From Newark, I took a trip to Portugal. I didn’t fly out of the international airport. I didn’t visit the vibrant Ironbound District.
Instead, I found myself in the oak forests and vineyards of Alentejo, transported by a dozen wines in an afternoon tasting. A two-hour bout of midday drinking is, in the world of wine, considered “professional development.” Also, a micro-vacation.
Alentejo is booming these days. Tourists from around the world visit for birdwatching in the forests of cork and oak trees and tastings at wineries old and new. While the wine tourism may be new for this rural region in southeastern Portugal, winemaking has a long history, predating even Roman settlements. That said, the Romans made quite an impact, establishing a wine culture and introducing tools and techniques that are still used today.
In Portugal’s southeast, Alentejo is almost entirely landlocked save for a narrow strip along the Mediterranean coast. This little exposure to the sea is enough to create a wind tunnel and a slightly cooler area for white wine production. The entire region is about the size of Belgium or Massachusetts, in a country that is itself only the size of Indiana or Maine. Despite its small size and seemingly inhospitable, hot, dry climate, Alentejo is a wine powerhouse, producing considerable amounts of both wine and cork. Across Portugal, wine drinkers favor the wines of Alentejo. The afternoon’s tasting encouraged us American wine professionals to drink like we were locals in Portugal.
Since working in wine retail, I have developed a soft spot for Portuguese wines, which include a great range beyond the traditional fortified Port. Why?
- They offer great value. Whether you need an everyday red, a spritzy summer white, or a few bottles for a party, Portuguese wines generally offer a good deal of bang for the buck.
- They’re entirely unique. Given the country’s location, diverse topography, and preponderance of indigenous varieties, Portugal produces wines that can only be Portuguese (yet are also able to satisfy the cravings of Sauvignon Blanc lovers, Cabernet Sauvignon devotees, Syrah diehards, and other picky palates).
The tasting I attended was blind, meaning we did not know the identities of the wines before swirling and sipping. We jotted down tasting notes before learning about the varieties, sub-regions, and producers represented in the lineup of a dozen wines.
I was surprised by the vibrant acidity of the white wines, considering how hot Alentejo gets in July and August. High elevation vineyards are a bit cooler, helping preserve that freshness, and the indigenous varieties have adapted to the intense local conditions.
The reds ranged from soft, floral, and Beaujolais-like to meaty, thick, and Syrah-like, depending on the grape varieties, winemaking style, terroir, and other factors. Most were 14% alcohol by volume and above. Few, however, felt “hot,” a term used to describe wines in which the alcohol sticks out like a sore thumb. In these wines, the alcohol, though certainly present, is integrally balanced with other components like acid, tannins, and flavor. The reds provided a surprising burst of freshness on the palate, even in the densest wines – wines that, when I held the glass against the paper, I couldn’t read the text through the liquid!
Most of the wines, like Portuguese wines more generally, were blends that included rarer indigenous varieties as well as familiar French varieties.
In terms of gastronomy, Alentejo is known for olive oil, lamb, pork, chickpeas, oregano, and tomatoes. With its fields of wheat, the region is also the bread basket of the country. Let those ingredients inspire your own micro-vacation to Alentejo from the comfort of your kitchen.
Heck, we’re just in time for Jersey tomatoes, fresh at the local farmers’ market. Chop up some juicy red tomatoes, toss them with chickpeas in good olive oil, and season with salt and oregano. Pick up a loaf of crusty bread and a bottle of Alentejo wine. You’ve got a great summer evening ahead of you.
P.S. Want to learn more? Check out Wines of Alentejo.