Mooching around Mouchão.
At one of Berry Brothers and Rudd’s tastings about five years ago I tasted a wine named Mouchão which, in those pre-Douro Boys days, struck me as the best red table wine I had ever tasted from Portugal. I recommended it in the Decanter Buying Guide. Later I received an invitation to visit from Iain Richardson, whose wife’s family (Reynolds) has owned Mouchão since the 19th century. A five-day trip last September opened my eyes to the wines of the Alentejo in general and the unique qualities of the Alicante Bouschet grape as vinified at Mouchão in particular.
The Alentejo is the second most southerly province of Portugal, a vast region bordered to the north by the River Tejo, to the west by the Atlantic Ocean and to the east by Spain. The generally temperate climate becomes baking hot in August, which renders it unsuitable for any French red varietal except Alicante Bouschet and the more recently planted Syrah. The former, a teinturier varietal (a grape with red rather than white juice) is much maligned and, although widely planted in the Midi, is now banned from AC wines in its home country. It was bred between 1865 and 1885 by Henri Bouschet from a cross between Petit Bouschet and Grenache. Old vines, traditional vinification, foot trodden in large granite lagares, maturation in vast foudres – from which the best wines are polished with six months in French oak and aged for two years in bottle before release, as happens at Mouchão – produces a wine of intense power and innate elegance.
The Reynolds family of Scottish origin were, by the early 19th century, one of the largest owners of cork forests in Portugal, with holdings from the Douro to the Algarve. Vines only occupy 38ha (hectares) of the 900ha Mouchão estate, which is made up of mostly cork oaks and olive trees, under-grazed by sheep and the famous pata negra (black foot) pigs and populated by wild partridge and rabbit, a landscape that has not changed in a century. Vines were first planted in 1901 and have adapted well to the clay soil. Local varieties such as Trincadeira, Aragones and Periquita, to which Touriga Nacional and Syrah have been added, are planted for the sturdy reds, Antão Vaz, Arinto and Fernão Pires for the aromatic dry whites. Mouchão itself has 70% Alicante Bouschet and there is a second red wine produced called Dom Rafael with 40% (there is also a white Dom Rafael). In great years only a few thousand bottles of super-cuvée Tonel 3&4 are made, of which only four vintages since 1996 have been declared, culminating with the 100% Alicante 2003, a pure vineyard wine that could take to the world stage. A new blend of Syrah, Touriga Nacional and a little Alicante is planned for release in November, but Mouchão, judging by a warm and lightly raisiny 1974 and a caramelly Burgundian 1963, will continue, in the hands of winemaker Paulo Laureano, to provide the Alentejo’s finest wine.
While Iain Richardson Sr oversees Mouchão, his son, Iain Reynolds Richardson, runs Vitiberia, his wine consultancy business, producing some of the region’s most cutting-edge wines. Another Reynolds estate has enabled him to put into practice his biodynamic theories of ‘maximum potency harvesting’, to create an extraordinary dry 2006 Viognier and a Cabernet Franc-style 2006 Alfrocheiro red for release later this year under the Canto X label.
From Mouchão, I visited the two big boys of the Alentejo: J Portugal Ramos and Herdade do Esporão. By chance, I had attended a wine tasting and dinner with João Ramos a few days before in London and had tasted the full range of wines he makes in the Alentejo, his 100% varietals from local grapes and the flagship blend Marques de Borba, which used to feature Cabernet Sauvignon, now being ripped out. Not one to hide his light under a bushel – the theme of his winery being ‘The Spirit of Perfection’ – the charismatic Ramos is the Alentejo’s true ambassador.
Less well known in the UK, much to our loss, is Herdade do Esporão, where the wines are under the control of Australian David Baverstock, who spent many years with the Symingtons in the Douro. This is a vast estate, combining wineries, restaurant and a golf course with views to Spain, that could rival anything in California. Due to the intense heat, while more northerly regions hope for warm vintages, Baverstock states that the three coolest years in the last decade have produced the finest wines. Torre de Esporão 2004, a 78% Touriga Nacional, 15% Syrah and 7% Alicante Bouschet blend of only 4,000 bottles is another very great wine from the Alentejo, but my heart remains at Mouchão.