Portugal: Paradigms and Paradoxes

Portugal is, vinously speaking, an odd place. A small country, squeezed into the extreme southwestern corner of Europe, its language is nevertheless one of the most widely spread and widely spoken in the world. And it has a history of wine making as long and as important as any in Europe. But for all the intensity of its viticulture, Portuguese wine is not that well known – though that may be changing.

For one thing – one very big thing – it’s not all Port. Portugal possesses a great number of indigenous grape varieties with long histories of cultivation and high-quality vinification. In addition, the native varieties have been supplemented, post-phylloxera, by a selection of French grapes, some the usual suspects but also some surprises. This is true of all Portugal’s provinces, but nowhere more so than in the Alentejo, a large province that encloses some of the country’s most important wine-growing zones.

About two weeks back I attended a morning-long presentation of many Alentejo wines. The format opened first with a 12-bottle tasting of the wide range of the area’s wines, followed by a second, more focused 12-bottle tasting.  Evan Goldstein was the leader of the seminar. (He was joined at lunch by Josh Greene, the publisher of Wine & Spirits Magazine, a long-time partisan of Portugal’s wines. Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the lunch and so missed Greene’s remarks, but he published a very interesting article about vineyards in a special part of Alentejo in the April 2017 issue of W&S – “Marble Terroir.”)

The second tasting/presentation concerned not simply the wines of Alentejo – that’s still a pretty broad field – but focused exclusively on wines made with the Alicante Bouschet grape. Here’s a major Portuguese puzzle:  Alicante Bouschet, though the most important red grape in the entire Alentejo – probably the most important grape, period, in the Alentejo province – is not native to Portugal. In fact, it’s not a naturally occurring grape anywhere. It was invented in 1866 by Henri Bouschet, who produced it by crossing Grenache with Petit Bouschet, itself a hybrid devised by Henri’s father from Aramon noir and Teinturier. It was widely planted in France after the devastations of phylloxera when growers needed a vigorous, heavy-bearing vine to rebuild production quickly. For the same reasons, Alicante was brought into Portugal, where it has thrived, even though it is now declining in France.

Nowadays in France, Alicante Bouschet is generally regarded as a rather rustic grape, and out of favor for that reason. In Portugal, on the other hand, that hearty rusticity seems to be prized, and some growers also contend that older Alicante vines can yield very elegant wines. And some enthusiasts are backing up their opinions by making 100% Alicante wines. These are still not common in Portugal (though we had several for the Alentejo tasting) and are certainly a great rarity anywhere else.

So, in some respects, is Alicante Bouschet itself, and not simply in the sense that it isn’t as widely planted outside Portugal as once it was. Its greatest distinction is that it’s one of the very few red-fleshed grapes in cultivation, and as such it gives deeply flavored and deeply colored juices – sure indications of its Teinturier descent.

What Alicante contributes to most blends is color, body, and a generous dose of tannins. Young Alicante vines in particular show real vigor, both in the amount of grapes they bear – so serious green harvesting is an absolute necessity – and in the vivacity and intensity of flavor of the grapes. For all those reasons, Alicante Bouschet is highly prized in Alentejo blends.

The tasting portion of the seminar encompassed a good selection of both monovarietal and blended Alicante wines. None of the wines was older than six years, which I thought was a real shame, because I sensed that most of the selected wines had significant aging potential. I would have liked to taste what a really mature specimen had grown into, to help me understand what I should be looking for and paying attention to in younger specimens. Without that, and especially with a group of wines I’m not familiar with, I’m really flying blind. So my reactions to the wines at the tasting may be way off base – for good or for ill. Be that as it may, here are the wines (in the order they were presented) and my thoughts about them.

2011 Grande Riserva Tinto from Adega de Borba
Berry-ish nose; soft palate of a vaguely blackberry flavor, with good acidity and a long, slightly sweet finish. Evidently capable of much greater life and development. A blend of Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira, a native grape of great potential and importance throughout Alentejo. This wine is made only in top-notch vintages.

2014 Alicante Bouschet
from Terras de Alter

Less aromatic than the preceding wine, but much richer in the mouth, with more pronounced berry fruit. Long licorice/black fruit finish.

