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The Wines of Southern Portugal and the Meaning of Authenticity

In this world we desire to seek out the authentic, but sometimes this inclination can lead to many misunderstandings

Alentejo Lunch Tasting at The High Line Hotel

Last August I went to a seminar to taste the wines of southern Portugal that discussed authenticity. It reminded me of my frustration when people think I do not fit the "authentic" stereotype of a person who was raised in New Orleans - although I have lived in New York City over two decades. Sometimes it happens the same with wines: for example, in Alentejo, they have authentic Portuguese wines although some of them do go against the preconceived grain of what wine lovers think Portuguese wines should be.

Keeping It Real with Wines from Portugal

Wines of Alentejo booklet and wine glasses

We are living in a time where everyone wants to experience what is real, to connect with what is genuine, to seek out the original sounds, sights and flavors of an area. Of course this desire to seek out the authentic is a great inclination that should be encouraged…yet it can lead to many misunderstandings because a place, like a person, is not so easily understood at a glance or under one generalization…also, there are many different individual expressions of a place.

Portugal

Back in the beginning of August I went to a Portugal wine seminar in a Hogwarts-ian type of space. Now some of you who are familiar with Portuguese wines may think I am talking about the sweet, fortified wine aptly named Port wines, or the fresh, prickly, white wines of Vinho Verde. These are the wines of northern Portugal, and although there is so much more to the north than the aforementioned wines, southern Portugal, specifically Alentejo, offers a diversity of wine sub-regions that go beyond the generalizations of big, rustic reds or easy drinking light white wines.

Authentic

I always find it interesting when people bring up the fact that I don’t have a New Orleans accent even though I was raised in New Orleans. I have lived in New York City for so long, over 23 years – coming here at the age of 18 years old, and been through many life-changing events since that time, that my childhood seems like another lifetime ago. Besides that, there are many people, especially within the city limits of New Orleans, that don’t necessarily have a strong accent associated with the area, and people come from all over to live there. For those who are unfamiliar with this accent just watch some YouTube videos of Chef Paul Prudhomme – yes, that is an “authentic” New Orleans accent, but not the only type that exists.

The reality of my situation is that I have a bland, “I can’t figure out where you are from in the US” type of sound to my voice. To some people, this seems odd because they don’t know how to categorize me, what box to place me in… they question if my accent is authentic, or if I am trying to hide my origin by presenting something that is not real.

Alentejo

The wines of southern Portugal, Alentejo, are authentic although some of them do go against the preconceived grain of what wine lovers think Portuguese wines should be. From the elegance of the wines from Borba to the multi-layered whites of Évora, the province of Alentejo offers a myriad of styles and quality levels.

Keeping It Real

A common American idiom is to say, “I’m keeping it real.” What does that mean? Well, going back to such a simple example as my accent, how I speak is the way I have always spoken, although it may not make sense to those who divide the world up into generic macrocosms. If one were to take the time to actually listen to my less-than-simple story then they would realize why I don’t fit within their stereotype. And, I think, many of us feel that way… that others would rather cling to familiar labels than allow the idea that we actually know very little about the world in which we live and even those acquaintances we see everyday. I admittedly have to try to fight this urge myself because life is scary when you feel you don’t have enough information to feel in control. But this is one of the problems surfacing in the world – “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”  Firm assumptions without consideration that there is a tapestry of stories that exist in every pocket of the world is a tiny, empty world to live in… no matter one’s opinions or which side of the argument one is on… and so with these thoughts, I sit back and remember one of the top white wines I had this summer – an exquisite white wine from southern Portugal.. and yes, I still can’t believe it!

Evan Goldstein Master Sommelier and President and Chief Education officer for Full Circle Wine Solutions, Inc.

Cathrine’s Recommendations

Everyday Drinking Wine (less than $15)

2012 Adega do Monte Branco, Tinto Red, Alentejo, Portugal ($14): A red blend consisting of Aragonez (a clone of Tempranillo that grows in southern Portugal), Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Nacional. A red wine from the Borba sub-region that has subtle black fruit with fine tannins that shows how this area can make elegant wines even at an everyday drinking price point.

Special Occasion Wine (from $15 to $50)

2015 Herdade dos Grous, Moon Harvested Alicante B Red, Alentejo, Portugal ($35): 100% Alicante Bouschet, an atypical red grape that has both red skins and red flesh (typically, red grapes only have red/dark colored skins and a clear flesh) that has been adopted by Portugal as a local variety – living there around 70 years. It originally came from southern France, from the Languedoc. This is a great example that “authentic” and “origin” have a broader definition than what we typically think. Alentejo is the home of Alicante Bouschet because it thrives there and does well in this area although its ancestry can be traced to another place. Like my story, I had to come to New York City to find myself and blossom even though I was not born here. This red wine had a fragrant nose with an aroma of violets that was balanced by earthy notes of forest floor. The body was round and robust with a flavorful, generous finish.

2014 Cartuxa, Pêra-Manca Branco White, Alentejo, Portugal ($40): White wine blend of Antão Vaz and Arinto grape varieties. The Pêra-Manca is the label reserved for Cartuxa, Eugénio de Almeida Foundation’s most exceptional wines. Mouth-watering acidity laced with intense minerality that has a long, quince infused, expressive finish. A producer that is highly prized by those collectors who appreciate great wines in southern Portugal.

Fantasy Wine (over $50)

2012 Esporão, Private Selection Tinto Red, Alentejo, Portugal ($65): Red blend of Alicante Bouschet, Aragonez and Syrah. It is interesting to recognize that two out of three of these varieties, Alicante Bouschet and Syrah, can be traced back to France – with some of the greatest Syrah wines in the world coming from the Rhône Valley. And so, how can a wine be authentic when it has grape varieties in the blend that are not necessarily local? Well, this can be said about some of the other wines above. This Esporão wine, one of the oldest estates in Europe, shows notes of vanilla, tobacco and black cherry with the right amount of structure and body, and an overall regal quality of how all three of these varieties find seamless harmony. Esporão’s mission is not just to survive or make decent wine; they have placed all of their energy and resources in preserving the local varieties, as well as international favorites, with an experimental vineyard containing over 180 grape varieties. And so, they have expanded their idea of authenticity, aka “keeping it real”, by opening themselves to the resources of the world, and hence, tapping into their innermost greatness.

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