Alentego, Portugal, SOMM Journal, Wine
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Alentejo’s Dark Horse, Alicante Bouschet

As grape varieties go, it’s fair to say that Alicante Bouschet (Ahlee-KANT Boo-SHAY) is flashy in the vineyard. It’s one of the few—along with Chile’s Carménère and Campania’s Piedirosso— whose leaves turn a deep, brilliant shade as the growing cycle winds down.

The resplendent, purple-hued robe of the variety’s canopy emerges when anthocyanins, the same pigments responsible for its red pulp and dark skin, are activated as the vine approaches dormancy.

A relative newcomer to the teinturier family of grapes, which are so named for their red pulp, Alicante has a unique anthocyanin fingerprint. It was bred as an improvement over its grandparent grape, Teinturier du Cher, a variety hybridized by renowned French viticulturalist Louis-Marie Bouschet with Aramon to create Petit Bouschet.

Henri Bouschet continued the experiments of his father in 1866 when he crossed Petit Bouschet with Grenache Noir (known as Alicante in southern France), resulting in Alicante Bouschet and several biotypes.

Alentejo, which covers almost a third of Portugal by area, encompasses roughly 18,000 hectares of vineyards. Last year, the region ranked third behind the Douro and Lisboa (formerly Estremadura) in total wine production, and although Alicante Bouschet is not among the country’s top ten varieties under vine, Alentejo is second only to Spain (where the grape is known as Garnacha Tintorera) in plantings of the variety.

In addition to vineyards, the region’s gently rolling landscape has historically been dotted with cereal crops, olive trees, and cork forests. In this continental climate with very low rainfall, the winters are cold and an ever-present risk of frost extends to the spring season; the hot, dry summers, meanwhile, necessitate irrigation.

A mix of heterogeneous soil types abounds, with outcrops of clay schist, granite, gravel, rañas deposits of sandy, clay loam, and ferrous limestone.
The region’s natural landmarks have helped producers define mesoclimates
ideal for producing monovarietal Alicante Bouschet.

The Vidigueira fault, which marks the border between the Alto Alentejo
and Baixo Alentejo provinces, is a long, east-west-facing escarpment that tempers the warmer southern climate. It’s here that Herdade do Rocim, an estate sited between the municipalities of Vidigueira and Cuba with 60 hectares under vine, produces an Alicante Bouschet expression from vines planted in the 1970s. Traditional foot treading and barrel aging produced a 2016 vintage laden with deep plum and velvety tannins framed by sandalwood and dark spice.

South of the fault lies the 1,700-acre Herdade dos Grous estate; its 70 acres
under vine share the schist soils of the nearby hills of Monte dos Magros. The 2016 Moon Harvested Alicante Bouschet, aged in French oak, illustrates how young Alicante Bouschet tends to show fewer primary aromas. Instead, there’s the promise of tertiary aromas that will develop and even predominate during aging, with bittersweet chocolate, espresso, char, and mulberry on the palate. Moderate acidity helps counterbalance the wine’s grip, and decanting will help release any reined-in aromas.

Alicante Bouschet’s adaption to this terroir has been helped along by its drought tolerant-nature and producers’ shared understanding that this thick-skinned, high yielding variety performs best when it’s planted in low-vigor soils and aggressively pruned.

Traditionally reserved for blending with Aragonez, Castelão, and Touriga
Nacional as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, Alicante Bouschet–dominant wines can be labeled either Alentejo DOC or Alentejano Vinho Regional (IGP). With a total approved vineyard area of 11,763 hectares, DOC wine production exceeds the IGP’s production of 6,233 hectares.

Another producer, Dona Maria Vinhos, bottles an Alicante Bouschet–dominant (50%) DOC Grand Reserva: a classic blend that sees the addition of 20% Syrah, 20% Petit Verdot, and 10% Touriga Nacional. Produced from old, dry-farmed vines planted in iron-rich clay-limestone soils at an elevation of 400 meters, the grapes for the 2012 vintage were foot tread before the wine aged one year in new oak. The firm and lithe result positively vibrates with crisp dark fruit, mocha, and uncured tobacco.

Because of its heritage, Alicante Bouschet contains a higher proportion of
anthocyanins than all of the other international varieties planted in Alentejo and in Portugal at large. With a total phenol index over 60, it ranks among the grapes— including Portugal’s native Tinta Barca and Borraçal, Italy’s Barbera and Corvina, and France’s Tannat—with the highest levels of antioxidant stilbenes known as resveratrol.

The presence of high phenol levels is readily apparent in the mouth coating texture of the 2015 Alicante Bouschet from Herdade São Miguel, whose clay- and schist-based vineyards are surrounded by the cork forests of Redondo. Lighter and more medium-bodied than the wines of southern Alentejo, the wine spends one year in oak and shows a combination of red and black fruit with lavender, nutmeg, and some white pepper.

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