Wine and Food Diary of Giles MacDonogh

‘Saudouso’ for the Alentejo

Written by Giles MacDonogh

‘Saudouso’ for the Alentejo

Posted: 11th July 2016

My very modest contribution to the literature on Portuguese wine appeared fifteen years ago. It is not a good book. Turning the pages now I feel quite pleased that it has lapsed into obscurity. Others have taken up the Portuguese mantle since and they do it better. The pictures and the maps did it no favours either. In justification, however, it had always been my ambition to write something on Portugal and although I knew the country reasonably well, there were a number of corners I had never seen. Writing the book gave me the chance to complete the picture. Of all the parts of Portugal I visited on this project, the Alentejo attracted me most.

Most of Portugal is cluttered and overcrowded. Huge swathes of the population have emigrated over the past forty or fifty years, mostly to France and Germany. Leaving, however, is not generally perceived as a complete divorce from the old country, and every summer the emigrants return en masse and add a few bricks and stridently multi-coloured tiles to a monstrous house all covered in plastic sheets somewhere beside a main road. They live in the old family shack while they tinker around with the plumbing. Then September dawns, and it is time to go home to Paris or Frankfurt. The worst concentration of these half-houses is in the damp Minho region that borders Spanish Galicia in the north. The abominations thin out a bit south of the Mondego, and by the time you cross the mighty Tagus, they disappear almost completely leaving the Alentejo with its vines and wheat fields and its hot summer sun.

Of course, to write off the whole of Portugal north of the Tagus is unjust: the Douro Valley, the mountainous Beiras that form the border with Spain and the wilder parts of Trás-os-Montes in the North-East can also be delightful, but it is only really in the Alentejo that you see big, wide-open spaces that have a truly Mediterranean feel to them as distinct from the unpredictable Atlantic climate that dominates the north and centre.

And I liked the towns and cities of the Alentejo, particularly Evora, with its Roman temple to Diana and Os Loios, the mediaeval cloister that has become one of Portugal’s most famous pousadas or state-owned hotels. The restaurant with its Manueline door was good for desserts such asmorgado (landlord’s pudding) or barriga de freira (nun’s belly), but eating was better at Fialho, where the chef had worked for Bocuse, and latterly the tiny A Taquinha d’Oliveira became an interesting alternative. I could not say whether this was still the case, but I see both places are still going strong. Estremoz has a vast market square and a lovely castle, another pousada, with procrustean beds and bad food (it might have improved since). The best place was nearby, within the castle bailey: São Rosas, where in the spring you could eat ‘tubera:’ little things that looked like white truffles that grew in the sandy scrubland. Again it is still there, but the vastly more experienced Charles Metcalfe tells me that for him, the best restaurant in the Alentejo is at the winery at Esporão.

I was there for the wine before all else. The best came from Cartuxa, not just the fabulously rare Pera-Manca, a wine only made in great years which even back then was trading at over £100 a bottle (more like £250 for a recent vintage), but also the straight red and white. More recently I have discovered the baby of the family, Vinea, which sells for under £8 at my local Portuguese shop in Kentish Town and which is a knockout.

Others I liked were the smoky Tapada de Coelheiros (made by the same Dr Rosario who was consultant to Pera-Manca), Quinta do Mouro made by the dentist Miguel de Orduna, the reserve wines from the Marques de Borba made by João Portugal Ramos, the Tapada de Chaves from Portalegre (another wine designed by João Ramos), the top wines made by the Australian David Baverstock at Esporão, Cortes de Cima and two old Reynolds properties – the Quinta do Carmo and the Herdade de Mouchão. The Reynoldses were and are an English family who settled in Portugal in the middle years of the nineteenth century and made it big in wine, cork and eucalypts. Behind those top estates there were some really good value wines made at the cooperatives founded by Dr Salazar during the Estado Novo time, often dirt cheap and really quite delicious and some others, often slightly on the rustic side that continued the ancient Alentejan tradition of vinification in terracotta talhas, or large, potbellied amphorae.

On 27 June there was a tutored tasting at the very swish (and delicious) looking Noble Rot wine bar in Lambs Conduit Street. Peter McCombie did the honours, taking us through eight of his own favourites and these were followed by three olive oils, with some rather good ‘petiscos’ (tapas).

White wines are a comparative rarity in the Alentejo, but they are not unknown (Pera-Manca has a famously rare and expensive one).  The first wine in Peter’s line up was the 2014 ‘Argilla’ – a white from the Herdade de Anta de Cima in Portalegre, which was made in an amphora. These vessels, twenty years ago virtually unknown outside the Alentejo, have now scaled the heights of fashion! Argilla turned out to be a nice full complex wine grown on clay soils (hence the name), and if the estimated price was accurate (€5), extremely good value for money.

The next wine was actually called Tinto da Talha Grande Escolha (2010 Amphora Red Grand Reserve), but… this one was not made in an amphora! It came from Roquevale and I recalled going there years ago. It was the first time I had seen a working amphora. The process was remarkably simple: the wines fermented in them, and once the lees had settled it could be drawn off by a tap at the bottom. It was quite a rustic place then, and my memory evokes chickens. Indeed, the owners offered us some typical local plates decorated with cockerels (now sadly all broken) and somewhere nearby I bought a big earthenware bowl which is now used for making my weekly loaf.

The Roquevale wine was still a little coarse with its big chewy tannins, but it had come on a lot. It was also cheap – the retail price was quoted as €7.99. It was not really to be compared to the 2012 Cartuxa Colheita we tasted next. Like many wines in the Alentejo it was made from a cocktail of Aragonez, Alfrocheiro, Trincadeira and Alicante-Bouschet. The latter, a notorious member of the dark-fleshed Teinturier family – is despised in its native France as a common hybrid formerly used only to ‘stain’ wines that lacked colour. In the Alentejo, however, it somehow manages to produce outstanding results. The wine was still closed, but betrayed that rich creamy fruit that is the hallmark of good Alentejo reds.

The Torre do Frade Reserva was a mature wine from 2007. Peter told us that it had been aged in all new oak and yet it was pleasantly approachable with a little taste of redcurrants and a fresh finish. The cost was a bit high, however, at €40. The 2011 Reserva from the Herdade da Ajuda was a return to reason at €12. The wine came from Evora and contained some Cabernet which I didn’t like much: I found the finish pasty and dry.

David Baverstock is one of two Australians who has put down roots in Portugal – the other one being Peter Bright who is mostly to be found making his brews in the middle of Portugal. Baverstock is now largely anchored to Esporão and I am not sure whether he still makes Sir Cliff Richard’s ‘born again’ wine in the Algarve. Peter’s choice was the 2012 Esporão Private Selection (€30). I think it is pretty young yet, but for the time being I found it blighted by oak. This was not the case of the 2009 Quinta do Mouro (€37.99), which with the silky richness of its fruit was an impeccable Alentejo wine and every bit as good as I remembered vintages in the old days. The last wine was Gloria Reynolds Red (€48). Again this got the thumbs down as far as I was concerned. I am sure it was carefully made from tiny yields, with every grape picked and polished and carried to the vat, but for me it was big and sweet like a garage wine.

We had our little olive oil tasting at the end, which was fun: the quite common Galega olive versus the slightly more rarefied Cordovil. Then we mixed the two to blend away some of the rough edges. Some olive oils, especially those where the olives are picked early, can be hot and rasping. Late picked oils tend to be rich and buttery. Some nice petiscos circulated: octopus, bacalao with tomatoes and chickpeas, spicy chouriço and rice pudding. They were all very good, and I felt nostalgic for better days. ‘Saudouso’, as they say over there.

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