Up in 2007, Ribafreixo is a collaborative effort between South African Mário Pinheiro and Alentejo native Nuno Bicó. This ambitious endeavour saw them purchase 28 separate abandoned agricultural plots and weave them together into a 114 hectare patchwork tapestry. In 2012 they opened their state-of-the-art winery, putting huge investment into sustainable energy, gravity processing and an environmentally-conscious infrastructure. All of their wines are certified as vegan friendly; their vision for the future is greener, but no less ambitious. Make no mistake, they have set their stall out to make world-class wines and are meeting, unsurprisingly, with great success.
1. Gáudio Brut Nature Espumante
The Alentejo is not an area synonymous with traditional method wine production. Generally warmer climates and longer higher sugar levels in the wine make those regions usually unsuitable for sparkling wines where low alcohol, crispness, freshness and dryness are the characteristics sought after. Cooler climates, higher altitude and oceanic influences – these are elements at play in many of the best sparkling wines.
The long-sighted approach and meticulously planned operation at Ribafreixo leaves little to chance. Vidiguera’s distinct microclimate, the cooling influence of the Atlantic ocean, shelter from the neighbouring Serra do Mendro mountains and mineral-rich schist soils combine to make this area ideal for the production of dry sparkling wines and Brut Nature from 100% Antão Vaz. This one has a fresh minerality, a zesty and persistent mousse, a wonderful citrus fruit profile and no added sugar. It is lean, lively and lovely. €16.50
2. Connections Chenin Blanc
A tip of the hat and natural homage from co-owner Mário Pinhero to his South African homeland, the label ‘Connections’ speaks volumes about his sentimental attachment and appreciation for what is South Africa’s most widely-planted white grape varietal.
I suppose one of the great advantages of starting with a blank canvas of over 114ha with space to expand on, is that what were just once concepts and considerations can become reality. With its entirely stainless steel fermentation, this lees-rich acidity-driven Alentejo oddity is certainly worth a try. Lively aromatic profile, a zesty, mouth-watering feel, pink grapefruit and lime peel, makes for a superb wine to enjoy with food, shellfish and crustaceans in particular, but equally suitable to enjoy in the afternoon sun with friends. €12.50
3. Pato Frio Grand Escolha
Antão Vaz is where the Alentejo really starts to flex some expressive muscle for white wine production with opulent, rich, robust whites with incredibly expressive aromatic profiles, ranging from ripe tropical fruits to concentrated white and stone fruit. As weighty as they are exuberant, Pato Frio’s Grand Escolha is no different, perhaps just a little more refined. A mixture of new and old oak barrels are used to add complexity but not to over-power the grapes’ naturally expressive fruit profile. This is a great example of what considered wine making, expression of the terroir, and allowing the vineyard to speak for itself can achieve. It has a bone dry, bold and expressive nose but balanced. The palate and mouth feel are weighty from the obvious but well integrated use of lees and barrel. Extremely gastronomic, this one provides subtle layer after subtle layer of aromas and flavours. Huge potential for further bottle ageing but perfectly good to drink now. €12.50
4. Gáudio Clássico 2015
This is an Alentejo heavy hitter at a lightweight price point, a beautiful blend of Alicante Bouchet, and Touriga Nacional, and a small spattering of Aragonez (Tempranillo) and Tinto Miuda. Seven months in French oak barrels and a minimum of 12 months bottle/cellar ageing, for a wine that retails at under €10 and hits restaurant wine lists at somewhere in the mid-to-late €20s, it really drinks well above this price point. 2015 is an especially good vintage for wines from the Alentejo, and this is an entry level offering from a first-class vintage, but my word… wait till you get your nose in the glass and your lips locked to the rim. Smooth, elegant, but weighty and well rounded. Some soft tannin is present but almost unnoticed among the many fruit-driven facets to this wine – dark bramble fruit, liquorice and morello cherry. The balance of primary fruit and subtle spice speaks volumes of the care and attention taken in the vineyard and the winery alike. This is as close to a commercial wine as Ribafreixo produces, and I find it a far more attractive option that many much more established premium reds from the same area. €9.99
5. Gáudio Reserva 2016
We’re moving up through the gears now. The Gáudio Reserva – much like its Clássico counterpart – drinks well above its price point. Here we start to see the full potential of what Ribafreixo is trying to achieve. Harmony of varietal and soil type, expression of the terroir, complexity and well-thought-through winemaking.
Head winemaker and COO Nuno Bicó manages to surprise and impress me more with every wine I try, and each progressive step to the next level feels like leaps and bounds in quality. 80% Alicante Bouchet and 20% Touriga Nacional, fermented in large French oak vats and then barrel-aged in French oak for a further 12 months, it is then bottle-aged and cellared for a minimum of 36 months. There is so much time, so much care and attention from bud burst to bottling and the patient process of allowing to the wine to mature the way they want it. Exceptionally good, dark bramble fruit and beautifully integrated oak offer ageing potential long beyond its current release, meaty notes, depth and complexity. Fine supple tannin and a long lingering finish leave you profoundly pleased with every passing sip. €19.99
6. Moinho Branco Alicante Bouchet 2015
Where to begin and what a way to finish! There are moments – times in my wine life – when I am reminded why it is that I am so passionate about this subject, when I realise exactly why it excites and beguiles me so, and why I am enticed and enthralled by the vinified sirens’ call. This is one such wine… and what a wine it is.
This elegant, beautifully-balanced, fruit-driven Rubik’s cube painted in a thousand hues changes every minute in my glass. Floral notes of violet and rose petal are complemented by dark bramble fruit and black morello cherry, all undercut by vanilla and cocoa bean spice. On the palate, it’s all silky smooth and elegant – fresh acidity, soft and supple tannins structure and a finish that goes on for days. I can say it is that it is one of the two nicest wines I have had the pleasure of drinking since I moved here to Portugal. The year 2015 was a five-star vintage in the Alentejo, but this single varietal expression of certainly my favourite Portuguese red varietal is in a whole other league to almost anything else I’ve tried since I arrived. World class. €34
Words: Justin O’Hanlon