The resurrection of the Algarve’s native grape variety
Let’s turn back the clock 30 years or so and look at what the Algarve had to offer as far as local wine is concerned. It was dominated by the cooperative producers (the largest by far being Lagoa) and the vast majority of the wine produced was of a light-bodied and rather rough red style made from the local Negra Mole variety, usually sold in five-litre flagons.
What happened next could very easily have killed off Negra Mole, a grape that is now seen by many a regional treasure. There was a time around the 1990s when Algarve wine was all but forgotten; it was out of vogue as far as local consumers were concerned and as new wineries sprung up elsewhere around the country there seemed to be little desire for wines made here in the region.
Things started to change around the turn of the millennium and over the last 20 years or so we have seen the Algarve emerge as a wine region that is finally starting to be taken seriously. We now have over 40 independent producers, but most of them tore out any of the old Negra Mole vines that may have still been present on the farms they took over, replacing them with more commercially viable Portuguese and foreign grape varieties. But thankfully, a few producers decided to nurture and resurrect these vines and with the use of modern winemaking techniques they have had some impressive results.
In terms of style and structure, a modern, well-made Negra Mole can be, broadly speaking, compared to Pinot Noir. Negra Mole produces wines that appeal both to Pinot lovers and to all who appreciate a lighter-bodied style of red, such as claret. This grape variety is actually quite unique, in that each bunch, when ready for harvest, contains a mixture of red, white and pink grapes in varying shades. This low proportion of red-skinned grapes on each bunch, when macerated and fermented, naturally leads to a lighter-bodied and paler shade of red wine.
Here I have selected four of the best Negra Mole varietal wines, all from producers in the central/western area of the Algarve around Lagoa, Silves and Alcantarilha.
Quite different in style from the others mentioned here, this wine from the Cabrita estate, near Silves, is un-oaked and it is the closest of all to what the old Negra Moles used to taste like. But that said, this is a modern wine made with care. Smooth, fresh and fruity, it works very well chilled.
The first wine grower in the Algarve to give this humble local grape the attention it deserves was João Clara, located in Alcantarilha. The first vintage was produced in 2011 and since then it has only been produced as a varietal in years when the quality of the grapes makes muster. With some careful oak-work, the result is a delicate wine with a silky-smooth tannic structure, dark berry fruit character and a dry finish.
Here we have a winery showing great dedication to the Negra Mole variety. It is the only red grape they grow on the 60-hectare estate located just behind Lagoa, where the vines date back to the 1950s. The Negra Mole red made here is labelled as Clarete and the wine is un-oaked, smooth and elegant with a touch of spice.
The Paxá estate and winery located between Silves and Lagoa makes an excellent value-for-money Negra Mole. Well-rounded from six months in oak and very easy drinking with floral and cherry notes on the nose.