Each type of vine has its own characteristic leaves and grapes, each with its particular size and shape. The flavour and style of a wine, whether it is produced from a single variety or as a cuvée, is extremely dependent upon the type of grape used.Worldwide, more than 4000 different grape varieties have been identified and catalogued. In this department, Portugal is the nation that can claim the second-greatest number of autochthonous grape varieties that are not grown in other parts of the world. The great number of indigenous varieties gives the wines from Alentejo their clear and pronounced, unmistakable regional character. Additionally, these varieties are extremely well suited to the geographic and climatic conditions of Alentejo. In past years, there have also been many high quality non-native grapes introduced to Alentejo.
Red Wine Varieties
The grape variety Alfrocheiro originally comes from the region Dão, but has become increasingly popular in the south of Portugal, particularly in Alentejo. It is a prolific and productive vine, yielding deep and dark wine with a remarkable balance between alcohol, tannin and acidity. Its unusual characteristic, that of retaining high natural acidity in combination with a great degree of sugar, makes it a very popular grape variety in Alentejo. Aromatically speaking, Alfrocheiro shows prominent berry-fruit, primarily blackberries and ripe wild strawberries, and is used as a significant key component in the blending of cuvées.
Alentejo has always been home to the Alicante Bouschet in Portugal. Although not formally defined as an indigenous Portuguese grape variety, the Alicante Bouschet is so deeply rooted in the viticulture of Alentejo that it is often regarded as a native type. But in fact, it is a variety that migrated to Alentejo, its breeding the result of a crossing between the French varieties Petit Bouschet and Grenache. On rare occasions when it is bottled as a monovarietal, it lives up to its reputation as a rustic, well-structured grape variety for producing extraordinary and powerful wines. As the perfect partner in cuveés, it reinforces colour, power and body; this is easily observed in so many of Alentejo’s wines. The aromas are reminiscent of forest berries, cocoa and olives, with kitchen-garden notes. Alicante Bouschet is without question the most ‘Portuguese’ of the non-indigenous grape varieties grown in the land.
This Iberian grape variety par excellence is one of the few that is grown on both sides of the Portugal’s border with Spain, and is highly prized in both countries. Most probably the vine came originally from Rioja, where it is known as Tempranillo. In a hot and dry climate, growing in sand or a chalky clay, this vine yields wines with the perfect combination of power and elegance, fruit and spice. Since Aragonez tends to produce wines that are relatively low in acid, it shows its best when it is used in a cuvée with other varieties from Alentejo such as Trincadeira and Alicante Bouschet.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most international of all the French varieties, cultivated in wine regions throughout the world. Alentejo is one of the few growing regions in Portugal where it can ripen perfectly, and here it has found its own place and style. With concentrated colour and a thick skin, it adds spice to cuvées as well as imparting body and substance. Wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon are well balanced, aromatic, fruit-driven and spicy. In Alentejo, the grape is rarely bottled as a monovarietal; it is more often used to lend its structure to many of the regional wines, even when there’s just a little proportion of it to be found in the final blend.
For decades, this was the most widely planted red grape variety in Portugal, and one of the vines most highly recommended for all eight sub-regions of Alentejo. Today, the Castelão is in decline. In carefully cultivated old vineyards, where the yield can voluntarily be kept modest, Castelão produces well-structured, fruit-driven wines with the aromas of currants, plum preserves, forest berries and a hint of wild game.
Syrah is the one non-indigenous grape variety that has most successfully adapted to the varied climates of the Alentejo region. It does well with the glowing hot summers, the endless long hours of intense sunshine and the extreme temperatures. Growing in warm and meagre soils, Syrah yields fullbodied robust wines. Warm, powerful, fruit-driven and often quite spicy, Syrah is seldom bottled as a monovarietal wine, but in small proportions is frequently found in the most important wines of Alentejo.
If a single indigenous grape variety had to be selected as the representative of Portuguese wine, it would certainly be the Touriga Nacional raising the banner. It is a thick-skinned grape that brings deep and concentrated colour to its wines, but even more importantly, it is the depth of aromaticity that characterises this variety. These aromas can be floral and fruity with an occasional breath of citrus, but are always powerful and explosive. Touriga Nacional often shows its best side blended in a cuvée with other grapes and brings an unmistakable aromatic depth to the wine.
