If your impression of Portuguese wine only comes from the bottle of Mateus your parents used to buy, it might be time to head to the Algarve
Story by Ryan Murdock, Photos by Tomoko Goto
I knew this place was over the top when my wife made the Japanese sound for astonishment: a long drawn-out “Ehhhhh?” We’d just pulled up to the gate of the villa I had rented and we were looking down the palm-lined path that led to the house.
“Yeah, this is the place,” I said, pointing to the name painted in glazed tile, mounted on a pillar. “The owner left the gate open for us, and the keys are inside.”
Tomoko’s surprise slid smoothly into a state bordering on disbelief as we drove down the long bricked driveway, past a tall creamsicle-coloured house full of windows and sliding doors.
“Is that a swimming pool?”
“Yeah, it was put in last year,” I said. “And those orange groves are part of the grounds too. This used to be a working fruit plantation. But I don’t think it’s active anymore.”
I found it the year before while investigating long lets in the Algarve region of southern Portugal. I was thinking a lot about our life after Malta—our current expat base—and this region was a top contender. We even spent a week in the very same village, soaking up the sun and sea breeze and imagining what it might be like to live there.
I exchanged several emails with the villa’s owner while doing my follow-up research. And when I was searching for an isolated spot to go into semi-seclusion to finish my next book, I dropped her a line to see if her house was available. But even from the photos on the website, I never expected it to be so huge!
We explored the house as darkness fell. A well-furnished living room with towering cathedral ceiling led to an upper level reading area, and the master bedroom suite occupied the entire top floor. There were two guest bedrooms with shower, covered patios and walled yards, terraces off the upper floor, and even a carport for my rented Ford.
I tried to act as though this is exactly what I was expecting—and I guess it was, just on a much smaller scale. “I found a bottle of wine in the fridge,” I said, holding up a crisp Algarve white.
“You’ve lost your mind,” Tomoko said. “I was expecting an apartment or cottage. I never imagined anything like this.”
The lights in the pool switched on, casting swirling aqueous patterns across the front of the house. “Shall we swim?”
So yeah, I’m here in a quiet corner of the Algarve, over in the east near the Spanish border. We’re staying on the outskirts of Tavira, a lovely town on the Gilão River, with a Roman bridge and little Portuguese restaurants that serve grilled golden bream, mackerel and razor clams caught in the nearby lagoon.
I spend my mornings on the patio off the living room, working on my book while the breeze caresses my back—in fact, that’s where I’m typing these words to you now. And when I just can’t squeeze any more sense from my brain, we spend the afternoon on clean soft sand.
This area has never suffered from the mass tourism and overbuilding you’ll find further west, beyond the city of Faro. The coastline here is a chain of barrier islands, fragile dunes which were given protected status in 1987. Developers like to churn out their tasteless block buildings on seafront land, and so the lagoon between the islands and the sea holds no interest for them.
We drive over to the village of Fuseta for lunch. The café Galáctica is my favourite spot. This region’s specialty is grilled sardines, done over charcoal while you wait. The crisp skin is lightly salted, and the flesh oozes healthy oil that glistens on your lips as you flake each delicate bite from the bone. Lunch includes boiled potatoes, some salad, a bowl of the region’s bitter green olives and a jug of vinho verde—“green wine,” fresh, slightly fizzy, chilled and refreshing. They’ll even throw in coffee and dessert. All for €10.
From there, we drive back to a little village on the lagoon—just two minutes from our rented villa—where we park the car, purchase a basket of fresh figs from a vendor, and walk across the narrow causeway to the Ilha de Tavira.
Barril Beach is the most popular spot in the area, but even when it’s busy, there’s still so much space. We walk past the cluster of bathers who always stay close to where the walkway meets the sand. We turn east and follow the firm, damp wave line for 15 minutes, strolling briskly as warm tongues of water lap at our toes. The sand spreads out as far as we can see, and the people down there spread out too.
