Borba, Estremoz and more in the Alentejo:
Some twenty five years ago, one of the first places I visited in the Alentejo was Estremoz. I can remember being overwhelmed by the stunning town and even more so by the Pousada where we stayed. So, I was really looking forward to a return visit to that part of the Alentejo.
At the time, my first visit to Portugal, I did little more than breath in the vast landscape, scattered with cork trees and olive groves, be charmed by the cobbled streets and blue and white houses of the villages of the region and overwhelmed by the palaces, monasteries and castles that line the Spanish-Portuguese border. This time, with four wineries on the itinerary I was determined to get to grips with the wine of the region. But, there was plenty more to explore too.
The wines of Portugal are complicated – the country is said to have more varietals than any other in the world (though Romania and Italy make the same claim) and as the largest wine producing region of Portugal, the Alentejo, has historically tended to keep much of its production for local use so that those of us in the UK are unlikely to order an Antao Vaz or Trincadeira by name. Today, more are being exported – as demand for the smooth, easy drinking and well-priced wines grows.
By way of an introduction, we started our trip at Herdade de Sau Miguel, in Redondo, part of the Relvas group which has two wineries and vineyards spread over three of the subregions of the Alentejo. Originally started as a hobby, with just 10 hectares of vines, the success of the original winery meant that they quickly expanded after starting to make wines in 2003 by acquiring a further 90 hectares of vines. Now, with two wineries, they produce a range of wines mostly using indigenous Portuguese grapes. Here, there are now 35 hectares planted wine vines in a loam soil derived from schist. The remainder of the Herdade is used for cork trees and for breeding heritage species of animals.
We tasted through a range of wines, sold locally from 3.50 euros up to around 10 euros. And we tried some of their amphora wines, an attempt to reproduce the type of wine that would have been made in the region in Roman times – using indigenous grapes and with natural yeasts. The winery has been collecting the amphoras from around the region and as we learnt, the results are sometimes great but sometimes not so good. Unlike some parts of Europe, here the amphora are kept above ground and so controlling the temperature during fermentation is tricky. The wines are left to ferment until St Martin’s Day (11th November) and since harvest in the Alentejo is from late August to mid-September, that’s considerably longer than the modern 8-10 days. And, I was impressed at just how good they were – marketed under the xx label, they were smoother and softer than their conventionally produced cousins.
Portugal is a country with a rich heritage but our next stop was still an unexpected treasure trove. The picturesque town of Borba is home to Casa Terreiro do Poco – a magnificent townhouse hotel made up of several eighteenth-century houses.
I had my own house, with a small sitting area and kitchenette downstairs and a stunning bedroom and bathroom full of antiques. It was truly charming, full of personal touches that made it feel like home.
If I went back though, I’d ask to stay in the Oratory room (actually a suite) which comes complete with a bed originally made in Portugal, shipped to South America in the 19th century and then returned back home by the owner’s grandparents.
Or in the Tower Room (another suite) which has stunning original painted walls – and a ceiling that shows the solar system as it was envisaged in the 17th century – with two planets missing.
Borba is just a few miles from Estremoz, the place where I first fell in love with Portugal. There, apart from the stunning Pousada housed in the Palace of Queen Santa Isabel that was built by King D Diniz in the 14th century, is a famous market (which I still remember vividly, 25 years after I first went there). And, highly recommended, the restaurant, Mercearia Gadanha in the centre of the town (where there’s also a deli selling local specialities and a wine shop).
To say we feasted would be an understatement. We seem to have eaten all the starters on the menu, including an outstanding foie gras with apple and some delicious tempura beans. I hadn’t realised that tempura is a classic Portuguese dish adopted and popularised by the Japanese.
My own main course was a veal dish with a rich house sauce and foie gras shavings. Oher outstanding dishes on the table included the slow-stewed black pork cheeks (this part of Portugal has the same acorn fed black pork that you can find in Spain) and a stunning looking fresh tuna dish.
Desserts were all delicious. I picked a chocolate number and rounded the evening off with a great espresso and some chocolate truffles. A girl can never get enough chocolate I find.
What impressed me most was that I still remember sitting in the very formal dining room of the Pousada, enjoying the food but missing the ambience. Here it felt as if we were among friends – and yet dining extremely well. The perfect showcase for Portuguese hospitality.
The next morning a wander around Borba took me back to the Portugal I found when I visited 25 years ago. There’s a medieval castle and walls with houses dating back to the original settlement in the 13th century. The castle was originally built under the reign of King Dinis and transferred to Portugal as a result of the signing of the Treaty of Alcanises.
It played a strategically important role over the frontier during the War of the Restoration of Portuguese Independence and is now classified as a Property of Public Interest. I was fascinated by the pavements and steps, made from marble chips or slabs.
Pink Marble is mined extensively in this part of Portugal and a few miles down the road is The Paço Ducal de Vila Viçosa which was built in 1501 by the command of D. Jaime, Duke of Bragança as his family home.
The palace was extended during the 16th and 17th centuries, to what you see today – a 110 metres length facade and a unique Portuguese architecture. Of particular note is the use of marble – but you’ll see it everywhere – on steps, as pavement chips and made into wall tiles.
On to Monsaraz – a hilltop fortress village with which is one of the seven most beautiful villages in Portugal. It’s one of the oldest settlements in Portugal, thanks to a great defensive position with a 360-degree view of the surroundings. It’s on the right of the of the Guadiana River near the border with Spain. I was particularly taken by the Pillory, which we learnt originated from the days of the Portuguese empire when explorers would use the pillars to mark ‘Portuguese ownership’. This one is from the 19th century and built in the white marble of Estremoz – a replacement for the original pillory lost in an earthquake in 1755
We somehow missed seeing the castle, despite finding the time to visit the wine shop housed in what used to be the village school for a tasting! With a population of around 700 now, the school closed 18 years ago when the number of pupils dropped to just two.
Now you can try the wines of one of the Alentejo’s oldest wineries – including a delicious, light white wine, Invisivel, made from the ‘tear’ (first pressing) of the red Aragonez grape. And, what was described to us as ‘water wine’ aged in bottle under water. The vineyards and winery belong to the Leal da Costa family, which can be traced back to the Count of Ervideira, a successful farmer who lived between 19th and 20th centuries. Apart from tasting some wonderful wines, there’s also a charming rooftop terrace with stunning views across the Alentejo countryside
From Monsaraz we moved on to the man-made Alqueva lake. More of that in my next feature. This trip was, in many ways, a showcase of ancient and modern and there’s plenty more to share over the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, if you are considering visiting Portugal yourself, why not pin this post for later!
I visited Herdade de São Miguel – http://www.herdadesaomiguel.com
We ate at Mercearia Gadanha – http://merceariagadanha.pt
I stayed at Casa do Terreiro do Poço – https://www.wonderful.land/terreiro/
I was invited on this trip by Visit Portugal
TAP Air Portugal flies direct from London City Airport, Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon up to 12 times a day, prices start at £42 one way including all taxes and surcharges.
For further information, visit TAP Air Portugal or call 0345 601 0932