This episode of the VinePair podcast is sponsored by The Wines of Alentejo. Looking to discover new wines, experience quality blends, and support environmentally conscious producers? Then Alentejo is the place for you. This region in southern Portugal boasts an array of native grapes, a centuries-old history of blending, unbroken traditions of amphora wines, and an award-winning sustainability program. Ask your local wine store for a wine from Alentejo, or order online from one of our small-business retail partners.
In this bonus episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” your hosts Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe are joined by Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein to discuss the wines of Alentejo. The historic wine region sits in eastern Portugal on the border of Spain, making up about a third of Portugal’s entire land mass. Consequently, there is a bit of crossover with Spanish varieties and the grapes grown in Alentejo, but the wines produced by Alentejo winemakers are rare in their own way.
Goldstein runs through the most popular grapes grown in Alentejo, including Aragonês, Alicante Bouschet, and Alfrocheiro. While many know the grape “Aragonês” by another name — Tempranillo — Alentejo has honed its own tradition for the grape through the use of amphorae. Amphorae, or large clay pots used for aging wine, have become increasingly popular throughout the world but have been used in the Alentejo for hundreds of years. Goldstein likens them to “steel drums” that may look exactly the same but have their own timbre. In this way, he explains that, while amphoras may all look similar, each will lend a different body to the wine produced.
Along with a strong tradition of grape growing and winemaking, Goldstein celebrates Portuguese recipes and explains that many everyday drinking wines from the Alentejo pair perfectly with Portuguese cuisine. He lists the largest producers, like Esporão or Rocim, and shouts out the most influential winemakers who are working hard to keep the Alentejo on consumers’ lists of new wine regions to explore.
Ask your local wine shop for a wine from Alentejo, or visit one of our small business retail partners to order online!
- Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant (SF)
- Urban Grape (Boston)
- Warehouse Wines & Spirits (NY: Manhattan)
- BottlesUp! (Chicago)
- Heritage Wine & Provisions Shop (Boston)
Or Check Out the conversation here
A: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter
Z: In Seattle, Washington. I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is a bonus episode of the “VinePair Podcast.”
Z: Happy holidays.
A: Yeah, you should feel so great that we gave you this gift. In this episode, we’re gonna talk about the wines of Alentejo. And so first a word from our sponsor, the Wines of Alentejo. So this episode of the “VinePair Podcast” is sponsored by the wines of Alentejo. Looking to discover new wines, experience quality blends, and support environmentally conscious producers? I mean, we all should be. Then Alentejo is the place for you. This region in southern Portugal boasts an array of native grapes, a centuries-old history of blending, unbroken traditions of amphora wines, and an award-winning sustainability program. Ask your local wine store for a wine from Alentejo or order online from one of our small-business retail partners. And of course we’ll have some notes in the show notes of this podcast. But yeah, man, I think people got to get into Portuguese wine. So I’m really excited to talk about these wines today, Zach. So why don’t you kick it off and introduce our special guest?
Z: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a thrill to be joined by Evan Goldstein, he is a Master Sommelier. A man of — Evan, I don’t know that you recall this, but I have attended a few different masterclasses that you’ve taught over the years — I was just one of those people in the back who were trying not to look too in over their head. But it’s been a pleasure to learn from you over the years, and it’s super exciting to talk about these wines. Portugal is high on the list of places I have not been that I wish to visit one day when we can do that again. So thank you so much for being here.
E: Oh, it’s a pleasure to be with you. And I hope if you were in the back and sitting there quietly and all that, I didn’t pick on you or anything crazy, but I’m delighted to, number one, be in your sphere and in your orbit, if you will. And I am doubly delighted to be talking about a place that I know and love well, which is Portugal in general, and the Alentejo specifically.
A: Well, so Evan, before we kick it off, I just wanna let you know you have full permission to pick on Zach as much as you want.
Z: It’s a podcast tradition.
A: Yeah. It’s all good if you did, at least with me. So, yeah, thank you so much for joining us. I’m really excited. Can we kick it off by giving us just a brief overview of the wines of Alentejo so that those who are unfamiliar with this region also — I would say potentially unfamiliar with Portugal and Portuguese wines in general — can get a clear picture before we really get geeky with it?
