Updated: Jul 27
Alentejo is one of the most sun gifted regions of Portugal :) Squeezed between the Algarve and Tagus River it has excellent conditions for mature red wine. Many winemakers have to irrigate their vineyards as summer temperatures can easily reach 40-50 °C.
Grape varieties in Alentejo
Local heat resistant varieties like Aragonez (Tempranillo), Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira (indigenous to Alentejo) and heat resistant 'foreigners' like Syrah, Alicante Bouschet and Cabernet Sauvignon don't mind the sun. In Alentejo wine region you can see producers that don't betray their rare wine varietals but also 'embed' these sun-friendly 'foreigners'.
Some background on Alentejo wine region
Today it's Portugal's least populated region, although it occupies 1/3 of the country's territory and is the most agricultural part of it. However, agriculture is not treated as a profitable business anymore and many people left their lands relocating to city life or abroad.
In the past the government tried to solve this problem by relocating people from densly-populated north to Alentejo. They were given land to work, a brand new house - just please stay here in this 40+ °C summer heat and work :)
This resulted in whole villages of Alentejo being covered with similarly looking white houses with an adjacent plot to them.
Unfortunately, there were not only abandoned houses and plots, but also abandoned vineyards on our way.
But the prestige of owning a winery returned many people back from the city-life and office-jobs to their lands. Some finally realized what a jewel they inherited, others spend all the money they earned throughout life to buy a vineyard and produce something more durable than a human life.
As population (and pollution) shrunk, Alentejo became home to the world’s first Starlight Tourist Destination – the Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve.
Alentejo Wine Route
As I said before, Alentejo is a heaven of red wine. Their style is fruity, light tannins, easy-going, just like local people. There are 60 wineries that offer wine tasting tours in Alentejo region. Among them the best wineries in Portugal. And all these very easily accessible from Lisbon. There is usually no traffic as soon as you exit the capital. You can collect a wine route map from Evora Wine Route Centre or book your wine tasting on the centre's website online. There are private companies offering wine tours with a pick-up in Lisbon as well, and some even day tours to Southern Portugal wineries that include lunch.
All along your way in Alentejo you'll be surrounded by impressive cork trees!
It's a gold business in Portugal, which they say is a good thing for you if your grandpa started it.
The thing is that for a cork tree to be mature enough for cork production you have to wait at least 30 years. Then you can remove the skin from a part of the tree and next time you can 'harvest' is in 8 years. This is how long it takes for the tree to recover it's skin. But at the same time, it's a very sustainable business, as you never cut the tree for cork production (you just have to own enough land to 'harvest' something every year)
Alentejo wine region actually contains of many sub-regions with quite different micro-climates:
- Granja-Amareleja’s and Moura are known for scorching summers, thus produce rustic wines.
- Borba, Evora, Redondo, Reguengos and Vidigueira thanks to the elevation factor have cool nights, which allows them to produce full bodied and balanced reds.
As for the soil - limestone, schist and granite mark the best vineyards.
On the other hand, there is Portalegre. It lies well to the north east on the granite foothills of the São Mamede mountains, where higher rainfall and cooler temperatures especially at night, along with many old vines, gives complexity and freshness. This part of Alentejo Wine Region is known for exceptional white wines, best white wines of Alentejo. While I wouldn't recommend you ordering whites from the remaining 'hot' part of this region. Portalegre is a real obscure wine destination hidden among Portugal's most known wine regions.
Quinta da Plansel
The late founder of this winery encountered the region when he was a student arriving here by a tuna fishing boat. His connection to Portugal became quite tight as he started to export Portuguese wines to Germany, and later on this led to the creation of one of the most innovative wineries in the region. When his Quinta da Plansel started to produce single-varietal wines (first in the region, or even whole Portugal), locals thought they've gone crazy.
Like if that wasn't enough, Plansel started a vine nursery on the territory of the vineyard. Therefore, they are grafting right here in front of you the American rootstock and Vitis vinifera. This is done to prevent the development of the wine plague, which killed 95% of Portuguese (and most of European) vines. The American rootstock, unlike the European one, is resistant to Phylloxera. This resistance developed naturally in North America, where the vine was used to widely spread phylloxera pest.
