Portuguese wine has been a revelation to me over the last few years. I’d always poo pooed it with memories of overly sweet, slightly fizzy vinho verde produced from stubby Mateus bottles - albeit the bottles did come in handy to make artful candlestick holders!
Luckily for me our local wine shop (Reserve in Didsbury) always ensures that I “try something different” and never seems to get it wrong. So, when I was offered a Portuguese white from the Duoro valley I was amazed to find it was rather good and I haven't looked back since! Wanting to discover more about the wines of Portugal, on our recent trip to Portugal (after discovering an alternative Algarve - read about how you do that here) Julian and I headed north to the central Alentejo region. But to our delight we discovered more than just wonderful wineries.
Despite being Portugal’s biggest region, the Alentejo is also its least known and so remains blissfully untouched. As we drove north from the Algarve to the land beyond the Tagus (the literal translation of Alentejo) the traffic thinned and the countryside became a sea of nothing more than fields, alternating between vineyards, olive groves and forests of cork oaks, their trunks picked bare. The region is one of the world’s most important cork producers, whilst the acorns that fall from the oaks go to feed local black-footed pigs for presunto ham which Julian tells me (a non-meat eater) is delicious.
Occasionally the empty landscape was punctured by stunning hill towns such as pretty as a picture Monsaraz, a tiny fairy-tale walled village with a charming old fashioned atmosphere. If this were Tuscany it would be heaving with tourists, but even in July when we visited, it was eerily empty which added to its beauty.
Moving up in size doesn’t mean the towns become any less enchanting. Evora, the capital of the upper Alentejo, fully deserves its UNESCO World Heritage listing. Encircled by a ring of fortified walls, the historic heart is a mass of winding cobbled streets that give way to architectural delights - a 1st century Roman temple here, a 13th century cathedral there. Despite Evora’s desire to embrace the past, it is also a lively university town and so sandwiched between quaint patisseries and old fashioned store fronts are funky little bars, boutiques and way too many dining places to count.
Back to the subject of wine. The Duoro valley is by far Portugal’s most well-known wine region but, the Alentejo is the country’s prime producer and increasingly the source of some exceptionally classy and sophisticated wines. There is a Wine Route you can take which includes probably our best find, Herdade do Esporão. Here we had an amazing lunch overlooking the vines. Our pre-starter involved a sampling of the vineyard’s own varieties of olive oils and the delicious food was well paired with some superb whites, reds and rosés.
Dessert - it would have been criminal not to have gone for the trio of chocolate desserts with matching dessert wines and ports!
The Alentejo really did surprise us. It’s one of Portugal’s loveliest areas with scenic drives, pretty white washed villages clustered on hills, history ladened medieval towns, mouth-watering wineries and incredibly tasty rural gastronomy. Easily accessible from Lisbon (which is serviced by direct flights from Manchester) and the Algarve, you could add on a few days to a trip to either. Delightfully devoid of tourists, a major tick in my books, it’s an area waiting to be discovered.
For more information on the Alentejo or the unspoilt side of Portugal in general please do get in touch.
[Images by Julian]