Full of southern promise

15 February, 2013

Alentejo has much to boast about. It is home to Portugal’s biggest selling brand, Herdade do Esporão (according to sales director Nicolas Giannone), it commands the biggest share of the domestic market and highest average retail price (€3.88) of any Portuguese region (Nielsen, year to July 31, 2010) and major UK players Sogrape, João Portugal Ramos and Herdade do Esporão confirm sales here are growing.

Waitrose wine buyer Nick Room says: “Alentejo is the best performing region in the Waitrose Portuguese range.”

To what does this southerly region owe this success? Its warm, dry climate for starters. This, combined with a rolling landscape well-suited to machine harvesting, enabled its open-minded producers to respond swiftly to export markets’ demand for fruit-driven, value-for-money wines. Large modern vineyards sprouted and production has almost doubled since 2002, according to the Instituto da Vinha e do Vinho.

Describing Alentejo reds as “friendly” and “great value,” Nick Oakley, of Oakley Wines, says “they’re fit to a T for the UK palate”. Fellow Portuguese specialist Raymond Reynolds reckons Alentejo “probably offers Portugal’s best range of good value reds in a friendly style”. He adds that “winemaking is often exemplary” and “modern fruity styles and the easy association of international varieties, together with Tempranillo [Aragones], have helped the category to expand”.

Fertile ground

Supermarkets have proved the most fertile ground for Oakley’s Alentejo range, notably Tesco Finest Touriga Nacional, which easily outsells the rest. Its nearest rival is export-friendly Tagus Creek Shiraz/Trincadeira, which is listed by Tesco and Asda. While Oakley believes these brands have helped boost Portugal’s overall sales, he identifies a problem: “Alentejo is filling up branded bot- tles rather than selling Alentejo [the region].” Consequently, compared with classical regions (the Douro, Dão, Vinho Verde), Alentejo has “struggled” to sell wines by provenance. Danny Cameron, director of Raymond Reynolds, agrees that Alentejo itself “simply doesn’t have any image at all”. Reynolds says Alentejo needs both to be more cemented as a brand and to better define itself within sub-regions to reap its full potential in the UK.

Cementing an identity isn’t easy for a region the size of Belgium, with eight sub- regions which, with a couple of iconic exceptions (Cartuxa and Herdade do Mouchão), has a short history of quality winemaking. Modern pioneers such as João Portugal Ramos, Herdade do Esporão, Cortes de Cima and Quinta do Mouro only produced their first wines in the 1990s. Still, thanks to an explosion of producers (from 45 to 260 between 1995 and 2010) and the ensuing planting frenzy, Alentejo now has the critical mass to make itself better heard, even if its regional identity remains a work in progress.

With new plantings, increased competition and more experience, the region is undergoing an exciting period of self-dis- covery as more serious, structured wines emerge. Credited by Portuguese wine magazine Revista de Vinhos with changing perceptions of Alentejo, and named its 2011 Winemaker of the Year, Susana Esteban is at the vanguard with top reds such as Tiago Cabaço “Blog” and Solar dos Lobos Grande Escolha. She says she is astounded by the quality which can be achieved from young Alentejo vines, and believes that, with the right varieties, site and yields, Alentejo’s wines can equal those of the Douro, where she cut her teeth.

Quality revolution

Rethinking grape varieties has heavily influ- enced Alentejo’s quality revolution. Óscar Gato, winemaker at Adega de Borba, says: “Our original varieties with our climate are notsogoodforfreshnessorvarietalaroma.”

Herdade do Peso (owned by Sogrape, Portugal’s biggest wine company) and Vidigueira neighbour Herdade do Rocim are far from alone in their moves towards longer-cycle varieties better suited to a hot climate, such as Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Both producers’ flagship wines are 100% Alicante Bouschet which, Raymond Reynolds’ Cameron points out, Alentejo can “almost uniquely turn into a silk purse”.

Increasingly popular Chardonnay was added to Peso’s white blend in 2012, while Gato is one of Alvarinho’s growing fans, valuing it for “its mature fruit aromas, freshness and acidity”. Esporão is experimenting with Alvarinho as well as Rhône and Douro varieties Viosinho and Gouveio.

Other viticultural innovations include higher canopies for improved aeration and techniques such as semi-sprawl for better shading, which help phenolic maturation keep pace with sugar ripeness. Judicious irrigation and earlier harvesting has improved freshness. But Sogrape’s Luís Cabral de Almeida says: “We need to show more Alentejoandgodeeperintothevineyard.”He believes micro-zoning the vineyard and micro-vinifying small batches by soil type and exposure has improved elegance and refinement. Ícone, Peso’s new flagship, is one outcome. Similarly, João Portugal Ramos’s just-released Estremus is from several rows of Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira planted on limestone.

High altitude comes into play at Portalegre whose wines, whites especially, most starkly contrast with Alentejo’s stereotype for jammy commercial reds. Aside from the cooler weather which

attracted Esporão (its first big player), leading consultant Rui Reguinga and wine writers Richard Mayson and João Afonso, Portalegre is unusually blessed with aged field-blend vineyards.

Esteban (for her new eponymous label) and renowned Lisbon chef Vitor Claro are buying field-blend grapes for truly artisanal wines. Dominó Monte das Pratas Branco 2010, which Claro describes as “not a consensual style”,was selected by Julia Harding MW for her 50 Great Portuguese Wines 2012.

As the body of producers showcasing Alentejo’s high quality potential and sub-regional diversity grows, it’s surely only a matter of time before it becomes known for premium wines of provenance as well as “friendly” styles. Recent national listings for Peso’s Vinha do Monte (rrp £8.49) and João Portugal Ramos’ Ramos Reserva (rrp £8.49) and F’oz (rrp £9.99) suggest the tide is turning, while Quinta do Mouro’s prestigious listings at Selfridges (£37.99) and Michelin- starred Pollen Street Social (£99) indicate there’s an appetite for top-end terroir-driven wines.

Anthony Habert, national accounts director at Stevens Garnier, is convinced it’s “just an education thing,” while Waitrose’s Room speculates Alentejo “would get further if more people knew that Aragones was Tempranillo”. Or just maybe it’s time for Alentejo to tell its own story?

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