‘Ask any Portuguese and they’ll agree – Alentejo is the gastronomic soul of Portugal!‘
So said our guide Ruben as we set off on our taster tour of the region. But since he’s also the Communication Manager for the region’s tourism promotion agency, I took his words with a pinch of salt, categorising them as the boast of one who loves his home region with a passion. Of course, that’s true and he does… but as our time in Alentejo continued, I quickly came to realise that he’s absolutely right. Alentejo is the gastronomic soul of Portugal!
Representing a third of the land area of Portugal, Alentejo is situated in the South of the country, just above the Algarve. Bordered to the North by the River Tejo and to the East by Spain, to the West it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Although an extensive region, it is sparsely populated and predominantly agricultural, producing beef and pork, cheese and dairy, cereal grains, olives and olive oil, and of course, wine. The landscape during our mid September visit was golden, the grasslands parched after two unusually dry years, but at other times of year it is lush and green.
The damming of the River Guadiana to create Lake Alqueva just fifteen years ago revitalised the region’s agriculture, providing a reliable source of water for irrigation as well as a tourist attraction in its own right – it’s the biggest man-made lake in Europe. The dam also generates renewable energy for the region. Since the dam was built, a great many new farms and wineries have been established in the area, and many older businesses have expanded and diversified.
During our three day itinerary, we explored gloriously beautiful landscapes and villages, visited several wineries, enjoyed fantastic cuisine and stayed in three charming and beautiful properties, enjoying a feast of traditional Portuguese food. Read on for a taste of Alentejo.
I knew that Portugal is a major producer of cork, but hadn’t appreciated that fully half of the world’s supplies are produced here, much of that within the Alentejo. Cork is grown and harvested across the Alentejo but processing is centred in Azaruja, just to the north of Evora.
Much of the countryside we drove through was covered in trees, most of them olive or cork. Because the cork bark can only be extracted every 9 years, the trees are marked with large white numbers to show the year they were last harvested.
Our first stop – after the obligatory coffee and pastel de nata (custard tart) break and a quick pause for photographs of cork – was at Herdade de São Miguel. We are visiting the modernist head quarters at Pimenta estate, strikingly clad in a coat of cork, a material which provides insulation as well as beauty.
During our tasting, General Manager Nuno Franco tells us about the history of the winery.
Herdade de São Miguel was established by owner Alexandre Relvas in 2000, after he purchased the São Miguel estate in 1997.Hailing from Angola, Relvas was already running a successful plastic packaging business but had no background in Portuguese agriculture. After buying the estate, he planted almost 100 hectares of cork trees. After a random chat to a wine producer in a local bar, he decided to add 10 hectares of wine grapes, more for fun than as a commercial enterprise. After making a decision to turn the wine project into a business, another 90 acres of grapes were planted, focusing on traditional local Portuguese grape varieties – Aragonês (better known outside Portugal by its Spanish name, Tempranillo), Trincadeira (also grown in the Douro where it’s known as Tinta Amarela) and Alicante Bouschet, a variety that originated in France but is widely grown in the Alentejo. Initially, they sold their grapes to other wineries. In 2003 they built the first of their own wineries, at São Miguel, a small scale operation to process their own grapes. Their wines were well regarded from the start and in 2007 they opened a larger state-of-the-art winery at the Pimenta estate. Today they can vinify 3 million kilos across the two wineries, and produce approximately 4 million bottles a year! As they expanded the business, they purchased additional vineyards and now grow grapes in three of Alentejo’s five wine regions – many more Portuguese varieties such as Antão Vaz, Antão Vaz, Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira – plus grapes that were not traditionally grown in the region before such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Moscatel and Syrah.
Later, we visit the winery proper and learn about vinho de talha (translated as amphora wines or clay pot wines) a technique developed and spread by the Romans and recently experiencing a rebirth in the region’s wineries. More on this to come in a dedicated post soon!
After our quick visit to the production area, we tasted a range of wines including some made in the regular (modern) way and some talha wines.
One of the characteristics of Alentejo wines is their low acidity levels, a factor of the schist terrain in this region. For me, this is absolutely great news, as for the first time I can ever remember, I found myself genuinely enjoying dry wines!
We started with whites. I liked both the Ciconia and the Herdade de São Miguel Colheita Seleccionada, both blending Antão Vaz, Verdhello and Viognier. Both of these wines are very keenly priced, especially if you pick them up locally. I would describe them as crisp and easy drinking, the Ciconia having more fruit to it and the Colheita Seleccionada rather more citrus as well as a hint of oak from its 3 months in new oak barrels.
We also tried the Art.Terra Amphora Branco vinho de talha, a striking yellow in the glass and with intense umami flavours and much more acidity than the two regular whites. This was made from grapes descended from the Arinto variety.
