Of course, saying you like the wines of Portugal is like saying you like the wines of Italy, which I also do; but both countries are very broad and produce wines in a huge range of styles. Portugal has many regions that produce great wines. The Douro, for example, is world-renowned primarily for the port wines produced there, but increasingly for the dry red wines as well. Today’s tasting takes a brief look at one of the merging powerhouses of Portuguese wines: Alentejo. I tasted eight wines, all but one can regularly be found for less than $10 a bottle and even the premium bottle is just twice the price – a relative value, nonetheless. The question is, is it worth it?
The last 20 years have seen significant development in the region, fueled by the market, availability of the appropriate lands and of course the climate. This is not coastal Portugal, as so much of the nation is; but rather it’s an interior region that climatically shares more with neighboring Spain than the majority of Portugal’s regions.
The Alentejo is a place of paradoxes, vinously speaking. There are certainly roughly two ideas at work here: one more traditional; the other more modern, but as is so often the case, the terroir trumps many such efforts. The traditionalists are often stymied by the weather, this warmth that tends to transmit into the vines and wines a luxury that may rarely be associated with traditional wines.
On the other hand, the modernists are tied (reluctantly or not) to some of the indigenous grapes that have – very rightly so – made Portugal famous. These grapes love the heat after all; and while the Alentejo imbues them with opulence, there is no taming some of the rustic qualities that make these grapes so special.
So where does that leave us? Mostly with fabulous wines that merge somewhere in the center of the spectrum. Cabernet, and more so Syrah, has staked a claim to some of these lands. But the truth of the matter is,that Aragonez (aka Arragonez, Aragones and Tempranillo), Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and the like have a hold on Portugal’s winemakers – and for that we rejoice. We can welcome the addition of some Cab or Syrah when it’s met with the unbending character of grapes like this. What results is something new, yes slightly familiar perhaps, but so different that it’s very hard to compare these wines to the wines of other countries.
Sometimes winemaking makes such an impression that one might be tempted, as I have been, to compare a wine to Bordeaux, for example. But in general, these are wines that have no peers. That’s not to say they have no equals, only to say that these wines are for the most part very individualistic with great structural components mated to lean, fresh fruits.
To me, this is a very appealing combination. To others, these wines might be a bit too rustic; nothing a bit of food can’t cure! I’ll take a look at some of Portugal’s other regions over the next several months, but I thought beginning with the relatively approachable, available and affordable wines of the Alentejo would serve as a great introduction to those of you who have forgotten about Portugal’s dry red wines, as well as for those of you who may never had the pleasure of their company.