E: Absolutely. No, it’s always important that you land the plane gradually from 30,000 feet before you just pop it on the ground. So let’s get a little bit of a direction on Portugal first, then I’ll get into the Alentejo specifically. So Portugal, as many of your listeners know, sits on the Iberian peninsula, southwest Europe, it runs roughly 350 miles long, a little less than 115 miles wide, which makes it just a tad over 35,000 square miles, which to equate to those people who are spatially challenged, makes the country about the same size as say Indiana or the state of Maine. Which is very interesting, because despite its relative diminutive size, it is the ninth-largest planted vineyard acreage in the world at over 480,000 acres, which is amazing when you think about that, because here’s a country that’s the size of Indiana or Maine, and the United States, which is infinitely larger ranks, just six. So we’re just a couple of clicks ahead. And they’re 11th in production compared to us at fourth, which means that pretty much any place that you can plant grapes, you will plant grapes. And that’s not just in large vineyard areas, but people’s front yards, people’s backyards as they load their lug boxes and take them to the local co-op at harvest time, et cetera. So they do make a fairly good volume of wine. And they’re also, by the way, just for your readers information, the largest per capita consumers of wine in the world, more so than the French, and certainly a lot more so than us. Now, Alentejo sits in the center-east of the country, it’s on the border of Spain on its far eastern side, and it covers approximately a third of the landmass of the country. So it really is a big area. It’s almost all of the South and a good chunk of the center and even pushing northwards there. It is about the size of Massachusetts, if you wanted again to give it a reference, and being inland and being Mediterranean, although having some areas that have, for lack of better words, horizontal traverses that go out, there’s actually an Alentejo Costa, or a coastal area that actually touches the coast. But the rest of it is clearly Mediterranean, clearly inland, and very, very hot in the summer, very cool in the winter, and gets its rain during the winter months when it does get rain. So a pretty neat area to visit and wonderful people. We’ll talk all about it.
A: So let’s maybe jump in and talk a little bit about grapes here. Because I think obviously when we’re talking about a region that is relatively unfamiliar to people like Alentejo , one of the things that most everyone wants to know is, “OK, well, what do they make the wines out of?” So can you maybe, Evan, just walk us through the important varieties, both white and red in the region?
E: Yeah, most definitely. And white and red is a good place to start because although rosé is a happening thing in Portugal in general, and Alentejo specifically, it’s not the biggest deal. It’s mostly red. The area is approximately 75 percent red, then about a balance of that in white and just a little bit of rosé. And the grapes again, remembering that we’re in Iberia — that long before there was Spain and long before there was Portugal, there was Iberia. So a lot of the grapes that you hear about, in Alentejo and in Portugal in general, you’ll also hear about in Spain, although under different names. So from a grape variety standpoint, the most planted grape is a grape called Aragonês, and Aragonês is the same grape that we would call Tempranillo if we were on the other side of the border over there. And that’s a very important grape for reds. Another grape that is probably the most celebrated red for the Alentejo specifically is Alicante Bouschet, which, although it was developed in France post-phylloxera issues a couple of hundred plus years ago, it is a grape that is probably more associated with Portugal and specifically with the Alentejo. It’s their signature grape, and a grape that they love and do really well with. They have other grapes there. They have Alfrocheiro as a grape, which carries no other geography or home outside of Portugal. You have lots of different, good grapes, obscure grapes. Tinta Grossa that again, you find primarily in that region, but I would say Aragonês and Alfrocheiro would probably be the two big ones, along with Alicante Bouschet. And then for whites, it’s really the workhorse grape of the region, one grape called Antão Vaz, and Antão is the Portuguese word for Anthony; Vaz would just be “Vaz” the word. And what you find in Portugal is that so many grapes, whether it’s Maria Gomes, or Fernão Pires, or in this case Antão Vaz happened to be named for people whose vineyards those grapes were essentially discovered in and propagated in the future. So a long time ago in the Alentejo, somebody named Antão Vaz had a vineyard, and everyone loved his grape and planted it everywhere. And it’s a huge grape. It’s unique to not only the region and their most important grape, but I think we haven’t seen it anywhere else, which I think in the climate-change world in which we’re living in right now, it’s a grape that does very well in warm climates. And I think you’ll start to see some global celebration there. They have Arinto which is a grape that came from Bucelas and the Lisbon area originally. And we find it up in the Douro, too, but that’s a grape that does well in Tagus, primarily for acidity reasons and, gosh, a few others, but I would say Antão Vaz is a basic focus grape if you’re thinking about getting the round tasting notes for white and Alicante Bouschet and Aragonês for reds.
