Our Travels in Portugal Part 3 – The White Wines
This is part three of my series on the Alentejo region of Portugal that Patricia and I visited over a year ago. Probably the most defining factor of the region is the climate. Rocks and dirt do not seem to figure much in the discussions of terroir (except in The Algarve that is higher, and more granite based.) In more familiar wine regions
like the southern Rhone Valley, you tend to think of red wines. I know, white Chateau Neuf du Pape exists, but those whites are not generally regarded with the same enthusiasm as the reds, and so it is in The Alentejo. And again, like the reds, the white wines were of great value and as quaffable as any in similar climes and just like the Rhone valley, virtually all the wines we encountered were blends of different proportions of Antao Vaz, Arinto, Alvarinho and Voisinho.
As I mentioned in Part 2 we spent most of our trip in the Borba, Évora, Redondo and Reguengos regions that are more typical of the Alentejo, and can make smooth, harmonious, very easy-drinking red and white wines. Conditions are more challenging in Granja-Amareleja, Moura and Vidigueira, with poor, limestone-based soils and a significantly hotter climate. It seems obvious that whites would prove more difficult in this hot climate, but some very good ones are made, given the right place, and/or appropriate skill in vineyards and cellar.
One of the things I have learned in researching a lot of indigent grape varieties of any region is the paucity of information and how the same information is reiterated in a wide variety of sources that include the Portuguese website www.winesofportugal.info, www.thefringe.blogspot.com, and www.winesearcher.com
Major White grapes that we encountered
This is THE white grape of the Alentejo and to give you an idea of the prevalence of white wines, there were only 1,209 hectares planted out of 29,000 total in 2010
There’s very little information available about the Antão Vaz grape. It is one of the better regarded native Portuguese vines, but is grown almost exclusively in the Vidigueira region of Alentejo. The grapes are large with thick skins and their clusters are somewhat loosely packed, all of which are helpful in combating fungal infections of the vine. It is somewhat similar to Chardonnay in that it makes crisp, lively wines with nice acidity if picked early but can also make bigger more alcoholic wines that are suitable for barrel aging if left on the vine a bit longer. It is occasionally made into a single varietal wine, though it is most commonly blended with other local grapes.
This is a versatile grape, grown in most of Portugal’s wine regions. In Vinho Verde country, it goes by the name of Pedernã. It makes vibrant wines with lively, refreshing acidity, often with a mineral quality, along with gentle flavors of apple, lime and lemon. Arinto-based wines can keep well but are also delicious young. Arinto is often added to other lower-acid white grapes to improve blends – especially in the hot Alentejo and Ribatejo. It makes some of its greatest wines in the small DOC region of Bucelas, just north of Lisbon. Its good acidity makes it a great ingredient for sparkling wines. Arinto’s medium-sized bunches are tightly packed with small grapes.
Alvarinho is probably the most recognizable of all of Portugal’s’ white grapes especially because it does best closest to its namesake Albarino next door in the extreme north west region of Galicia in Spain. Alvarinho and Albarino arethe same grape rather like Pinot Gris in France and Pinot Grigio in Italy. There is growing enthusiasm in Virginia for Albarino where in the 2017 Grape Growers report there a total of forty tons was produced so as you can see it is early days in Virginia for Albarino. To me Alvarinho is a lesser form of Viognier with more acid and lower yields, bearing in mind that yield is not that great with Viognier in the first place. Alvarinhos are full-bodied, subtly fragrant white wines that is easy to recognize, their complex but delicate aromas of peach, lemon, passion fruit, lychee, orange zest, jasmine, orange blossom and lemon balm.
This north-eastern grape survives scattered here and there in the old mixed white vineyards throughout Portugal. Traditionally, Viosinho has been an unpopular variety with growers because of its very low yields. It’s only recently that winemakers have realized what a treasure it is, as a component both in port and in unfortified Douro white blends. It makes full-bodied but fresh, fragrant, well-balanced wines, performing best in hot, sunny climates where it is less prone to odium (powdery mildew) and botrytis infection. Bunches and grapes are small and early ripening.
In the Wine Searcher ratings of the twenty-five most popular Alentejo wines, there was only one white wine and that was a blend of Antao Vaz and Arinto from top of the line Cartuxa-Pera Manca Branco that retailed between $29 to $46.00. In the grand scheme of things Pera Manca is to the Alentejo is what Beaucastel is to Chateau Neuf du Pape – the very top of the line. Pera Manca reds are the most expensive wines from the entire region.
The average price for a white wine throughout the region in 2017 was $14.00:
A typical tasting note (Taken from Jamie Goode)
Marques de Borba White 2014
Fresh, fruity, modern, bright and full. A really nice commercial white wine. Very good 84/100
João Portugal Ramos Antão Vaz 2014
This barrel-fermented white has a very rich toasty nose with bracingly fresh fruit. The palate is fruity and fresh with a toasty oak overlay. Slightly rough-edged; a commercial style. Very good+ 86/100
For me the white wines of the Alentejo were true to form – fresh fruity, bright and full at an incredible price point. If had to compare, the modern winemaking techniques put these everyday wines above the everyday wines of the southern Rhone valley and anything from southern Italy, but as my best Italian friends tell me (and I think this relates to most Mediterranean wines) – “Drinking white wine is like kissing your sister.”
In my final blog about the Alentejo I am going to describe our experience with wines made in amphorae and chat about the wine making factors that influence the wine quality. Until then – drink well my friends.