The VinePair Podcast: The Wines of Alentejo Are a Holiday Must-Have

On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” Zach Geballe is joined once again by master sommelier Evan Goldstein to discuss the wines of Portugal’s Alentejo region.

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Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe and this is the “VinePair Podcast.” And joining me, once again, on the podcast is master sommelier Evan Goldstein, the president of Full Circle Wine Solutions, and master of the world. Evan, you’re one of our more frequent recurring guests at this point. Welcome back.

Evan Goldstein: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here and I’m delighted to hear I’m a frequent recurring guest with you guys. It’s a treat to always be on your program.

Z: Yeah. So just for the sake of people listening to this, we’re going to be talking about Alentejo, a wine region in Portugal. And if you haven’t listened to the previous episodes that you and I have done on the topic, we’ll link them in the show description. I encourage you to go in and listen because there will be, of course, great information in each of those that we don’t really cover here, for the sake of those of you who have already listened to both and want to get more into this fantastic region. But for those who have not done their homework, have not listened, Evan, can you give us a little bit of a background on the region? Where are we in Portugal? What’s going on here?

E: Absolutely. No, it’s always important to give everybody a primer. And for those of you for whom this is old hat, you can run out and get a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine, or whatever it is that you need to get. But I think it’s important just to really… Before we even hit Alentejo, Zach, just give people a sense of Portugal.

Z: Sure.

E: Portugal obviously sits in the Iberian Peninsula, it’s southwest in Europe. It’s approximately 575 miles long, 138 miles wide, which makes it roughly the land mass size of about Indiana or Maine. And despite the fact that it’s not particularly big — that’s relatively diminutive by European standards — nevertheless, it is the eighth-largest vineyard acreage in the world. Just two clicks behind us at No. 6 and 11th in total wine production. So you can imagine there are grape vines absolutely everywhere and Alentejo specifically is a big part of that. So Alentejo is located in the southern part of Portugal, primarily in the southeastern part of Portugal with the eastern part actually abutting Spain. But the western part, as you sort of move into the southern area and hit west, actually touches the water. There’s a coastal Alentejo as well. It envelopes approximately a third of the country’s land mass, yet only 10 percent of the entire population. So it’s pretty sparse and in and of itself is about the same size as Massachusetts. It’s famous for its grapes and wines as we’ll talk about in a little bit. But some of the other great gifts that Alentejo has provided us over the years, it’s one of the largest sources of cork in the world, which is not only mission-critical for wine bottles, but also for insulation, for corkboards, for shoes, all sorts of other things. It is the original home of the porco preto or the black-hoofed pig, which the Spanish have claimed as their own, but originally came from Portugal and provides us of course with great jamón verico in Spain and great dry-cured ham in Portugal as well, of course, is the meat. And then things like amphora wines, also known as talha wines in Portugal. And a number of other wonderful things to eat.

Z: Fantastic. And focusing on the wine of Alentejo, what are we generally talking about here? What is the region best known for in terms of styles and perhaps individual varieties as well?

E: So as you can imagine, being inland and being closer to Spain than it is to the coast, it’s warm. It’s a very Mediterranean climate in the sense that it gets very hot. Well, I guess it’s probably more continental. It gets very hot in the summers, it gets very cool in the winters, and because of this heat that’s there in the summer, you can imagine that it’s driven by reds. And almost 80 percent of the wine production here is red with the balance being in white. They make very little sparkling wine and they make very little, surprisingly, rosé wine, although they could. As far as grape varieties go, the challenge with Portuguese grape varieties in general, as well as those you’ll find throughout collective Iberia, is they don’t roll off the tongue. The primary grapes we’d find are grapes like Aragonês, which is the Tempranillo grape in Spain, the Tinta Roriz grape up in the Douro Valley, and the largest planting of the grape there. Alicante Bouschet would be another one, which is a cross grape between Grenache and Petite Bouschet, which was developed in France but settled in Portugal and has done well. For whites, it’s a grape called Antão Vaz, and other grapes like Vivalio and things like that. So nothing that your average wine consumer would probably know, but critically important to the personality of the wine styles made in the Alentejo region.

