There was a time when small vintners shared their vineyard land with olive groves, cork trees, vegetable patches and fields of wheat. Even livestock would roam the land freely. But as winemaking became big business, farmland gave way to vineyards and the traditional working farm slowly slid into obscurity.
But there is a place in the southern end of Portugal where a family-run vineyard is enjoying the renaissance of farm-to-table popularity and embracing the philosophy of organic and sustainable farming practices in their vineyards. That place is Casa Relvas, located in the Alentejo region of Portugal, considered by many to be the hottest place in Europe to grow grapes, both figuratively and literally.
Known as the “breadbasket” of Europe, the Alentejo region, situated in the bottom third of the country and stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Spanish border, is blessed with vast, open plains with rich, fertile soil. In addition to farm crops, vineyards are becoming increasingly popular in the region, particularly in the areas near the foothills of the Serra D’Ossa mountains and in the flat plains of Evora. And there is one more important agricultural gem grown in the region vital to the wine industry: cork trees.
It was the combination of cork tree forests and rich vineyard lands that drew Alexandre Relvas in 1977. He bought land in the Redondo area called Herdade de Sao Miguel and planted a grove of cork trees in the late 1990s. The vineyards, planted with traditional Portuguese varieties, followed shortly thereafter. In 2003, Alexandre built a state-of-the-art winery, and produced his first bottles of wine the following year.
In less than 20 years, Alexandre created a successful cork business and award-wining wines under the Herdade de Sao Miguel label. Best of all, his two sons are now actively involved in the winemaking operation. Alexandre Relvas Jr. is the chief winemaker, and Antonio is handling viticulture. Together, they represent the next generation of artisan wine production from this remarkable land. And in addition to raising sheep and other livestock, they continue the tradition of working the land, just like the four generations of Relvases who preceded them. It is, after all, the Alentejo way.
I was blown away by the lovely aromas and beautiful mouthfeel in the 2016 Herdade de São Miguel Colheita Seleccionada white wine. Made from a blend of 50% Antão Vaz, 35% Verdelho, and 15% Viognier, this wine is fresh and bright. Aromas of yellow citrus, tropical fruit and white flowers provide a playful bouquet, while well-integrated notes of guava, nectarine and tangerine play out on the palate. The finely tuned acidity and touch of minerality combine for a light, yet lingering finish. Pair this wine with roasted chicken or grilled seafood. $15
The weather in 2018 was unusual in the Alentejo region. The winter was dry and not too cold. Spring was mild and rainy. Summer temperatures were lower than the average, while also being dry and mild. These were the conditions that made the 2018 Herdade de São Miguel Do Sul red wine so approachable at such a young age. A blend of Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira and cabernet sauvignon, this wine sports aromas of bright red fruit with hints of violet flowers. It is juicy and fun to drink, with flavors of red raspberry, dark strawberry and black cherry that are supported by smooth tannins and good acidity. Pair this wine with pasta and a Bolognese sauce or soft cheeses. $12
You would be hard-pressed to find a better bottle of wine at this price. The 2016 Herdade de São Miguel Colheita Seleccionada red is simply delicious. A blend of Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional, Syrah and cabernet sauvignon, it offers balance and charm. Scents of cherry cobbler and black raspberry jam dominate the nose. Flavors of ripe blackberry, mocha and baking spices meld together on the remarkably smooth and balanced finish. Just a lovely, well-made wine. I would love to have this with grilled steaks or lamb chops. $15
Alexandre Relvas, Jr. makes the 2016 Art Terra Amphora red to reflect the truest expression of the terroir from the family’s land. As the name indicates, three grape varieties (Aragonez, Trincadeira, and Moreto) were co-fermented in old clay amphoras using indigenous yeasts at uncontrolled temperatures. After fermentation, the wine was aged for three months in other amphoras. Some people would call this a “natural” wine. I call it wonderful. It offers up aromas of eucalyptus and dried fruit on the nose. On the palate, it has loads of dark fruit and black cherry on the front of the tongue, with black plum and baking spices emerging on the backside. Firm tannins on the medium-balanced finish support earthy tones all the way through to the end. Alexandre suggests pairing this wine with traditional Alentejano sausages. $23