Alen­tejo, Por­tu­gal

Gay Times Magazine - - Contents - WORDS jack may

Por­tu­gal’s hot­ter than ever since Madonna set up shop out­side Lisbon. But if the bump and grind of all those tourists is too much, the Alen­tejo re­gion of­fers great wine and a re­lax­ing vibe. Let your body go with the flow, as they say...

Ev­ery­one’s talk­ing about it. From the brunch spots of Lon­don to the bag­gage re­claims of Lisbon air­port, Madonna’s move to Por­tu­gal, to a small palace in Sin­tra, has made one thing clear – Por­tu­gal is in vogue.

Loung­ing on the beaches of the Al­garve, hud­dling in the al­ley­ways of Lisbon, or ad­mir­ing the view over the Duoro in Porto and the North, visi­tors can’t get enough of Europe’s west­ern­most ex­trem­ity.

But what are they look­ing at? Beau­ti­ful ar­chi­tec­ture, a stun­ning coast­line, a cul­ture as vi­brant and cu­ri­ous as any, and food and drink to pen po­ems in honour of. But with so many flock­ing to Por­tu­gal, how to avoid ris­ing prices, throng­ing crowds, and the soul-crush­ing, twang­ing sound of a fel­low Brit hol­i­day­ing on the con­ti­nent?

Enter the Alen­tejo. South of Lisbon and north of the Al­garve, this is Por­tu­gal’s an­swer to the Wild West, the Serengeti and the vine­yards of Bordeaux all rolled into one and given that uniquely Por­tuguese stamp of friend­li­ness dashed with a healthy sus­pi­cion of out­siders. That, and it’s the beat­ing heart of the Por­tuguese com­mu­nist party (the CDU), who came first in most of the Alen­tejo’s mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in this year’s lo­cal elec­tions, af­ter plas­ter­ing their ham­mer and sickle-em­bla­zoned posters all over the place. In short, it’s a quirky place.

At its heart, the Alen­tejo is an agri­cul­tural hub. The re­gion – just a bit big­ger than Wales – is the coun­try’s largest pro­ducer of wine, one of Europe’s top olive oil pro­duc­ers and the world’s largest pro­ducer of cork.

But it’s the sur­pris­ingly in­no­va­tive wine that stands out, and just as the French keep all the good stuff for them­selves, noth­ing beats the on-the-ground stuff in the Alen­tejo for any wine-lover.

Quinta do Quet­zal is the most im­pres­sive. Owned by a Dutch cou­ple, this win­ery uses gravity to pro­duce its wines (around 300,000 bot­tles per an­num) to mimic the tra­di­tional meth­ods that have seen this re­gion pro­duce wine since the Phoeni­cians spread their ten­drils here in the 12th

“This is Por­tu­gal’s an­swer to the Wild West, the Serengeti and Bordeaux in one.”

cen­tury BC. Grapes are de­liv­ered to the top of its five-story com­pound to be washed, sorted, fil­tered, fer­mented and aged as they work their way down the build­ing.

The place it­self is dis­arm­ingly chic stylish brand­ing abounds, and a re­cently opened visi­tors’ cen­tre fea­tures a shop, stun­ning restau­rant and con­tem­po­rary art gallery, which is sadly as much chi­canery as ap­pre­cia­ble tal­ent. The whole car­bun­cle threat­ens to re­veal the place as a cyn­i­cal money spin­ner, where the qual­ity of the wine be­comes al­most in­ci­den­tal to the cat­a­logue-ready aes­thetic. This is not the case.

White – not the re­gion’s spe­cial­ity – are full, nutty and com­plex, while still en­joy­ing the fresh crisp­ness you’d ex­pect, and the reds, the best us­ing Por­tuguese grapes like Al­frocheiro, Aragonez and Trin­cadeira, are chewy in the right places and broad at the fin­ish.

Her­dade São Miguel sim­i­larly looks back through the re­gion’s 2,000-year his­tory of vini­fi­ca­tion as in­spi­ra­tion for in­no­va­tion. Along­side its range of stan­dard steel tank and oak bar­rel-aged wines, Her­dade São Miguel ma­tures a chunk of its pro­duce in vast clay pots, mak­ing am­phora wine. Up to 3m tall, these loom­ing units are called tal­has, but sadly re­sult in a wine that is not vastly more im­pres­sive than its reg­u­lar stuff.

