Our first trip to Alentejo went by in the blink of an eye. One minute we were touring our friend’s family vineyards, then tasting his award wining Torre do Frade wines, and suddenly we were waking up at the Torre de Palma Wine Hotel and heading back to Lisbon. It was way too quick, and didn’t give us nearly enough time to receive a full Alentejo wine tasting experience.
During our return, we planned to stay three nights at a small hotel in Alentejo. We figured that would give us a full two days to explore the nearby area of Montsaraz, and to visit a few wineries. This time, we wanted to take it a bit slower. Well, a lot slower.
We arrived into Montsaraz on a Sunday, with very little planning on how to actually get out to taste wines. The hotel had a brochure with a list of all the Alentejo wine tasting offerings, and I sent an email to five of the closest. We figured we would go in the order that they replied. First thing Monday morning I heard from Adega Ervideira, and we were on our way.
We have been on so many winery tours recently that we really just wanted to stop by to taste some wines, to learn more about the Alentejo grape varieties, and move on. We declined the option for a tour in our reply email, and were offered instead a “Big Tasting. Be Prepared.”
On our arrival, the owner of the family winery, Duarte, greeted us enthusiastically. Perhaps maybe a little too enthusiastically for us early on a Monday morning.
Duarte quickly sent us off with Malfalda, one of the employees, for just a quick tour. Eric and I were hesitant, as I said, because we have been on so many winery tours in the last 10 months, we could probably open our own winery. We have been feeling this way more and more. But, something happens during each of the tours, which gets our juices going. Even after all of these tours, we ALWAYS learn something new. In this case, we saw something we had yet to see at a winery before.
We’ve been focusing a lot on sparkling wine recently, mostly because I am kind of infatuated with bubbles. Helena from Yummy Italy took us on a Bologna Bubbles tasting recently, and is educating us on how to make wine in the traditional Champagne method. I am understanding the process more and more, but there is still one part of it I did not quite understand – degorgement.
Degorgement takes place after a second fermentation takes place in the bottle. The second fermentation is completed with a bottle cap on the bottle, and at some point that bottle cap, on the pressurized bottle, needs to come off. It is replaced with a cork. This process also needs to get rid of the build up of yeast and sediment in the bottle. There are a few ways to do it, and they all sound complicated.
Nelson, the winemaker at Adega Ervideira, is from Central Portugal, but has been working with Duarte in Alentejo for about fifteen years. When we waked onto the winery floor, there he was degorging their sparkling wine. Suddenly, I got all giddy and excited about out wine tour. Nelson explained the process, and although I still struggle with how it all actually works, it was exciting to see.
A Blind Alentejo Wine Tasting
Once we returned to the tasting room, Mafalda excused herself to take care of a “regular” tour. Duarte returned to manage our tasting. In the brief time we spoke before our tour, I started to already understand his sense of humor.
He wanted to start our tasting with a little bit of a trick. We started with a blind tasting, in dark black wine glasses of two different shapes. This took away the color of the wine, and messed with our heads a lot. Duarte asked if the two glasses held the same wine, or different wine, whether they were red, white, or rose. It was amazing how different the wines smelled in the different shaped glasses, and how hard it was to tell they were both the same wines – rose!
After our trick, we got a treat! Because we were in Alentejo during the harvest, they had four types of, essentially, grape juice, prior to fermentation for us to try. The first, the Gouveio grape, was bright yellow, and tasted almost like a pineapple and grapefruit juice. I wanted to bottle it.
The rest of the tastes included three different juices from the Aragonez grape, similar to the Spanish Tempranillo. The first with the skin immediately removed, so that it was a blanc de noirs, a white wine from a red grape. The other two with the skin left on for differing times, one to become a rose, and the other for a red. This was a first for us, again, just as we think we’ve seen it all during a wine tour.
Learning About Portuguese Wine
I knew very little about Portuguese wines. I knew port wine, and Vinho Verde. That’s about where my education ended. My goal for our Alentejo wine tasting was to educate ourselves, so I can order a bottle of wine at a restaurant without looking silly.
There are over 250 unique Portuguese grapes, almost all of which are not found anywhere else. It makes trying to understand Portuguese wine varieties damn near impossible. The main red grapes they use at Ervideira include Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira, and Alfrocheiro. The white varieties include Antao Vaz, Roupeiro, Perrum, and Arinto, along with Alvarinho. I had never heard of any of these varieties before arriving at Ervideira and I struggled to keep up with Duarte’s descriptions of the blends during our Big Alentejo Wine Tasting. But, I was able to taste the wines, and listen to Duarte talk about the family business.
Adega Ervideira has been making wine since around 1880, and Duarte is fourth generation. They produce a total of 700-800,000 bottles of wine a year, so they are no small manufacturer. But, despite their size, they try to maintain the winery with as much of a family feel as possible. I actually believed them when they said that solely based on the fact that Duarte was there. Many owners at larger wineries tend to be absent and the front of house is left to staff, but you could tell that Duarte is involved in all of the details of the operation.
Because the Portuguese drink wine every day, and with every lunch and dinner, Duarte is most focused on wine and gastronomy. He wants to make wines that are drinkable with food. This means wines that are neither overshadowed by the food, nor overpowering the food. Because there are so many varieties of grapes, he is able to create unique blends to work with the local Alentejo cuisine.
The Big Alentejo Wine Tasting
In the end, all before lunch, Duarte poured us quite liberal tastings of 11 wines! Now, this is how I like to spend a Monday. It was a way better Monday morning than when I used to practice law.
We tried the Ervideira sparkling wine, the Alentejo white, the Invisible blanc de noir, and the Branco Riserva, a white blend aged in Hungarian oak for six months. We tasted the rose, a different rose from our blind tasting.
Just when I started to think we were winding down, Duarte started with the reds, including their red blend, their 2013 reserve, and their Private Selection, which is the same wine “recipe” they have been making since 1890. There was another 2012 red, and, ultimately, a sweet dessert wine made from a late harvest Antao Vaz grape. Add in the blind tasting rose, and we were at 11 total wines.
When Duarte started to march through the wines he wanted us to taste, I became a little bit light headed. I tried to focus on learning as much as I could about the Portuguese varietals. Normally, when I taste, I cannot spit the wine out. It just seems like such a waste. I also, generally, feel compelled to finish all, or at least most, of what is in my glass. Again, throwing it into the bucket just feels wasteful.
But, with our Big Alentejo Wine Tasting, I just had to. It was not that the wines were not good, in fact, they were. It was that every time I turned around Duarte returned to the table with more wine. About half way through, Nelson joined us and started to pester Duarte that we needed to taste more. That’s how we ended up at 11.
Before you think that we received our free big tasting because of our blogger status, even the tourists who just popped by received a pretty generous free tasting.Duarte also made sure to let me know that unlike other Alentejo wineries, they don’t charge for any wine tasting. I like that. There was even a family doing a tasting, with a young girl who was celebrating her birthday, complete with a pink sparkling crown. I am not sure if she was too thrilled with being at a winery on her birthday, but they offered her a taste of the pre-fermented juice, which we also tasted, as a birthday treat.
I was simply amazed at Duarte and Nelson’s hospitality. Their passion for the wine, and their interest in sharing with us.
As for our tour of Alentejo wine tastings . . . we stopped after Ervideira. We learned so much about the wine of the region, in such a short amount of time. Stick a cork in me, I was done.
We were supported by We Love Small Hotels, a company specializing in small, and off-the-beaten path destinations in Portugal, during our time in Alentejo.
For more on Portugal wine tourism, check out our Wine Travel and Tourism Guide.