Tuesday 23 January 2018

Bottled holidays

Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

You hear it all the time from the legions who head to the Algarve for their holidays.

They love to rub it in: the wines were great and so cheap.

Algarve, as a favourite holiday destination, is inextricably linked to another ‘A’ word, Alentejo, the wine region immediately to its north. While other parts of Portugal, notably the Douro, traditionally had the reputation for wine, Alentejo’s blanket covering of cereal crops saw it referred to as the country’s breadbasket.

Plenty of oak trees, too, and, historically, its biggest claim to wine fame was as a source of cork.

But the 1974 overthrow of the dictatorship, which saw land returned to former owners, led to another kind of revolution — in winemaking, which was later aided by funds from the EU.

It’s pretty hot down there, even for grapes, so investment was poured into learning best practice and modern technology to help overcome the excesses of weather and exploit Alentejo’s potential for decent wine.

Old technology, too, because they also have the money now to purchase French oak barrels, if necessary.

So, in a generation or so, Alentejo has risen to become the source of 45pc of Portuguese wine, and what was once regarded as rustic, and perhaps too jammy, is now decent and reasonably priced.

Investment helped, but only because it had something to work on. The secret weapon in Portuguese wines is the quality of its indigenous grapes, which make deepcoloured, richly flavoured wines — red and white — with structure, body and bite, and overall great drinkability.

Alentejo wines match the robust textures and flavours of the local cuisine. Think olive oil, cheese, spices and herbs, including coriander, and specialities such as fantastic pata negra cured ham from its rare, acorn-fed black pigs.

Grape varieties may sound unfamiliar, but many are not. In the reds, Aragónez is simply a local name for the silky Tempranillo, the basis for Spain’s Rioja. It’s also big in the Douro, under another name.

Trincadeira is a synonym for Tinta Amerela, another Douro grape. Others include Alicante Bouchet, Castelão and, Portugal’s signature grape, Touriga Nacional, plus some better-known ones, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

The white grapes, such as Arinto, Antão Vaz and Roupiero, are similarly characterful. The tourists guzzle most of it, but more and more Alentejo wine is appearing on Irish shelves.

You may not be in the Algarve for your holidays, but who cares?

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