Winemakers can't use solely the Vitis labrusca (American vine) as it doesn't produce aromatic grape berries suitable for winemaking. That's how the grafting of two vines happened - the resistance of Vitis labrusca and flavour components of Vitis vinifera. Since the XIX-XX century most of the Old World's vines are created using this grafting method.
Visiting the nursery and observing the workflow was the most exciting part of my Alentejo wine tour!
But they didn't stop here. As Alentejo is plain land, most of the vineyards harvest mechanically here. Plansel owns a solid number of machines. Thus when not used they can be rented out together with a driver to other wineries.
A very business oriented estate. And by the way, did I tell you that the founder was German?
Quinta da Plansel is located in Evora DOP - here the climate is temperate, and while day temperatures can reach +50 °C in summer, nights are really cool. This gives freshness and acidity to their wines. Acidity in your glass is sometimes a luxury in Portugal, I joined many tastings and most of the reds had the disadvantage (at least for my taste) of lacking acidity.
The main varieties at Plansel are - Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Verdelho and Gouveio.
Although the founder is Jorge Böhm, the real creator of Plansel is his daughter - Dorinne Lindeman, who is a licensed oenologist from Germany. She came with a whole program of improvements and modernization of what her father has started.
Today her two daughters - Julia and Luisa are picking up the business and already creating their own wine blends.
There is also a vineyard dedicated to organic vine growing. It's called Capela Santa Margarida - as at the edge of the vineyard there is a chapel to Saint Margaret.
We tasted at Plansel:
- Plansel Selecta Tinto - red wine with high rims (and thus high alcohol). Aromas of ripe cherries, plums, chocolate. A medium bodied and balanced wine. For me, lacked acidity and complexity.
- Plansel Selecta Branco - fruity, easy to drink, herbaceous, but again would need some more acidity, which is impossible in Evora wine region (go further north for crispy fresh notes :)
- Plansel Grande Escolha - this one I bought at the winery and tasted at home. Known to be their best wine, as they produce it only in exceptional years, making a blend from the best grape berries. The last one, from 2014, was what I recently enjoyed. And this was exactly what I looked for while tasting wines from Alentejo - acidity! Despite such a southern location diurnal temperatures did their best to bring freshness to this wine.
Grande Escolha 2014 is a full bodied red wine with ripe black fruit and fresh floral aromas, some spices and black pepper give it a character, and the high acidity ensures a balance between overwhelming flavours and tannins. It's quite high on alcohol, 14,5%, but I was told that the Portuguese are not fan of low alcohol wines.
Quinta de S. José de Peramanca
Winemaking started at this part of Alentejo region in 2nd century BC by Romans. Ever since those times the area where currently Quinta de S. José de Peramanca is located has been known for unique terroir appreciated by royal power and church. From the XVI century the English became interested in Pera Manca wines and begun to export them.
D. Joao V, who reigned in the XVII century determined that wines of Pera Manca are to be consumed only by royals, pointing out that:
it is as good as any French wine that was good.
The modern history of this estate re-starts at 2003, when Joao Grave decided to return the productive origins to this land and plants the first grape vines of Pera-Grave. Today it's a not to miss spot on the Alentejo wine route.
The Grave family was linked since early XX century to agriculture and cattle breeding. João, the grandson of João Grave who bought the estate in XX century, decided to dedicate the land he inherited from his father to winemaking.
The vineyards lay on a granite mantel, which is 1-2 meter deep away, and sometimes reaches 200 meter depth. This specialty allows water to circulate at a more superficial level of soils, which explains why wines of this region were always known to be exceptional. Water irrigation systems didn't exist in those BC years.
Alentejo wine tasting at Pera-Grave winery:
- Pera-Grave Branco - a white with a long aftertaste and freshness (most probably driven by crisp Arinto). Stone fruits and citrus aromas, some oak vanilla and pleasant complexity.
- Pera-Grave Tinto - ripe dark fruits, oak aromas, black chocolate, plum, currant, and velvet tannins.
- Pera-Nova Tinto - very smooth and balanced, a great quality & price match, easy to pair with various food types, like seasoned dishes and grills.
- Pera-Grave Reserva 2015 - ripe dark fruits and berries, violet (coming from Touriga Nacional), has a persistent and long finish. A full bodied wine best matched with meat and game.
There are at least 58 more wineries which open their doors to visitors in Alentejo wine region. A lot to discover! Let me know if you need my help in booking your wine trip to Alentejo!