Over the years we’ve wine-tasted our way through Cape Town and California’s central coast, and lacking the fancy language liked what we liked even if we couldn’t explain why we liked it. For my wife Ana and I, a good wine was a good value wine.
Our first pootle through the Portuguese countryside with the occasional winery pit stop introduced hit-or-miss tastings and a mind-boggling blend of unpronounceable grape varieties.
Used to either inexpensive and always-available South African speed-tastings, or elitist high-priced American “join our wine club or pay $20 a glass” marketing, Portugal was different.
Criss-crossing rural Alentejo province in search of a ruin and a bit of land to buy, we would drop in on wineries and either be told apologetically that booking was essential, or at one cork-covered architectural gem, taken on a two-hour tour and tasting for a handful of euros.
But it was on a journalism fellowship at Stanford University in northern California when we got it: wine is all about the story.
You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever relaxed in the sunshine with a stunning view and tasted the best wine ever, only to get it home and feel at worst cheated or at best transported back to the moment.
Wine can be tasted, but it is also experienced in a place and time, and our brains love suggestions – especially with our lesser-trained senses of smell and taste. If the wine expert tells you it tastes of vanilla and black cherry, it tastes of vanilla and black cherry; if they tell you that playing Bach to grape vines and piping Handel into the cellar improves the taste, you may scoff…but curiosity might get the better of you anyway.
It’s why wine labels these days try to paint a picture or tell a story of rural bliss, years of tradition, and grapes so lovingly nurtured it’s hard to understand how anyone could possibly crush them.
At Stanford’s Graduate School of Business they call it “authenticity” and it was a big part of our “Dynamics of the Global Wine Industry” course a couple of years ago. It was a fascinating meander through the marketing, strategies and branding of the booze business with great guest speakers and at least one tasting per class.
Our mid-term project was on an emerging wine region and we cheekily asked if we could focus on Portugal’s Alentejo. Although you can’t get more old-world wine than Portugal, our province had most of its vines pulled up under the Salazar regime and is not a place outsiders know much about.
In his recently updated “Wines of Portugal” book, the British author Richard Mayson refers to Alentejo as “Portugal’s New World,” and many of the winemakers we are meeting see a bright future in the Alentejo.
So let’s start here:
- Allan-Tay-Joe, as you can call it, covers a third of Portugal.
- The name comes from the Portuguese for beyond (Alem) the Tejo (or Tagus) River – which flows south west from Spain to the ocean at Lisbon
- The province stretches south all the way down to the Algarve
- The Portuguese are known for keeping their best wines to themselves and Alentejo produces more wine by volume and value for the domestic market than anywhere else in the country.
Portugal’s wine making history goes back at least four thousand years to the Phoenicians and it has at least 250 of its own indigenous grape varieties. They are all marvellous and mysterious beasts with Portuguese names presenting a challenge for the visiting buyer to pick a local equivalent to their go-to style of wine and type of grape, but that’s what I’m here for.
Perhaps the most well-known Portuguese varietal is Touriga Nacional…especially since the Bordeaux wine region has now approved its planting as it plans ahead for climate change diversification. But more on that to come…as I begin to drip-feed you an introduction to some of Portugal’s most interesting grapes while weaving some history, highlights and interesting tales from our adventure in Portuguese wine here and on our upcoming podcast.
There’s just one word of warning: we are not experts, we are learning too…and would love you to learn with us as we immerse ourselves in all things Allan-Tay-Joe.
I’m sorry, but for now at least we’re avoiding Vinho Verde, diverting round the Dão, ditching the Douro, backing out of Bairrada and postponing Port…because we know they’re not going anywhere, and this will be a long and wonderful journey.We like wine, but we love exploring…and in Portugal you can have it all.
Alastair Leithead is a former BBC foreign correspondent who also writes a blog called The Big Portuguese Wine Adventure. To read more about Alentejo’s wines you can sign up for it here.