Alentejo, Portugal’s vast southern province, is a feudal land. Estates, some many thousands of acres, mainly produce the cork for which the region is known and olives. Cattle, pigs and cereal crops also fill large swaths stretching into the distant horizon. Vines cover a relatively small area, but economically they are becoming the most important crop as the reputation of the wines they yield has grown in the last 20 years after a decade-long interruption.
The historically feudal nature of Alentejo farming, with its large paternal estates, were a prime target for the communists who ran Portugal briefly after the end of the fascist regime in 1974. Many properties were nationalized for as long as 10 years, their crops sold to cooperatives. After this, estates had to be restored before they could begin seriously producing and making wine again. That’s why, while the legacies of the herdades (the word means homesteads) in Alentejo are often long, many of their stories take more recent twists, often under new ownership. These estates represent a fascinating intertwining of the ancient and modern—a paradigm for Portugal’s wine.
Herdade do Mouchão
Enter Alicante Bouschet
Amidst the hills and cork forests of northern Alentejo, Herdade do Mouchão is a legendary place. Its wine is revered, and the estate steeped in history.
Nearly 200 years ago, Briton Thomas Reynolds arrived in Porto ready to trade. In 1830, his son—also named Thomas—found there was a future in Alentejo trading in cork. “Few foreigners had dared to travel to the southern hinterland, as it was considered dangerous,” current owner Iain Reynolds Richardson says. But Thomas the elder saw a business opportunity: In 1834, he rented the 2,200-acre Herdade do Mouchão, where he established his cork business and made wine.
In the 1880s, the family made its major contribution to the Portuguese wine industry. While fighting phylloxera as a member of the Portuguese phylloxera commission, William Reynolds (who then owned the estate), contacted Montpellier University in France, which sent two experts along with cuttings of a new red-fleshed crossing of Petit Bouschet and Grenache, Alicante Bouschet. With its high yields and ease of propagation, the grape became a popular choice in certain regions devastated by phylloxera. It’s thanks to Mouchão and the Reynolds family who introduced it that this vine is now so widely planted in Alentejo. Alicante Bouschet forms the base of the red wine of Mouchão and has become the signature grape of the region, making dark-colored wines full of fruit and tannins that can age for many years.
Around this time, the family built a single-level farmstead. Today, this same farmstead, lined with family photos, houses its fifth generation of Reynoldses. In 1904, the winery, also still in use, was built, although its first bottle was not sold until 1949.
A brief interregnum in 1975, when the estate was nationalized, ended in 1986. During that period, however, then-owner Albert Reynolds returned every weekend to check on the workers and the property, reinforcing the family’s attachment to the estate.
The simplicity of Mouchão—such as the whitewashed winery, where little has changed since 1904 and where air conditioning consists of opening the windows in the early morning—is a part of what makes the estate a slice of Portuguese history that is still so alive and vibrant today.
Herdade do Esporão
The Vintage that Took 10 Years
After a long drive from the gates of Esporão on the edge of the low-slung whitewashed town of Reguengos de Monsaraz, you’ll find yourself at the winery and the heart of the estate. The property sprawls 4,547 acres—all organic, 1,087 of them vines, the rest olive trees and other crops.
Three medieval monuments still stand testament to the estate’s rich history, of which the fortified tower is the most familiar, appearing on many of the wine labels. There is also an arch and the chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios. All date from the period just after the Christian reconquest of this part of Portugal from the Moors in 1232.
Vines have been planted at Esporão since as far back as the 13th century, and were thriving when José Roquette and Joaquim Bandeira purchased it just in time for it to be nationalized in 1975 by the communist government. The estate wasn’t returned to them until 1982, so the first vintage released under the “new” owners was 1985. Soon after, José Roquette bought out his partner and the Roquettes remain the sole owners today.