Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Justin Keay's travels in the Alentejo

Published:  03 December, 2010

Here I am, back in the Alentejo just a few months since I was last here, this time to visit wineries in the south of the region and judge wines at the Fijev tasting.


With the wine harvest in, this land seems even emptier than usual. Aside from the wineries, which have grown dramatically in number over the past eight to nine years - there are now some 250 producers making increasingly good quality wine out of eight sub-regions, using indigenous but also increasingly, international grape varieties - this feels like an empty land. Portugal's best-known writer Jose Saramago, who died this June, called the Alentejo "Portugal's inland sea". With its endless vistas and big skies that seems an apt description.


With the Alentejo's wine commission the CVRA as my guide, and five other wine journalists as company, we start at Mouras de Arraiolos, near Estremoz, before visiting many other wineries. Which stand out? Cortes de Cima has a cult following amongst Alentejo fans. In the UK, for some reason, their Syrah is most visible, sold by Waitrose for around £11. By contrast the budget shopper in Portugal will be most familiar with entry-level Chamine white and red (though at around four euros a bottle this is much pricier than most equivalents). Over a long and boozy lunch we tasted the entire range - some nine wines - and were impressed at every level. For the money, Chamine is remarkable, using a wide range of grape types (the white, Antao Vaz, Viognier, Verdelho and Semillon) the red, well, a little bit of everything: the result is a drinkable, accessible but intriguing wine. The winners here, for my money, were the Hans Christian Anderson 2008 (a 100% Syrah) and the wonderfully smooth and elegant Trincadeira 2008.


You would never describe maker Luis Duarte restrained and his wines aren't that either. Yet he has managed something remarkable: the great wines he makes for Herdade de Malhadina Nova and Herdade dos Grous are stylistically completely different, yet the two wineries are just five to ten minutes drive from each other outside the city of Beja in lower Alentejo. Asked how he manages this he shrugs nonchalantly and says: "I imagine I am in a different place, almost a different person, when I make the wines." Quite so.


It is at Herdade dos Grous (which means stork) that Duarte's skills reach full expression. These are without doubt the most impressive wines I have tasted in Alentejo - and in a region where almost every winery produces really good, memorable wines, that's saying something. Over a delicious local meal that includes the famous Alentejo speciality black pig (which get a special flavour from their acorn-heavy diet) and migas, a local speciality made using yesterdays' bread, we try the full range.


Worthy of special mention are 23 Barricas 2009, an astoundingly rich blend of syrah and TN which drinks superbly and the award-winning Moon Harvest 2009, made from 100% Alicante Bouschet. The wine is so named because the picking of the grapes was timed by the cycle of the moon, which guarantees PMH (potential maximum harvest, in case you wondered). Opinions vary about whether the moon can really influence the quality of a wine but Duarte is clearly doing something right with this delicious, berry-charged but amazingly balanced wine. For UK consumers, the really good news is that Great Western Wines now import all Grous wines.


My overall conclusion is that Alentejo's meaty wines often also convey a fine sense of terroir as well as innovative wine-making techniques. The focus is towards higher quality wines that are increasingly well-regarded both within Portugal - where they now account for 15-20% total wine production - and in export markets. Many of the wineries also make world class olive oil that would put Italy and Spain to shame. This is very much a place to watch.


Justin Keay is a London and Hampshire based journalist who writes about wine - amongst other things - for a variety of UK and international publications. His website is