Portugal’s southeastern corner, Alentejo is home to grapevines and cork trees. The undulating landscape prevents the Atlantic Ocean from cooling the region, and the summers are hot – ripening grapes is not an issue here.
But balance can be.
Grapes ripen easily in the warm Alentejo sunshine, leaving it to growers to find the perfect picking window and blend varieties in the proper proportions.
I recently picked up a half bottle of Monte Velho 2016 Vinho Regional Alentejano. I was in the shop buying bubbles for New Year’s Eve and remembered I needed to restock on half bottles. If one only considers unit price, it is generally uneconomical to buy half bottles. However, half bottles are perfectly sized for tasting trios, wine-loving couples, or thirsty singles. Plus, empty half bottles are great for storing leftover wine (yes, there is leftover wine in my house).
I enjoyed a glass… I enjoyed two glasses – I needed that empty half bottle – with dinner the other night. My verdict? Read on to find out. But first, a bit about Portugal and its wines.
Portugal: Wines of Value
Portuguese wine had its heyday a couple centuries ago. Trade with England was strong. The Brits demanded Port, and the colonists loved their Madeira.
Then, some things happened. Wars broke out. Spain and France interfered with trade between England and Portugal. England and France started getting along, and the English bought French wine. Portugal fell under a dictatorial political regime.
Relatively recently, the Carnation Revolution ended Portugal’s authoritarian regime. The country joined the European Union in the 1980s. They were in the game.
More than Fortified Wines
Historically, Portugal built its international reputation on Madeira and Port (both of which are worth trying, if you haven’t already).
But Portugal offers much more than these selections.
Fortunately, I’ve witnessed growing recognition for the delicious, often inexpensive, table wines being produced throughout the country. Portuguese table wines can be labeled 1) DOC/DOP, 2) Vinho Regional, or, simply, 3) Vinho. 1) DOC/DOP wines are made according to the strictest requirements, which include permissible varieties, maximum yields, and minimum alcohol content. 2) Producers using the Vinho Regional label have a bit more flexibility, though the grapes must be sourced from within certain regional boundaries. Most of the wine Portugal exports falls within these two categories. (“Portugal is a net exporter of wine,” according to the Global Agricultural Information Network.) 3) Vinho requirements are the most lenient. Much of this wine remains in Portugal, where it is consumed young and regularly.
Having developed its own unique wine culture, Portugal is home to a number of indigenous varieties. Some grapes, such as Aragonez (known as Tempranillo in Spain), are grown across the Iberian Peninsula. Others, including Trincadeira and Touriga Nacional, are distinctly Portuguese. Aragonez, or Tempranillo (“little early one”), is an early-ripening variety, with a thick skin, making its wines deeply colored. The grape of Rioja and Ribera Del Duero, it’s also a key variety in Portugal. Trincadeira, is a tricky grape, with a short window of Goldilocks ripeness, not too green, not too ripe, but just right. Managing a short picking window can be challenging. In wine, trincadeira offers juicy plum and blackberry flavors. Known for its bold flavors, Touriga Nacional is used in Port and in red blends.
In addition to native varieties, some French grapes have found homes in Portuguese wine culture. Syrah and Viognier, both Rhone varieties, made inroads in Alentejo. Producers incorporate French varieties into blends and produce varietal wines.
Alentejo: Plateaus, Cork Groves, and Vineyards
Alentejo, found in the country’s southeast, is hot – literally and figuratively. Located at 38°34’N (approximately on par with Washington, D.C.), Alentejo has a continental climate. A series of plateaus blocks the modulating effects of the Atlantic Ocean, so summers are hot and winters cold. Alentejo is named for the Tejo River to the north. Also known as the Tagus or Tajo River, it begins in Spain and is the longest river to flow across the Iberian Peninsula, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean near Lisbon.
Wine at Hand: Monte Velho 2016 Vinho Regional Alentejano
Monte Velho 2016 is a red blend of 40% Aragonez (a.k.a. Tempranillo), 35% Trincadeira (a.k.a. Tinta Amarela), 20% Touriga Nacional, and a splash (5%) of Syrah.
The Verdict: Not Bad
Alongside a beet burger with roasted peppers, this bright, easy-to-drink red offered juicy plum, ripe raspberry, and tangy blackberry notes. (Carnivore note: the winemaker recommends pairing this lively, concentrated wine with pork or lamb.)
Is this the best wine I’ve ever had? No.
Did I enjoy it? Yes.
Was it a good value? I’d say so, especially considering what a glass of wine costs at the bar these days…