A: So, first of all, I mean, now I know what my goal in life is, it’s that in the future, we will all be drinking Adam Teeter. And it will be delicious. And that is just amazing. So in terms of Alicante Bouschet, what style of wines are we seeing made from this grape? If I were to find wines from this grape on the shelf, obviously from the region, what would I be looking for? What would I be experiencing?
E: Yeah. Well, first of all, what’s interesting about this grape, which was developed, like I said, by crossing Alicante — which is the southern French colloquial name for Grenache — with Petite Bouschet, which was a grape that was crossed years earlier for volume and stuff like that. You get a wine that, first of all, is very interesting. It’s a tintilia grape, which is to say when you squeeze it, the juice that comes out is red. There’s not that many grapes like that. The Mission grape that we know of here in California, or as it’s known down in South America, Pais, is another grape, but it’s very deeply colored. The wines are kind of inky and opaque in appearance, and they tend to be a little bit more on the rustic side of things. So they’re fairly tannic. They’re fairly big. They’ve got ample acidity, and very wonderful dark black fruit flavors, and then things that run literally from an India ink, not that we drink India ink, except perhaps when you were in grammar school. But iodine-esque type things, seaweed notes, and then notes of meat and olives and the “garrigue,” as we would know it, are underbrush and herbs. It’s a very cool grape. But what I will tell you in general that people should know is don’t expect it to make light, elegant wines. It is a bold grape, and while it makes fabulous, big, powerful wines on its own, it’s often added to other wines in the Alentejo for color, tannin, and rusticity to add to the mix.
A: And would you typically then find wines made from Alicante Bouschet to be blends themselves with maybe the Alicante Bouschet as the principal variety? Or are you getting a lot of 100 percent or nearly 100 percent Alicante Bouschet from the Alentejo?
E: I would say the answer is yes, yes. And actually, yes. And not only the people who were making pure Alicante Bouschet wines — and some of those wines are fabulous and will be varietally labeled, if you will, somebody can go out and say, “I’d like to get a bottle of Alicante Bouschet from the Alentejo” and actually find it — but perhaps more importantly, and more commonly you would see Alicante Bouschet as a driving grape blended again with the Alfrocheiro and other red grapes to be named later, but also blended with Aragonês and other things as a primary blending grape without being the most significant percentage. So, lion’s share blended, they do exist pure. You’ll always know these wines, whether they participate as a player or independently, simply because of their really dense volume and high level of color.
A: Very interesting. So can you go back through a little bit of that history of winemaking in the region? ‘Cause obviously, you talked a little bit about the cool fact of people actually discovering grapes, then naming them after the person who was originally growing them. But I know this is obviously a region that uses a lot of amphorae, that has a rich history of doing that for a very long time. How long has wine been made in this region, and how has it evolved?
E: Yeah, I’m glad you asked that question. A lot of people think of everything as “if it’s an old region, it must’ve started European-wise during the times of the Romans” and all that, but you could actually go back — for fans of European history — go back past the Phoenicians to actually the Tartessians as a tribe who were the first people to establish grape growing and rudimentary winemaking there. And it existed through various tribes, but it was really the Romans who, as they came across and conquered virtually all of the world at that time who really brought winemaking as a bonafide tradition to the area. And a lot of the techniques that they brought with them, such as amphorae, came from old Rome at the time. And even some of the tools that are used out in the field for harvesting and stuff like that date back to Roman times. So, it goes back a long period of time. They have a long tradition, and again, long before stainless steel and oak barrels, they were using these big clay pots. I always tell people that amphorae, in general, are a lot like steel drums. Each one has a different timbre or a different tone because the clay itself is molded by, for lack of better words, by hand or very carefully so that you could have seven different amphorae and they could be the exact same size and visually look the same. But each one is going to be a little bit different. So that goes back a long way and has been re-birthed. But then over time, obviously winemaking evolved into the rest of the European tradition as Europe grew and wines were being made in the 1600s and the 1700s and all the way through. They had phylloxera issues, too, and have grown up since then, but it really dates back in terms of, for lack of better words, ground zero, most people would associate it with Roman times.
