Along the wine route in hilly, magical Alentejo, Portugal, I renew a friendship and discover the best eating and drinking of my life. 

Escaping the Big Smoke

Lisbon

The surprising thing about touching down at Lisbon airport is how fast you find yourself transported into deep countryside. I arrived on a mild October morning, was met there by my old friend Martin Earl. Within a few minutes we were crossing the Vasco da Gama bridge—longest in Europe—that stretches across more than ten miles.

Immediately thereafter we swerved off the road and decelerated into the dreaming, older world of the Alentejo (the word literally means “beyond the Tejo” or Tagus).

For the next five days, we’d travel among mediaeval whitewashed villages, rolling hills, mountain forts and a constellation of sparklingly modern vineyards. Long a holiday destination for budget travellers, the Alentejo is rapidly becoming one of the world’s top wine destinations.
 

Meeting old friends

Along the wine route

I was there to sample the landscapes with my friend, who would also be my guide. Martin, a poet, had “gone native”, settling down with a local girl in Portugal and crossing over into a life lived entirely in another language. 

By now, 40 minutes from the airport, we were passing through sun-dappled alleys of plane trees with, beyond them, irregular row upon row of cork oaks. “I sometimes call this area Corktugal,” Martin said with a laugh. The beautiful cork oak is hand-harvested of its bark once every ten years. 60 per cent of the global cork trade originates in Portugal.

We stopped for a coffee in a sun-blasted village called Montemor-o-Novo. An excited barista explained that they were about to celebrate something. An award-winning polyphonic singer, unique to the region, had just been designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by Unesco. Better yet, one of the singers was right there.

We watched as a waiter presented the singer with a tray bearing a white cube, roughly the size of a small brick. “Lard,” Martin said simply. I watched, amazed, as the singer tucked a napkin into his collar and began forking pieces into his mouth with a great smacking of the lips.
 

The first supper

Black pigs

Martin and I caught up while the tilled brown fields rose and fell outside the windows. 

We turned off for lunch in a smallish town called Redondo and found a promising-looking place named Porfírio’s. A tray of tasty appetisers was soon placed on our table: herbed and vinegared olives, breads, sausages and two kinds of fresh cheese. The lunch itself opened with an exquisite dogfish soup—dogfish is a kind of shark, white-fleshed and sweet—followed by arroz de pato, or duck rice.

Portuguese cooking concentrates essential tastes and bolsters them with fresh ingredients. Arroz de pato is a classic example of this magnification-through-reduction. The lid of baked egg atop the rice was dotted with broiled bits of incredibly savory bacon and chouriço, a sausage similar to chorizo, both of them sourced from local pigs. Plunging your fork through the lid released a jet of flavourful steam, and below the rice a vein of moist, darkly delicious duck.

Pigs are consumed in nearly all parts of Alentejo. The local specialty is black pig, fed mostly on the acorns. The animal’s intense depth of flavour is due partly to that acorn-heavy diet which imbues the flesh with oleic acid, the same heart-friendly ingredient found in olive oil.
 

Following the wine route

Along the wine route

The next two days took on an easy, natural rhythm of eating, sightseeing and drinking cheap, well-structured local wines. We stayed in the mountain towns Monsaraz and Marvão. Each was originally built as a fort against invasion from Spain and offered cobbled streets, a castle, a small museum, shops, restaurants and panoramic views.

Alas here I felt the weight of the tourist trade wearing away some of the indigenous sparkle. The restaurants were tired, and the little stores that honeycombed the alleyways were filled with kitsch.

After two days we began following signs for the wine route. These soon brought us to the Adega Mayor winery, a hypermodern collection of cubes and cantilevers set out in the hills and designed by the famous Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza. We toured the ingeniously constructed building and sampled some of the exquisite wines.
 

Perfect Portuguese wines

Herdade dos Grous
Image via Herdade dos Grous

The next day, in the high-ceilinged dining room of the Herdade dos Grous, a giant vineyard and estate in a village south of Beja, we ordered the chef’s tasting menu. The meal opened with a lighter-than-air dogfish soup followed by a veal medallion with mustard sauce, fingerling potatoes, radish sprouts and roasted chickpeas.

The paired wines of Herdade dos Grous began with a clean, palate-cleansing white, accompanying the meal along an arc of increasing depth that ended with the cymbal crash of a 2011 Grous Reserva red. The net effect of this was one of the great culinary transports of my life.

Afterwards, I talked with Luís Duarte, 48, the man responsible for the extraordinary wines. When asked the difference between Portuguese wine and that of other nations, he didn’t hesitate.

“The wines of Chile and Argentina are too sweet,” he said. “You think Spain, you think the tempranillo grape. Well, we don’t use the same grapes everyone else does. We have 315 different grape varieties, many of them unique to us. You want a velvety and well-balanced wine at a good price? Think Portugal.”
 

Nostalgic aromas 

Vineyard portugal

After lunch, we strolled in the nearby vineyards. It was late afternoon, the sun low in the sky. The air was filled with nostalgic aromas of earth and mown grass, and I found myself remembering my own near-exile in Italy, where I’d spent a total of eight years.

Different from the Alentejo, Italy is long accustomed to being a sightseeing shrine of sorts. Its tourist treasures often have a kind of worn feeling to them, as of having been visited so often that they’ve been buffed smooth by the experience.

But Portugal, and particularly the Alentejo, give an entirely different impression: that of a place—showcase mountain towns apart—still waking up to its own worldly importance and, as a result, still vivid and fresh.
 

Saying goodbyes

Alentejo Portugal wine

Back in the airport in Lisbon, I hugged my old friend goodbye. I was relieved to have found him at peace in his adopted country. There’s an essential melancholy in exile—a sadness from the severed connections to family, habit and what the poet Paul Celan called the “fatal once-only” of the mother tongue—that can weigh on those who’ve made the move. 

In Martin’s case, these deficits were offset by a good marriage, his devotion to his art and a country whose ancient ways allowed him the kind of concentration that frenetic New York would have almost certainly denied. In the process, coincidentally, that country had offered me two things: a reassuring insight into the adaptability of human nature, and a tour of the hilly, magical Alentejo, with some of the very best eating and drinking of my life.     

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