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