I had not known Tiago Caravana for more than two minutes when I pulled out my notebook and pen.
Tiago is the head of marketing for Wines of Alentejo and he picked us up to start a wine odyssey in the Alentejo region. We immediately started talking about corks (and I am using a notebook with a cork cover that I got at a 2019 Wines of Portugal tasting in Chicago!)
Here’s what I learned about corks in two minutes from Tiago:
- Alentejo is the top region in the world for cork trees
- Cork trees are harvested once every nine years
- It takes a cork tree 30 years from planting to produce its first harvest
- Harvest involves using an ax to cut big slices of bark off – and the cork is beneath the bark. It’s really hard labor and takes a great amount of skill to do it correctly, so the tree is not damaged
- Less than 20 percent of all cork produced is for wine corks (the rest is used for all sorts of things, home accessories to fashion to flooring)
- A cork tree can produce cork for up to 150 years, while an olive tree can produce olives for 2000 years!
I know that I kind of suck for not showing you a picture of a cork tree – but the thing is – they just finished this year’s harvest and the trees themselves are kind of plain looking. Just kind of low, scrubby-looking trees – the cork grows beneath the bark, so seeing them in person was a little underwhelming, but still – WAY cool to learn all the cork things!
So we’re off to a fascinating start here in Alentejo right off the bat (I am so tempted to say “corked bat,” but I won’t – dammit, I just did).
First, let’s set the stage. I came to Portugal to visit a U.S. friend who is moving to Cascais (a beautiful seaside town along the “Portguese Riviera”). And after tasting through a number of samples of Alentejo wines this summer, and then finding out my friend is moving here, I booked a ticket lickety-split! Next, I contacted the PR reps for Wines of Alentejo and shazam – an Alentejo wine adventure was created!
In this article, I’m sharing some of the basics of the region, because after studying Portugal for the Certified Specialist of Wine exam back in 2015, it was really, really cool to BE there and see the place, meet the people, taste the wines and learn (and re-learn) things all over again. So this article is short and snappy and two more will follow, about the two wineries we visited.
Please enjoy this handy bullet list of things that I think are cool and interesting about Alentejo – and a few tips about how to visit the region.
- Alentejo (pronounced Alen-tay-joo) is a DOC, containing either subregions that be on the label, including Portalegre, Borba, Redondo, Reguengos, Évora, Vidigueira, Granja-Amareleja and Moura.
- Sustainability is a big part of Alentejo. The WASP – Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program – is embraced by all the wineries in the region. They have an interesting strategy to manage climate change (namely higher temps and water use). Some wineries are planting different varietals that excel in higher temps and they’ve also embraced a style of wine that is fresher and higher-acid – grapes that can be picked earlier.
- Portugal is the biggest wine consumption country in the world, beating France and the U.S. Portugal is a wine-loving culture.
- 25% of Alentejo wine is exported – most to Brazil (the other Portuguese-speaking country) — but quite a lot to the U.S. and even France (there’s a robust Portuguese contingent in France).
- Red wines rule here, making up nearly 80 percent of all production. The big grapes are Trincadeira, Touriga Nacional, Alicante Bouschet, Castelão and Aragonez (aka Tempranillo)
- White wines are predominantly made in Vidigueira, a sub-region within Alentejo and the big white grape is Antão Vaz, followed by Arinto.
- Alentejo is known for its amphora wines – also called Talha (pronounced Tall-ya). A talha is the Portuguese word for amphora.
- Évora is sort of the capital of Alentejo – and where we stayed (at the fabulous Convento do Espinheiro – which I highly recommend. It’s built around a historic old convent just 10 minutes outside the town of Évora).
- You just come visit! Fly to Lisbon, take a 90-minute bus from Lisbon to Évora, grab a taxi and head to town. Wines of Alentejo has an office in the town, where you can taste some of the wines of the region and get information for a wine route adventure of your own. (Yes, you have to get a bunch of Covid tests and fill out a bunch of health forms, but whatevs – that’s our new reality, so just don’t let it stop you).
- The town of Évora is one of the most charming and historical in Portugal, dating back to the 1400s. Please enjoy this little photo collage!
I’m still here in Lisbon, with one more day to stock up on tinned tuna and sardines and drink as much Portuguese wine as I can before a taxi picks me up tomorrow at 4:45 a.m. for an early flight to London, then on to Chicago. Cheers, friends – here’s to the return of wine travel and HUGE thanks to Tiago Caravana and his team at Wines of Alentejo for an unforgettable experience. Stay tuned for more!