Z: And it’s interesting to me that you mentioned amphorae, because we think about that as an old and new tradition all at once but I’m curious, because another thing that seems interesting about the Alentejo is the connection to cork, and to cork forests. Can you talk a little bit about that?
E: Yeah, well the amphora tradition is very interesting because amphorae are all the rage now. And not only are they making a comeback in places like Alentejo, and in the southern part of it in particular, which is what they call talha is the word for amphora down in that part of the world. And people have them in their basements and in their cellars and again, people grow grapes and make their own wine. They would have their own amphorae and make their own wine, too. And now of course, because they’re the rage, people literally go around town and knock on people’s doors and say, “You got any extra Talhas that you’re not using? Because we’d like to buy them.” But today amphorae are huge. Not only are they made in Portugal, from the Alentejo but people are using new tahlas there are actually, talhas made of resin now that are being used and experimented with porosity. Talhas have been used, of course, in Italy and the northeast towards the Slovenian border and all over, but Portugal along with some smaller parts of Spain and Turkey probably have the longest continuous tradition of making it that they didn’t stop ever. They always started to make it during the Roman times. It continued along the way. So it’s very much in their DNA in that part of the world. And they are, in fact, leaders in revitalizing, certainly in Western Europe, that technique again. But to your point, yeah, the Alentejo is vast and it’s not just about grapes. So although they make significant volumes of wine and are what I would call the *people’s choice award winners, more people drink Alentejo wines in Portugal than any other region or province for their day-to-day drinking, but they also have vast amounts of grains planted and vast amounts of trees, and specifically cork trees. As you pointed out there, roughly a third of the world’s cork comes from the Alentejo area, which is great, not only from the vantage point of having good quality cork in the world, but it’s a natural, renewable, reusable, recyclable source of wood that we now know is actually not only carbon neutral, but carbon positive in the sense that they absorb more CO2 than they put out. It’s a great thing. And then also the other things that people don’t know about like the whole pato negro thing, the black acorn-eating pig that people think is associated with Spain actually came from the Alentejo and was brought down there. So it’s a tremendous resource and breadbasket of all sorts of cool things beyond grapes and wine.
Z: Well you mentioned the most important thing to me with talking about this, which was food, because I had the opportunity — you guys were kind enough to send some wines to Adam and to me — and I had the opportunity to taste the wines, and in tasting them along with enjoying them, I thought: “Goddamn I am hungry.” And as is the case for lots of different European wines in European wine regions the wines certainly co-evolve with the cuisine. So can you talk a little bit about the food of the region and what some classic pairings from the Alentejo are for some of these wines?
