Back in the 1980s, Estremoz had the look of a busted frontier town. In the fashion of most things Portuguese, it had a quirky twist: In this case, it was a frontier town built on a conical hill with an ancient church at the top, alongside a rundown palace that the state was running as a pousada. Its dusty walls were battered by the hot winds from Africa that whipped across the Iberian plain and drove summer temperatures to Saharan extremes. At more temperate moments, a visitor could spend the night with a view across the plain and bask in the country’s faded glory. The frumpy, commodious rooms had dusty tapestries on the walls, their colors bleached pale by centuries of sunlight; the vast stairways and walk-in fireplaces had been carved from marble and they showed more resistance to time.
It had been a decade since the Revolução dos Cravos, when a bloodless military coup took out what was left of Salazar’s Estado Novo, an authoritarian dictatorship that paralleled Franco’s in its longevity, if not in its barbarity. The pendulum swung to the left and the once-repressed Portuguese Workers’ Communist Party was particularly active in the Alentejo. It quickly booted out the remnants of the old regime, appropriating some of the larger tracts of farmland. The workers took over cork forests and vineyards, including the Herdade do Mouchão, a property south of Estremoz and west of Evora, where the Reynolds family had developed a legendary wine without ever doing much to commercialize it. The Reynolds eventually recovered the property, but found that the vines had been poorly tended and were in need of replanting.
Their not-quite-cousin, Julio Bastos, had been luckier. The ancient vines that were part of his Quinta do Carmo survived the estate’s confiscation in the 1970s. “There was a third-generation farmer who used to live in a cottage at the Dom Martinho vineyard,” Bastos recalls, explaining who might have been responsible for his old vines having survived the revolution intact. “He was a communist, and he told me the whole story of the vineyard. That’s how I know it was 120 years old when I took over in 1986.”
Julio Bastos had inherited the family estate, Quinta do Carmo, including the white palace King João V had purchased as a present for Dona Maria, then a lady of the court. It had been the family home of Isabel Andrade Bastos and John Reynolds, who never had children, and whose properties were eventually divided up between the Reynolds and Bastos families, two interconnected clans that built their wealth in the cork trade. The couple—or some Reynolds relative— may have brought alicante bouschet to Portugal, and they certainly planted a lot of it at their various properties, including Mouchão and at the Quinta do Carmo in Estremoz. Iain Reynolds Richardson, who now runs Mouchão, recalls his grandfather telling him that Isabel Bastos “was fascinated by the fact that they have black pulp. These black grapes were her grapes. She would come to visit them.”
Her plantings at Quinta do Carmo were still intact when Julio Bastos hired a young agronomist in 1986 with a plan to commercialize the wine for the first time. João Portugal Ramos bottled the 1985, and continued to make subsequent vintages using the 19th-century marble lagars in an equally stark-white building across the courtyard from the palace at Dona Maria. Those wines made his reputation, and if Portugal Ramos credited their success to anything at the time, it was the old-vine alicante bouschet. Neither he nor Bastos were focused on the soil in which the vines grew. “To be honest,” Portugal Ramos says, “at the time, I didn’t realize that it made such a big difference.”
The northern Alentejo was once the coast of a sea, back when the vast landmass of Pangaea had yet to break apart to form the continents of our current moment. Curiously, geologists have found that the geological underpinnings of Estremoz are nearly identical to what you find in Darby, Vermont, as if these particular folds in the earth’s crust had once been siblings, or cousins, or perhaps, just random doppelgangers at similar latitudes. According to Luis Lopes, a geologist at the University of Evora, those formations are peculiar sinclines and anticlines, foldings of the earth by volcanic forces. Those layers of calcium-carbonate rock appear today in swirling, colorful twists of marble bedrock, girded by schist on either side. In Estremoz, the anticline formed a strange conical uplift; the Portuguese used their hill as a lookout to watch for armies coming across the Iberian plain. The marble has made some Portuguese quarry owners rich, and it has launched the careers of some local wine makers as well.
