Beyond Tagus

The past 30 years have seen a wave of new investments in Alentejo in Portugal, a region that has weathered the crisis better than many. Dr Luís Antunes takes the temperature of the region and asks where it’s likely to go next.

The team at Herdade de Malhadinha Nova
The team at Herdade de Malhadinha Nova

Alentejo wines are the biggest success in the Portuguese market, with over 40% of quota for DOC- and IPR-classified wines. Historically rooted in traditional terroirs and varieties, while enduring huge modernisation in recent decades, the region seems to be reaching ever-higher peaks in the quality and authenticity of its wines.

Poverty to desirability

Alentejo is a vast region just south of the Tagus river (alen=beyond, Tejo=Tagus), ­extending to the Algarve border. It occupies over 31,500 square kilometres − about one- third of the ­Portuguese territory − and its other borders are Spain’s Extremadura and the Atlantic Ocean. The climate is hot, dry and sunny, but in some areas the altitude or the maritime­ influence can moderate the otherwise ­torrid conditions. Inland winters can be quite cold, but they are not very long. The soils are mostly based on limestone and clay, although incisions of schist and granite can be found. Originally quite poor, some soils have even been ­exhausted by long-lasting and extensive cereal cultivation.

Nowadays, it’s the intensive and super-intensive olive tree growing that are completing the job. 

Alentejo offers grand and magnificent landscapes, with a peaceful serenity allowed by the moderate elevations and elegant slopes. It’s barely inhabited, its rough living conditions producing resistant, grim people, ­accustomed to getting their food from whatever­ ­the poor soil could offer. This extreme ­poverty, still among the highest in the EU even today, led to a rich, inventive and varied gastronomy – great dishes from very poor, often foraged, products.

These very strong cultural traits, which include wine and gastronomy, are ­today seen as one of the strongest points for the growing tourism appeal.

Apparently, vine and wine were introduced in the Alentejo region before the ­Roman occupation, which started during the Second Punic War against Carthage in 218 BCE. However, the Romans’ agricultural knowledge and techniques allowed wine culture to become widespread in Alentejo, which was further encouraged by the emergence of Christianity. The Muslim invasion in the eighth century hurt the growing wine industry, but by the sixteenth century there are plenty of references to vine growing in Alentejo, and some of today’s most acclaimed wines date back to those days. The creation of the Douro DOC in 1756, with the forced uprooting of vineyards in other regions, was a major crisis for Alentejo wines. During the nineteenth century, the recovery was slow. In 1895, the first social winery in Portugal was created in Viana do Alentejo. Then phylloxera came, and this, together with the two World Wars and other political, social and economic events – of which the most relevant was the Salazar dictatorship’s programme of massive cereal plantation – pushed the vineyards to field borders and wine to domestic, household-level production.

In the 1940s, the central wine authority began some incentives to promote the recovery of wine culture in Alentejo. Several cooperative wineries were created (the first, ­Borba, in 1955); research studies were run and published and then several active agents in Alentejo’s wine sector managed to join their forces together. After the 1974 democratic revolution, a viticultural project for Alentejo was created, as well as a technical association for Alentejo viticulturists.

In 1988 the first DOCs and IPRs were created, and in 1989 CVRA (Regional Alentejo Winegrowing­ Commission) was created to certify and regulate Alentejo wines. With some flagship investments – such as Esporão, founded 1973 – focusing on quality and attracting attention, several old agricultural houses were able to follow and the ­quality of the wines started to receive attention. All the conditions were assembled for a rush: land was available; the region is close to Lisbon, the country’s capital and major market, modern viticulture was easily implementable, including ease of mechanisation; and there was the availability of incentives from the Portuguese government and the EU. For many, the dream of ­owning a wine estate became a reality. Beginning in the 1990s, the total area of vineyards grew from 11,000 ha to 20,000 ha.

Today’s players

In the last 20 years, dozens to hundreds of new wineries were created in Alentejo; ­however, the earliest wineries got an important head start. Family-run estates, some of them dating back several centuries, traditionally focused on several Alentejo staples, such as olive oil, cork, meat or cereals. Some, such as Herdade do Mouchão or Fundação Eugénio­ de Almeida, could join Esporão and some major Cooperative Wineries (Reguengos de ­Monsaraz – CARMIM, Borba, Redondo)­ as leaders of the region’s wine endeavours. Some other important companies were ­acquired by major countrywide négotiants. For instance, Bacalhôa now owns Quinta do ­Carmo, a ­historic brand from Estremoz. 

Other companies started more recently, but have already proven themselves as top- quality producers, such as Quinta do Mouro, whose first vintage was in 1994; or as able to ­supply quantity, such as Casa Agrícola Alexandre Relvas, founded 2001, which produced 3m bottles in 2014; or both, such as João Portugal Ramos, founded in 1990.  

