Portugal’s Unsung Wine Region

Sampling the wine’s of the Algarve – Portugal’s Unsung Wine Region

by Polly Allen

When you think of wine in Portugal, it’s natural to turn to the amazing port wine production in Porto or the famous Mateus Rosé that is a stereotypical Portuguese export found in shops around the world.

Photograph by Dan Birch (c)Photo: Dan Birch ©

Yet there’s one part of the country that is still trying to make its name as a wine region, and that’s the Algarve. The southerly tip of Portugal is ripe for growing grapes and bottling wine, but it’s often ignored by more internationally acclaimed wine regions such as the Alentejo and the Douro.

Wine production in the Algarve

You’d never have guessed it from the lack of industry focus here, but vineyards have existed in southern Portugal since the Arab conquests, grown everywhere from rocky outcrops to lush inland hills. The Arabs brought almonds and figs to the area, which also happen to be great for adding subtle flavours when fermenting to develop a signature taste. Today you’ll find the Syrah grape is very strong in red wine production and there are wineries popping up across the area offering (mainly red) bottles to tempt the less snobby wine buffs among us. White wine and rosé are also making their mark, with the Algarve offering more alcoholic concentration and a generally sweeter flavour than its neighbours.

Overshadowed by the rest of Portugal

The main villain in the case of the Algarve being overlooked is the Douro – this region became a massive exporter in the 18th Century, whilst port wine really took off around the world and was suddenly the biggest export from Porto. With the focus being driven towards these hotspots, it seemed that the south would be truly forgotten, yet a reversal of fortune due to crop infection saw the Algarve temporarily becoming a supplier of wine to the Douro. It was said that a bottle from the Algarve had ‘an elegance that is not found in the Chateaux of Bordeaux’. Sadly, wine snobs still continue to ignore the region and they’re really missing out on a whole range of flavours. Perhaps because of its slight obscurity, it could easily be said that wineries based here are more experimental and open to unusual combinations, such as hints of molasses or peppermint. It’s only in recent years that the number of wines has really begun to explode in the Algarve, thanks to technological advances that have helped to monitor the grapes as they grow and extract more of the flavour. You’ll find that Algarvian wines are more potent as the strong sunlight provides a higher level of alcohol which is released during production. As the region enjoys more sunshine annually than California, it’s easy to see why you should drink in moderation here!

Experiencing a wine tour

I chose the Adega do Cantor in Guia for my wine tour, as it’s one of the most well-known wineries and I’d heard it offered more of a behind-the-scenes look than its competitors, and it’s a family-run business. A major draw for many visitors is the winery’s co-owner, the singer Sir Cliff Richard, who is apparently keen to get involved in every step of the process. Unfortunately this does mean that every tour group (of at least fifteen people) usually involves a few Cliff fans, and my party was no exception. If you can bear to witness mature ladies coyly asking if Cliff is around or lusting after his cardboard cut-out in the gift shop, then stick with it, and you’ll be able to learn a lot about winemaking.

Photograph by Dan Birch (c)Photo: Dan Birch ©

There are several different bottles making their way out of the gates here, including Vida Nova (a mixture of grape varieties), Vida Onda (just one grape variety, Syrah) and sparkling rosé. The tour consisted of looking at different areas of the winery, such as the gorgeous vineyard views of Quinta do Miradouro from the old drying circle and the barrels in the cellar where the wine sits before being bottled.

Every tour guide is prepped on the technical jargon of winemaking, so don’t be afraid to ask any tricky questions. The large metal fermenters at the production area looked a lot like outsize cans of baked beans, but in fact they were storing litres of wine and were carefully primed to make the best of the grapes.

You can get pretty close to the machinery on the tour, but everything is optional, so don’t panic about being left stuck in a fermenter. There was, of course, a chance to taste the produce at the end, which seemed to be what most people looked forward to! A tour costs €7.50 and has to be booked in advance, so don’t make this a spur-of-the-moment trip. Obviously this is not the only tour available in the area, so here are a few more to tempt you:

  • Quinta dos Vales is close to Portimão, a.k.a. the epicentre of seafood. The winery has a lovely sculpture park and art gallery, which is useful if you’re taking the whole family out for the day.
  • Quinta Mata Mouros, in Silves, provides tapas when you taste the wine – essentially you’re getting a whole meal for your money! Afterwards you can purchase the wine direct from the cellar door, which would make a great souvenir for friends and family back home.
  • Monte da Casteleja, in Lagos, has regular wine tasting slots as well as bookable tours which cover the vineyard and the working winery. It’s run by Guillaume Leroux, who was taught about wine by his French father and wanted to show what Portugal had to offer.

What to have with your wine in the region

  • Piri-Piri chicken is a staple Algarvian food that you should definitely try with a red wine if you visit.
  • Bacalhau, or salted cod, is perfect with white wine. A great way to serve it is to chop up the cod into small pieces and layer with garlic sauce or strong Algarvian sausage.

As you can see, it’s not that easy to overlook Algarvian wine once you know how different it is from the rest. With a long history of production and the backing of Sir Cliff himself, it’s clear that the Algarve certainly has bottle.

About the author: Polly Allen is a journalist and Destination Marketer who enjoys travelling in search of the perfect meal. Recent adventures have seen her visiting Portugal, Italy and the east coast of the USA.

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