Portugal’s Alentejo province is blessed. Sort of.
The Massachusetts-sized region has been making wine, off and on, for some 8,000 years. Its abundant sunshine and heat are balanced by cooling night winds from the Atlantic. The rich soil nearly begs you to put a seed in the ground. Cork-tree plantations, photogenic villages, a welcoming populace, and scenic hilly landscapes are everywhere to be found. But there’s one thing in which Alentejo is severely lacking: water. And the global rise in temperatures isn’t helping.
Alentejo (pronounced ah-len-TAY-zhoo), east and to the south of Lisbon, has never been known for its moisture. In fact, much of the province features the same arid brown countryside you’ll find in rural California or Spain. But there’s always been enough water to grow wine grapes: aragonez, with its hints of pepper and berries; alicante bouschet, the region’s flagship red; antão vaz, a full-bodied white — Portugal has more than 250 indigenous grape varieties, and a number of them flourish alongside non-native varieties in Alentejo.
But with just 23 inches of rain per year, Alentejo, among the world’s major wine regions, is one of the most vulnerable to climate change. Sustainable, biodynamic, and organic growing techniques aren’t just trendy here. They are the keys to the region’s future viability as a wine producer and wine-tourism destination.
Choosing the right grapes for the climate
The Portuguese wine industry saw a resurgence in 1986 when the country joined the European Union. Government-mandated wine cooperatives that made poor-quality bulk wines since the 1930s were minimized or abolished in favor of smaller, more creative, independent wineries.
In 1988, Carrie and Hans Kristian Jorgensen, a Danish-American couple, arrived at the 902-acre Cortes de Cima estate in Vidigueira, hoping to start their own winery. What they found might have scared off other prospective winemakers: no sewage lines, no plumbing, no electricity. Today, they’re among the region’s respected producers. They have four full-time winemakers who have found success with aragonez, trincadeira, and touriga nacional grapes, among other varieties. But there are challenges.
“Climate change affects us every day,” says Hamilton Reis, Cortes de Cima’s chief winemaker. Reis has a Ph.D. in microbiology, so he knows what he’s talking about. He’s in charge of everything from blending the wines to the final bottling. “We love our Portuguese grapes, but the most important thing is the right grapes for the right place.”
As a result, he’s most concerned about their future ability to grow aragonez (the local name for the Spanish tempranillo grape), one of the region’s dominant varieties, which makes dark, rich reds well-loved by fans of Portuguese wines.
“Aragonez can make beautiful wine,” Reis says, “the best wines. But it can have problems with the climate. Still, it belongs here. It has the identity of Alentejo.”
The trouble, he says, is that the aragonez grape can shut down in intense heat, and may not come back once it does. Climate change is killing it.
Meantime, the winery is having better luck with grapes that handle the heat better and need less water (Cortes de Cima irrigates just a couple of times each season). The tasting room — with its arched walls, exposed-beam ceilings, and baronial fireplace — is a jolly place to sample some of its award-winning syrah, bottled under the name Incognito.
Traditional techniques, modern methods
The European Union, acutely aware of the climate threat to its wineries, has established voluntary guidelines for sustainable wine production. Adega José de Sousa and its parent company, José Maria de Fonseca, have subscribed to those methods for decades. Among its initiatives: the treatment and reuse of wastewater in its green spaces, the use of water-saving drip irrigation, fertilizing the vineyards with a mulch of grape stems and vine leaves, and allowing vegetation to grow among the rows of grapevines to retain moisture. As a result of its commitment to battling climate change in the vineyards, Adega José de Sousa is well-positioned to gain the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program certificate, which will be issued for the first time in 2020 by the 385-member Wines of Alentejo organization.
The thing that really sets José de Sousa apart, though, is its fermentation methods. Having nothing to do with environmental sustainability and everything to do with tradition, De Sousa (established in 1878) ferments its wines in 114 huge clay pots, or amphorae. After the grapes are crushed, the juice, stems, and seeds are placed in the clay pots. Using long-handled rake-like tools, the winemakers “push down” the mixture twice a day for several weeks to prevent pressure build-up that can cause the amphorae to explode. Some of the amphorae in their cellars date to 1879.
A tour of the winery would be a waste if one were to miss the photogenic underground amphorae cellars, which look much as they might have a hundred years ago, complete with angular sunbeams pouring through an upper window, darkened corners with history in every stone and brick, and the clay pots themselves, most big enough to hold several men inside.
The picturesque, rustic tasting room is from the 1930s, with a beamed ceiling, stone floor, old winery posters, wine-competition trophies going back decades, and portraits of the winery’s founders. I sampled a Montado white, made from a blend of antāo vaz and sauvignon blanc grapes, that was young, fruity, and easy to drink with or without food. The Montado red, a blend of aragonez, trincadeira, alicante bouschet, and syrah was light on tannins and had a smooth finish. Knowing that the wines had been fermented in the ancient clay pots made me enjoy them even more.
Creativity, gravity, and Antão Vaz
When it comes to climate change, “I’m not dramatic,” says Reto Frank Jorg, general manager of Quinta do Quetzal winery. “I don’t lose sleep. I’m concerned, but I’m hopeful we will find a solution. And I always wonder what I should do myself, knowing that what I do today won’t have an impact on the wines for six or seven years. We have less rain, but we can irrigate. We don’t use a lot of pesticides or a lot of water, but we have higher temperatures, so we’re growing more syrah and alicante bouschet and less aragonez. But are we on the right road?”