“The Estremus parcel is not a marble-derived soil. It’s almost only marble. I think that if the place where the vineyard is located wasn’t so close to the castle of Estremoz, it would be a marble quarry. —João Portugal Ramos
The success of Portugal Ramos’s early vintages at Quinta do Carmo caught the attention of the Bordelais at a time when the team at Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) were looking to expand. Flush with their own financial boom, as Bordeaux prices escalated after the 1982 vintage, DBR invested in a partnership with Bastos in 1992 to develop the Quinta do Carmo brand, building a winery at one of the estate vineyards rather than using the lagars at Dona Maria. They brought their own perspective on alicante bouschet, however, which in France is considered a rustic variety. The DBR team determined that the climate in Estremoz was suited to more noble grapes of the south, like grenache, and also chose to plant their own favored variety, cabernet sauvignon.
Trading centenarian alicante bouschet vines for young grenache and cabernet proved a misstep, and the partnership faltered. Bastos speaks a little wistfully about those ancient alicante bouschet vines. “I could have saved them,” he says. “I could have insisted. But I thought [the DBR team] might be right—I was quite young at the time. Then I saw that the wine was completely different than I was used to, than what had been made here.” By the turn of the century, Bastos was ready to get out, and Lafite took on a different Portuguese partner, the Bacalhôa group.
“We were invited to share technical opinions when we were partners with Lafite,” says Bacalhôa’s group winemaker, Vasco Penha Garcia, explaining that Lafite had a majority interest in the project and control of the winemaking. That was until 2007, when Lafite was ready to get out and sold their interest in the Quinta do Carmo brand, the winery and two vineyards—Herdade dos Carvalhas and Dom Martinho—to Bacalhôa.
Penha Garcia showed me a label from 1896, of a wine made by João Reynolds from Seixo, a parcel with soils of marble origin in the Herdade dos Carvalhas. Several parcels in Carvalhas are planted in soils derived from marble, while others transition from marble to schist. The Don Martinho estate also has marble-derived soils. “It has, actually, an old marble quarry on site,” Penha Garcia says.
Hugo Carvalho came on board as Quinta do Carmo’s chief winemaker in 2009. He says, “Where you have marble, you have water.” At their vineyards with marble-derived soils, the below ground temperatures may be cooler, but above ground, the sites are warmer than where they have vines planted in schist. So their top wines tend to be a blend from the two soil types. “We don’t need to irrigate the marble soils,” he says, repeating a refrain of any number of growers here with the good fortune of tending vines on these calcareous soils, whether their ground is flecked with small pieces of marble or large chunks of broken rock.
Penha Garcia put me in touch with Manuel Madeira, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Lisbon, who compares the “mostly reddish” soils that have developed on top of the Estremoz anticline to “terra rossa soils that occur in other parts of the Mediterranean basin.” He describes how these soils find their way into fractures in the marble bedrock, caused by tectonic activity as well as karstification—the slow dissolution of calcium carbonate rock into fissures and caves through its chemical interactions with water (think Carso, home of the mineral-inflected vitovska, along the Adriatic coast near Duino and Trieste). Madeira points out these red soils over marble formations “tend to show strong and stable aggregation and good permeability,” the particles in the soil resisting erosion and continuing to bond. “They can retain significant amounts of available water for plants and simultaneously allow the drainage of excess water to deeper layers, soil pockets in the rock and rock fractures.” The depth of the topsoil and the fissures and pockets in the underlying marble can vary significantly, factors that could influence how vines perform on different parcels of marble-derived soils.
After Lafite almost eliminated alicante bouschet in their Quinta do Carmo wines, the team from Bacalhôa is adding it back. “When Lafite was making the wine, it was 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and five percent alicante bouschet,” Garcia recalls. “In 2007, we began to change the blend. The 2012 is now 40 percent aragonês, 30 percent alicante bouschet, 20 percent trincadeira and 10 percent cabernet sauvignon. We would like to take it further with alicante; the limit of this is rusticity.” Quinta do Carmo is a blend of fruit from marble and schist soils, as is the Reserva. But they also make Dom Martinho, which is all from the marblederived soils near the quarry in Estremoz. It’s a firm, crisp blend of aragonês (the local name for tempranillo), trincadeira, alicante bouschet and three percent cabernet sauvignon.
