Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Better Alentejo Wines
Some exceptional wines using mostly indigenous grapes are made in the Portuguese Alentejo DOC.
What is interesting is that many of the wineries retain their ancient marble cisterns where grapes are still foot-pressed and then aged in very large concrete vats or barrels (foudre) of Portuguese or French oak, making wines the old-fashioned way; wines that are as good and interesting as ones from more modern wineries where grapes are softly pressed with pneumatic presses, fermented in controlled-temperature stainless steel tanks and aged in stainless tanks.
Whichever production methodology is used in these wineries it seems to result in excellent wines. This proves that the quality of the grapes and the palate and knowledge of the wine-maker are far more important than the type or age of the equipment he/she is using.
The most interesting Portuguese DOC I know of Alentejo is the largest viticultural area in Portugal; covering almost 1/3 of the entire country. Located on the Eastern part, slightly South from Lisbon and bordering Extremadura, Spain, Alentejo produces both easy-drinking, fruity white and light red wines as well as some very serious reds that can easily compete as being some of the best wines produced in the Iberian Peninsula.
The first winery I wish to mention is the Júlio Bastos Dona Maria Vinhos in Estremoz, also known as Quinta do Carmo.
It is a “regal” estate, a palatial house built in the early 18th century by the then king of Portugal João V for his mistress, Dona Maria. A very large green lawn separates the house from the winery with a magnificent marble entrance in the center back leading to a formal garden that includes an ancient irrigation cistern the size of a swimming pool, with a white marble statue of Neptune over a group of nereides and sea monsters. Absolutely magnificent but, I guess, when you are the king of an important nation -- as Portugal was in the 18th century -- you can indulge your fantasies to charm your mistress.
In 2001, Júlio Bastos acquired the estate and in 2002 bought a vineyard which is now over 50 years old and located near the estate. The harvest is strictly manual.
The predominant red grape varieties in the vineyard are Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Nacional. In addition, there are plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Aragonês to be used in making red blends. The white grape varieties are Viognier an international grape, as well as some Arinto and Antão Vaz, both indigenous varietals. The wines are mostly labeled under the Dona Maria brand.
The only rosé produced is a blend from 50% Aragonês and 50% Touriga National grapes. The juice is not allowed to contact the skins and is aged in 60% French, 40% American oak barriques. It is a delicate, light, almost eye-of-the-partridge colored wine with aromas of strawberries and citrus fruit dominating this lovely, summer indulgence.
Their top wines are: Júlio B. Bastos, Alicante Bouschet. It is the only non-Dona Maria branded red, a wine from select grapes of old Alicante Bouschet vines, foot-trodden in the marble cisterns; it is matured for 14 months in new French oak barriques. The wine shows a dark ruby color with plum, kirsch, blackberry and chocolate aromas. The silky and intense finish shows round mature tannins. I would rate this wine at 89/100 points.
The Dona Maria Grande Reserva is a blend of 25% each Petit Verdot, Alicante Bouschet, Syrah and Touriga National. It has a beautiful dark ruby red color and aromas of ripe red and black woodland berries with a faint hint of sandalwood. The palate is rich and spicy showing red fruits, silky tannins and a very long and persistent finish. This wine is rated at 94/100 points.
The Dona Maria Amantis Reserva White was an unoaked 100% Viognier. A nice wine, very aromatic and well balanced; it is a food wine that will pair very well with seafood and fish, especially fatty fish because of the light, vibrant acidity. However, I could also see it being paired with a nice spit-roasted piglet or even a stuffed breast of veal. I would rate this wine at 89/100 points.
The second winery in my Alentejo investigations is the João Portugal Ramos Adega Vila Santa, located in another 18th century noble house. This winery is part of a group with other wineries in the Duro Valley; Tejo, Beiras (Quinta de Foz de Arouce) and a new project in the Monção region producing Vinho Verde.
The wines are branded under the Marquês de Borba, Vila Santa, Quinta da Viçosa Single Vineyard, Loios and Pouca Roupa labels.
Outstanding of the wines I tasted was the Marquês de Borba Reserva, an interesting blend of 30% Trincadeira, 30% Aragonês, 25% Alicante Bouschet, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, a deep red hued wine, redolent of jammy red and black fruit with hints of cedar and oriental spices. The palate is elegant with well integrated tannins and a long finish. I would rate this wine at 91/100 points.
But the highlight of this exploration was the 2012 Estremus, a rich, ripe, jammy blend of Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira. As far as I’m concerned this was one of the best wines I have recently tasted, Portuguese or otherwise, with pure fruit and exquisite depth. This wine I would rate at 96/100 or 97/100 points. The Estremus bottles are available in limited European markets but the Winebow Group that imports the João Portugal Ramos wines in the US unfortunately does not import this particular outstanding wine. A pity!
Another winery whose wine I enjoyed was from CARMIM, a cooperative that has approximately 850 members, corresponding to 3600 hectares of vineyards. The vineyards grow surrounding a medieval village.
The CARMIM wine I tasted and liked was Reguengos Garrafeira dos Sócios, a wine that I would consider as “almost rustic” even though the suggested retail is just in the under $50 per bottle range. It is a blend of Alicante Bouschet (65%) - Touriga Nacional (20%) and Tinta Caiada (15%); deep purple, complex with red fruit, blackberry, raisins, vanilla and dark chocolate on the nose; full-bodied with powerful tannins and good acidity with smooth black currant, dark cherries, plums, and chocolate on the palate with raisins, pepper and eucalyptus and lingering spice on the long finish. I rate it at 90/100 points. Good with roast lamb, piglet on the spit or even a roasted goat.
Another wine I recently tasted was the 2018 Herdade dos Grous Tinto, an interesting blend of hand harvested Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, Touriga Nacional and Aragonêze using prolonged maceration in open lagares and later matured in French oak barriques for 9 months. It is good value for a suggested retail at under $20 per bottle. Deep vivid garnet color with complex aromas of ripe red and black fruit, plums, spice, hints of mint and cedar; rich fruit on the palate concentrated with a long finish. I rate it 87/100 points and it was very good with a grilled Angus T-bone.
To your health!
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