Drinking through some Portugal wine regions. Douro, Dão, Alentejo and Setubal.
Foot Trodden (2021), a recent book on Portuguese wine, covers these eight regions: Minho, Douro, Dao, Bairrada, Colares, Ribatejo, Alentejo and Madeira (home of one of the most age-worthy wines). Other regions noted are Algarve, Setubal, Beiras Interior, Tránsmontano, Bucelas, VR Lisbon and Carcavelos. This is part of an occasional focus on Portugal over the next month or two and I’ll try to get my hands on more of the country's wines. Thanks to O'Brien's for their help with this selection. Any tips or help will be most welcome!
Esporão Reserva Alentejo (DO) 2020, 14% ABV, €29.95 O’Briens Wine
Sparsely populated Alentejo, not as well known perhaps as the Douro or Dao, is a well regarded wine region in the east of Portugal and is where this multi grape blend, “typical of the best Alentejo wines”, comes from. Colour is an intense ruby. Aromas are rich, of black fruit jam with toasty notes. Made with estate grown grapes, it has an intense rich character. Rich and complex with more black fruit, with spice, on the palate, tannins on the lips. Long and persistent finish.
Varieties used in this Esporão are: Alicante Bouschet, Aragonês, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz / Syrah, Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira. List may not be precise and may vary from year to year.
It has spent 12 months in American (60%) and French (40%) oak barrels. After bottling, at least another 4 months of aging in the bottle followed. Good match for roast and grilled red meats and stronger cheese. Very Highly Recommended.
Back to the current wine, the first wine made by Esporão in 1985. “A classic obtained exclusively from our organic grapes. The diversity of Herdade do Esporão, together with the different characteristics of the grape varieties, the soils, the maturity of the vines and the character of those who make this wine consistently over the years, results in a rich, intense but always harmonious wine.”
We are used to associating amphorae with wine in the likes of Georgia. These large clay vessels see wine rest on its pulp for long periods. Colour and flavour is enhanced and often the white wines produced are called orange wines. Alentejo is the home of amphorae in Portugal where they have a long history (since Roman times) and are called talha. As it happens Esporão make some wine by this method. See their short video here.
They say: Reflecting the characteristics of vineyards and carefully selected grape varieties, these wines are vinified in old clay amphorae (talhas as we call them in the Alentejo), using ancient local techniques brought to the Alentejo by the Romans. Using an artisanal process, and spurning the use of yeasts, we aim to produce natural wines that are straightforward, authentic and vibrant.
To read more about the history of the Talha in Alentejo (and the story of Portuguese wine in general) read the very informative Foot Trodden.
Setúbal with Península Das Vinhas Vinho Tinto (Vinho Regional Península De Setubal) 2021, 13.5% ABV, €10.00 (down from €14.45) O’Briens Wine
This dry robust red from Setúbal, with its blue and white striped neck reminding me of a lighthouse, is a blend of a little of Alicante Bouschet and mostly of the local variety Castelão (that the World Wine Atlas says may be described as “warm-climate Pinot Noir”).
Castelão’s reincarnation in the area in a lighter fresher style has led to it being widely planted in Setúbal where the sandy soils and plentiful sunshine suit it. According to the label, the Alicante Bouschet adds colour, body, black fruit fragrance and a hint of spice to Castelão’s fresher red fruit palate. Castleão is now a major red grape across Portugal's main areas of production, and used in a variety of wine colors, styles and blends.
The aromatics of our Tinto indicate ripe red fruit with a hint of smoke. And that rich fruit, now with a spicy spike, is part of full bodied tannic wine that has character enough to take on a host of dishes though Wine Searcher.com suggest hearty dishes such as Pork and Bean Soup or Mushroom risotto. “Grilled light meals such as grilled chicken thighs would also match well.” So bring it to the BBQ in the months ahead. Highly Recommended.
Made by Casa Ermelinda Freitas, a significant family-owned established in the area in 1920 and run by successive generations of dynamic women, this is a supple, juicy red which may be enjoyed on its own or with a host of dishes. However, if you are lucky enough to have some Portuguese famous custard tarts at hand then the wine you need is the region’s famous Moscatel de Setúbal.
The Setúbal Peninsula is the Portuguese wine region immediately southeast of Lisbon, crossing the Tagus estuary. The terroir in the area ranges from the sandy coastal plains to the rugged, limestone-rich hills of the Serra Arribida.
I got my first taste of Setubal wines, and an indication of their quality and good value about ten years ago, when Maurice O’Mahony’s Wine Alliance imported quite a few to Ireland. The area has a long history of wine but only recently began making a name for itself abroad. More here.
Casa Ermelinda Freitas Vinhos was founded in 1920 and from the beginning made the quality of its vineyards and wines a top priority. The year of the company’s new beginning in wine making didn’t come 1997, when a red wine “Terras do Pó Tinto”, was the first to be produced and bottled on the premises of the Ermelinda Freitas winery.
