Imagine nibbling on succulent ham from prized black pigs and country bread soup made with ingredients right from the farm. Imagine sipping a full-bodied, fruity red wine with velvety tannins made complex by schistous soil. Now imagine paying less than $20 for everything. Add accommodations, and you can escape for a few days for well under $500. That’s the luxury you can afford just about anywhere in Portugal’s Alentejo countryside. And if you go, you’ll be one of the first to taste it all.
The closest most tourists and wine critics have come to Alentejo’s wines are to northern Portugal for famous Port or to the Rioja vineyards in nearby Spain. However, things are starting to change, as more winemakers realize this special region has the perfect climate for the wines a new generation of drinkers wants right now. According to Hans Jorgensen, founder and owner of Cortes de Cima winery in Vidigueira, “This is what the Alentejo stands for, young, fruity wines that are easy to drink.” Born in Denmark, Hans was ahead of the curve and started his vineyard in 1988.
Touriga Nacional, the Portuguese national grape, along with two other regional reds called Trincadeira and Aragonés, are grown the most in the Alentejo. Although white wines are gaining a foothold in the region, the reds are what justify the visit.
Other than how well they tend to pair with delicious, fatty cheeses, the best part about these wines is how shockingly affordable they are. For a basic introduction, the wines of the Adega Cooperativa de Borba (this website is in Portuguese only) in the town of Borba are a steal. The winery is a cooperative, producing wines made from the grapes of 320 regional producers. Prices range from just €1.60 (about $2.15; see XE.com for current exchange rates) for table wines to just over €5 for more refined bottles. My favorite was the Touriga Nacional & Syrah (2005). Public tours are free by appointment, and tastings are available in the wine shop.
Set on a cheerful estate with traditional Alentejo white and yellow buildings, João Portugal Ramos Vinhos (in Portuguese only) near Estremoz kicks things up a notch. Here I tasted a pleasant everyday wine, Marquês de Borba (2005), for around €5 (I found it at Whole Foods in the States for $11.99), and Villa Santa (2005), a nice blend of Aragonês and Trincadeira, for around €11. Winery tours are free to the public but tastings cost €5.
Of all the wineries I visited, Herdade do Esporão in Reguengos de Monsaraz comes the closest to something you’d experience in Napa. It’s a grand estate with fancy tasting rooms, trendy wine bars, and facilities for food pairings and parties. The wines themselves merit such extravagance, especially the single varietals for about €11 each, and Esporão Reserva (2004), a combo of all three major grapes, which I found to be a rare value for just under €17.
At the high end of the spectrum, the family-run Cortes de Cima could rival wineries in any other country. Not only are all eight varieties of red a cut above most, but also the winery is one of “firsts.” The tour, which is free to anyone who shows up, felt more like descending into the inner workings of a science lab, with barrel experiments in the cellar and gas-filled hoses poking through steel fermentation tanks, all with the goal of making better wines. Additionally, Hans was the first winemaker to attempt growing Syrah grapes in the region, but had to do so on the sly because the variety was illegal. As a result, he came up with “Incógnito,” labeled simply as “red wine” on the front but with a coded message on the back revealing its true origin. Most of his wines are a bit up-market, costing between €19 and €55 per bottle, but are well worth the money. He also makes a killer, award-winning olive oil, with a spicy flavor that wakes up the back of your throat and is unlike anything else in the Mediterranean.
Although there are wine route road signs peppered throughout the Alentejo, finding the wineries scattered on tiny country roads is very difficult. Plus, unless you speak Portuguese, it can be next to impossible to ask for information. Your best bet is to make appointments in advance, or call or email the wine route office in Évora (351-266-746-609/498 or firstname.lastname@example.org), which will help you set up tours.
The people of the Alentejo eat right off the land, and their diet is mirrored in the local cuisine served in restaurants, which is a feast for your senses and budget. If you go in the off-season, be prepared to consume a lot of meat. Animals are raised in cork forests and feed off bellota (acorns) dropped from the trees, giving the meat a distinctive flavor. This is especially true for the delicacy presunto, a thinly sliced cured ham made from the Iberian black pig. In the summer, things lighten up with fresh gaspacho (a tomato soup with garlic, cucumber, and olive oil), prunes, and tomato jellies.
