Introducing Allan Tay-Joe
And how Portuguese wines are off the charts
A little unexpectedly, our Big Portuguese Wine Adventure began in earnest in northern California with a college course, a Christmas present and some terrible cartography.
Over the years my wife Ana and I have wine-tasted our way through Cape Town and California’s central coast, and lacking in fancy language we liked what we liked even if we couldn’t explain why we liked it.
A good wine was a good value wine; over-oaked and yellow smack-in-the-face new world whites were getting old; and I was the weird one who liked Chenin Blanc (Ana loves it too now, but that’s perhaps my fault).
Our first pootle through the Portuguese countryside with the occasional winery pit stop introduced us to hit-or-miss tastings and a mind-boggling blend of unpronounceable grape varieties.
Used to either inexpensive and always-available and accessible South African speed-tastings or elitist high-priced Californian “join our wine club or pay $20 a glass” marketing, Portugal was different.
Criss-crossing rural Alentejo province in search of a ruin and a bit of land to buy, we’d drop in on wineries and either be told apologetically that booking was essential, or at one cork-covered architectural gem, taken on a two hour tour and tasting for a handful of euros.
But it was while on a wonderfully generous year-long journalism fellowship at Stanford University near the Sonoma and Napa valleys that we finally got it: wine is all about the story.
You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever relaxed in the sunshine with a stunning view and tasted the best wine ever, only to get it home and feel at worst cheated or at best transported back to the moment.
Wine can be tasted, but it is also experienced in a place and time, and our brains love suggestions – especially with are lesser-trained senses of smell and taste.
If the wine expert tells you it tastes of vanilla and black cherry, it tastes of vanilla and black cherry; if they tell you that playing Bach to grape vines and piping Handel into the cellar improves the taste, you might scoff...but will probably try it anyway just in case.
It’s why wine labels these days try to paint a picture or tell a story, such as: rural bliss, years of tradition, and grapes so lovingly nurtured it’s hard to understand how anyone could possibly crush them.
At Stanford’s Graduate School of Business they call it “authenticity.”
I was signing up for classes like a booze hound in a bottle store: Portuguese (Brazilian), sustainable agriculture (Ana), d.school design, virtual reality, the ethics of truth in a post-truth world...when we discovered “Dynamics of the Global Wine Industry” and thought “ooo”.
It was a fascinating meander through the marketing, strategies and branding of the booze business with the most amazing guest speakers and at least one tasting per class.
Our mid-term project was to “articulate why a particular emerging wine region will rise to prominence in the next five to ten years.”
Cheekily, we asked if we could focus on the Alentejo region of Portugal, as although you can’t get more old-world wine than Portugal, the province is doing some different things and it’s not a place outsiders know much about.
In his recently updated “Wines of Portugal” book, the British author Richard Mayson refers to Alentejo as “Portugal’s New World,” and many of the winemakers we are meeting see a bright future in the Alentejo...so perhaps we’re on to something?
Seeing as we were studying for fun with no grades at stake, the fabulous course leader Alyssa Rapp gave us the nod and we got to work studying our new home.
Let’s start here:
Alentejo, or Allan-Tay-Joe as you can call it, covers a third of Portugal.
The name comes from the Portuguese for beyond (Alem) the Tejo (or Tagus) River – which flows south west from Spain to the ocean at Lisbon
The province stretches south all the way down to the Algarve
The Portuguese are known for keeping their best wines to themselves and Alentejo produces more wine by volume and value for the domestic market than anywhere else in the country. Interesting huh?
We’re not buying anything else at the moment as we immerse ourselves in Alentejano wines (but are thankful to visitors who bring us weird and wonderful things from Dão, Douro, Vinho Verde, Barraida and beyond...the Tejo).
Our efforts towards a more advanced wine education began with a San Francisco-made quiz game called Wine Wars we’d been given for Christmas.
The assessment of Portugal as an old-world wine-producer was...off the charts.
It was, literally, off the chart – not even on the map at all – in fact it was so actively unimportant that the entire country had been cut out of the map of Iberia. Wow. Cancelled.
If they were alive today, the famous Portuguese explorers would be turning in their graves had they discovered Americans had left Portugal off the map.
We are setting out to put that right – Portugal’s wine making history goes back at least four thousand years to the Phoenicians and it has at least 250 of its own indigenous grape varieties.
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Yes, they are all mysterious beasts with Portuguese names and present a challenge for the browsing buyer trying to pick a local equivalent to their go-to style of wine and grape type of grape...but that’s what we’re here for.
Perhaps the most well-known Portuguese varietal is Touriga Nacional...especially since the Bordeaux wine region has now approved its planting as it plans ahead for climate change diversification.
But more on that next time...as I begin to drip-feed you an introduction to some of Portugal’s most interesting grapes while weaving some history, highlights and interesting tales from our adventure in Portuguese wine.
There’s just one word of warning: we are not experts, we are learning too...and would love you to learn with us first here and then with our upcoming podcast.
When we set out to find a place to live in Portugal we drew a line around the borders of Alentejo – the province where Ana’s dad’s family is from.
Portugal produces so much wine and has so many vineyards we decided for our Big Wine Adventure we had to start somewhere...and so are using that same boundary, and beginning by immersing ourselves in all things Alentejo.
I’m sorry but for now at least, but we’re avoiding Vinho Verde, diverting round the Dão, ditching the Douro, backing out of Bairrada and postponing Port...because we know they’re not going anywhere, and this will be a long and wonderful journey.
We like wine, but we love exploring.