The farther we walk, the less swimsuits we see, until we reach a point where they’ve been discarded entirely. The few other bathers in this area are quiet. They wander up and down searching for shells, they stare pensively at the horizon, or they read books. And we join them there, dozing quietly on warm sand as the sun and wind caress our skin. And when I sink to a state of semi-consciousness, the next day’s words begin forming themselves in my mind.
If you’re craving exploration, the area has several sites which will interest you. A 15-minute drive away, just outside the town of Estói, is where you’ll find Milreu: the remains of a Roman manor house dating from the first to sixth centuries AD.
This villa rustica was a small farming centre and the remains include agricultural buildings, a temple, an oil press and a bath complex with underfloor heating and marine-themed mosaics.
Many of the mosaics are in quite good shape, and you can spend a few pleasant hours sitting beneath the almond trees there, imagining the life of a wealthy Roman landowner on an estate like this.
If you’re feeling especially ambitious you could even get in your car and drive to Cabo de São Vicente (Cape St. Vincent), Europe’s most southwestern point. You can reach it in about an hour and a half from Tavira. The Romans believed it marked the edge of the world—it was there that the sun sank hissing into the ocean at the end of each day. And if you sail past the horizon, you will fall off the edge of the Earth. That’s what the early navigators thought, too. But the bravest among them proved the theory wrong. They risked everything to sail across that turbulent sea, never imagining the New World which awaited them on the other side.
Evenings in the Algarve are the time for another sort of exploration. And to help us with that, I sought the assistance of local expert Marcelino Nascimento.
Marcelino first began working in a small Tavira wine shop when he was 15 years old. He quickly fell under the spell of the grape, studying everything he could find on the subject. That same shop is still there today, but it’s been taken over by Soares, the major Portuguese wine and spirit chain. And 45 years later, Marcelino is the manager.
We drove over to see him the morning after we arrived in town. “I want you to take me on a geographical journey through the wine regions of Portugal,” I said.
He laughed, and his eyes lit up with the challenge. “Follow me.”
We made our way down the well-stocked shelves and Marcelino chose vintages that he felt were the best representations of each area.
“The best white wines in Portugal focus on the terroir,” he told me. “Where the reds focus on the particular grape.”
“Which wines do people here most like to drink?” I asked.
“They like the Alentenja wines. It’s the region just above Algarve. The weather there is warm so it produces wines which are very easy to drink, stronger in fruit, rounder and sweeter, slightly higher in alcohol content.”
He selected a bottle. “I suggest you try this one.”
We moved on to the Douro, the most famous of the country’s wine areas, and the only one the average foreigner is likely to know.
“This region is cooler than those further south,” Marcelino said. “The wines have more minerality, they’re elegant, with great personality.”
He grabbed the bottles and held them up, and his words grew increasingly lyrical as he spoke of the journeys they had taken him on.
“These wines are at their best after eight or 10 years. But I suggest you take a couple you can drink right now. And you must try this,” he said, selecting a bottle of Quinta da Falorca. “Touriga nacional is the best red grape in Portugal. It’s similar to tempranillo in Spain, but it isn’t the same. This is from Dão. It’s very near Douro, but these wines can live even longer in the bottle. They’re dark as ink, with a lovely acidity that gives great elegance to the wines.”
My basket was so full at this point that I had to set it down. “And to round it all out?” I asked.
“This 10-year-old tawny port,” he said, turning quickly to the shelf behind him. “It’s wonderful. Simply wonderful.”
If your memories of Portuguese wines consist solely of round bottles of Mateus rosé that your parents purchased in the 1970s, then I strongly suggest you pay this region another visit. It is vastly underrated. And if possible you should drink them outside, surrounded by the hills and soils and sunshine whose very tears have been captured and bottled by these farmers just for you. If you do this, you will taste the essence of the land, and you will come to understand something of the Spirit of Place.
Oh, and you may be wondering what my wife thought of my fruit plantation in the end. As often happens in our home, I’ll let her have the last word.
We were sipping wine in the living room one night, reading quietly as the wind shuffled the palms. I heard a deep sigh which wasn’t the wind. And then she looked up and said, quite simply, “I want to live here.”
And it wouldn’t surprise me if you did too.