Meanwhile, Julio Bastos kept some of his old vineyards and planted others, making wine under the Quinta Dona Maria label, so there are, in effect, two progeny of the original Quinta do Carmo project. One of his new plantings is on the property at Dona Maria. “I planted seven hectares here,” he says, “and the marble was around 80 centimeters from the surface, sometimes 40 centimeters, in large blocks. I had to use dynamite to break it up so we could plant. At other properties we farm, the soils are deep and the marble is very small pieces of rock. The roots go down three meters. You can get marble influence because of the small stones.” He finds young-vine alicante bouschet to be very vigorous, requiring a severe green harvest. “Maybe it’s because of the rich soils. It was easy to control the yields of the older vines of alicante bouschet. When the vines are young, they want to grow more bunches. When they get old, you control the yield naturally. Our oldest vineyard is sixty-two years old, fifteen hectares that were grafted from the prephylloxera vineyard,” the one John Reynolds and Isabel Bastos farmed. He’s used those old vines for a massale selection, to propagate alicante bouschet for his new plantings, and he uses their fruit for a wine named after his father, the Julio B. Bastos Alicante Bouschet. João Portugal Ramos has also been planting alicante bouschet in calcareous soils. By 1997, his business as a consulting oenologist had been successful enough that he was able to found his own winery. Among the vineyard sites he purchased and planted, one is directly outside the fortified walls of Estremoz.
By 2000, the town had been polished and buffed, so the marble lintels above the doors and windows of the houses gleam white in the sun—virtually the entire town has been revealed to be dressed in white marble. When Portugal Ramos began to plant his vineyard on the Estremoz hill, it was, in a sense, more an advertising billboard than anything else. As his son and fellow winemaker, José Maria, explained, “He planted alternating rows of alicante bouschet and trincadeira, so in the fall, it would be red, green, red, green.”
Of all the vineyards Portugal Ramos has worked, he believes one sector of his vineyard below the city wall is the closest he has found to a pure marble soil. “It’s not a marble-derived soil,” he says. “It’s almost only marble. I think that if the place where the vineyard is located wasn’t so close to the castle of Estremoz, it would be a marble quarry.” Each vintage, he and his son have been narrowing the confines of one particular parcel, now focused on five acres out of the 63 they farm on the hillside. “We want this parcel to give the marble character to the wine as much as possible,” he says.
Those five acres consistently made a fresh, rich wine, which has since become his winery’s top selection, Estremus. It gets its coolness, its relief from the scorching Alentejo summers, from the calcium-carbonate rock in the soil, bits of broken marble from the surface on down that capture rainwater and hold it through the season.
He and José Maria poured the 2011 Estremus side by side with what had, in the past, been his top wine, the 2011 Marques de Borba Reserva. They had been out hunting earlier in the day with their cocker spaniels, at a place near the coast. The dogs had fetched 100 snipes and jack snipes and had every right to be exhausted, but one prized spaniel was showing off his prowess, fetching a wine bottle at the end of the long hall in the house. Meanwhile, the birds were roasting in the oven. The house is on a small rise, and the dining room looks out toward Estremoz, framing the Estremus vineyard at the base of town and the lights rising up to the church and pousada on top.
João Portugal Ramos describes his 2011 Marques de Borba Reserva as having “more red fruit.” It tastes earthy, black in its tannins, tough but still fresh for Alentejo. He describes the 2011 Estremus as “more sous bois, elegant.” And, in fact, it is markedly different. The scent is truffley, with the kind of cool earth tones more often expressed in foggy places like Italy’s Piedmont region. The flavors are equally cool black cherry. But the biggest difference may be in the tannins, which feel like fine silk.
This article first appeared in W&S April 2017.