Production and styles 

The major producers in Alentejo have ­annual releases of millions of bottles. ­Detailed figures can be hard to trace, but brands such as Porta da Ravessa and Real Lavrador (Ad. Coop. Redondo),­ Adega de Borba (Ad. Coop. Borba), Monte Velho and Alandra (Esporão), or Reguengos ­(CARMIM), each produce at least 4m bottles of red wine. When focusing on quality, ­several big producers make it a point to ­release iconic, ­flagship wines, while other top wines are produced by small companies. A choice of top wines from Alentejo­ should include, in no ­particular order: João Portugal Ramos’s ­Marquês de Borba Reserva, Herdade do Mouchão, Fundação Eugénio de Almeida’s Pêra Manca, Quinta do Mouro, Herdade da ­Malhadinha Nova, Júlio ­Bastos’ Dona Maria Reserva, and Cortes de Cima Reserva,­ Herdade dos Grous Reserva. ­Arriving more recently to this high-end, ­top-quality game are some up-and-coming­ ­wineries releasing wines to watch: Altas ­Quintas’ Obsessão, Monte da ­Raposinha’s ­Furtiva Lágrima, Paulo ­Laureano Selectio, Adega do Monte Branco’s Alento Reserva,­ Herdade Monte do Vau’s Riso Reserva, and Solar dos Lobos Grande Escolha.

Being a very hot region, Alentejo is naturally more focused on the production of red wines. Aragonês (Tempranillo) and ­Trincadeira have traditionally been the ­varieties in most of the blends, but the ­success of Alicante ­Bouschet – brought more than a ­century ago by the ­Reynolds family to ­Herdade do Mouchão, near Estremoz – caused it to be widely planted. Other successful stories involve Touriga ­Nacional, and also Cabernet Sauvignon. The former has been planted throughout the ­country and provides high-quality, flavourful, concentrated wines. The latter, as an all-purpose variety, has proven to be a very ­successful complement to the traditional blends, even if not that exciting on its own. It does endow reds with an extra hint of spice and structure, and, perhaps more importantly, with ageing ability. These successes in working with new grapes has pushed ­producers into even more experimentation, with grapes such as Syrah and Petit Verdot, but also Touriga Franca.

This being said, there have been ­substantive improvements in the quality and ­character of white wines over the last 15 years. Producers­ have strived for more accurate winemaking, and focused on picking the best ­varieties at the right ripening point. Some effort was ­necessary to separate good from average ­varieties; the grapes of Perrum, Manteúdo or ­Diagalves are not really used anymore. The star grapes are now Antão Vaz, Arinto, and perhaps ­astonishingly, Viognier, which seems to yield an interesting wine if picked quite early.

Both reds and whites are quite soft. The best reds have a ripe character, lots of fruit, soft, mellow tannins, and a mineral undertone. The use of new and used oak barrels is almost mandatory for the most expensive cuvées. Some wines are vinified in stone ­lagares, other in huge, traditional ceramic amphorae, but the standard is the closed stainless steel tank. For the whites, steel is also the rule, and barrel fermentation is the exception, even for top cuvées.

The wines have a ripe, fruity style, and winemakers try to provide freshness and balance by using the appropriate grape combination − for instance, relying on Arinto for its amazing ability to conserve acids during ripening. 

At the end of the day, the top reds remain more interesting than the top whites; however,­ the whites are selling really well, so the ­future will be bright for these wines as soon as the vines get older and technicians develop a deeper grasp of their raw materials.

Facing the future

In Portugal’s present financial crisis, the worse seems to have already passed for the internal market. Being able to make a solid offer based on moderately priced wines, ­Alentejo has survived the crisis and kept roughly the same market share. However, the crisis showed how dangerous it is to rely on one single market, regardless of how well that market performs. According to João Portugal Ramos, star winemaker and major producer, the biggest challenge the region faces right now is to increase the value of its wines, at every point of the price scale, both in the internal and export markets. The ­dramatic increase in vineyard area sent prices down, and the region as a whole is ­taking its time to get back in shape, despite the current sales. However, Portugal Ramos believes, this endeavour is helped by the quality of the wines, which is getting better every year as vines reach maturity. 

Luís Patrão, winemaking manager of ­Esporão, articulates two more challenges. First, the region is very exposed to climatic change, with big implications for fine-wine-oriented viticulture. The second concerns the region’s identity.

Alentejo is a relatively recent region, where a lot of grape varieties were brought in, and which produces several distinct wine styles. While the last 30 years were important for experimentation, now is the time to focus on creating an identity, particularly for DOC Alentejo wines.

 

Alentejo at a glance

Vineyard area: DOC Alentejo is 14,250 ha, IG Alentejano is 6,175 ha.
Production: Alentejo produces 22.7% of all the certified wine in Portugal. The average annual production for the last decade was 90m L, of which 78% is red, 32% is white, and 1% is rosé. The average is 5.5 tons per hectare. 
Sales: Alentejo DOC and IG are market leaders in Portugal, with 44.9% of volume and 46.7% of value, according to AC Nielsen.  The average retail price for DOC Alentejo is €3.30 ($4.35), clearly above the national average price of €3.17. 
Exports: Exports in 2013 amounted to 30% of all sales, with 16% for the EU, and 14% for outside the EU. 
Markets: Angola (4.5m L), Brazil (2.65m L), US (1.65m L), China (1.5m L), Canada (0.855m L) and Switzerland (0.655m L).

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