2011 Dona Maria Grande Reserva Tinto from Julio Bastos
Vinified half from Alicante, half from a mix of Syrah, Petit Verdot, and the native Touriga Nacional. Palatally somewhat like the preceding wine, with a drier, more austere finish. This wine is a perfect emblem of the cross-currents of Portuguese winemaking, both in its blend of native and foreign grapes and in its cellar treatment: The grapes are crushed by foot in ancient marble troughs, then aged in new oak barriques.

2011 Grande Escolha Joaquim Cerejo from Herdade Fonte Paredes
30% each of Alicante and Touriga Nacional, plus 20% each of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Light berry nose, berry and light plum palate, with a medium-length licorice-y finish. High alcohol (16˚), but not at all hot.

2014 Monte do Zambujeiro from Quinta do Zambujeiro
35% Alicante, the rest predominantly native grape varieties. Stainless-steel fermented, French-oak aged. Mulberry/licorice nose and palate, with some leather on palate and in finish. Very young: definitely wants some time to develop.

2012 AB Alicante Bouschet from Esporão
A seemingly very young 100% Alicante, still quite closed. It seems promising, but needs lots of time to develop.

2012 Monsaraz Alicante Bouschet from Carmim
Another 100% Alicante of the same vintage, but this one seems much more open: high acid/herbal nose; herbs and berries in the mouth; licorice and leather in the finish. This was one of the most interesting wines of the tasting, from an obviously high-achieving co-op.

2013 Alicante Bouschet
from Tiago Cabaço

Another interesting 100% Alicante, a little closed in the nose, but showing nice black fruits and walnuts on the palate, with a robust, leathery, tannic finish. Very obviously structured for the long haul.

2014 Grande Escolha from Solar do Lobos
A blend of Alicante, Touriga Nacional, and Syrah. Earthy aroma. On the palate, nuts – walnuts especially – and mineral notes. Black fruit/leather finish. Already rounding nicely into shape.

2014 Menino António from Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
A 100% Alicante wine marked by black fruits and earth aromas and flavors, with abundant soft tannins. Leather and dried plum finish. 15˚ alcohol but not at all hot. (Many of these wines have been high alcohol, but all have been sufficiently balanced so that it was not an assertive characteristic.)

2014 Herdade São Miguel Alicante Bouschet from Alexandre Relvas
100% Alicante. The sheets provided at the tasting said this was a 2014, but the vintage information provided by the producer said 2015. I am inclined to believe the latter, because this wine tasted to me so young and closed that I find it impossible to say anything at all about it.

2015 Moon Harvested Alicante Bouschet from Herdade do Grous
Another very young 100% Alicante, this one a little less closed than the preceding, giving a little mulberry on the palate and a little nut-and-fruit-leather in the finish, but still really impossible to say anything definitive about.

The morning’s first tasting, the broad survey of Alentejo wines, had presented two other wines containing significant amounts of Alicante Bouschet, a 2012 Tinto from Adega do Monte Branco and 2012 Vinhas da Ira Tinto from Herdade da Mingorra. The latter was a very promising mix of old-vine Alicante and Touriga Nacional that seemed to be just hitting its stride at five years of age. The former blended 70% Alicante with 30% Aragonez (the local name for Tempranillo) to produce an attractive wine with subdued mulberry aromas (that seems to be an Alicante trademark, at least in Portugal) and a soft, merlot-like palate. It finished slightly short, but was nevertheless quite pleasing.

All in all, it was a very instructive morning for me.

5 Responses to “Portugal: Paradigms and Paradoxes”

  1. Jane Kettlewell Says:

    A tasting of older vintages — definitely something to look into, Tom, with a view to next time around. So glad you enjoyed the event and saw fit to write about it. Only sorry that you had to bow out of the lunch and the wonderful wines that accompanied it.

  2. Andrzej Daszkiewicz Says:

    Hi Tom, if you ever have a chance, taste Alicante Bouschet wines from Herdade do Mouchão, one of the main specialists of this variety in Alentejo, esp. their top wine Herdade do Mouchão Tonel nº 3-4, pure AB with great aging potential (albeit a bit pricey).

    Some say that only in Alentejo climate AB can ripen well enough and I tend to agree with that.

    Greetings from Poland!

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