Symington Altano Organic Douro (DOC) 2020, 13.5% ABV, €18.45 O’Briens Wine
The Douro is perhaps the best know of the Portuguese wine regions, mainly because if its historic connections with Port. And the Symington family are one of those old (originally) British families that were involved in the trade for no less than 130 years. But now, like quite a few other Port families, they are making more and more still wine.
The British love of Port goes back centuries, at least to the late 17th when it was used as a replacement for claret that the Brits couldn’t get their hands on due to war with France. And they fell in love with the fortified sweet wines.
Meanwhile, the locals were enjoying their own simple table wine, even the infants were drinking wine rather than water, according to the chapter on the Douro in Foot Trodden.
Back then, only the poorer grapes not wanted for Port were used for the local wine but it is a different story nowadays and the quality of Portuguese wines is rising all the time even if consumers don’t have the easy way of knowing the grapes as they do with mono-varietal wines from other countries, say Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or Malbec from Argentina. But consumers are learning all the time and Portuguese wines are becoming widely appreciated.
The Douro Valley is a spectacular place and draws all kinds of tourists including of course wine lovers. As you know, much the same grapes are used for port as for still red wine.
The grape varieties for our Altano are Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional and Tinto Cão; it is one hundred percent organic. The advice is to serve it at 14 to 17 degrees centigrade. It is evidently ready for immediate consumption but “has the potential to continue developing favourably up to 6 years”.
Colour of this beautifully balanced organic red wine is a deep garnet. Scents of ripe red fruits are noted. On the palate it is fresh, smoothly intense, a sweet hint of smooth tannins and, with noticeably good acidity, is harmonious all the way through to a long finish. This elegant wine is Very Highly Recommended.
It has been and is a winner for the Symingtons whose expertise clearly shows in this gorgeous organic red.
.“For five generations we have combined our passion for producing premium ports and wines with a deep commitment to the region's land and people. Our family was amongst the pioneers of modern Douro wines. In the 1990s we began producing Douro DOC wines from the same vineyards and indigenous grape varieties that had always made great port. We released the first Altano red in 1999 and we haven't looked back. Today, the Altano range enjoys global distribution and the wines have received widespread recognition for their quality and distinctiveness.”
Fonte do Ouro Tinto Dão (DOC) 2020, 13.5% ABV, €17.25, O'Briens Wine
Like many Portuguese wines, this is a blend. All three grapes used are popular in the region. The Alfrocheiro adds depth of colour, Touriga Nacional (with its expressive violet scent) is considered to be the country’s finest, while Jaen is the local name for the what the Spanish call Mencía. By the way, Touriga Nacional probably started “life” in the Dão, mostly a granite plateau with the eponymous river running through it.
Importers and distributors O’Brien’s: A delicious red, showcasing the quality of winemaking in the Dão region of Portugal. Aged for 6 months in French oak it is a blend of indigenous grapes: primarily Touriga Nacional.
Dão is one of the oldest established wine regions of Portugal, located just south of the famous Douro Valley. The mountainous region is home to Touriga Nacional, the principle variety of port wine, and only became a DOC in 1990.
The region’s wine industry, for so long shackled by the dictator Salazar’s imposed cooperative system that rewarded quantity over quality, certainly needed the improvement in quality which has taken place in the last 30 years or so.
Ironically, Salazar himself had vines in the wild and rugged regiona and a string of coops were set up but the emphasis was always on quantity not quality. Even though Salazar departed in 1968 and the Carnation Revolution of six years later finally ended the influence of his policies and those of his like-minded successors, the Däo was in the doldrums until well into the 1990s when EU policy and its monetary help provided the kiss of life and the area began to put its reputation for producing what Jancis Robinson termed “some of the…. most uncharming wines in the world” behind it.
The top Dão wines are now some of the most highly rated in Europe, winning consistent praise on both sides of the Atlantic, says wine-searcher.com. “It is in the north of the country. It takes its name from the Dão river, along which the majority of the region's vineyards are located.” More praise from the World Atlas of Wine saying they are now “..far juicier, friendlier, more elegant wines”.
A government study in 2017 listed no fewer than 230 indigenous varieties in Portugal and, according to the marvellous Foot Trodden, there are many many more yet to be identified. No wonder there are so many blends in the country.
Our blend has a dark ruby colour. Fairly rich aromas of blackberry, dark cherry and plum. There’s a great mix of the fruit flavours on the palate, with a touch of spice, smooth with elegant tannins and a very satisfying and persistent finish. This supple and fresh wine, full of vitality, has spent six months in oak and should be served at 16 to 18 degrees and will go well with red meats.
Full of Dão character and Very Highly Recommended as is the book Foot Trodden!.
Sociedade Agrícola Boas Quintas, born in 1991, was part of the revival. It all began when Nuno Cancela de Abreu, representative of the 4th generation of a family with farming and winemaking tradition of more than 130 years, decided to devote all of his experience and all of his knowledge in viticulture and oenology, to the service of the project that would allow him to create high quality wines, full of character and personality. See more here.
Boas Quintas also make an excellent Fonte do Ouro white, a blend of Arinto and Encruzado, more details here.