Next, we tried the red counterparts for the Ciconia and the Colheita Seleccionada. Again, these were very easy drinking reds, the Colheita Seleccionada in particular having a richly fruity character. The last tasting was the Herdade de São Miguel Reserva, made from Alicante Bouschet, Aragonez, Cabernet Sauvignon and Touriga Nacional grapes – this wine had the most wonderful blackcurrant aroma and a rich, full-bodied flavour. I bought a bottle home for Pete, so hopefully he’ll enjoy it!
Our first dinner of the trip was at Mercearia Gadanha, a combined grocery shop and restaurant in Estremoz. The menu offers regional Portuguese classics, often with a modern twist and presented in a beautiful and bang-up-to-date style. The setting itself is warm, welcoming and treads the perfect line between rustic and elegant.
As a child in Brazil, Gadhana’s head chef Michelle Marques dreamed of a career in journalism, but she changed her mind after taking a cookery class during a trip to Italy. From there she enrolled in a professional course at the School of Hospitality and Tourism of Portalegre before going on to set up a gourmet wine and food shop, to which the restaurant was added in 2013.
Although every dish we were served was fantastic, for me it was the starters and desserts (which we shared between the table) that really wowed. My favourites starters were the croquetes de borrego (lamb croquettes with roasted garlic mayonnaise), fresh foie gras with bravo de esmolve apples and the queijo de cabra, pera, mel e noz (goat cheese gratin with pear pickles, honey, nuts and thyme ice cream). All the desserts were magical but I particularly loved a passion fruit mango ice lolly served with fresh fruit and sorbet.
That night we slept in the delightfully quirky rooms of Casa do Terreiro do Poço in Borba. After running a successful antique shop in along Borba’s Rua dos Antiquários (a street known for its antiques shops), Rita and João Cavaleiro Ferreira decided to open this beautiful hotel in a historic local property which they carefully restored. All the rooms, located in a few different buildings, are very individual and decorated using pieces of furniture and art collected over the years.
My room was lovely – comfortable and beautifully decorated, with both local and global pieces that created an eclectic charm. I loved that a huge flock of birds chitter-chattered loudly to each other as they swooped in and out of the branches of a nearby tree at sunset, and the peaceful quiet when they went to sleep.
But what made me fall hopelessly in love with the place were the romantic little corners and courtyards; full of lush greenery, some plants laden with flowers or fruit, dotted with a few well-placed antiques including some huge talha, a stone bench and a stone rabbit! The place was fairy-tale gorgeous and I wish I’d had time here to sit and enjoy these spaces more, not to mention the inviting pool and pavilion.
Breakfast was served in an ornate dining room furnished with more of Rita and João’s antiques, lots of fresh bread, home made jams, local cheese and charcuterie, cake and yoghurt, and piping hot scrambled eggs.
With very little time to spend in Borba, I got up early and enjoyed a short but lovely walk in the quiet still of the morning. This is what Alentejo towns and villages are about for me, the simple and beautiful white-washed architecture with splashes of colour at the bottom and around doors and windows, and the slow and gentle awakening and pace of life.
From Borba we made our way to Monzaraz, an absolutely stunning castle and village on top of a hill.
Strategically significant (you can see the once-much-contested border with Spain from the hilltop), Monzaraz offers stunning views out in all directions, including over the dammed River Guadiana and resulting Lake Alqueva. Part way up, we stop to admire the views (of course) as well as a striking artwork by artist Joaquim Inacio Coelho Neves Cardoso. Installed in 2015, the three rows of cut out silhouettes represent the local Cante Alentejano tradition, a local vocal choral style that has been declared an intangible cultural asset by UNESCO.
Noticing three people foraging beneath a tree, I approached to find out what they were doing. As I watched, the elderly gentleman used a stick to gently shake the tree branches; two women carefully kept their balance scampering up and down the steep slope, stooping to collect the fruit of the tree. Seeing my interest, one of the women quickly explained they were almonds and cracked one open for me to taste. It was creamy soft and sweet!
Continuing upwards we entered the village of Monsaraz, quickly charmed by the whitewashed buildings, cobbled streets and glimpses of beautiful landscape below. The bright blue sky and fluffy clouds were the perfect backdrop to the sun-drenched buildings. I wish we’d had longer to explore here, as there’s plenty to see and I’d happily clamber (slowly) through every little street.
We made time to stop in the former school building, now a shop run by Ervideira, a local winemaker with some unusual products in their range. Looking after the shop was a lady who went to school here, one of the last to do so before the school was closed. I love that the blackboard and other details from the school have been retained.
Invisível is an utterly captivating wine! Having virtually no colour, it is indeed virtually invisible, and looks like pouring water into the glass. More surprising still is that it’s made from Aragonês (a red wine grape most commonly known as Tempranillo outside of Portugal). The producers describe using only the tears of the grape; the grapes are pressed very lightly and the first 10 percent of juice extracted, free of staining from the skins, is used to make this wine. The rest of the juice, pressed afterwards, can go to their other wines.
