The Alentejo can offer some of Portugal’s dreamiest landscapes, with gentle rolling hills swathed in green and dotted with ancient cork forests, olive groves, wheat fields and, of course, vineyards. There are historic fortified towns and huge lakes, stretching as far as the eye can see. Covering a large region from Lisbon down to the Algarve, it is easy to reach on a day trip from the capital, but it has such treasures – natural, historical, and of course vinous – that lingering for a few days in a lovely town like Evora with its Roman ruins and quality hotels and restaurants, is a must.
Herdade do Mouchão
My visit began with an early evening visit to the estate of Herdade do Mouchão, a place I had visited before and which I found utterly charming with its ancient cellars, filled with museum quality artefacts of winemaking in the region. The sun was setting as Iain Reynolds, right, bounded towards me with hand outstretched. Iain is a direct descendent of Mouchão’s original Scottish owner, Thomas Reynolds, who moved here from Oporto to become involved in the cork business. Three generations later his grandson John Reynolds purchased this 900-hectare property complete with two small rivers running through it and substantial cork forests, still a large part of the family business. The first vineyards were planted and, in 1901, a mud-brick winery with white-washed walls and and a small distillery (were brandy is still produced) were added.
During the 1950s the wine business began to expand, more vineyards were planted, and the family moved from bulk sales to bottling estate wines. This is a deeply traditional operation making some outstanding wines, and with many vineyard workers having been with Mouchão for generations. But it is not standing still. Iain Reynolds tells me he is planning to build a new cellar, though that is so he can keep his wines even longer before release – currently Mouchão is cellared for 53 months from picking to release, but he wants that to be over 60 months “Because the wines are getting bigger and need more cellaring thanks to warmer summers,” he tells me, and he is looking at building beneath the historic adobe cellar.
The Alicante Bouschet variety is a particular specialism of Mouchão. The red-fleshed grape which enjoyed a fairly lowly reputation in its native France seems to thrive in Mouchão’s clay soil, withstanding intense summer heat and the occasional spring frost.
Monte da Penha
The ebullient Francisco Fino made me smile: he introduced his daughter Rita, told us she would do all the talking because her English was so perfect, but then his huge enthusiasm overtook him and poor Rita could barely squeeze in a word without interruption over the next two hours. Though a winegrowing family for generations, Francisco’s mother started the company, bottling wines for restaurants in Lisbon. At that time, Francisco was based in Leicester in the UK, where his factory supplied knitting yarns to Marks & Spencer amongst others, right through until 1993 when he sold the business. That was either lucky or shrewd, because with so much sourcing moving overseas, his former business was in liquidation within a year. Back home (though Rita was in fact born in Bradford) and Francisco decided to start a new wine business, using his own brand Monte da Penha, with a new winery. “I planted the same varieties as my grandfather,” he tells me, namely Trincadeira, Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet and, later, Touriga Nacional. For whites they have Arinto, Fernão Pires and Roupeiro – though only 5% of production is white wine. Only natural yeasts are used in the modern, temperature-controlled winery. “We are trying to use only very traditional methods,” says Francisco, “and we do not rush our wines to market.” Only French Alliers oak is used for maturation, and even his entry-level non-reserva spends a minimum of one year in barrel. This is the sub-region of Portalegre, where Monte de Penha’s vineyards are on clay soils with some granite, and the 25-year-old vineyards are unirrigated with very deep roots. “We are in transition from flat country to 620 metres elevation in the highlands,” Francisco points out, “which is cooler with fog in the vineyards in the autumn. It is very different from further south in Alentejo.” Yields are low at 23hl/ha, and everything is picked by hand.
