Finding Wine Country in Central Portugal

In a region full of hilltop castle towns, touring palaces, and spa hotels, visiting this winery is an afternoon well spent
Finding Wine Country in Central Portugal
(Tim Johnson)

There’s just something about long, sunny, summer afternoons surrounded by vines. The sense of nowhere to go and nothing to do. Except, of course, to sip some wine and have a good chat.

Today, it was a tasting—reds and a few whites, but not yet the bottles that were intentionally drowned in a lake.

They’ve been making wine in this part of Portugal for many centuries. Some say the Romans brought it with them; others say that it predates even their ancient influence. But one thing is sure—ask the average American, even most wine drinkers, and few would have ever heard of this place. No immediate name recognition. Not like Napa, Bordeaux, or Tuscany. But one visit to this huge, hidden part of Portugal, and you’ll fall in love with it. Wine, yes, but so much more.

Alentejo is Portugal’s largest province, covering 12,000 square miles in the central-south, from around Lisbon all the way down to the Algarve. It's home to a rarely explored Atlantic coastline, rugged, sun-baked hills, and about 260 wineries, which produce mostly robust reds—appropriate enough for a climate that's hot, dry, and almost always sunny.

On a couple of separate visits, I’ve enjoyed driving around this region, exploring hilltop castle towns, touring palaces, and staying in spa hotels. But I set aside a whole, sunny afternoon for the wine. A favorite place, owned by an energetic, slightly eccentric proprietor.

Touring Portugal's Vineyard

 (Tim Johnson)
(Tim Johnson)

Arriving at Ervideira, the owner, Duarte, welcomes me warmly, then, heads to an important meeting, handing me off for part of the afternoon for a tour with one of his staff members, Guillermo. The latter gives a little history of this family-run operation.

"They got things started around 1880, and are now into their fifth generation of sons," he explains.

With just under 300 acres under vine, 90 percent of its wines are reds. Guillermo estimates that Portugal grows more than 250 varietals, and notes that Ervideira produces about 50 of those. Altogether, about 620,000 bottles are produced annually. Lots, but nowhere near the amount of wine made by the biggest wineries. And they respect the land, resting in as many as 15 perfect fields every year.

"The soil gives us the vineyard, and the vineyard gives us the wine," he observes with a nod.

 A handful of Ervideira's 50 or so varietals. (Tim Johnson)
A handful of Ervideira's 50 or so varietals. (Tim Johnson)

While Guillermo isn't part of the ownership family, Alentejo is the kind of place where everyone has a hand in the soil. Guillermo’s own father made wine, and he grew up nearby. He leads me through the cellars, pointing out the barrels—French oak for reds, Hungarian oak for whites—and past the bottling line. One wall holds the family’s private collection, with some bottles dating back 25 years.

"We can do 13,000 bottles in one day if nothing goes wrong," Guillermo says. "But, all the days, something goes wrong."

The tour ends where all good ones do—out on the sun-drenched patio. The view is sweeping and beautiful. A low, rolling rise on two sides, the fields covered in vines, with the big tanks of the winery on the other. In addition to a big spread of local charcuterie, Guillermo brings out five different wines for the formal tasting. We start with a delicate white made from pressing red aragonez grapes. Its light taste is deceptive.

"We call it invisible," Guillermo says. "It is refreshing, delicious, simple, and dangerous."

Stories and Wine

Four more follow: a white and three reds, including the vineyard's famous Vinho da Familia. The Ervideira bottle most likely to be found in Portuguese restaurants (and homes) contains the vineyard's four best (red) grapes.

"Which represents four different generations of the family," Guillermo says.

As if on cue, the gregarious owner, Duarte, settles in at the table, his winemaker, Nelson, in tow. A key, unrecognized part of owning a winery is being able to tell a good story. And jokes. Duarte definitely has this covered.

Sipping a glass of his own, he delves deeper into the family history, explaining that his family were originally farmers. His great-great-grandfather planted the first vines to make wine for the workers.

"They would drink wine even at 5 a.m., strong to go to the fields," he says.

With the harvest just days away, employees pop in and out of the scene. Duarte dispatches them with different instructions—I catch snippets about preparing tanks and hoses and the like—but he still remains with us, hosting his guests. He says that he keeps his best bottles in the bedroom.

"If I leave it in the dining room, other people drink it!"

And the wine keeps coming—big, bold reds, as well as a new project, the vineyard's first Pinot noir, not a normal varietal for Alentejo. He encourages us to have more (and more)—for our health.

"This isn’t alcohol—it’s grapes; it’s fruit!" he exclaims.

I ask about a previous experiment in which the vineyard sank bottles of red and white wine in the lake and retrieved them months later, in part because Duarte had observed that wine reclaimed from shipwrecks always tastes better.

He shakes his head a little ruefully. Those bottles were sold out.

"It’s a big lake; we could do a lot more!" adds Nelson.

So I’ll need to return. Yes, to have some of the underwater wine. But also to partake, again, in the best of Alentejo. While the vino was top-notch, the company and the conversation out there on that warm patio were even better. That’s what I miss the most—and why I’ll be back as soon as possible.

When You Go

Fly: Humberto Delgado Airport (LIS) in Lisbon is the closest international gateway, with regular nonstop flights to North America and around the world.
Getting Around: While the easiest way to visit several wineries is to simply rent a car and drive, it's possible to take a train to the nearby town of Evora, and then take a taxi or ride-share the rest of the way. Portuguese trains are clean and relatively efficient, and the ride will take you about 90 minutes.
Stay: Located in a quiet district of Evora, Alentejo’s historic capital, the Vitoria Stone Hotel provides snug, comfortable rooms (many with balconies) and super-friendly service. Plus, a rooftop pool with 360-degree views of palaces, medieval walls, and rolling countryside.
Take Note: As a general rule, shipping wine home from Portugal can be a little tricky. If you’re serious about bringing back some bottles, you may want to invest in a special cushioned wine suitcase (there are several available on the market).
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.