E: Absolutely. Well, certainly it’s very much of a food-centric area. The people, and I would highly encourage it when it’s safe for all of us to get back on airplanes and go to places like that. The Alentejo, although it seems like you’re in the middle of nowhere, is about a 90-minute train ride from Lisbon. So you can literally land at the Lisbon airport, hop over, catch a train at a local station, and be there in literally less than a couple of hours. But it feels like it’s rural, it’s pastoral, it’s pacific. It’s old again, you’ll see Roman ruins and stuff like that throughout the area, but it’s very simple, too. It’s not the big city. They’re very happy in their more, not even suburban, but just very rural lifestyle. Lots of sweeping fields and rolling hills that are there. And as far as the food goes, they take advantage of a lot of these things. They have like I said, lots of grains. So they have a lot of these famous for breads, in that part of the world, but also famous for cattle, great beef, but also pork as I alluded to earlier, and interesting vegetables. And what’s interesting for me personally, and I’m not saying this simply because I like these people and I work with them a lot, but it’s my favorite food region of all of Portugal. *And I say that not because it’s the fanciest, there’s no three-star Michelin restaurants at every corner and things like that, but it’s comfort food. It’s comfort food at its finest. And I think, especially in these times right now, I know for me, when times get tough, you gravitate towards your pastas and pizzas and roast chickens and very simple types of food. And that’s where a lot of Portugal’s base food comes from. So whether it’s their most classic soup, which is one called “absorba,” which is a very rich broth with leftover bread that’s thrown in it to reconstitute it, and crushed garlic, and you can put green herbs and stuff in it, and anything else you want. But that’s a classic dish of the area. Roasts of all sorts. Pork and beef, served alongside with something called “migas.” Migas is basically a blend of leftover meats and bread that has been put together almost like a dense side dish — almost like a very rough polenta, but studded with vegetables and meat and different kinds of migas are made and served alongside stuff like that. But it’s very rustic, delicious food. And it seems to work well with the wines, because the wines themselves are wines without pretense, although certainly some of the most amazing wines in Portugal. But some of their most famous wines, be it Pêra Manca or things like that that come from the Alentejo. But the everyday drinking, again, the people’s choice award-winning wines there are just tasty, delicious, honest. In Portugal and then in Alentejo, wine tastes like wine, food tastes like food, bread tastes like bread. And there’s something just very gratifying and comforting about it.
A: Well, I’m really starving now.
Z: Welcome to my world, Adam,
A: Well I just ate lunch, too. So I should be fully satiated, but then Evan just really — phew! So Evan I’m gonna give you a task here.
A: I want you to sell me. So basically, I’m an American consumer, right? There’s so much wine on the shelf. And I get that this region is the most consumed in Portugal. Why should I drink it? Or if I’m one of the amazing members of the trade that listens to the podcast weekly, why should I sell this wine? Or why should I sell the wines from this region? What makes this region so special?
E: Yeah, well first and foremost, and I think Alentejo very much like many wine regions of the world makes the most sense and gives anybody the greatest level of emotional connection if you do have an opportunity to go there, walk the vineyards, go to the wineries, meet the people and eat, all that. So it’s an area I think that will connect more so than when you do it. But I think one of the things that’s very enjoyable, one of the other areas of the world that I love and I have the pleasure of working a lot with is the Rhone Valley. And the Rhone Valley, the red wines are delicious. And whether they run from the top of the line, things you would find in the north, as I said before, you do have some of the most well regarded of wines coming from the Alentejo, whether it’s a Pêra Manca, or Cartuxa, or Buçaco. Our wines that come from this area are considered to be amongst the best wines of the entire country, the most interesting, the most flavorful, the most complex, but so much of the wine is everyday drinking wine, and very much the way it’s impossible to find somebody who you give them a really good glass of Cotes du Rhone, and they say, “Eh, I don’t really like that that much.” It’s just tasty, delicious stuff. Be it red, be it white, or even be it rosé. I would say that’s true for Portugal as well, too, in terms of the bottle that you buy very inexpensively or moderately is going to give you that sheer pleasure factor. And while they might focus on grapes like Grenache down in the Southern Rhone, here you have again, these wonderful combinations of Aragonês, Alfrocheiro, Alicante Bouschet for the reds. And Antão Vaz and things like that for the whites that make for these just delicious, flavorful wines coming from a very warm part of the world. Very much again like the Rhone Valley, the wines tend to be fairly generous. So a lot of people like bigger wines. So if you tend to be somebody who likes all of your wines at 8 to 11 percent alcohol, you probably won’t be very happy. But if you like your red wines generous and your white wines flavorful and moving to generous, this is going to be an area for you. And then also, like I said before, when we talked about the grapes, the grapes are fairly unique, but for people who are into discovery and, “Do I need to have another Cabernet Sauvignon? Do I need to have another Chardonnay? Do I need to have another Zinfandel?” these areas provide discovery, both of grapes and flavors that are different to people in terms of the usual trail head that they’re used to walking on and drinking down, but also grapes that in many places you don’t find anywhere else, as I said before, that provide interesting intrigue and flavorful differences that you’re simply not going to find in other parts of the world. And they also represent great value. So even at the top end, their most expensive wines when compared to their counterparts in other parts of the world, still punch above their proverbial weight in terms of giving you great value for the money, great flavor for the bottle. And again, as you mentioned earlier, fabulous food friendliness. So I would tell people that are A) into discovery B) into unique flavors. C) as you both mentioned into food friendliness, the wines are almost architected there. You will never find wines that are over-oaked, overworked, overdone in this part of the world. And today to me, one of the things as an avid wine drinker, and I know you guys both drink your fair share of wines, too — I’m saddened by wines that are losing their sense of place. And I’m saddened to have a wine that may be made out of a particular grape variety that comes from somewhere in Spain, for example, but is vinified in such a way that it tastes like it could have been made in Napa Valley or the Barossa. And I like wines that taste like wines of a place. And the thing about Alentejo is you taste those wines, you pop them open, and boy, they don’t taste like they really could be made in many other places except where they are from.
