Travels through Alentejo – A Changing Landscape:
If the start of my trip to Alentejo took me through the ancient villages to the historic palace in Estramoz where I first fell in love with Portugal, the second part of our trip was focused on the changing landscape of this rural region which accounts for a third of the whole of Portugal.
Lake Alqueva is a man-made reservoir, the largest in Western Europe, created through the Alqueva Dam on the River Guadiana. The dam, completed in 2002, was used to create 250 sq kilometres of artificial lakes which help to irrigate over 300,000 of land and protect the region from drought.
We stopped for lunch at the Amieira Marina Panoramic Restaurant where we enjoyed a whole range of regional specialities including the stunning prawns above and the rather foreboding yet beautifully tender and moreish octopus with tomatoes and potatoes below, sitting basking in the sunshine and looking out over the lakes and waterways of Alqueva.
Dessert was an unnecessary luxury – but one in which we all indulged because it was just too good to miss – Sericaia, or Portuguese Egg Pudding, is a very old and traditional recipe from the region of Alentejo in Portugal and was served here with preserved Elvas plums – delicious.
Then took advantage of the sunny weather to enjoy a boat trip around part of the lake. It’s definitely a good way to relax and digest lunch – and if you feel as if you need a little light exercise, you can swim in the lake.
In fact, you can even hire a houseboat here and sail around the lake, mooring up and sleeping on board. It’s possible to hire bikes, kayaks and canoes to explore further on land or water. And of course, as you travel around the lake you can hop off and visit places like Monsaraz, the hilltop fortress town I wrote about in my last feature about some of the historic parts of Alentejo
The reservoir is at least partly responsible for a revitalised region, with new farms and wineries in the now fertile lands around the lake and with a revival of older businesses. In fact, the wines of Ervideira that we tasted in Monsaraz have one particularly notable example. Vinho da Agua is a bottled wine aged 100 feet under the waters of Lake Alqueva for 8 months. The cool, stable environment of the lake creates a mellow complex wine in a much shorter period than would normally be expected.
Later, at Herdade do Vau we were treated to another example of regeneration in the region. The country house which now provides rooms, meals and wine tastings, was restored by the current owner in 2012 for his own family. Apparently, he noticed the house while out hunting with a friend who happened to be the top winemaker in Portugal.
He wanted to produce a more acidic wine and his friend convinced him that the terroir, close to the river to help moderate the Alentejo climate, was eminently suitable for winemaking. In order to do that, he uses four local varieties of grapes but also brings in an Albarino from the Douro to add acidity. It’s still possible to stay there and go hunting for Partridge and then enjoy a wine tasting, dinner and overnight stay at the Herdade.
Other gentler pastimes include foraging for herbs, gastronomy trips, fishing and mountain biking.
In the Herdade, meals are taken around a large communal table and you do feel like part of an extended family, perhaps explained by the fact that each of the rooms was designed originally for the owner and for his children.
It’s contemporary in style, you can enjoy the fabulous views out over the vineyards from the pool or just sitting out on the terrace.
Perhaps the most innovative of the vineyards we visited, Quinta do Quetzal, is a relatively newly built winery that was inspired by ancient traditions. Nearby there are remains of the oldest Roman wine cellar of the Iberian Peninsula and the winery uses the ancient traditions and techniques of Roman and Alentejo wine production, enhanced by modern technology.
With the winery built into the hillside, the grapes are fed into the winery using a gravity-based system, through the roof. They drop into fermentation tanks before being transferred into barrels for ageing on the floor below.
Underground cellars create a cool temperature for the wine to age naturally. Founded in 2002, the estate belongs to a Dutch couple Cees and Inge de Bruin, who are collectors and sponsors of contemporary art. Their relationship with Portugal goes back 40 years and the estate provides a wonderful space for them to explore their own passions.
There’s an onsite modern art gallery where you can browse some of the de Bruin’s own collection and works loaned to them for the curated exhibition space, which is managed by their daughter Aveline.
And, there’s a fabulous restaurant where you can indulge in food and wine pairings. We spent some time trying a whole range of tapas style dishes with their wines and learning more about the unique microclimate of this part of the Alentejo that helps nurture the Antao Vaz. They sell their wines under two labels – Quetzal and Guadaloupe (named after the estate chapel).
I was impressed by the majority of the wines and by all of the food. We feasted on tempura fried beans – did you know that Portugal introduced tempura to Japan – it’s from their habit of eating fried fish during periods of religious abstinence – or ‘tempora’!
then, on the local acorn-fed ham with mushrooms, on uvada (grape molasses) on toasts with flakes of local cheese and on thin slices of the acorn fed black pig fat (petales de toucinho). And a whole lot more.
It was at Herdade da Malhadinha Nova though, that we got a real flavour for the potential of the ‘new’ Alentejo.
It’s a stunning estate that has been refurbished to create a home for the owners, the Soares family, a separate restaurant, a winery and a luxury hotel and spa. We were lucky enough to spend a night at the hotel and enjoy a tour of the estate and winery.
A place where you could stay for an extended break without travelling any further, there’s a stud farm, a cattle farm breeding heritage Alentejana cattle and a pig farm raising the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish Iberico black pig – an acorn fed beast which produces the finest ham.
There is a sense of luxury and refinement about the entire hotel complex – it manages to combine the best of boutique hotel features with contemporary furnishing and comfortable spaces.
Even against stiff competition in the Algarve, this must be one of the finest hotels of its type in Portugal. It’s little touches like the Bulgari toiletries in every bathroom that help make this place special.
The hotel has both an outdoor pool and one of the largest hydrotherapy pools I’ve ever seen which I couldn’t help but try! The spa offers a wide range of treatments too.
And the restaurant (closed on the night we stayed) has a Michelin star. We were treated instead to a starlight dinner on the hotel terrace, looking out over the vineyards and feasting on the estate’s own produce.
The winery is relatively new, like many of those in Alentejo.
Just ten years old it is already producing a wide range of excellent wines from local grapes. Charmingly, the labels are all designed by the owners’ children. And, they were all named by the kids too. Even the first plant of the vineyard was planted by Francisca, the first offspring of the family’s new generation.
I still love the old Alentejo. I’d still return to Convento do Espinhiero or to Borba and Estramoz. But, I’m thrilled to have been given a chance to learn more about an emerging and contemporary Alentejo that provides an equally wonderful yet very different experience.
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I travelled to Lisbon with TAP Air Portugal which runs several flights a day between UK and Portuguese airports. Flights from London to Lisbon start at £42 one way including surcharges and taxes.