Alicante Bouschet’s Adopted Home of Alentejo

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 03-09-2019

In the summer of 2018, I spent a week exploring Portugal’s Alentejo region, and I came back with a much deeper respect for its wines, history and culture. Stretching inland, east of Lisbon, this hot, dry region is home to vast swaths of cork forests and vineyards spread across a countryside of rolling hills and farms.

One of things that surprised me most about Alentejo was how many good to excellent wines I tasted made from the Alicante Bouschet grape. With more than 100 years of experience with this grape, Alentejo and Alicante have a long, symbiotic relationship, and winemakers there have learned how to harness the full potential of this grape.

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Winemaker Iain Richardson in the vineyards of Herdade do Mouchão

In the 1880s, a Frenchman named Henri Bouschet created the grape by crossing Petit Bouschet (itself a cross of two even more obscure grapes) with Grenache. The result was a thick-skinned, dark-colored grape variety that showed good defense against rot. It can produce such dark wines that Portuguese winemakers took to calling it Tinta de Excrever, which means “writing ink.” Fun fact: Alicante is a rare teinturier variety, which means the pulp inside is red (like the Georgian grape Saperavi). The grape flourished in California during prohibition, as its resistance to rot meant grapes could handle transportation to home winemakers and bootleggers. Because of its dark color and intensity, it was also widely used as a blending grape in order to add some meat and potatoes to thinner wines.

But it was a man looking to make some money in the cork business who helped this grape reach its pinnacle. In the mid-1800s, Thomas Reynolds (an Oporto-based exporter of Port, cork, and other goods) moved his family to the rural, largely untouched region of Alentejo. He established a massive estate, Herdade do Mouchão, dominated by cork tree forests, but also olive trees and vineyards. Sometime before the turn of the 20th Century, two professors from Montpellier brought cuttings of Alicante Bouschet to Mouchão, where it adapted well. In 1901, the Reynolds family built a winery, adding a distillery in 1929. The original winery is still functioning, and it operated without electricity until 1991! It is one of the most fascinating wineries I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. And the wines, especially the flagship red, are stunning.

With more than 200 indigenous grape varieties to choose from, it’s amazing an imported science experiment found such a foothold in Alentejo. But wine history is weird like that. Today, growers all over Alentejo use Alicante, frequently blending it with other indigenous and international grape varieties. Many respected winemakers use traditional methods of hand-picking and food-treading the grapes in large concrete or marble containers. Alicante Bouschet benefits from barrel aging, and it can withstand a good amount of new, toasty oak, though I’m more inclined toward wines that have been aged for long periods in large, old wood. No matter how it is made or where the vineyard is, these are almost always dark, concentrated, tannic, long-aging wines. But the best Alicantes maintain fresh acidity that helps balance out the density. The dark fruit is also accented by these notes of leather, pepper, charcoal, and herbs and spices, which I find really attractive. Pairing options with grilled meats and vegetables are endless.

I recently had the chance to revisit some Alicante Bouschet wines form Alentejo, most of which I had tasted during my trip. For fun, I tasted the wines single-blind, just to see if the Mouchão would stand out and wow me as much as it has in the past. (Spoiler alert: for my palate, this wine is so special that it stands out like a sore thumb.) Like many wines I enjoy from Alentejo, some of these are highly impressive for the money, and most of them could (or should) benefit from years in the cellar.

My notes on these wines (which were received as trade samples), are below.

thumbnail (2)2016 Herdade Do Rocim Alicante Bouschet - Portugal, Alentejo, Vinho Regional Alentejano
SRP: $20
Vibrant, dark purple color. Deep nose of black cherries and concentrated plums, loaded with smoky incense, sweet clove and espresso, leather, dried violets, and an earthy-smashed rock note, too. Full-bodied with velvety tannins and the acidity is really surprising here, giving the wine some lift and freshness. Complex earthy, savory, floral notes – leather, anise, charcoal, and all sorts of incense sticks and perfumed, musky notes. This could do well with five years in the cellar, yet it’s accessible at this young age, too. I tasted this last year at the winery, but I found this bottle to be even better and more expressive. (90 points IJB)

2012 Doña Maria Grande Reserva - Portugal, Alentejo, Vinho Regional Alentejano
SRP: $45
Bright purple color. Rich, dark, saucy aromas (black cherries, blueberries, blackberry), and a deep blend of eucalyptus, incense, cedar. Bold presence on the palate, structured but velvety, with medium acidity, which helps on a 14.5% frame. Scorched earth, mocha, coffee, charcoal. Rich and suave yet fresh, too, this would do well with three to eight years in the cellar or a long decant, but this is impressive stuff. 50% Alicante Bouschet with Petit Verdot, Syrah and Touriga Nacional from clay and limestone soils in the Estremoz subregion. Aged 12 months in French oak. (91 points IJB)

2016 Herdade dos Grous Moon Harvested - Portugal, Alentejo, Vinho Regional Alentejano
SRP: $25
Deep purple color. Dark and rich on the nose, saucy plums and blackberry sauce, with violets, coffee, anise and vanilla notes. Full-bodied with grippy tannins and some medium-low acidity to help balance it out. A dark and saucy appeal with rich black cherry, blackberries, dark plums. There’s a lot of cocoa, anise, coffee and scorched earth notes here, too, along with cedar and espresso. Hedonistic style that is accessible now, but built well enough to cellar, too. All Alicante Bouschet from schist soils. (89 points IJB)

2013 Herdade do Mouchão Alentejo - Portugal, Alentejo
thumbnail (4)
SRP: $60
Inky dark purple color. It takes time but out come aromas of pretty, complex black fruits, waves of roasted chestnut, leather, incense, mint, black pepper and earth. Lots of strength and power on the palate with grippy tannins yet it’s not too overt, and the acidity keeps it fresh. Tangy, deep black fruit mixes so well with waves of complex non-fruit notes (leather, sage, incense, smoky earth, anise). There are also these deep notes of rocks, minerals, charcoal. Rich fruit, but it’s so nuanced and vibrant as well. This will be gorgeous in 30 years (no kidding), it’s that kind of a wine. The balance, depth and elegance is in a class of its own. Alicante Bouschet with some Trincadeira blended in as well, the wine spends two years in old, 500-liter mahogany casks. (95 points IJB)

2015 Herdade São Miguel Alicante Bouschet - Portugal, Alentejo, Vinho Regional Alentejano
SRP: $23
Bright purple color. Nose pops with saucy blueberries and blackberries, mixed with incense, lavender, violets, anise and charcoal. Full and big on the palate with grippy tannins and some medium, moderating acidity. Dense but crunchy dark fruit (blackberry, blueberry, black cherry) topped in a complex mix of anise, charcoal, black pepper, graphite. This is well-built to improve in the cellar, or it would benefit from a serious decant. Alicante from clay and schist soils, aged 12 months in French oak. (89 points IJB)

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