It wouldn’t be difficult to say that my first visit to Portugal was, please pardon the pun, through ‘rosé tinted glasses’. I was on my honeymoon and it was the mid 1980s when Mateus and Lancer’s rosé was enjoying strong sales in the UK. Strangely enough I didn’t even take a sip of the stuff when I was there as there was already a huge choice of alternative wines to be tasted. At that time, however, it was far more about quantity than quality and our Portuguese friends were insistent that it was Port we should fill our suitcases with.
Numerous subsequent visits to Portugal over the years have shown the evolution of a table wine industry from a laid-back, quantity-based one to a modern, quality-driven approach. White wines have become fresher and cleaner, the reds have greater, ripe fruit characters (sometimes too ripe) than previously and the best of them have structure that will allow them to age well, whilst the diversity of roses has improved to ensure they are not all strawberry bubble-gum look-alikes. Most recently there has been the added dimension of a renewed focus on indigenous varieties to offer that extra point of difference, so important in a saturated market place.
Clinging to the south-western most side of Europe, the western coastline of Portugal can be quite rough and particularly windswept. Beautiful, sandy white beaches attract locals and tourists alike but even during the hottest part of summer the Atlantic Ocean ensures the water remains teeth-shatteringly cool. Inland, the climate quickly changes to a distinctly Continental mode – extremes of hot and cold with very little rainfall. Approximately three hours driving time eastwards from the capital, Lisbon, and bordering Spain is the Alentejo region of Portugal. Alentejo is arguably the one table wine producing region of Portugal that has readily embraced the need to invest in its industry through quality viticulture and winemaking. Wide open, rolling plains of dark red earth and outcrops of hardy bushland, but above all the endless deep blue skies, are all reminiscent of Australia. Unlike in Australia, however, across this landscape are dotted medieval castles and whitewashed stone chapels, the latter often beautifully restored and regularly frequented in this still devoutly Catholic country.
Despite the financial struggles that Portugal has faced in recent years, Alentejo does not seem to have suffered too adversely. There is evidence of both generations-old family wealth and more recently acquired wealth – winemaking facilities are modern, highly-experienced, southern hemisphere trained winemakers are often employed and the vineyards are large and carefully maintained, often beautifully manicured with luxurious properties built on them.
Tucked away in the heartland of Alentejo one producer has even developed a boutique hotel and spa on his estate at Malhadinha Nova. The owners of the estate, the Soares family, made their fortune in wine and spirit distribution along the bustling tourist coastline of the Algarve in Portugal’s south. Many of the upmarket wine shops in the area, which service the well-heeled tourists holidaying in lavish villas and apartments along the coast, are owned and managed by the family. The family’s long experience in wine sales has held them in good stead for their own brand development. The portfolio of wines from their estate is based on both indigenous and international varieties, packaged in eye-catching bottles with labels drawn by their children.
The white Antao Vaz grape is grown quite widely across the Alentejo region – a traditional, hardy variety well suited to the dry heat of the region. On the nose the Malhadinha Nova Antao Vaz 2012 was reminiscent of a minerally Chardonnay with hints of tropical fruit also evident. The palate was fresh and yet also full-bodied with a lingering citrus finish.
The brightly coloured label and the deep salmon pink of the Monte da Peceguina rosé promised something thirst-quenching and fun on a hot Portuguese summer day. A blend of Touriga Nacional and Aragonez (Tempranillo) in equal quantities plus 10% Tinta Miuda (known more familiarly elsewhere as Graciano), the wine delivered what it promised. My only criticism of these wines was that they were all bottled under cork. Alentejo is, of course, one of the bastions of Portuguese cork production. Visiting another producer I was given short shrift of any polite suggestion that these wines might benefit from screwcap closures!
The red grape Alicante Bouschet has a strong presence and following in the Alentejo where it is well adapted to the prevailing arid conditions. In the eponymous Malhadinha Alicante Bouschet makes up 54% of the blend, the rest being of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Miuda and 7% Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2010 example was opaque and inky in colour with a lifted, quite floral nose of spice and milk chocolate. It had very fine, yet firm tannins, good oak integration and dense liquorice flavours but showing a freshness to balance it all so the 15% alcohol level on label came as rather a surprise.
In the best years production at the estate includes Pequeno Joao – 50% Touriga Nacional, then 25% each of Alicante Bouschet and Syrah. Bottled in 50 centilitres and 150 centilitres only, the wine was first produced from the 2004 vintage. This is a wine for the long term as the 2011 showed. The raisin-based fruit notes on the nose suggested a dense, simple fruit forward style but the delicious fleshy black fruit concentration and lovely fine tannins on the palate hinted at the long life that this wine has ahead of it.
For me, the Alentejo represents so much that is positive about the Portuguese wine landscape – there is recognition of the value of traditional varieties as well as those of imported ones; modern viticulture and vinification techniques have been embraced through significant investment to produce wines that the global market finds appealing, especially where the improved, refreshing whites and roses are concerned.