Portugal is famous for many things – the gorgeous sun, the friendly people, the great beaches, and of course its place in history.
Though most people think of Portuguese wine as being the fortified wines of Port or Madeira, the country is increasingly becoming known for its delicious dry red and white wine. Sparkling wine is becoming quite popular too.
Very recently, I had the opportunity to visit Portugal as well as many Portuguese producers in a program created in part by the great Anibal Coutinho, a respected enologist, speaker, and winemaker who joined forces with the Wines of Portugal and the international association of wine and spirits journalists known as FIJEV to bring journalists to the region to take part in the wine fare known as ViniPax, as well as tour different winemaking regions of the country.
I was lucky enough to visit, with a handful of other wine journalists, the famed region of Alentejo.
Evora is the ancient main city in this region, and it is one of the most magical places of the world. Evora dates back over five million years. And the city actually looks its age, with the remains of Moorish castles and Roman walls and arches almost everywhere you look.
As soon as we arrived, a fellow journalist and I wandered into the Vinhos Alentejo tasting room, a bright, beautiful building with windows that look out into a village square. In earlier times, it had been a nunnery. It is interesting to think of what the nuns would think today if they could see their former nunnery a place where tourists and others could enjoy the red and white wines of Alentejo.
Vinhos Alentejo created this to be a place where it could show off the wines of the region, in a complimentary fashion, to visitors.
Today the official in charge is friendly Maria Teresa Chicau, marketing and Tourist Assistant for Vinhos Alentejo. As she pours wines for us and other visitors, she tells them about the characteristics of the wine and its region. For example, in the North the wine might have higher acidity. Or a wine might be unique because of a certain type of soil.
Afterwards, we walk out into the charming Evora village, somewhat surprised to see and hear so many students, their exuberant voices vibrating with excitement. We are told this is the start of the traditional two week period of celebration in which university graduates, wearing capes, give words of wisdom to their younger colleagues. It wasn’t quite clear how much wisdom was imparted, but everyone seemed to be having a great deal of fun.
On the way back to the hotel, we stop for some wine and tapas at Cartuxa, a tasting room / restaurant with wines from the famous Cartuxa winery. The servers are well versed in the different wines, and the food is fabulous. If you are the kind of person who loves to feast on olives, bread, cheeses and more this is the place for you — though on another visit we had fabulous main courses like shrimp and meat.
Below are the five wineries we visited with many thanks to our hosts, Wines of Alentejo. You can read about them individually, On the Wines of Alentejo website you can also find ways to travel their fabulous wine route and get more information.
After Alentejo, we joined the others in Beja for the Vinipax wine fair and some cultural visits that Anibal arranged for us.
Vinipax was the central event of the trip, an opportunity to meet and interact with a wide variety of producers.
While we were in Beja, Anibal arranged two special trips for us journalists … one was to the Musseu Regional de Beja (also called the Queen Elenor Regional Museum), a nunnery dating from the 15th century. The other was to the Torre de Menage, a military tower dating from the 14th century
The two most interesting things about the Musseu Regional de Beja is the story of a young nun and her letters to her lover, and the other were the excavations of a prehistoric culture shared by several peoples of the area. The small second floor shows many coins and relics from this remote period.
The Torre de Menage is a military tower that actually looks like the types of castles pictured in fairy tale books. It was enough to simply have the chance to look at it, yet visitors (if they dare!) can climb all 200 steps leading to the first observatory. Though it was a challenge to climb 200 circular stairs on a very hot day, very glad I had the opportunity to do so!
As a group, we also visited the Adega Vidigueir Cooperative, where marketing director Daniela Di Almeida and President Jose Miguel Almeida warmly welcomed us.
The winery was created in 1960 and had its first harvest in 1963. Today they produce an impressive 8 million bottles. Both Jose and Daniela were extremely impressive, as they have many shared responsibilities to the winemakers who bring them the raw materials (grapes).
The winery has many ranges and sells wine as many price points. They are leaders in innovation and have a Amphora project as well. One of the most exciting parts of the visit was visiting the room where the wines age in Amphora, and a taste of the fermenting wines.
In a cooperative, the winemakers are key – it is crucial that they believe in their president (Jose) because the individual who has this post directs the future. Exports are increasingly an important part of the Portuguese market, and Daniela who has excellent language skills and many academic marketing credentials fulfills this role well.
This was a great visit to Portugal, and the exciting direction of this wine region once only known for its fortified wines. It is increasingly devoted to both wine tourism and also getting its wines in the global marketplace, and grateful to Anibal Jose Coutinho, FIJEV, Wines of Alentejo, ViniPax, and all our wonderful hosts for the experience.