To hunt out some of the re­gion’s most un­usual wines, head to the glo­ri­ously twee me­dieval vil­lage of Mon­saraz, perched precariously on a hill­top over­look­ing the val­ley of the Gua­di­ana river. The Ervideira win­ery, with a wine shop, tast­ing room, and stun­ning ter­race in what used to be the vil­lage’s pri­mary school. Let­ters of the al­pha­bet painted onto large ce­ramic tiles still line the walls, but to perch over the tast­ing bar is to set your­self up for a rather more adult ex­pe­ri­ence.

Al­most per­fectly trans­par­ent in the glass, the In­vi­sivel (as in, in­vis­i­ble) wine is, per­haps coun­ter­in­tu­itively, made en­tirely from red Aragonez grapes taken from the first press. Far from a gim­mick, it’s gor­geous stuff – silky, full, crisp and with a quiet sharp­ness. So-called wa­ter wine, aged in oak bar­rels stored un­der­wa­ter rather than in a con­ven­tional cellar, is less full bod­ied as the wine has less ca­pac­ity to breathe, but is an ex­per­i­ment worth tast­ing.

This vi­nous ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in the Alen­tejo is, for the most part, down to one thing – and it dom­i­nates the view from the lofty heights of Mon­saraz.

The Grande Lago Alqueva is Europe’s big­gest man-made lake, and snakes through the Gua­di­ana val­ley with ten­drils, in­lets and penin­su­las on both sides of the Span­ish bor­der. Con­struc­tion on its dam be­gan in 1995, and the lake fi­nally filled up to the planned level in 2010, cre­at­ing a vast and re­li­able wa­ter source built to with­stand at least three years of drought, though it swept away com­mu­ni­ties oc­cu­pied for cen­turies. One such vil­lage, Luz, was en­tirely dis­man­tled and re­built piece by piece on higher ground, and is si­mul­ta­ne­ously ex­tra­or­di­nary and spooky as a re­sult.

The Amieira Ma­rina is the hub of this vast mass of wa­ter. Wa­ter ski­ing, wake­board­ing, ca­noe­ing, kayak­ing and ba­nana boat­ing are on offer, and river cruises, house­boats, and float­ing houses mean you can en­joy the lake at length. The panoramic restau­rant and cafe are cer­tainly worth a look-in, too.

The best base for both wine-lovers and oth­ers is Her­dade da Mal­had­inha Nova. Its wines gar­nered world-class awards even in the first vin­tages, but it’s the ex­pe­ri­ence that ex­cels. The ho­tel is beau­ti­ful, with flaw­less ser­vice, well-designed rooms mak­ing good use of lo­cal ma­te­ri­als, a spa, a stun­ning in­fin­ity pool, and tran­quil views out over the vine­yards. If you ask nicely, you may even bag a Jeep-ride tour of the vast es­tate, which is par­tic­u­larly good at sun­set.

Else­where, the towns of Estremoz,

Beja, Cuba – al­legedly the birth­place of Christo­pher Colum­bus, ac­cord­ing to some – are charm­ing and worth an af­ter­noon of cob­bled streets and wary lo­cal faces. Borba, in the north­ern por­tion of the re­gion, pro­vides some­thing of a mi­cro­cosm of the Alen­tejo. The drive in swept past vine­yards, cork trees, and olive groves, and an espresso in the shadow of the me­dieval cas­tle walls in the vil­lage square was a prime spot to sur­vey tight-knit groups of well-dressed Por­tuguese gen­tle­men weav­ing their way out of church ser­vices.

It was over such a pit stop that the kindly owner of the gor­geous Casa do Ter­reiro do Poço ho­tel told us of his great­est worry for the land he calls home: ‘Alen­tejo, we want more gays’, he said, lean­ing to­wards us con­spir­a­to­ri­ally. ‘But we have no gay bar for them.’ We’d no­ticed. ‘We are very small’, he ad­mit­ted, ‘but very wel­com­ing.’

Well, we’ll drink to that.

TAP Por­tu­gal flies di­rect from Lon­don City Air­port, Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon up to 12 times a day, prices start at £42 one way in­clud­ing all taxes and sur­charges. For more, visit fly­tap.com or call 0345 601 0932. For more des­ti­na­tion info, visit vis­i­tal­en­tejo.pt and vis­it­por­tu­gal.com/en/des­ti­nos/ alen­tejo

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