Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
The enjoyment of wine as an integral part of a meal is part of Portugal’s gastronomic heritage. This passion for wine reflects the enormous pride Portuguese winemakers have always taken in their wine quality. Technical knowledge reinforced by links with university research and investment in the most up-to-date production equipment are many times combined with traditional production methods to greatly improve the resulting wines.
Red table wines are made mostly from Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Alicante Bouschet, or Tinto Cão blended with a number of other varietals such as Pinot Noir, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Caladoc or Tinta Roriz to name but a few. Tinta Roriz or Aragonez are Portuguese names for Tempranillo, the leading indigenous grape used in making quality red wines in the Iberian Peninsula.
Alentejo is the name of one of the most important Portuguese wine producing areas, the largest viticultural area in Portugal; it covers about 1/3 of the entire country. Located on the Eastern part, slightly South from Lisbon and bordering Extremadura, Spain, Alentejo produces some easy-drinking, fruity white and 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.
Wine producing estates are scattered throughout the Alentejo area. Visiting these producers is an unforgettable experience. Some, such as Quinta do Carmo for example, are not only interesting for their beautiful wines but also for the magnificent gardens and stately homes built as early as the mid-16th century.
Actually, Quinta do Carmo is a spectacular palatial home built in the early 18th century by king 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 large swimming pool, with a white marble statue of Neptune over a group of Nereids and sea monsters in the center.
The wines are mostly labeled under the Dona Maria brand, with the 2012 Dona Maria Grande Reserva being one of the top reds from the region. It is a blend of 50% Alicante Bouschet, with Petit Verdot, Syrah and Touriga Nacional comprising the balance; the percentages of the additional varietals vary slightly each year depending on the quality of the harvest. I had tasted the 2011 vintage last year during my visit to the winery and thought it was exceedingly well made. The 2012 sample was sent to me as part of a group of 5 high-end Alentejo wines. I tasted it paired with charcoal-grilled (black and blue) fillet mignon, loved it, and would rate it at 94/100 points.
Another excellent Alentejo wine that I received for tasting was Herdade do Esporão’s 2013 Vinha das Palmeiras, Alicante Bouschet. This wine is produced only in exceptional years and is made from specific vineyard parcels that express the unique character of the Alicante Bouschet grape variety. This is a dark and silky wine with a full body that had a deep, concentrated color. On the nose and palate it exhibits ripe and bold berry fruit and dark chocolate and a hint of leather and cigar box. The finish was spicy with robust but integrated tannins. I would rate it at 92/100 points.
Herdade Mouchão Tinto 2013 was another bottle that gave me a lot of pleasure when I paired it with rare grilled lamb chops at a NYC steakhouse dinner. The wine is a blend of 73% Alicante Bouschet and 27% Trincadeira, another of the indigenous varietals the Portuguese winemakers use to improve an Alicante Bouschet wine. It is a wine powered by black fruits and juicy acidity, notable for hints of cedar, mint and cigar box. The entire winemaking process has remained practically the same since the 19th century; hand-harvesting and hand-selecting the grapes when they arrive at the winery, then they are foot-trodden and fermented in marble lagares (shallow stone cisterns) and aged for 24 months in 5,000-liter barrels of Portuguese oak and mahogany, and then another 24 to 36 months in bottle. Unfortunately, having tasted last year in Lisbon a 2011 bottle, the body was not as full in the 2013 as I expected, though the wine was eminently drinkable. I would rate this wine at 90/100 points.
There were 2 other bottles included as samples, Herdade do Ricim and Herdade dos Grous, both Alicante Bouschet based wines but I haven’t tasted them yet. I will review them in a future article.
To your health!
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