I was convinced this water-like wine was little more than a gimmick, but actually, that’s not the case at all! Invisível is crisp, citrusy with a hint of grassy herbiness and a little ripe fruit at the end. Bought a bottle home with me because it’s just so cool!
The other unusual Ervideira wine is their Vinho da Agua for which the bottled wine is aged 100 feet under the waters of Lake Alqueva for 8 months. Much like in a cellar, the lake bed is cool and there’s very little variation of temperature, but perhaps it’s the pressure that makes the difference? It’s certainly not the water or lack of oxygen, since the corked bottles are sealed with wax before submerging.
And there is definitely a difference, as we discovered when we tasted the same vintage of the same wine not aged under water, against the wine which had. We found that while both wines were ready to drink, the water wine had a mellower, more rounded and complex flavour, akin to a wine that had aged a few years longer. Certainly an interesting experiment, and worth trying both yourself if you are able to visit.
Advised of my deep love for dessert wines, we were also invited to taste the winery’s dessert wine, a deliciously sweet, fruity and bright offering, and available in an unusual short fat bottle.
From Monsaraz we headed down to the lake itself, stopping for lunch in the Amieira Marina – the restaurant offers a range of regional dishes including starters of quail eggs in a herby dressing and luscious prawns in their shell in an intense spiced tomato sauce. For our mains we enjoyed stewed pork loin with migas (a savoury bread-stuffing), superbly tender octopus with potatoes, garlic, coriander and olive oil and a codfish pastry with prawns and tomato. Desserts, though we were almost too full to eat them, included an incredible sericaia (egg pudding) served with super-sweet preserved Elvas plums.
Luckily for us, Ruben had booked one of the coveted outdoor tables, protected by the shade of sail cloths overhead, and with a beautiful view out over the lake and marina.
Groaning from our big lunch, we headed out for a quick pootle on Lake Alqueva in one of the boats available for hire from the marina. The boat had a small double bedroom and bathroom below, a little kitchenette and seating area above, and a tiny deck out back.
On the way to our home for the night, we took a quick detour through Salvada, a parish in Beja, to admire the typical village streets and the mazing art deco architecture of the Cine Monumental, just next to a small church. With the setting sun painting it gold, it was quite a sight.
Our home this evening was a small winery with onsite accommodation. Herdade do Vau is a peaceful spot, especially in the hours of sunset and sunrise, when the light wraps the winery’s whitewashed buildings in a coat of gold. The terrace offers views out over the classic Alentejo landscape, and there’s a pool too.
Like many in the region, the winery is young, production began only ten years ago. The country house was rebuilt in 2012, originally as a home for the owner’s family, but little used and so repackaged as a hotel instead. That said, staying here is not-at-all hotel like, with just a handful of rooms and a couple of apartments. Rooms vary enormously; some are spacious and light-filled with attractive furniture whereas I found my room somewhat prison-cell like; the extreme scarcity of furnishings incommodious rather than minimalist chic.
Simple, traditional, home-style meals are taken at the communal table in the main lounge area and accompanied by the estate’s wines.
The next morning, we headed to Quinta do Quetzal in Vidigueira, a stunning modern winery with some unusual touches.
First is the way the wine is made. Inspired by ancient traditions, the winery uses a gravity-based system – cleverly built into a hill, grapes are delivered directly to the roof of the winery, where they are fed through holes that drop them straight down into the fermentation tanks, which likewise use gravity to transfer the wine from tanks to barrels on the floor below. Likewise, the cellars are underground, providing a naturally cool temperature for aging.
More unusual is the onsite modern art gallery, integrated into a new, custom-built restaurant, shop and art centre building that sits on the slope below the winery itself. Quetzal’s owners, Cees and Inge de Bruin, are collectors and patrons of contemporary art and they, together with their daughter Aveline de Bruin, have created and curated the exhibition space to bring something new to the region.
After our winery tour and a guided visit to the gallery, we sat down for a wine tasting with matching food cooked by the estate’s head chef, Pedro Mendes. Reto Jörg, the general manager, responsible for the estate and winery as well as development of brand awareness across key markets, talked us through the tasting as he related the estate’s history, natural ethos and connection with art. .
We tried a wide range of wines including whites, a rose (rare in Portugal), reds and dessert wines, some bottled under the Quetzal label and others under the winery’s Guadeloupe brand (named for a tiny chapel on the estate).
