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The Rise of The Algarve

Published:  12 July, 2017

The Algarve is best known for its sunshine, stunning beaches and grilled fish, but now the region’s wines are enjoying a renaissance, a trend highlighted by their growing international recognition.

The number of wine producers in the Algarve has more than doubled over the past decade to 34 and now, according to the Algarve Viticulture Commission (CVA), more than 100 hectares of vines are being planted each year in the region.

The CVA says steady investment in the Algarve is bearing its fruit with more than 50 Algarve wines winning awards annually in national and international competitions.

This year alone, Algarve wine ‘Portas da Luz’ from producer Casa Santos Lima won best Portuguese Wine in Vin Expo’s Citadelles du Vin 2017 and ‘Cabrita Native Grapes – Negra Mole – 2015’ won a gold medal in Brussels competition.

Algarve wine producer Cabrita, which uses wild yeasts and low sulphur levels, said the award for Negra Mole wine was recognition of the Algarve's indigenous grape variety which is often confused with the Tinta Negra Mole variety grown in Madeira.

According to the CVA, Negra Mole is only produced in the Algarve with genetic testing showing that it is distinct from Tinta Negra Mole in Madeira.

“Negra Mole is the second oldest caste in Portugal, determined by the "Genetic Variability Coefficient" which is 38, on a scale of 0 to 40,” said CVA director, Carlos Gracias.

Negra Mole maybe a tricky grape to make wine from and its mainly used in blends, but even so, its recognition is helping strengthen the identity of Algarve wines with producers increasing using traditional Algarve and Portuguese grape varieties as well as blends with international grape varieties.

“More than ten years ago, Algarve wines had no identity – at the time co-op’s were dominating the market and there was no tradition of quality – now there is only one co-op left,” said Guillaume Leroux, producer of Monte de Casteleja, a leading producer in the Algarve.

“With their higher prices - due to higher land and labour costs than other Portuguese regions – restaurants initially said they could not sell Algarve wines, because they lacked recognition, but now people want to try local wines,” Leroux said.

Leroux, who uses traditional Portuguese grape varieties including Bastardo and Alfocheiro, became the Algarve’s first certified organic wine producer in 2011.

Like many producers in the Algarve, Leroux is increasing plantings and he is now embarking on the production of sweet wines.

The overall rise in quality of Algarve wines is helping the region to shed its former reputation of producing big, tannic red wines high in alcohol content. Whilst red wines continue to dominate production, Algarve wine producers are now increasing production of white and rose wines with a growing focus on quality rather than quantity.

The vast majority of Algarve wines are consumed locally, but distributors are now in talks with some producers over exports to Britain.

UK distributor of Portuguese wines, Raymond Reynolds imports the wines from Convento do Paraiso in Silves, one of the newcomers to the Algarve.

The vineyard is owned by the Pereira Coutinho family but managed by the Soares family of Alentejo who also owns Garrafeira Soares, the Algarve chain of wines shops.

“The Algarve regional tag is recognised now in the UK and sales are slow but encouraging: Tourism in the Algarve helps this, and local restaurants and wine shops have increased their range of Algarve wines, so visitors have become more aware of the regions offerings,” Raymond Reynolds said.

“The Algarve wine scene has certainly been energised in the last 10 years with many new growers rediscovering interesting terroirs,” Reynolds said.

“I’m convinced Cliff Richard started all this off with his Vida Nova wine. Also with the general improvements and surge in the rest of Portugal have spurred would be growers to commit and invest. The region itself is varied in terroirs and proximity to the sea, but as yet its early days to say definite styles are emerging,” he said.

Wine production in the Algarve – Al Gharb in Arabic, meaning ‘The West’, goes back to the 8th century when 500 years of Muslim rule led not only to the cultivation of vines, but also to the export trade.

The Algarve would later in the 19th century become a key supplier of red wines to the Douro for the production of port during the outbreak of the phylloxera disease.

Until recently, business investments have focused on real estate for the tourism industry, but now the CVA says over a 100 hectares of vines are being planted each year in the Algarve.

“From 16, the number of producers has grown over the past ten years to 34 producers – what has helped to this reality was some foreign and Portuguese-foreign economic investors who have settled in the region, including ten producers of various nationalities; German, French, Belgian, Dutch, Danish and Swiss,” said Carlos Gracias director of the CVA.

“Increasing investments have been made and there are applications for new vineyard plantations, on the order of 100 hectares per year,” he said.

Algarve wines are mainly produced in the centre and west of the region, but now, Lisbon producer, Casa Santos Lima, has become the first big producer to invest in the Tavira region in the East Algarve.

Casa Santos Lima now has its own winery in Tavira and is making 185,000 bottles of wine from a total of 70 hectares on long-term agreements with growers and from 25 hectares of its own vines and its adding 10 hectares of vines this year.

Explaining the company’s reasons for investment in the Algarve, a Casa Santos Lima source said: “For many years the Algarve region was almost exclusively sought out for its nice beaches, golf courses, countryside, hotels, lifestyle, etc. But now there are various examples of great potential plots of land that could be used for vines plantation but have been overlooked in favour of other businesses like real estate ventures.”

The Monchique chain of mountains separates Algarve and Alentejo protecting the Algarve from the hot, dry winds from the north, leaving the region under the moderating influence of the sea – the Mediterranean to the south, the Atlantic Ocean to the west.

“The Algarve is the region in Portugal which enjoys most hours of sunshine per year and particularly in Tavira where we have most of our vineyards. We believe this is a very positive factor for winemaking. We get really nice weather year round with very hot days in the summer followed by cooler nights, which contribute to a perfect ripening of the fruit,” the Casa Santos Lima source said. 

Photo: Guillaume Leroux, producer at  the Monte da Casteleja vineyard