Alenquer Terroir

As we look to the northwest from the hill, as the sun sets over the ocean 30 kilometers away, the golden leaves twinkle on the vines at Quinta de Chocapalha. They remind me of aspen leaves just before they drop, points of light shimmering across the fields.

To the north lies the Serra de Montejunto, an isolated massif rising roughly 534 meters above sea level, and most of those meters above the rolling terrain to its south. We’re on the western edge of the department of Alenquer, northeast of Lisbon, which spans 304 square kilometers of loosely populated land. The focal point, the city of Alenquer, hosts about 10,000 people, of the less than 45,000 in the region overall. This is countryside, mostly, with a few industrial operations—including one of the largest producers of quail in Portugal (Interaves, in Abrigada).

We’ll enjoy those quail later on, but for now, we listen to the quiet descending over the vinhas, and ready ourselves for two days of exploring Alenquer through its wines, food, and people.

Autumn feels like a good time to visit. The DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) fills the same outline as the geographical region, and experiences a continental temperate climate moderated by the influences of the Tejo river and sheltered from the winds off of the Atlantic Ocean. So, in late November, the days may see rain or be sunny and warm—but the nights grow cool quickly. The leaves have all turned, and many still hang on the vines, producing a rainbow effect because of the interplanting of varieties within a given plot, in adjacent rows.

Alenquer DOC lists several castas amongst its recognized wines, both red and white. Among the reds, you’ll find Portuguese varieties Castelão, Aragonez (Tinta Roriz), Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Miúda, and Trincadeira; among the whites, Arinto, Fernão Pires, Seara-Nova, and Vital. Many producers have planted international varieties like Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Chardonnay.

Of course, you’ll also find woven throughout those fields a range of native grapes, many undefined, or included within the field blends. The potential for discovery is part of what makes wine in Portugal so intriguing, and Alenquer shares this magic. The DOC lies within the heart of several other distinct DOCs in the Lisboa VR: Arruda, and Bucelas to the south, Óbidos to the north, and Torres Vedras to the west.

The soils underneath Alenquer, like its neighbors, run from clay to limestone, along gentle slopes such that, depending on the quinta—and indeed, the vineyard plots themselves—you could find any number of characteristics you might seek. Like Quinta do Monte d’Oiro, which has found success in the Rhône-like underpinnings of its terroir within Alenquer. Overall, the whites retain the freshness allowed by the slow ripening and cooler nights through the summer than other areas in Portugal—yet the reds enjoy enough warmth to express elegant fruit and a trace of black pepper or other spice notes.

We taste the bare essence of this in a table wine from Sociedade Agrícola Faustinho, in the hamlet of Aldeia Gavinha, where we stop for lunch on the second day. The rustic red we share clearly features Castelão in the blend, with jammy fruit and canela on a rather thin frame. It’s a popular blend by the box, and we stop into the adega to see the full tanks waiting to disgorge this season’s bounty to distribute throughout Portugal. It’s a low-alcohol, by-the-garrafa drink to pair with a hearty lunch of grilled meats and batatas fritas. It harkens back to the days when the local cooperativas drove most of wine production.

The land that our lunchtime companions will return to is interwoven with rivers that flow from the serras to the Tejo river. Like the Ribeira d’Alenquer that winds through the DOC, and through the center of the town of Alenquer. We hike up the hill upon which sits the “new” building of the Municipal Câmara de Alenquer (designed and constructed in the late 19th century). From here we wander through the Jewish quarter (Portugal being a safe haven for many Jews during the Spanish Inquisition and other periods), and down to the remaining ramparts of the castle. If you would like to read more about the town, you might look at my new friend Chema’s story (en Español); he was along with us on our visit.

Looking out over the river, you can instantly see the defensive advantage of the location. Across to the southwest, on another hill, sits the main town cathedral, the Igreja de São Francisco. Along the river lie restaurants and shops that we’ll explore further—along with the newly renovated Museu do Vinho, in a building from 1811, in the Areal bairro (neighborhood).

The harvest has ended, and the festive Natal season starts to show around the town. That hill we climbed up features a larger-than-life nativity scene that was lighted during a massive festa on the night of December 1 this year. As the leaves drop and the year winds to an end, the vinhateiros will prune back the vines and let them get their winter’s rest. And we’ll all celebrate the coming of the new year.

As we walk around the various forests and quintas of Alenquer, we see the castanhas fallen to the ground in their hairy pods—these chestnuts thrive all over Portugal, and form the basis of many autumn dishes. Two years ago, we spent the holidays north of here, in the village of Ameixoeira, tucked into the loping foothills leading up to the Serra de Estrella. We netted the same bounty on our walks there, stumbling upon drifts of the chestnut pods in fine shape, the dogs sniffing them out and wondering if they were suitable food.

That Christmas Day, we gathered them into our pockets and took them home to savor for later. This year, we collected a few on a trip up in Minho—but bought the bulk of those we’ll roast from the mercado down the road—and we’ll recreate a dish Stephen made for the holidays. Our lovely meals in Alenquer featured their local quail during our visit (at Casta 85 and Páteo Velho), so it feels right to share our own “quail with chestnuts” entrée, in celebration of those delicious birds and nuts.

Quail With Chestnusts In Red Wine Sauce

Codorniz com castanhas no molho do vinho tinto

About 1/2 kg or 1 pound of chestnuts, roasted then peeled

1/2 cup smoked pancetta or bacon, finely chopped

Shallot or spring onion, sliced/diced finely

2 plus 2 tablespoons butter, plus additional knobs to finish

8 whole quail, deboned, breast off and legs/thigh whole (save the bones left over from this to roast and make stock for sauce)

1/2 carrot, chopped

1/2 head red cabbage, finely shredded

1/2 bottle red wine

3 cloves crushed garlic

1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped, divided in half

Salt and black pepper, fresh ground

  1. Roast and peel chestnuts (in a 180C oven for 15 minutes). Once they have cooled, dice them finely. Keep the oven warm for roasting the quail bones, then for finishing the quail later.
  2. Prepare the quail, and place the bones in a roasting pan. Roast at 180C for 15 minutes, then simmer for 30 minutes just covered with water, with carrot and half of the diced yellow onion, to create a stock.
  3. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a medium sautée pan until foamy. Add pancetta and cook for 2 minutes, then add shallot/onion, and chestnuts, plus 1 tablespoon of the stock made from quail bones above. Toss to bind together, then take off heat to hold, but keep warm.
  4. Meanwhile, steam the red cabbage in water until tender, 10 minutes. Toss with 2 tablespoons butter and season with salt and black pepper.
  5. Pan fry the quail, skin side down, to brown it and render the fat. Place in the oven at 180C for 5 minutes, until done.
  6. As the quail cooks, create the red wine sauce: Reduce the wine to 1 1/2 cups, simmered with the remainder of the yellow onion and the cloves of garlic. Strain out the aromatics, and add a tablespoon of butter to finish.
  7. To assemble the dish, mold the red cabbage to create a base for the quail. Arrange two breasts and legs upon the cabbage. Spoon the chestnuts on top, and drizzle with the red wine sauce.