Today, I thought it pertinent to write about a region known for sun, sand and sea as well as much as vines- an ideal summer holiday destination! The wine region of Algarve is driven almost entirely by tourism, which makes it very unique- so let’s get into things!
First up, location; the Algarve is the entire southern-most section of Portugal. Wines labelled Algarve can be made from anywhere in the region which is about 30km north to south and about 100km east to west, though vineyards are mostly found nearer the southern coast of the country to take advantage of both the cooling influences of the Gulf of Cadiz as well as the yearly influx of thirsty tourists every summer.
The climate of Algarve is warm to very warm, as can probably be expected from a region only 200km from Africa’s northern tip at Tangiers. A local Aussie “flying winemaker” who has made wine in the region mentioned that region shares a similar climate with WA’s Margaret River. Warm, sunny and cloudless days provide abundant energy for the vines, however its position right on the water provides cooling afternoon breezes. The nights in both regions can be pretty warm and balmy, and the majority of the rainfall occurs in the relatively moderate winters of both wine regions. There are 2 key differences between these two regions however (other than being on the other side of the world to each other!) -one is the soils; where Margaret River has a majority of brown loam over gneiss and granite has great water retention, Algarve has mostly poor sandy soils, which do not hold much of the already scarce rainfall, which leads to the second key difference- water! Unlike in Western Australia, irrigation of the vines is illegal here in Algarve, meaning in a hot, dry year, while the tourists retreat into air-conditioning to cool off and water themselves, the vines just have to suffer through the heat.
This leads to the biggest challenge Algarve faces, and the major reason it is not a better-known wine region. This constant heat and lack of water means the grapes ripen on the vine very quickly. Sugars accumulate in the grapes, and if not monitored carefully can result in alcohols nearing 17%. The tough thing here for growers is that in this heat while sugar levels rapidly rise, other parts of the berry, such as flavours, phenols and aroma molecules are slower to develop, while acids break down. This means that if a grower harvests earlier in the season when the grapes are at the ideal potential alcohol (210-220 grams/litre sugar or 13%ish), the grapes lack the flavour and aroma molecules that give a wine interest and complexity, as well as phenols and tannins which allow a wine to age. The term for this in winemaking is that these grapes are physiologically ripe and ready for harvest, but not phenologically ripe. This is a balancing act every vigneron must consider, and one of the reasons we do not see wines from really hot climates, even though the grape vine grows well there. The best sites in Algarve are just back from the coast on the top of hills, which drops the overnight (diurnal) temperature which chills the grapes and gives the vines more of a chance to develop more physiologically ripe grapes, as well as retains all-important acidity in the vines, which breaks down in long periods of hot weather. The main challenge in using these site however is that these are also the best sites for resorts! High land prices often mean vines come second.
Algarve grows a diverse mix of grape varieties, including Portuguese natives Castelão and Touriga Nacional, as well as some Iberian Peninsula natives such as Garnacha and Alicante Bouschet. The new kids on the block however are international varieties like Syrah and Viognier, of which more and more are being planted every year. This is due in part to the popularity of the region as a tourist hotspot. Many visitors are happy to drink the local drop (which is usually the cheapest!), though many foreigners would have very little idea of what colour Castelão or Alicante Bouschet are, let alone what they might taste like. International varieties such as the aforementioned Syrah and Viognier, as well as Carignan and warmer-climate clones of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are more familiar to global consumers and are doing well in local restaurants and bars. Who knows, good old Australian Shiraz would probably do quite well there!
The region gained acclaim in the UK when world-famous singer and UK icon Sir Cliff Richard bought a winery in Algarve. He has had a holiday house in the region for years, and decided to invest here in 2012, and is now part-owner of the Adega do Cantor winery. The winery makes a dry rosé, robust, rich dry red and is now trying out an oaked white. Apparently Sir Cliff doesn’t do much in the winery, but does step in to help with the marketing and sometimes to lend a hand in the vineyards. Sheesh- the lengths some will go to for a tax write off! This does show however that some serious producers are garnering interest and external investment, and then making some great wines from this region- in fact the Adega do Cantor winery was actually the first in the whole region to make a rosé back in 2003. Their introduction of stainless steel, climate-controlled fermentation tanks was a real shot in the arm to the region, making local producers look closer at the wine styles they produce, and possibly a view into the future of the region.
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles