After Cortes de Cima, I did something I have never really done before: I drove aimless through the countryside with no clear destination at all. I hadn’t booked a place to sleep for the night and the evening would be fast approaching but despite this (and surely because of it) I felt a huge sense of freedom without the slightest bit of rush. I drove and drove, through small towns and country roads. Old stone castles and white churches broke the vast landscape of green crops and vineyards. The sky was something spectacular; the sun danced beautifully with the dark gray clouds, soft rays peeking out from time to time only to be hidden once again by thick clouds. In Alentejo, time seems to stop and things just seem to flow. So, naturally, I went with it. I found a little pensão (guesthouse) in a small village very close to the Spanish border. Humble houses of white and red lined the winding streets that intersected numerous times and created a labyrinth of sorts. For such a small town, the streets seemed to outnumber the inhabitants. Suspicious eyes peered out of windows, from behind curtains and from the doorstep of the local bar. I smiled and said my boa tarde’s to the men and women I came across but few returned my gesture. Perhaps they thought me rather peculiar. Perhaps I did look rather peculiar. There I was with my cowboy boots stomping through tiny-town Portugal, smiling and marvelling at everything and everyone, going down the same narrow streets over and over again. But I was happy and it was exciting being there. The evening came and I walked to the highest point of the town; upon a small hill was a charming little church where I sat on the steps and watched the sun go down. Magic.
The next day I woke up early as I had quite a bit of driving to do. Iain Reynolds Richardson from Herdade de Mouchão had accepted my visit on very short notice and he was able to squeeze me into his schedule in the morning before heading to Lisbon. Ever since I arrived in Portugal I had heard about Mouchão and I’ve had the opportunity to taste a few of their wines, which are, as the Portuguese say “espectacular!” I was very excited that he was willing to receive me and like he wrote in his email, “It’s a long way to come not to see Mouchão!” Absolutely. So I put on my boots, hoped into the car and headed west to the estate.
Iain was busy in the winery when I arrived at 9:30am but he welcomed me in like a friend and proceeded to show me as much as he could during my brief visit. Articulate and elegant in his speech, he is incredibly personable and easygoing. With an enormous amount of knowledge on viticulture and winemaking, as well as the history of the estate it made for an exciting visit.
Mouchão is a household name in Portugal and one with rich, fascinating history. Thomas Reynolds, a Port wine merchant from England, settled in Porto in the mid-1800s. Three generations later his grandson, John Reynolds, set up shop in Alentejo working in the cork business. He bought quite a bit of land in Alentejo, one of which was the 900 hectares of Herdade de Mouchão. Along with cork farming, the family diversified their skills and winemaking began in the early 1900s. As a testament to the long winemaking history, you can see the years 1901 and 1904 written on the entrances of different wings of the winery. Wine was made, perfected and the Mouchão brand hit the market in the 1950s. Unfortunately, the Revolution of April 25, 1974 brought with it new measures. The estate was expropriated, the family was evicted and it wasn’t until 1986 that the property was returned back to the Reynolds-Richardson family. After a period of rebuilding, planting of new vines as much of the older ones had been damaged or destroyed during the expropriation, Mouchão was back. Today, the estate produces wines, aguardente (brandy), olive oil and even honey.
We started at the famous Vinha dos Carapetos, the low-lying vineyard where the 3 blocks of old Alicante Bouschet vines have thrived for over one hundred years. This French grape variety was brought over by the Reynolds in the late 1800s and similar to the Jorgensen’s (Cortes de Cima) and Syrah, the Reynolds have learned the secret of working the Alicante Bouschet. Quite overlooked and perhaps even a little undervalued in many a winegrowing country, it’s said that the French variety has found its home in Alentejo. Thriving in the clay soil of the region, benefitting from the high summer temperatures (reaching between 35C to 40C during the day) and withstanding the rain and (sometimes) frost of Alentejo winters, it is the star of Mouchão wines. In total, however, there are 36 hectares of vines of which there is Trincadeira, Aragonês, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Syrah (reds) and Antão Vaz, Arinto, and Perrum (whites). Iain has plans to plant another 20 more but for now, they have made of few changes. One being top-grafting Prumm vines with Verdelho (from Madeira), which was done a few weeks and will start producing a nice “meaty white” in a couple years’ time.
We made our way back to the winery, but it felt more like we went back in time. The whitewashed winery with its tall ceiling and red wooden doors has a certain charm and mystery. I could just imagine the various generations of Reynolds’ treading the grapes in the stone lagares or tasting new vintages from the large barrels. With the exception of a few stainless steel tanks (used for whites) and some new French barrels, the rest of the ‘machinery’ dates back to the early to mid-1900s. Original presses are still functioning, large Portuguese and French barriques from the 30s and 40s are still used for storing and ageing, the pot still and column stills from 1929 are still going strong, albeit with a few hiccups here and there. “We are stuck in a time capsule”, Iain explained, but with that said, he is still looking to change things up and invest in modern and sustainable technology such as plans for a geothermal cellar.
As for the winemaking, it’s as simple as it gets: the hand-picked red grapes (with stems) go through the back window of the winery and directly into stone lagares. They are manually crushed and fermentation takes place, lasting between 5-8 days. During that time the must is stomped twice per day to encourage fermentation and colour extraction. Once fermentation is finished, the juice is pressed and racked off into the large barrels or barriques. It then goes through maleolatic fermentation and then various months or years spent ageing (depending on the brand). The chief winemaker is Paulo Laureano, who has a lot of wine cred in the Portuguese wine world. The wine is bottled and packaged on the estate. The production itself is small (for Alentejo), with 35,000L produced for Mouchão line, 65,000L for Dom Rafael and 25,000L for Ponte das Canas. There is also the sale of wine in the traditional wicker wine bottles for locals, an Alentejan tradition which has decreased over the years, but something that Iain would like to encourage more of.
The wine world loves Mouchão. A quick google search will bring up numerous stellar reviews of their wines. And the famous Herdade do Mouchão Tonel nº 3-4, which is produced only during the best vintage years, makes wine enthusiasts (at least the ones I’ve met) a little crazy. I have yet to taste this delicious wine but it’s definitely on my list.
At around 10:30am my visit was over. It was, as they say, short but sweet. I was invited to come back again, which I definitely will do. The land breathes a certain history and mystery that has been hard for me to capture and translate into words. The Mouchão estate is vast and beautiful .The combination of the warm sun on my face, the smell of the wet leaves and damp soil, the subtle hints of Eucalyptus and Pine that floated in the air from a soft Atlantic wind left me marvelled and inspired. The colors of green from the leaves of the vines contrasted beautifully with the intense red of the earth. I snapped a few pictures and once again, hit the road.
No tasting notes this time, but I leave you now with a few images to brighten your day.