There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Monday, 24 October 2011

Drinking the Algarve

Even a cursory glance at Eating the Algarve will show that a glass of wine is the essential accompaniment to any Portuguese meal. Fish being our usual choice in most restaurants, we have inevitably absorbed a considerable quantity of ‘house white’ over the years. You cannot travel far in the Algarve without stumbling over a vineyard, but we have yet to encounter a restaurant with an Algarve house wine.


There goes another bottle of house white

Although the region has four Denominaçãos de Origem, nobody, not even the locals, has a kind word to say about Algarve wines.  We frequently drive past the sizable cooperative that makes most of the wine of the Lagoa DOC, much wine classified as Vinho Regional do Algarve and plenty else besides. I have drunk some pretty poor wines from this winery, several others which have been reasonable, but none that came close to being exciting.

Not that this worries the Algarveans; they drank local wine when they were too poor to drink anything else, but today they quite happily enjoy vintages from any and everywhere else in Portugal.

The country as a whole is awash with wine, with something to suit everybody’s taste and pocket, so does it matter that Algarve wines are so moderate? Think global, drink local, as Friends of the Earth do not quite say, though my friend Francis often does. For those of us who like to drink local there is light on the horizon.

I am old enough to remember Cliff Richard as a lip-curling teenage rebel somewhat unconvincingly marketed as the British Elvis Presley. The same girls who screamed at him in 1960 have recently been queuing overnight for tickets for his new tour. The ‘girls’ may now be grandmothers, the teenage rebel has become Sir Cliff and an official national treasure, but little else seems to have changed. If such longevity seemed unlikely fifty years ago, it was a less remote possibility than the same Cliff playing a major part in the revitalizing of Algarve winemaking, though that, too, came to pass. (I say re-vitalizing, but no one remembers when it was ever vitalized.)



Sir Cliff, the granny's heartthrob, hawks his wares on the streets of Lagos

Sir Cliff planted a vineyard on his estate near the village of Guia in 1997. He built the Adega do Cantor, a state of the art winery,  next door and suddenly premium wine was being made in the Algarve. When I tried a bottle of his Vida Nova in 2006, it was the best and most expensive Algarve wine I had ever drunk - though the bar was not set very high in either case.


Most supermarkets now have a ‘local wine’ corner. I do not know if Adega do Cantor was actually the first boutique winery, but it was certainly among the earliest. Not all the wines in the ‘local corner’ are good, but I can recommend the wines of Herdade de Pimenteis near Portimão, Borges da Silva and Monte da Casteleja both in Lagos*. With an oenology degree from Montpellier University and a masters from Wagga Wagga in Australia, Guillaume Leroux (French father, hence the name) at Monte da Casteleja epitomises the new wave Algarve wine farmer. The peasant winemaker – indeed the Portuguese peasant – died out last century.
Monte de Casteleja's Maria
It is a touch ironic that in a region famed for its fish, the red wines are by far the more reliable. As in other sun drenched seaside areas – Provence and Corsica come to mind - the answer may be rosé, and rosés are beginning to appear in the ‘local corners’ in increasing numbers. Not all are enjoyable, Algarve sunshine makes it difficult to retain sufficient acidity, but the best - like those from the Quinta dos Vales in Estombar and João Clara in Alcantarilha - suggest this might be the way forward. Alcantarilha is an unremarkable collection of buildings around a crossroads on the main N125, but it is impossible to drive through the village (or write about it, I have just discovered) without saying the name out loud – several times. ALCANTARILHA, ALCANTARILHA. Our daughter Siân could so easily have been called Alcantarilha, or maybe chipolata.


Algarve Rosé


Beer

Properly chilled, Portuguese beer can be refreshing on a hot day. Its main qualities are that it is wet and fizzy. There are not, to my knowledge, any breweries in the Algarve. Sagres, one of the bestselling brands, may carry the name of an Algarve town, but is brewed near Lisbon.

Sagres Beer

Aquardente

Medronho is the traditional Algarve firewater, made from the fruit of the Strawberry tree. It should be tried once, as should the various tooth achingly sweet almond liqueurs. Those, like me, who do not find Medronho’s strange vegetal flavour attractive, can resort to readily available alternatives from elsewhere in Portugal.

Local brandy is very drinkable. As in Spain it is coloured with caramel, but I find the caramel flavour less pronounced in Portuguese brandies. Macieira is one of the better brands; my mother was a devotee for many years. The story that shares in the company dropped sharply when my parents sold their home in Portugal is probably apocryphal.

Old style Bagaceira

Bagaceira, like French marc or Italian grappa, is distilled from the skins and pips left over after wine making. There was a time when it was sold for very little in litre bottles with six stars round the neck - the same bottles the French used for vin ordinaire - and sealed with foil over a plastic cap. It was considered an old man’s drink and as sales slumped the producers attempted, with only partial success, to give it a more up-market image. Bagaceira, like other drinks of its kind, has a distinct flavour of the cowshed. Those who like that sort of thing will find this the sort of thing that they like. It is my regular Algarve nightcap, which is not inappropriate as I am, inexorably, becoming an old man. I like the Aldeia Velha (Old Village) brand, even though it is made by the giant Pernod-Ricard company. It feels right at 40% alcohol; some are stronger, but they tend to give me a headache ('And whose fault is that?' as Lynne might say).


Bagaceira - newer image

And finally
Long standing links with Brazil define the Portuguese taste in coffee, which suits me fine. Morning café con leite with a cake is an indulgent pleasure. Lunch or dinner out is not complete without one of the small, aggressive espressos known as a Bica. ‘Bica’ is Portuguese for ‘nipple’, and, no, I do not understand the connection, either.


Café con leite, Loulé

I might add that not all drinks are alcoholic or contain stimulants. The tap water is perfectly safe to drink if you have a thirst.

* Pronounced Lah-goosh and definitely not the capital of Nigeria.

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