Z: And one last quick question for you, Evan, along those notes for our listeners who are interested in giving these a try, obviously in some parts of the U.S. there’s a wide range of Portuguese wines available, but for people who might not be in a major city, or just might not know where to go looking, are there a few larger producers or at least widely distributed wines from the Alentejo that they could look out for, whether it’s at the local wine shop or even at a grocery store, potentially?
E: Yeah, absolutely. Portugal is not going to have as many, for lack of better words, household-name wines as you’re going to find in other parts of the world. Probably the most available brand across the country, and one that you can even find in some of the larger stores would be a brand called Esporão. Esporão makes wines of various different grapes, whites, reds, and things like that. Various different price points as well, and they’re fairly well widely distributed. They have a nice touch of the old and the new. Their wines are driving new winemakers, a gentleman named David Haverstock who moved over from Australia years ago and brought a New-World sensibility to the Old-World fruit. But Sandra Alves, who is the day-to-day winemaker there, makes sure that everything still tastes Portuguese and very good. Another brand would be Fitapreta. Those are the great wines of António Maçanita, who also makes some killer wines out of the Azores as well. But his wines are very cool. He makes some very forward-thinking wines using Portuguese grapes. He makes a wine, actually out of Touriga Nacional, which is a grape many of us associate more with the north and the Douro, but he makes it in the Alentejo and he makes a wine called “Nua” which literally translates to nude, which is just the purest form of that grape that I’ve ever found and I’ve ever tasted. He makes that in the Douro, but brings that same sensibility here. João Portugal Ramos. His wines are widely available. And then finally Rocim along with Esporão, I think, are the two brands I see most often. Rocim makes tremendous wines, both whites and reds, and with a focus primarily on Portuguese grapes. But all of these houses, with the exception perhaps of Esporão really don’t spend a lot of time with international grapes, which is something that you see a bit of in the Alentejo, but not as much as the other parts of the world. There’s not this great influx of Cabernet and Chardonnay into this part of Portugal.
Z: Awesome. Well, Evan, thank you so much. It was really super interesting to learn about a region that, at most for me, had been maybe a place on a map that I didn’t really think a whole lot about. But I am definitely excited to continue to taste the wines that you sent and to try to take a trip over there when the world permits it, which would be delightful.
E: Yeah. Well, it’ll be well worth your time when you do. And until then, we can at least live vicariously through the bottles. And if people want to track down some Portuguese recipes, if you just Google it, there’s some wonderful classic Alentejo recipes that people can make at home.
A: Evan, thanks so much. This was awesome. You’ve definitely made me want to go out and drink more of these wines. Obviously, as I’ve already said, you’ve made me very hungry. So I appreciate your time and your willingness to share all of your amazing wealth of knowledge, and everyone out there listening at home, we hope that you enjoy this bonus episode. Again, you’re welcome. And Zach, I’ll see you back here next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits. VinePair produced by myself and Zach. It is also mixed and edited by him. Yeah, Zach, we know you do a lot. I’d also like to thank the entire VinePair team, including my co-founder, Josh and our associate editor, Cat. Thanks so much for listening. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.