Jorg isn’t alone in his worries. Quetzal, like Cortes de Cima, is in Vidigueira, home to many of Portugal’s most respected wineries, all of which have a lot riding on their success in addressing the changing environment.
Quetzal is decreasing overall energy use by capitalizing on its hilltop location in what may be the prettiest spot in all Alentejo. Vidigueira’s microclimate sees significant heat, but the multi-level winery uses no air-conditioning. Instead, it relies on funneling the cooler temperatures from the building’s lowest level to the rest of the winery, so the temperature is conditioned naturally. The hilltop layout also allows the winery to do much of its work by gravity instead of machinery — unloading the grapes at the highest point, depositing them a level below for crushing and fermentation, then dropping the juice through hoses to aging tanks and barrels in the level below that.
A clever use of topography isn’t the only reason to visit Quetzal, though. Everything about the place is, well, eclectic. They play classical music in the oak-barrel aging room because they think it benefits the wine. As I walk through the barrel room, I listen to reflective New Age recordings by Scottish singer Susan Philipsz, who composed the chants played in the cellar 24/7. They occasionally even play meditative music in the fields for the benefit of the grapes still on the vine.
Quetzal also has an art gallery, based on the owners’ own art collection; a full-service, award-winning restaurant; and multiple tours, including walks through the herb garden of indigenous Alentejo plants, with ducks, chickens, and peacocks roaming the grounds; opportunities for guests to blend their own wines; vineyard picnics for two; and even just a simple winery visit and tasting.
As for tastings, Quetzal is banking much of its future on the success of the white antão vaz grape (“our main grape,” says Jorg). Recommended to try: Quetzal Riserva White (100 percent antão vaz from the winery’s oldest vineyards). The fun gift shop is full of wines, jams, sardines, chocolate, olive oil, art books, gift boxes, ceramic bowls, and more items redolent of Alentejo.
A story with a happy beginning
Not all of Alentejo’s wineries are as endangered by climate change.
Quinta da Fonte Souto, for example, is a new winery, since 2017, on an old estate with deep roots in the Portalegre region of the Alta Alentejo, high in the hills near the Spanish frontier. The sprawling hilly property, full of former residential units, ancient warehouses, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all painted the traditional colors of yellow and white, is surrounded by even higher peaks. It’s dramatically different from most of the vineyards you’ll find in Alentejo.
The estate had been partly abandoned after having been a successful farm for hundreds of years. The winery’s parent company, Symington, bought the property so recently that the repairs and renovations of the existing buildings are still ongoing. If you ever wanted to see a winery in start-up mode, as of 2020 this is the one to visit.
As for its beneficent location, “We’re in the first big condensation barrier,” says winemaker José Soarés. “It’s not as hot as the rest of Alentejo, and we get a lot more rain. We’re more than 200 kilometers from the coast, very close to Spain. We have more comfortable conditions. That allows for more balanced levels of water stress [on the grapes].”
This region is particularly well adapted to white grapes, says Soarés. The property consists of 512 acres, with just over half planted with whites.
Although the winery is self-sustaining when it comes to water (they have a small reservoir), the winemakers plan to seek the new Wines of Alentejo sustainability certificate. “We’re very conservative in our use of water,” Soarés says. “We installed a meteorological station to minimize the treatments we do. We have sensors to measure the moisture in the soil. It’s inside the culture of our winery.”
On the day I am there, mist has settled on the surrounding hills like a crown, a light rain refreshes the air, and puddles of water have built up on the floors of a few of the empty buildings we pass through that have not yet been rehabilitated. There’s a former manor house that the owners are thinking of making into an 18-room boutique luxury hotel. Another building, with dual fireplaces and views of a large duck pond and the mountains beyond… who knows? One day it could be a wedding venue. A few other random buildings are still being considered for a restaurant, for an enhanced tasting room, for… something. “We’re not doing things in a hurry,” Soarés says. “It’s a winery in progress.”
Where to stay
It’s possible to visit an Alentejo winery or two on a day-trip from Lisbon. But to get a more in-depth taste of Alentejo’s wineries, one should consider staying at one of the region’s wine hotels (resorts that grow and produce their own wines). I visited two that are not just convenient for touring the region but also offer luxurious accommodations.
São Lourenço do Barrocal is a wine-hotel on a former estate that has been active for some 200 years. You can see the historic hilltop village of Monsaraz in the distance. With just 40 rooms and suites, the lodging is intimate and private. And the history! The current family owned it from 1820 to 1974, so all the buildings are from that period. The socialist government took the property away in the 1970s with the idea of redistributing land and wealth, but the estate remained abandoned for nearly 20 years. The family was able to buy it back in 1992 and reopen it as a resort in 2016 after more than two decades of work to restore its authentic appearance.
Where: São Lourenço do Barrocal, 7200-177, Portugal
Torre de Palma Wine Hotel was built in 1338 and today is surrounded by the estate’s vineyards, rolling hills, olive groves, and a vast expanse of plains. A tower built in 1358 is the resort’s centerpiece. Four architects collaborated to reimagine the historic buildings and interiors before it opened as a resort in 2015. Two years later, the all-suite Torre de Palma, a member of the Design Hotels group, celebrated its first wine harvest.
Where: Herdade de Torre de Palma, 7450-250, Portugal