Reto explained how the local mountains create a unique microclimate here that particularly favours the Antão Vaz – until recently, grown almost exclusively in the Vidigueira area. It’s a grape that thrives on hot days and cold nights, its thick skin protecting it against the daily temperature swings. Today the winery showcases Antão Vaz in several of its wines, but also uses Alfrocheiro, Alicante Bouschet, Aragonez, Arinto, Cabernet Sauvignon, Roupeiro, Syrah and Trincadeira grapes too. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Reto admits, is to give the winery an In with the American market, who tend to reach for familiar grape varieties, but can then be introduced to other wines in the range after they’ve enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon. America, and the Netherlands (from where the owners hail) are both major markets for the estate’s wines.
Quetzal’s dessert wines, called “rich white” (Antão Vaz) and “rich red” (Alicante Bouschet), respectively, were both rich, wonderfully sweet and full of fruit aromas and flavours.
The restaurant space was drenched in light from floor to ceiling windows along the length of the space, and lifted by the bright colours of a custom-commissioned tile mural on the back wall – hand-painted by artisan tile makers using traditional methods but featuring a contemporary design based on work by a French artist
Dishes served during the tasting were a celebration of local traditions and ingredients. Savoury highlights included crunchy toasts topped with local cheese and uvada (rich, sticky grape molasses), sausage croquettes with a parsley mayo, battered green beans with sweet pepper sauce (the dish that inspired Japanese tempura), super thin slices of black pig fat known as pétalas de toucinho (literally, bacon petals) and a salad of mushrooms, coriander and ham. Desserts included a pumpkin and ginger pudding with cinnamon crumble, a salted chocolate ganache with caramelised hazelnuts, siricaia – a moist, yolk-rich cake with plum jam, and – my favourite – an orange cake with orange sorbet and basil.
At the end of the visit, we had time for a quick visit to the shop which sells the full range of wines as well as other local food and drink produce.
A chance discussion in the car leads to a brief extra stop in Cuba, the true birth place – so it is claimed – of Christopher Colombus, known locally as Colon. We dutifully hopped out of the car, posed with the imposing statue (after which I insisted on the others doing the same) and continued onwards to our final overnight of the trip.
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova is an incredible place, one of the most inviting places I’ve stayed. A beautifully refurbished country house, this low rise building sits within the Malhadina Nova estate, looking out across vineyards and farmland.
The hotel is a gem. The rooms are simply and attractively decorated, with gorgeous bathrooms and Bvlgari toiletries. They are wonderfully comfortable and calming. Mine looked out onto the back terrace and the green and gold landscape beyond.
I also loved the public lounge area; homely but with more designer flair than most homes I’ve visited and it offered the perfect spot to have a drink from the bar, sit and read a good book, catch up with friends new and old… Just outside the double doors was the terrace, where tables were set for outside dining. Beyond these lay an inviting turquoise pool and the entrance to the hotel’s spa, which we sadly didn’t have time to try – another reason I’m super keen to go back.
As well as the winery, hotel and restaurant (in a separate building to the hotel), the estate is home to a stud farm where they breed thoroughbred Lusitano horses – a heavily muscled, intelligent breed known for its agility and competitive performance – as well as a cattle farm and a pig farm – where they breed and raise purebred Alentejana cattle and the Alentejo Black Pig, both known for their superb quality. They have groves of Galega olive trees too, from which they press their own olive oil.
The main restaurant wasn’t open on the night of our visit, so dinner was served instead on the terrace, an altogether more charming affair. The October nights were quite chilled and we all wrapped up in blankets as we dined by romantic candlelight. The cooking was refined and elegant, making very good use of the estate’s own beef and pork, supplemented by fresh vegetables, fruit and dairy of the region.
Like all the wineries we visited, Malhadha Nova is a young one, just ten years old. But they have been winning accolades since the moment they launched. One of the touches I particularly loved was the use of drawings by the children (when they were younger) on the labels for each wine, an exhuberant cow, a sheep munching orange flowers and little children at play.
Because of my deep and abiding love for dessert wines, I asked if I could taste their Late Harvest, made from the Petit Manseng grape, and was rewarded with a terrific explosion of flavour from this stunningly rich, deeply fruity pudding wine. It’s a very strong competitor against the dessert wines of South West France that are typically made with this grape.
My three nights in Alentejo gave me a wonderful taste of the region, but like all good appetisers, have left me with a huge hunger for more.
This is a region that’s just perfect for a road trip, and I hope to return for a longer visit soon, with Pete Drinks in tow to fully appreciate the wineries. In the meantime, I hope my trip report has given you a good introduction to the pleasures of Portugal’s beautiful gastronomic soul and you are considering planning a trip of your own!
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Depending on which part of the Alentejo region you are visiting, you can fly in to Faro to the South or Lisbon, just West of central Alentejo. We travelled with TAP Portugal which runs several flights a day between UK and Portuguese airports and offers a reliable, comfortable service. Flights from London to Lisbon start at £42 one way including surcharges and taxes.