drying tannins but it is a delicious drop now.
Portugal as a whole and the Alentejo in particular exemplify a paradox that is repeated in most of the European wine growing regions. On the one hand Portugal has the staid, time-honored wines of the Douro with the brand identity of Port as strong as any in Europe. The problem is that market demand for Port has a dwindling demographic: British Baby Boomers. As a result the big push in Portugal is to open new markets for Portuguese wines other than the fortified wines of the Douro.
Wines that will appeal to the new-age (and I hate to say) Millennial generation who demand immediate gratification, wines that are light (non-fortified) from one or any of the panoply of indigent grapes blended with established international varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
A demand easily met in the newly invested region of the Alentejo bolstered by modern day viticultural techniques, industrial wine making technology have resulted in vast economies of scale that translate into affordable wines at a quality level not previously attainable anywhere in the world.
Keep tuned for my next blog on the Amphora of the Alentejo followed by the White Wines of the Alentejo