Z: Fantastic. And let’s talk a little bit about some of those wines in an American context. And in particular, thinking about the time of year that this episode is coming out. People are perhaps… Just finished one major food and wine holiday, but the next ones are right there on the horizon. Be it Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, your non-denominational holiday gathering, whatever. Let’s talk a little bit about how some of these wines play at the table. And I’ll leave it a little bit broad for you, Evan, since you are, of course, the master in more ways than one here. If you’d rather talk about an individual variety or style and how it might play at the holiday table or conversely, I suppose, pick a holiday meal and talk about some wines that might go with it. The floor is yours.

E: Oh, thank you. What a big open floor to work from, nevertheless. I’m going to try and tackle it from both standpoints because some people are food people first, wine people second. Some people are wine people first and food people second. I would tell you, in general, that as the weather gets cooler, as we hit this time of the year, we tend to drink more red wine than white wine and we tend to drink wine that warms us up more than anything else. So we probably forego the Pinot Noirs and Gamays, although it is Beaujolais Nouveau time, which generally happens earlier in the year and we get into those rustic, heartier red wines too. And that’s where, of course, the Alentejo thrives because whether you’re dealing with a grape like Alicante Bouschet, which is, I think, their signature red, which is a rich hearty grape, inky in color, deep berry, brooding, herbal in flavor and all that. That’s going to probably appeal to your sort of big red Zinfandel drinker. It’s got obviously a lot of tannins as well too. That’s one of its hallmark things. So it’s going to work well at the table, particularly if you’re a person who eats a lot of roast beef at the end of the year, and I know a lot of us do. Particularly, classic Christmas Eve and sometimes New Year’s Eve meals, it is a particularly terrific wine to go with prime rib or beef of any kind, although it certainly is very happy with pork loins, pork roast, and the local Porco Alentejo, which is that black-hoofed pig I referred to before. So for those of you who are ham lovers, you’re going to be perfectly happy with that wine as well. The blends… And even though I’m naming specific grape varieties, Zach, most Portuguese red wines, in general, and certainly in the Alentejo as well, are blends. So you are going to have some pure Alicante Bouschets, but you’re also, and probably more often than not, going to have them blended with other grapes. Alicante might be a signature grape blended with Aragonês or Tempranillo or other grapes, I don’t know, Alfrocheiro, et cetera, et cetera. And those wines still tend to be hardier, but they’re more blended. So think of them more like rich Rhône wines, whether they’re particularly spicy, more like a northern Rhône, or they’re more generous like a southern Rhône, but they’re really good at the table. And the ones that do not have Alicante Bouschets, that are a little less tannic and then obviously provide a greater range of dishes. So if you’re more of a turkey person, even if it’s not Thanksgiving, or if you are just looking for milder types of fare, that would be great. The whites are also really good. And Antão Vaz is the signature for whites, as the Alicante Bouschets is for reds. And it’s sort of a big rich wine. It actually is known for maintaining its shape and its architecture despite the fact that the temperatures can get pretty torrid in the Alentejo in the summer, fairly tropical and rich by nature. So if you imagine, again, kind of a fuller-bodied-style Chardonnay, but almost always unoaked and with the tropical flavors that would remind you of something like, again, a southern Rhône-style wine chock-full of elements — melon and mango, pineapple — and then nutty — macadamias, pine nuts – things like that. And that’s good with any rich fare. So for those people who are leaning towards lobster and richer shellfish. Crab, we do oftentimes on New Year’s Eve here in San Francisco, that’s going to be a terrific variety to work with. But I think in general, most importantly, Alentejo wines are, even despite at times their girth, they’re not over-oaked, rarely are they over-oaked. Of course, there are over-oaked examples, but rarely would that be the case. And they always have wonderful structure, they have strong savory elements to them, and they’re terrific at the table. I mean, I really consider them to be amongst the most gastronomic of the wines that are made in Portugal today.

Z: And I think an important point to note here too, before we jump off into a slightly different discussion, is that a lot of the wines you’re discussing are great at the holiday table, not just because of their pairing potential, but also because they’re relatively competitively priced, I guess you would say. And for those of us who like to let the wine flow for the holidays, that is sometimes a consideration as well. As much as we love to talk about, and we will talk about in a minute, some special bottles, having ample wine for a holiday celebration is also, of course, important.

