I think most of us could confidently point to the Algarve on an unmarked map of Portugal but I’d wager that most Brits are blissfully unaware of Portugal’s largest region, the Alentejo. For, despite lying directly above the Algarve on the map, the Alentejo has little to interest the average holidaymaker because it’s predominantly an inland agricultural region with very little coastline.
Nicknamed the ‘bread basket of Portugal’ because of its pre-eminent role in feeding the nation, the Alentejo may not appeal greatly to the holidaying hedonist but it should, make no mistake, be on the wine radar of anyone with a thirst for wines that are both affordable and a bit different.
The eye catching, orange labelled, Ciconia Tinto made by the Heredade Sao Miguel winery in the Redondo sub region of Alentejo is the perfect introduction to the region’s wines because it’s a harmonious blend of the familiar and the new. Reassuring familiarity comes with the presence of red grape variety, Syrah (Shiraz), in the blend and the new is represented by indigenous Portuguese grape varieties, Touriga Nacioncal and Aragonez.
Ciconia Tinto (£ 8.75) combines approachability with the roasted richness that’s typical of Alentejan red wines and its broad appeal is clearly evidenced by its constant picking up of value for money gongs from the likes of the Wine Spectator magazine and other esteemed publications.
Incidentally, for the non-twitchers amongst you, Ciconia is is the latin genus for the stork. And Ciconia Ciconia is the white stork, which likes to breed in the Alentejo.
Also bedecked with storks, is the Ciconia Touriga Nacioncal (£ 10.50), the next level up in Heredade Sao Miguel’s Ciconia range. As always, I’ll do my best to describe the wine’s flavours and characteristics but first I’d like to talk a little about Touriga Nacioncal itself.
If any grape can justifiably lay claim to being Portugal’s national grape variety it’s Touriga Nacioncal and, bearing in mind there are over 400 indigenous grape varieties in Portugal, that’s a pretty impressive claim. Indeed, more and more wine experts are coming round to the view that Touriga Nacioncal deserves a place right up at the top of the world league of grapes, along with the likes of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo. Of course, such matters are always highly conjectural but what’s certain is that Touriga Nacioncal originated from the north of Portugal and is now successfully grown all over the country, not least in the Alentejo.
Anyway, the Ciconia Touriga Nacioncal has a complex aroma of red wood fruits, white flowers and truffles with underlying notes of chocolate and toast that result from it resting in French and American oak barrels for 4 months. The various aromas are replicated on the palate and are augmented with a really appealing spiciness that goes on and on. The wine is big, bold and burly and works really well with most meat dishes but especially pork.
If we were doing things by the wine purist’s book, the Ciconia Touriga Nacioncal should be paired with far grander pork fare but Portugal’s favourite snack, the Bifana (a marinated pork sandwich topped with caramelised onions and sweet mustard), originates from the Alentejo and, believe me, you won’t be disappointed if you cook one up and pair it with the Ciconia.
BIFANA for 4
400g pork loin, skin removed and cut into 3mm slices 4 cloves garlic, crushed 1/2 tsp flaked salt 2 tsp hot paprika 2 tbsp piri-piri sauce, or Tabasco, plus extra to serve 1/4 cup white vinegar 2 cups white wine 1 bay leaf 4 tbsp olive oil 2 brown onions, peeled, halved and thickly sliced 4 soft white rolls, to serve sweet or American mustard, to serve
- Mix together the garlic, salt, 1 tsp paprika, 1 tbsp piri-piri sauce, vinegar, 1 cup of wine and the bay leaf in a large press-seal bag or lidded plastic container. Add the pork, mix well and marinate overnight.
- Heat two teaspoons of the oil in a heavy frypan over medium heat. Remove the pork from the marinade, drain and fry in batches for a minute or so each side until lightly browned, then set aside. Add a little oil to the pan when cooking each batch. When all the pork is cooked, deglaze the pan with the remaining cup of wine and add the remaining one teaspoon of paprika and one tablespoon of piri-piri sauce.
- Bring to a boil and reduce to a coating consistency, then return all the pork to the pan for a further minute, stirring well to coat in the sauce.
- In a separate frypan, fry the onions in the remaining two tablespoons of oil until softened and caramelised.
- Serve the pork with the onions in soft white rolls with sweet mustard and extra piri-piri sauce.