Gastronomic and viticultural delights of the Alentejo
We recently spent several weeks in Portugal, which is one of our favorite places to visit. The country still possesses the charm of Old World Europe and this is clearly contributing momentum to its appeal as a tourism destination (as evidenced by a number one ranking in a recent Conde Nast readers survey). One of the highlights of a visit to Portugal is to discover amazing food and wine all over the country and in this regard, the Alentejo region is a standout.
Visiting the Alentejo region
The Alentejo dominates the south-central portion of the country, bordering a large swath of Spain’s western Extremadura and Andalucia regions. The name is translated from Portuguese as ‘beyond the Tagus river’ and it is largely the domain of vast estates of olive trees and cork oak, for which the Alentejo has traditionally been known. But, it is also emerging as a world-class producer of quality wines, which is what has attracted us to visit the region on this occasion.
The enchanting village of Évora is a great place to begin a wine tour of the Alentejo. The town is a bustling cultural outpost of the central Alentejo with a lively university life and impressive architectural statements from Roman and medieval times. It also has an excellent infrastructure of hotels (including the famed Pousadas) and restaurants, as well as the headquarters of the Alentejo Wine Route. Here you can try select wines and receive information on planning a day or two of visiting the many wineries of the region. It is a good idea to book the visits ahead of time as not all wineries are geared toward or staffed for transient tourism.
Visit to Cartuxa
Our first visit was to the famed Cartuxa vineyard, located just outside Évora at the Quinta da Valbom. Originally, this building housed the refectory of retired Jesuit priests who taught at the university in Évora. Now it is owned by a foundation of the Eugenio Almeda family and focuses on creating classic wines in the Alentejo style.
At the time of our visit, the tasting room was employing a single pour wine preservation system to provide tastings by the glass of many of the premium wines that Cartuxa is known for. This included the Pera Manca white blend of Antão Vaz and Arinto grapes, which is a blend that I adore. The Antão Vaz grape is a native varietal of Portugal that is well suited to the hot and dry climate that characterizes the region. The Arinto grape is also native to Portugal and adds a balance of slight acidity to this refreshing white blend.
Visit to Enoteca Cartuxa
If you would like to experience how the Cartuxa wines pair with food, then visiting the Enoteca Cartuxa in Évora near the historic village square is a must. Enoteca Cartuxa has an expanded offering of wines by the glass from the same single pour system and a full food menu featuring classic regional dishes of the Alentejo, such as porco preto (Iberian acorn-fed black pig) and vitela no forno (oven baked veal), among others. This was probably the most interesting meal during our visit to the Alentejo.
Visit to Esporão winery
To the southeast of Évora near the town of Reguengos de Monsaraz is the Herdade do Esporão winery. Esporão comprises a collection of vineyards that includes two estates in the north, near Oporto, and the eponymous estate that we were visiting. I have known of these wines since my days living in the Iberian Peninsula, but had never visited the winery, which is also a producer of the richest and most fragrant olive oil I have ever tasted. The winery tasting room is integrated into a nicely appointed product shop, but also provides for spillover into a lovely outdoor terrace adjacent to the restaurant (where we hope to dine on our next visit). My preferred wines from this vineyard are the red and white reserve labels, but if you find yourself in the tasting room, ask to try the wines produced in the roman artisanal style using clay pots (amphora). These wines (under the labels Talha and Moreto) are only available in the vineyard tasting room!
If you want an off-the-beaten-path experience of authentic Portuguese food and wine, then the Alentejo is the answer!
Note: I am not being compensated by my mention of any of the establishments highlighted in this blog post. I am simply a happy customer.