E: No, very much so. And particularly if you’re dealing with a larger table, and a lot of us go to these… My wife’s family, she’s ninth out of 11 children — small holiday gatherings are like 30 or 40 people. As you can imagine, I show up usually with about a case of wine. And you can rest assured that Alentejo wines are always going to be in there, not only for their flavor, but to your point too, they do represent an over-delivery of taste profile vis-a-vis their cost.

Z: Excellent. And I think one other thing I wanted to check in on, as regards to these wines at the holiday table, in addition to just sort of talking about how they pair and how they have, in general, these flavor profiles and these expressions that might be broadly appealing. I was wondering too, Evan, whether it’s at this gathering you mentioned at your wife’s family or other settings, is there also something fun about bringing a wine that someone might not have ever tried before to a gathering like this?

E: Oh, most definitely. I think that unless you’re dealing with family members, and we do have them, who are fairly… They stay in their lane, they’ve got two or three wines that they enjoy, which you always bring a bottle of, and then they’re not willing to go out of their proverbial lane and stay in the guardrails if you will. No, I think the holidays are a wonderful time, particularly if you’re considered within the cohort and community of people you’re hanging out with to be, for lack of a better word, a trusted source. And people go, “Oh, Zach, he really knows his wine.” Or “Evan, he really knows his wine.” They’re going to be very open-minded to trying anything that you bring. So this is indeed a wonderful time of the year, not only to be experimental and daring but to be generous, to be altruistic, to share of mind, mouth, stomach, and spirit, and turn people on to wines they don’t have. And that’s true everywhere in the world. It’s interesting, we had talked recently about what Portuguese people do during the holiday time. It’s obviously an extremely Catholic country and Christmas is a big deal there. And they don’t go… It’s more religious probably than it is there, but they do have their one celebratory meal, which they call consoada, C-O-N-S-O-A-D-A, and consoada is renowned on the day of Christmas. And of course, rather than having roast beef or ham or something like that, what do the Portuguese eat? Well, they eat cod of course.

Z: Of course.

E: Bacalao is, of course, at the Christmas table. Some people do octopus too, but usually, it’s cod and they have an array of wines there. And that’s one of the funniest combinations of all time, Zach, because here’s a fish that is salt-cured and then reconstituted and it’s a fairly pungent, strong fish for people, but it actually goes really well with red wine. Something I’ve never quite understood. But for those of you who are out there who do enjoy your bacalao, whether it’s in the form of bacalao, the fish itself, or in the French version of brandade or something like that, actually try it with a red wine. Usually, one that’s more on the angular, sharper, acidic side with more of these herbal components, you’d be pretty shocked at how well it pairs. And then they have their desserts too. They’re big into king cake, bolo rei, which I don’t think is the same kind of king cake you get on Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But it is a tradition there.

Z: Oh, very cool. Yeah, it’s an important thing to mention too, is… I think we talked about this a little bit with the foods, but it’s important to remember that, of course, these wines come from a cultural context and that sometimes it can be fun to, if not go full on… I’m not sure I’ll be making octopus for Christmas this year. I’ve always been afraid to make octopus because I think you can get it wrong more easily than you can get it right. But to at least think about those things, be aware of them. I want to switch gears here and talk about another element of this time of year besides conviviality, and getting together with friends and family. Of course, gifting is on a lot of minds right now as well. And while probably the most common wine from Portugal that’s gifted is going to be port just as a kind of classic expression of Portuguese wine and a thing that people give as gifts, I do know that Alentejo produces, in addition to a lot of very delicious and more affordably priced wines, there are some real collectible bottles, some expressions that maybe go beyond the more standard bottlings. And I’m wondering if you can give me and our listeners a little insight into that side of the Alentejo wine industry.

