Alentejo is a land of vast plains, picturesque vineyards, and cork plantations. One of Portugal’s biggest regions, Alentejo is renowned for its wines. The wines are rustic yet charming and will surprise your palate and your senses.
Recently I had a virtual visit to Portugal, one of my most beloved wine regions for its natural beauty, indigenous grape varieties, value proposition, and phenomenal wines. João Barroso(Director of Sustainability for the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program – WASP) and Evan Goldstein, MS lead a stimulating conversation on sustainability practices in Alentejo
Alentejo Wine Region
Alentejo is a mysterious old region that somehow people relate to as the new frontier in wine when in reality it is one of the oldest in the world. It has been producing wines for over 4000 years. Alentejo translates to “beyond the Tejo”. The Tejo River flows east to west and is one of the largest rivers of the Iberian Peninsula.
Located in the southern part of Portugal, Alentejo covers approximately 30% of the landmass of the country. It is a large region with sun-drenched days and cool breezy nights with a Mediterranean climate. Rich, bold red blends are the most predominant wines(73%) of the region, with a small production of whites(25%) and rosés(2%).
A hotbed of experimentation and innovation, Alentejo has witnessed an explosion of new producers. The sheer volume of producers has increased exponentially over the last 25 years. In 1995 there were 45 wineries, today that number is over 200. Portuguese wines have been making a huge splash across global markets, specifically the wines from Alentejo. In recent years, many top publications have given impeccable ratings to the wines of Alentejo, stimulating a surge in popularity.
Alentejo has one of the warmest climates in all of Europe and is dry and arid. It is a region where water and natural resources are scarce. Winemakers often experience drought conditions. The scarcity of water, combined with concerns of global warming and climate change has heightened the region’s awareness for sustainable, biodynamic, and organic practices in vineyard management.
Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program (WASP)
The first of its kind in Portugal, Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program (WASP) was formed in 2015. It put in place a formal but voluntary sustainability program for winegrowers. João Barroso, says that the award-winning WASP program is focused on economic viability within a social domain that is focused on environmental protection. WASP supports improvements in environmental and social sectors, as well as the economic performance of Alentejo’s wine industry. Sustainability lies at the core of the project. The project is flexible and adaptive, and they have learned to cater to the needs of the members. Members share best practices, benchmarks, self-evaluation, and accountability with third-party certification. The program starts with empowerment to encourage members to participate.
Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program did not reinvent the wheel when they created the terms. They consulted with world wine leaders and more specifically, they looked at California and Chile, as they had similar climatic situations as Alentejo. With guidance from leaders around the globe, they set up a sustainable program for viticulture and cellar management. They look at 18 different chapters of intervention with 171 factors of evaluation. The project is divided into two chapters to allow producers to adapt to gradual implementation. WASP has been highly successful, it started with 94 members and is now currently 411 members are enrolled. It is still small in number, but many of the biggest producers of Alejento are working under the sustainability program.
WASP has won many awards over the last few years for its sustainability program. Alentejo as a region is widely regarded in Europe for its progressive approach towards sustainability strategies.
5 Sustainably Produced Alentejo Wines To Try Now
ESPORÃO COLHEITA BRANCO 2018 (SRP $16)
Esporão is one of the best-known producers of the region. They are ambassadors for not just Alentejo but for all of Portugal. Esporão is family-owned, and all the fruit for this wine is estate-grown in vineyards that are certified organic. The Colheita Branco is a blend of Antâo Vaz, Viosinho, Alvarinho and a few others.
The wine is bright, fresh, and crisp with lots of depth and texture. There are beautiful tropical notes with nutty characteristics from spending time on the lees. There is a nice presence of minerality, with buttery and herbaceous notes.
Sustainability Highlight: Herdade do Esporão is one of Portugal’s most progressive wineries. They have led the way with a testing nursery to identify which indigenous grape varieties are best adapted to a changing climate.
CASA RELVAS SUL RED BLEND 2018 (SRP $12)
The Sul Red (50% Aragonez–aka Tempranillo, 30% Alicante Bouschet, 15% Trincadeira and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon)is a delicious wine that over-delivers on quality. The flavor profile is classic Alentejo. This wine is approachable and soft with smooth tannins and a lot of generosity.
Sustainability Highlight: Casa Relvas uses sheep to control weeds during the vegetative rest period of the vineyard, reducing the need for hydrocarbon-dependent herbicides. What is even more interesting is the social aspect of their work. The owners sponsor education for their worker’s children. They sponsor master courses so they have the opportunity to go onto higher education.
HERDADE DE COELHEIROS RED 2017 (SRP $20)
Vineyards, a walnut orchard, a cork forest, and a wide array of wild animals from deer to rabbits make this family-owned estate biodiverse. They dry-farmed fruit for the Colheiros Red (a 50/50 blend of Aragonez and Alicante Bouschet).
This wine shows you a more modern approach to Alentejo. The wine has spent some time in oak and has nice ripeness with dark plum, peppercorn and balsamic notes. A bit jammy with a wonderful creamy mouthfeel.
Sustainability Highlight: They study the biodiversity of the various ecosystems that surround them. Herdade de Coelheiros uses bat shelters to encourage bats to make their home here. It is another natural approach to tackling unwanted insects in the vineyard. Bats help them reduce the use of pesticides.
HERDADE DOS GROUS RED 2018 (SRP $19)
This Alberrnoa-based estate is known for the care with which it produces its wines. Harvest for the fruit used in this particular wine, for example, ran for over a month. The plummy, spicy and full-flavored wine is a blend of Aragonez 35%, Alicante Bouschet 35%, Touriga Nacional 20%and Syrah 10%.
Syrah and Alicante make a nice pair, they add something different to the mix. Nice dark red fruit, and lots of richness. This is a classic, rustic wine that can only be made in Alentejo.
Sustainability Highlight: Herdade dos Grous has reduced bottle weight across all their wines. Reducing its carbon footprint for the benefit of the environment.
CARMIN REGUENGOS GARRAFEIRA DOS SÓCIOS 2014 (SRP $48)
The vineyards surrounding the historic and beautiful village of Monsaraz have been farmed since the Middle Ages. Today, the Cooperativa Agricola de Reguengos de Monsaraz (founded in1971) is not only the largest winery in Alentejo, but also one of its most awarded. Made from a classic blend of 65% Alicante Bouschet, 20% Touriga Nacional and 15% Tinta Caiada.
This is a top-end bottling and has spent 30 months in oak and 12 months in bottle. There is nice density and spice and nice notes of bay leaf and potpourri. The Alicante gives peppery and dry meat notes. It is a sun-baked wine with nice richness.
Sustainability Highlight: CARMIN composts all organic waste from the winemaking process (grape pomace and lees) into fertilizer. New additions to the winery include the installation of rooftop solar panels, taking advantage of Alentejo’s abundant solar energy.