An operation run by two families, producing not just wine but hazelnuts, citrus and the wonderfully delicious cherry crop just harvested at the time of my visit. With their vineyards situated on a plateau 600 meters above sea level, Altas Quintas started in 2003 by a Lisbon-based family who had run a haulage company, but also another small winery business. I met Teresa Lourenço and her husband João, who is winemaker – though they work closely with consultant winemaker Paulo Laureano. João’s parents had made wine, but he says “We were originally just looking for a holiday home in the Alentejo, but somehow we bought a wine farm.” Yield here is strongly controlled with over 70% of the bunches ‘green harvested’ (dropped from the vine during the growing season) to “give structure and quality.” The top wines are foot-trodden in lagars, then all fermentation takes place in large temperature controlled, French oak vats from Seguin Moreau. Ageing is in smaller French barrels that range from one to three years old. This was a fairly short visit, as we retired to the local and absolutely first class restaurant Tombalobos, where chef/patron Julio Vintém forages all the herbs and mushrooms locally – 35 different mushrooms used throughout the year – and we enjoyed a sizzling hot carpaccio of Alentejo black pig with lemon verbena, goat’s cheese doused in hot oil, partridge salad with onion and herbs and a tempura of green beans and pimentos.
To reach Adega Mayor’s impressive, large and very modern winery you will drive down a private road that also passes a massive roasting and warehousing for Delta coffee, for the winery is under the same ownership: the Nabeiro family. Adega Mayor is a significant business as the name suggests.
I was met by Rita Nabeiro (right), whose father started the coffee business in 1961. That, she points out, was at the height of the dictator Salazar’s control of Portugal (before the 1974 ‘Carnation revolution’). Salazar wanted Alentejo to become the bread basket of Portugal, so to this day hulking grain stores can be seen around the region, most now abandoned. All other agriculture and industry stopped during the 1960s in Alentejo, so Rui started his coffee business in a covert fashion, making the 15 kilometre journey from here on the same site in Campo Maior, to smuggle his coffee over the border with Spain and sell it there. Campo Maior is today pretty much a company town with almost everyone employed directly or indirectly by the company. The first vintage of the Nabeiro family’s wine adventure was 2002. The vineyards spread as far as the eye can see around the winery, designed by a Pulitzer prize winning architect, and the coffee plant. We are joined by winemaker Carlos Rodrigues, on board since 2012 having come from Chile were he made wines at Caliterra, via Mendoza and the Yarra Valley. “Coffee and wine have similarities,” he says. “With coffee you can choose the raw material from around the world, but still the focus is all about provenance and quality, and about sourcing from the correct terroir whether it is beans or grapes.” That means Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira and Aragonez plus “Other small amounts, including Petite Sirah.” For white wine they grow Verdelho and Anton Vaz. The vineyard area is 200 hectares, part on clay and sandy soil, and immediately around the winery, on clay with limestone. In the winery there are sorting tables, all French oak, and everything flowing by gravity.
Terras de Alter
My evening with the partners involved in the Terras de Alter project was very much a social occasion, having dinner on the terrace under the stars, so the background information in this report is not too technical. We began the evening with a sizeable tasting through 20 wines from their wine range, conducted by winemaker Peter Bright. Peter told us how the project was started in 2004 by its three partners, Peter and two local wine companies, who between them farm around 90 hectares of vines in total. Peter is pictured with the charming Pedro Borges, one of his partners in the business.
Peter is a dual-passport holding Australian who has been making wine in Portugal since 1982. Born in Sydney, he graduated in oenology and began his wine-making life with Leo Buring and Lindemans, before becoming one of the early tranche of Australian ‘flying winemakers’, working all over the world, especially in Argentina and Portugal. His big ‘take home message’ of the tasting was that people should recognise this project is about the Alentejo Alta – where the harvest is 15 days later than in the south of the region, giving a different character to many Alentejo wines. The range is made with predominantly indigenous grape varieties, “in a very modern way to produce really interesting, approachable wines.” These are serious wines with very long, slow barrel ferments for many of them – 6 months is not unusual – and all wild yeast fermentation. The wine range is labelled ‘Terra d’Alter’ though the correct company name is Terras de Alter, initially a source of some confusion for me.