The British roots of Mouchão wine

By: César Brigante

The story of the Reynolds family, of a unique terroir, and of the grape variety that earned its wings there to give rise to Mouchão, one of the great Portuguese wines

We all know about the long-lasting and close relationship between Portugal and the UK when it comes to wine. Port and Madeira are the main and best-known results of this relationship. But the story of the British in Portugal connected to these undertakings contains lesser known episodes, but important nevertheless. In one such case, it all began roughly two centuries ago, when Thomas Reynolds, living in Oporto as a wine merchant, took an interest in cork. This change in career path led him southwards, where there was an abundance of the raw material that would go on to make up the bulk of his business.

Three generations down the line, at the dawning of the 20th century, his grandson, John Reynolds, purchased a property of 900 hectares close to the village of Casa Branca, in the district of Portalegre. At Herdade do Mouchão, where cork oak groves predominated but where there were olive groves too, John decided to plant vines. According to David Marques Ferreira, the estate’s current wine business manager, it was two professors from Bordeaux who, at John’s invitation, came to Portugal to advise him on which grape varieties would best suit the climate and soil of Mouchão, leading to the suggestion of the Alicante Bouschet variety. At the time, this variety was relatively new, as it had only been created in the mid 1800s when Frenchman Henri Bouschet crossed Grenache with Petit Bouschet. The teinturier grape variety, in which both the flesh and skin have dyeing qualities, give the wines a deep garnet hue.

David Marques Ferreira believes that the reason that led John Reynolds to experiment with this variety, unpopular in other places and particularly in France, its place of origin, probably had to do with the fact that to begin with the aim was to make port-style fortified wines, in which the dark colouring and structure were fundamental for storage. In fact, Alicante Bouschet found an exceptional terroir in the flood plains of Mouchão, which gave it truly amazing properties. It adapted so well that the grape variety soon spread around the region and is now considered a benchmark variety and figures in the composition of almost every great wine from the Alentejo. For this alone, the Reynolds and Mouchão deserve a prominent place in the history of wine in the Alentejo.

The start of the 20th century, in 1901, also saw the construction of the winery that stands to this day – a traditional building, boasting thick, whitewashed walls with high ceilings, which help assuage the relentless summer heat. The estate’s red wines are produced here in this winery, the only one of its kind to remain fully functional and, for this reason, a living showcase of traditional winemaking practices. This is where the grapes are brought, once handpicked and selected, before being crushed by foot in the nine stone presses, where they are left to ferment until they are decanted into barrels housed in the same space and age for between four and seven years.

Although at first glance it might look as if frozen in time, aided no doubt by the peaceful landscape and the typical calm of the people of the Alentejo, Herdade do Mouchão has gone through many changes in its century-or-so in existence, and even a revolution that endangered its ability to carry on. In the 1950s, planted areas were expanded, new winegrowing techniques were adopted and wine started being bottled, ­having until then been sold in bulk, as was usual in Portugal at the time. In the 1970s, following Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, the estate went through its most critical moment, when it was expropriated and transformed into a cooperative.

In 1985, it was returned to its legitimate owners, who had never left it and had watched on powerless as disaster struck. It was in a sorry state when it was taken over by Iain Richardson, a Scotsman married to a ­direct descendent of the founders, Elizabeth Reynolds, who invested in it to bring it back to normal operations. In 1996, the family ­invited Paulo Laureano, one of Portugal’s most respected winemakers (then at the start of his career) to work on the Mouchão wines to bring them into the modern era.

“What I found at Mouchão was a very strong brand, a unique terroir and a fabulous history, basically everything any oenologist would hope to find. Given all this, what we tried to do was simply to make the most out of its quality assets and nothing more, as we didn’t want to change the concept,” Paulo Laureano tells us, before trying to define Mouchão today, two decades down the line: “It’s still a peremptory wine, that you either like or you don’t. When young, it has a rusticity to it that you don’t find anymore and which ­requires time in the bottle to gain in appeal.”

Characteristics that go against the here-and-now mentality of today’s world, but which make Mouchão a wine like no other, cut out to face time in a relationship that reveals and applauds its complexity, which, again according to Paulo Laureano, “makes sense more than ever in a market in which difference tends to be valued”.
At the moment, the estate boasts 38 hectares, planted with vines distributed over a number of parcels, with varying locations within the property. In addition to the ­Alicante Bouschet grapes, planted in the ­legendary vineyard of Carapetos, located on an islet between the Almadafe River and the Jordão River (islet is ‘mouchão’ in Portuguese, hence the name of the estate), there is also Trincadeira, Aragonês, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Castelão and Syrah, as well as Antão Vaz, Arinto, Perrum and Fernão Pires, used for white wines.

Apart from grape marc spirit and two ­fortified wines, a liqueur wine and a vinho abafado (fortified grape juice), all Alicante Bouschet varietals, also produced at Mouchão, the estate’s relatively small port­folio features six wines, described here in ­ascending order in terms of position: Dom Rafael white, produced from Antão Vaz, Arinto, Perrum and Fernão Pires grape varieties and fermented in stainless steel vats at low temperatures, resulting in a young and fruity wine, with citrus and fruit-based notes; and Dom Rafael red, released for the first time in 1990, the name of which refers to one of the first Reynolds to run the estate and the youngest red wine from Mouchão. Featuring a blend of Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira and Aragonês grapes, and aged in oak casks for a minimum period of 12 months, followed by six months in the bottle, this is a young and vigorous wine with stand-out tannins, plenty of berries and jam.

Ponte das Canas is the latest member of the family, launched in 2008 with the 2005 harvest, and originates from a batch of selected Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Syrah grapes. After the grapes are trodden by foot, compulsory for all red wines from Mouchão, it is aged in French oak casks for a minimum period of 18 months, followed by at least one year in the bottle. This is a more vibrant wine, with tannins to the fore, and just the right amount of wood and fruit.

Mouchão is the estate’s most unique wine, based on Alicante Bouschet and on the terroir that has given it a new dimension, complemented by the native Trincadeira. After ­fermenting in stone presses, it ages for 36 months in Portuguese oak, granadillo and ­mahogany barrels, followed by at least 24 months in the bottle before reaching the ­market. This is a wine that, with each year that passes, takes on new dimensions: deeply coloured and boasting strong tannins, ripe fruit and black pepper, which, with the ­passage of time, soften and unfold, gaining the finesse that only age can provide.

Finally, the Herdade do Mouchão Tonel nº 3-4, the estate’s top wine, is a rarity resulting from ­selected grapes from the Carapetos Vineyard, which can only prove their exceptional quality after fermentation in the press. When proved, they are decanted into the mythical ‘Nº 3 and 4’ barrels, made of Portuguese oak, granadillo and mahogany, where after 36 months of ­ageing they are tested once again. Only if they pass with flying colours are they allowed to be bottled, to evolve, in a temperature-­controlled environment, for 24 to 36 months.

This wine is only produced in exceptional years, which makes it all the rarer. With relatively small production, Mou­chão is setting its sights increasingly on the international market, which is now happily discovering it, and confronted with the same dilemma that all fans of this wine face: should I open it now or keep it for later?

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