Of all the affordable family-run restaurants, Casa do Parque in the northern Spanish border town of Castelo de Vide stands out, with its Azulejo ceramic tiles and old pottery on the walls, and truly regional dishes. I was offered a house-made golden vinho branco velho for an aperitif, followed by a dish with pork ribs, two types of pork sausage, and bread stuffing for about €15 (wine included). One plate is more than enough for two, and don’t feel shy about asking to share.
With a cafe front, but a full-service restaurant in the back, Os Gémeos in Rio de Moinhos near Borba serves an excellent arroz prato, a casserole-style duck and rice dish with crispy fried chouriço for €6. Chouriço is similar to Spanish chorizo, which is becoming popular on American menus. Again, the portions are enormous, but the tomato soup for €1 makes for a light appetizer.
For a relative splurge, at about €20 per meal, don’t miss Restaurante A Maria in Alandroal. The restaurant is decorated on the inside to look like a traditional village, and dinner starts with tapas-style plates of rabbit, red peppers, and rustic breads. Don’t be over-tempted by the tapas, though. Most restaurants will have you thinking you’re getting a bonus until all the dishes you sampled wind up itemized on your bill. Just push them aside if you don’t want them. Along with a more upscale wine list, A Maria’s menu lists classic Portuguese dishes like cozido, a stew with just about every domestic and game animal inside, and lamb marinated in wine.
Fialho (in Portuguese only), located in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Évora, is considered one of the best restaurants in the region, but the prices match the honors. For an inexpensive lunch, I ordered a bowl of açorda—a bread soup made with garlic, coriander, and often a red pepper sauce called piri piri, all topped with a poached egg—for about €4.50, then felt free to indulge in some presunto tapas for €9.50.
For most lunches, you can save a bundle at small cafes by ordering the prato do dia (plate of the day), which is a fixed-price meal usually for under €10. For an ultra-cheap lunch, you can buy local cheeses, chouriço and linguiça sausages, and fresh produce in season at the farmers’ market in Estremoz on Saturdays until 1:00 p.m.
For more information on Alentejo cuisine, visit the Gastronomy Guide to the Baixo Alentejo.
Staying near the vines
Many hotels are inexpensive family-run inns set on or near vineyards that usually include a smorgasbord of delights for breakfast.
Aldeia de S. Gregório, an enchanting traditional village of 10 houses dating back to 1483, has been restored to its original look and feel for overnight guests. The whitewashed and blue-striped domiciles sit precariously atop a hill overlooking the rolling vineyards near Rio de Moinhos just outside Borba. Rustic-style but modern apartments start at €70 per night for two people, while larger units can cost as much as €160 and can accommodate up to five people. All units have one or more bedrooms, a fireplace, and a full bath and kitchenette. Breakfast includes fresh juice, cheeses, ham, and cereal.
Casa de Borba (English website coming soon) is an 18th-century mansion in the heart of Borba, with rooms costing €80 for a double and €70 for a single. You enter through the street gate past a collection of old horse carriages, then head up the grand staircase carved from local marble to the five elegant guest rooms. The house has remained in the current owner’s family since it was built, and is within walking distance of the Adega Cooperativa. Homemade breakfast includes empadas (mini chicken pot pies in puff pastry), fresh and aged sheep’s milk cheese, and regional jellies of prunes and tomatoes from the garden. Owner Maria José gets many of her ingredients from the family quinta (small farm) that her brother runs.
The Alentejo is certainly rich in gourmet specialties, but if you want to enjoy them again and again, you’ll have to keep going back to Portugal. Perhaps due to their lack of discovery, these wines are hard to find in the States. Food, especially cheeses, is a little easier, but you’ll have to locate small shops in Portuguese-American communities. But why not pay a visit to Portugal itself? It won’t cost a fortune, and only then can you sit in a town square among locals eating an orange you plucked right from a nearby tree, before you spend the day gormandizing in the countryside. Few will speak English, but while you might not understand Portuguese, the food and wine will speak for itself.