E: Most definitely, Zach. No, this is an area that is really known for table wine. So although, as the holidays roll around, many of us are looking for bubbly bottles and looking for those rich, fortified ports and Madeiras, things like that, that are traditionally enjoyed at the back end of the year. Alentejo is not that place. It’s really about, as I said before, red wines primarily and quality white wines as well, too. But I think what’s really interesting, if you do look at some of the more, for lack of better words, collectible labels that come out of Portugal today, Alentejo actually has its fair share. Probably the two most famous in the pantheon of collector’s wines, one is a red wine simply called Mouchao, M-O-U-C-H-A-O. And it’s a wine that’s made out of Alicante Bouschet and ages for literally decades, of which they make a premium bottling in good years called Tonel, T-O-N-E-L, which people should be on the lookout for. But these are wines which their age-worthiness is legendary. In fact, I’m still trying to talk to the people at Muuchao when I go over there to open up some of the late-’50s wines. Actually, the ’54, the ’58, and the ’59 are considered to be legendary bottlings over there. And that’s pretty old as far as that goes. So anyone who puts these wines away will definitely be rewarded down the line, and they’re not inexpensive by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re certainly considered to be, again, as I said before, in the ranks of the collectibles. Another line of wines made by the House of Cartuxa is a wine called Pera Manca, P-E-R-A-M-A-N-C-A. And they make both a red version of it and a white version of it. The red one is the one that’s, for lack of better words, more heralded. And it’s, again, sort of a classic Portuguese red wine blend, Alentejo red wine blend. But again, a wine that is known for its complexity, and its age-worthiness, and is sought after by collectors all the time. Having said that, I actually really like the white wine; perhaps I like the white wine even more than the red and it ages gracefully like a tremendous white Burgundy does over time. And it’s interesting because it’s made of grapes that are not known for aging. It’s made from Maria Gomes or Fernão Pires. They go by the same name there. And other things which are not necessarily the grapes that you would expect there, but the combination of them, the way they make the wine, the specific terroir of the plot from which the grapes are harvested, make for a killer wine. But if you can’t find those two, and obviously if you’ve got to go out and dig at a fine wine retailer or online via a Wine-Searcher or WineBid or something like that, Monte Branco is another one, red that’s really sought after. Dona Maria makes tremendous red wines that are worthy of keeping and cellaring. Then there’s a small little producer whose wines I’m a big fan of by the name of Susana Esteban and she’s up in the Portalegre area of northern Alentejo, focusing in on terroir, sleuthing, old vineyards, old-vine vineyards, centenary vines, and producing just some extraordinary red wines that age for a long time as well.

Z: Very cool. And a thing that occurred to me when we were having this conversation, and especially when you were talking about your interest in having some of those older bottlings, is to what extent do people who are looking at these wines, especially from a collecting or gifting standpoint, need to think about individual vintages? Is there a lot of variation in Alentejo or is it more kind of consistent and predictable in the way that some other European wine regions might not be?

E: Yeah, no, I think because of the relatively consistent temperatures, I mean certainly there’s going to be vintage variation and not so much, do things get ripe there? Of course, they get ripe every year and the people in Alentejo worry that they get over-ripe. So they’re really timing that out there. But certain vintages, simply because of the timing of spring weather, of bud break, of veraison, ensuring good temperatures during the course of the season, not getting rain right before harvest or on harvest, there’s going to be vintage variations there, which is, of course, why the people at Mouchao will tell you that these particular three vintages are spectacular, but it’s not going to be a Nasdaq stock, it’s not going to be an up and down, quality of vintage here and there. We used to see in Germany and Austria, places like that, pre-global warming, or I should say pre-climate change? Not all places are getting warmer per se. But, no, they’re pretty consistent, so even if you can’t find a well-regarded vintage, you’re not going to be disappointed. The variances are not dramatic.

Z: Well, that’s good to know. And I think the last thing I wanted to chat with you a little bit about, Evan, before we wrap things up here is, as we look past the holiday season and look into 2023 and beyond, I’m wondering what is going on in Alentejo? What is changing? Whether it’s younger producers looking to do things a little differently, perhaps different winemaking approaches, or anything else that might be going on, whether at the surface level or perhaps a little bit beneath it where this region might be shifting or changing in the next few years?