Trincadeira is to be found all throughout Portugal under various names, among them Trincadeira Preta, Tinta Amarela, Espadeiro, Crato Preto, Preto Martinho, Mortágua and Rabe de Ovelha Tinto. It is a temperamental vine, one that growers either love or hate; there is no neutral opinion. But it is particularly well suited to the hottest winegrowing regions in Portugal, and best suited to bone dry Alentejo. Trincadeira produces aromatic and fruit-driven wines, whose tendency toward a floral character can become vegetal if the grapes do not achieve complete ripeness. One quality that stands out is its high natural acidity – an extremely desirable characteristic in the hot Alentejo.
White Grape Varieties
The grape variety Antão Vaz is primarily represented in the subregions Vidgueira and Évora. Its wines are complex and aromatic – the grape has literally achieved star status in Alentejo. Highly regarded by winegrowers and oenologists, this grape is certainly considered the most important white variety planted in Alentejo. Antão Vaz has adapted very well to the hot climate of the region and its sun-drenched vineyards. The wines are not only aromatic, but well structured, robust and full-bodied as well. There is perhaps a slight lack of acidity – a result of the extremely challenging hot conditions under which the grape is grown. For this reason it is often blended with Roupeiro and Arinto; both of these impart a solid natural acidity to the finished wine. As a monovarietal wine, the Antão Vaz shows impressive aromas of ripe tropical fruit and mandarin orange rind along with subtle mineral notes.
Thanks to its versatility, the Arinto vine has spread itself out all over most of Portugal, and in the process acquired a number of various names: it is also known as Pedernã, Pé de Perdiz Branco, Chapeludo, Cerceal, Azal Espanhol, Azal Galego and Branco Espanhol. Arinto produces crisp and lively wines with a high natural acidity and a markedly mineral profile – refreshing wines with good potential for aging. It is a very important variety in Alentejo, because of the freshness and acidity it brings to the white wines of the region. Although slightly restrained in terms of aroma and modest in intensity, Arinto does show aromas of green apple, lemon and lime, as well as kitchen garden aromas and an appealing mineral character.
Fernão Pires is the most widely propagated white grape variety in Portugal. It is grown in all of the Portuguese wine regions, and continues to intensify its firm anchorage in Alentejo. Thanks to its productivity, versatility, early ripening and rich aromas, Fernão Piros flourishes quite well in the region, and adds its distinctive personality to the white wine spectrum. Its versatility allows it to be bottled either as a monovarietal or in cuvées – even to be used in sparkling wine or late harvest styles. One thing that wines from this variety have in common is a vivid aromaticity and the charm of their bouquets. Wines made from Fernão Pires should ideally be consumed young, so that the lively aromas of lemon, lime, lemongrass, lemon blossoms, basil, roses, mandarin oranges and orange blossoms can be fully enjoyed.
Originally coming out of the north, the grape variety Gouveio is now cultivated all over the Portuguese mainland. The Gouveio is also known as Gouveio Estimado, Gouveio Real, Gouveio Roxo (the pink version) and Gouveio Preto (the red variant). It is a powerful variety, one that ripens relatively early and offers a medium-sized yield. Thanks to its natural abundance of acidity, which makes for fresh and lively wines, Gouveio was widely adopted right away in Alentejo. The wines tend to be rather high in alcohol, with firm acidity and a creamy fullbodied texture, showing fresh citrus aromas and apple notes, along with scents of peach and anise.
This variety has a multiplicity of aliases, among them Síria, Alvadourão, Crato Branco, Malvasia Grossa, Códega, Alva and Dona Branca. But it is best known as Roupeiro, the name it was given in Alentejo, where it still remains the most widely planted white wine grape. In the 1980s, Roupeiro was considered to be the most representative of all the white Alentejo varieties, as well as the most promising; it is recommended for nearly all eight sub-regions. Roupeiro is prized for its abundant yield and its exciting primary aromas – scented and seductive, with citrus notes, above all orange and lemon, notes of peach, melon, laurel and wildflowers.