If it seems to you like everyone and their Uncle is headed to Portugal these days, you’re not alone. The country is finally getting its due in tourism for its friendly natives, beautiful beaches, historic cities, and wine!
But while everyone might linger in Lisbon or sip port in Porto, Pursuitist suggests you plan your visit to Portugal around the Alentejo region. Alentejo, meaning literally, “behind the Tagus” river, is a distinctive and relatively flat landscape surrounded by hills and mountain regions that encompasses over a third of Portugal.
This seemingly endless open countryside has all of the castles, churches, cork forests and Roman ruins you could care to explore. But its vineyards are what is making it “the most happening area in Portugal right now,” according to wine educator and Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein.
The entire region is an ever-changing canvas of color. Calming in some seasons and more vibrant in others, Alentejo is a serene, idyllic part of the world to make wine. Yet its wines — like the region itself — are rich, complex, and have a relatively unknown history.
Wine has always been an important part of this region’s way of life, with evidence showing that viticulture was already part of the fabric of the area even before the Romans arrived in Portugal. The country’s 6,000 year wine tradition is strong — indeed, parts of Portugal are still making rare Roman style wines today — and visitors will delight in Alentejo’s rustic productions, even sometimes finding wild vineyards near river streams.
“The quality of life [in Alentejo] is no rush, things like to take their time,” explains Tiago Caravana, Marketing Manager of Wines of Alentejo. “It’s all about nature’s rhythm.”
Eight distinct wine regions make up the Alentejo, with Alicante (pronounced Ah-lee-cant) Bouschet, a singular grape variety (“but not one of the usual grapes” according to Goldstein) being the signature grape of the region. In fact, this country the size of Indiana or Maine seems to have gone ‘all in’ on the Alicante grape… it has the 9th most planted acreage in the world!
The grape is a product of a cross between Petit Bouschet and Grenache grapes; it’s a dense black fruit that is a highly regarded red wine grape. Despite its — until recent— relative obscurity in the United States, it happens to be one of the most planted red wine grapes in the world, and it is only gaining in popularity. (Proving this, Vivino recently shared that Portugese table wine, like Alenteju’s Alicante Bouschet, was the #1 fastest growing category on the app.)
What is an Alicante Bouschet like? Taste a Dona Maria Grande Reserva Tinto, an Herdade de São Miguel, or a Paulo Laureano and you’ll get a feel for its inky range. In fact, there are 66 wineries in the Alentejo region you can visit, and almost all of them will have an Alicante Bouschet to taste and remark upon.
Because Alicante grapes grow best in the Mediterranean climate, they thrive in the Alentejo, intermingling with the area’s cork trees and holm oaks. Opaque in color and changing dramatically with air, Alicante Bouschet wines are full-bodied, extremely aromatic, well rounded, smooth, and age with distinction.
With tasting notes of black cherry, blueberry, black plum and current, Portugal’s Alicante Bouschet’s are “not fruit bombs to be sure” according to Goldstein. They are drier, more minerally, leathery or “meaty” and pair best with protein driven food.
To be sure, Alicante Bouschets are easy to find and taste all over Alentejo, as wine routes have become the most visible form of wine tourism in Portugal — and Alentujo is well represented. In addition to simple tours and meal tastings, some wineries now even include rural hotels and outings to other points of interest, so guests can marvel at the region’s white-washed houses and villages full of history while enjoying tasting Portugal’s timeless traditions.