E: No, excellent question, Zach. Let me take it sort of macro, and we can talk a little micro after that. I think probably one of the things has been sort of on a slow burn but pushing in a good way, and I don’t say burn — pun intended — but they have an organization called the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Programme, which we actually did an entire podcast on, I think, if I recall. If my brain isn’t getting to be a sieve there, but this is… Its acronym is WASP and WASP is well over hundreds of members representing a large share of the production area. And it really is a very holistic, for lack of a better word, sustainable, organic, even some elements of biodynamics here because the temperatures and such really don’t have wet, too much wet weather. So because of that they can really do well and excel there. And not only have they been a model growing within Alentejo and taking on more and more of the Alentejo area under their umbrella, but they’ve been an incredible model for Portugal and indeed for Europe. There are a lot of other areas in Western Europe that are studying what’s been going on and working hand in hand with the Alentejanos on their sustainability program. Not just at the environmental level, but also at the social level, and even discussing the financial sustainability elements that more and more wineries and vineyard owners are talking about today. But that’s not, per se, new. Nevertheless, it’s evolving, becoming more important and worthy to follow. I think the other thing that’s starting to happen is the tourism boom. And that’s been something that the Portuguese, in general, Alentejo’s probably not, per se, as big of a hub, the Alentejo region, as a Porto is or as Lisbon is, but Portugal’s a tiny little country and everything’s an hour and a half away on a train or in a car. So you can actually do it as a day trip out of Lisbon or the Algarve or wherever you may be. And they are witnessing more and more tourists. Evora, the epicenter of Alentejo, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s got tremendous history, Roman ruins, and some of the best food you’re going to find in the entire country, particularly if you’re a fan of comfort food, which I am. So they’re getting a lot more tourists coming there, which is good if you need places to go and discover. It’s bad if you’re trying to find hotel rooms because it’s never really been set up for it, but they are growing there. But I think to your point about grapes and wine, I mean one thing that’s important to understand is that in this world of climate change in which we live, Alentejo is already a warm area. So they’re already predisposed to handling the upswings in temperature that we already have. Grapes that they have invested in historically and over time as they’ve been planting and replanting, grapes like Alicante Bouschet, grapes like Aragonês, grapes like Antão Vaz are actually well positioned for warmer weather. I think what you’re probably seeing most is movements higher. Alentejo, most of the territory is on rolling flatlands with most of the flatter areas being kept for cork trees, for grain, for cattle, and then anything that’s left over is for olives. Olive oil is a big deal in Alentejo and, of course, grapes. So what they’re finding is in the two extremes, the north of the country in Portalegre and the south of the country down by Vidigueira, you do actually have mountains if you will. And there, what they’re finding as they’re moving up in altitude, because very much like our friends in Argentina and other parts of the world have demonstrated, that moving higher in altitude is actually a Band-Aid — probably not long term but it’s a pretty big Band-Aid for now against climate change because it gets cooler as you go higher and you are not necessarily suffering from the same extremes over the long term during the course of the day. Your growing season is extended out, your thermal amplitude is better. So you’re starting to see more and more of that. And a lot of people are investing time and effort and energy and resources specifically in Portalegre in the north, even the venerable Symington family that’s known for their ports and their dry Douro reds invested a chunk of change in Portalegre, in Quinta da Fonte Souto, and are producing some pretty tremendous wines in that part of the world and that’s sort of the canary in the coal mine. A lot of other people are sniffing around and kicking the dirt around there. And as I said, as well, in some of the higher-elevation areas you find down in Vidigueira and also moving into the coast. The whole Alentejo Costa area, which is perhaps more renowned for its natural beauty, and as you do hit the water, some very undiscovered beaches that are just for people who like going to the beach but don’t like to see anybody there. This is the part of the world that you want to be in, the Alentejo coastal area. But they’re also finding, obviously, as you move closer to the water and you’re getting the Atlantic influence intruding in from the west coming eastward, that there might be some cool-climate sub-zones there that are worthy of planning out. So that’s just being looked at now and there are some experimental efforts there, but don’t be surprised if you don’t hear more about Alentejo coastal wines coming out in the years to come.

Z: Awesome. Well, as always, Evan, just a fantastic overview of an exciting and dynamic region with lots going on and as you’ve highlighted here at the end, some interesting and exciting changes and, of course, as well, still fantastic wines both for sort of everyday drinking and gifting or special occasions as well. So again, Evan, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it. Always a pleasure to chat with you and look forward to catching up with you again in 2023.

E: As do I, and wishing you and all of your listeners a happy holiday season, a safe holiday season, a joyous holiday season, and most importantly, a delicious holiday season. So I look forward to catching up with you, too, Zach, in 2023.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.