Short & sweet: an overnight stopover & harvest in Portugal at L’AND Vineyards, Alentejo

The Guardian’s Fiona Beckett kindly flipped my way an invite to L’AND Vineyards in Evora, Alentejo, Portugal and, last Friday, I participated in a spot of harvesting.

Owner Sousa Cunhal Group’s Jose Cunhal Sendim says wine is the driver, but it’s more accurate to say it’s the point of difference.  Unlike Quinta da Amoreira da Torre, his family’s organically certified vineyard, L’AND isn’t just a vineyard, it’s also a cutting edge design, energy efficient resort. 

Of its 66 acres, 12 acres are under vine.  The rest is home to clusters of private villas and a luxury small hotel and spa (pictured), which opened in April this year.  It’s a pity that the perimeter of the estate is still under development, but the hotel’s stunning design and landscaped gardens compensate for poor first impressions. 

While I suspect most guests will drool over the original pieces of furniture and interior design, this geek’s breath was plain taken away by the pocket-sized winery shoe-horned into the hotel’s atrium. Turning the corner from the sophisticatedly clubby lobby into the light and airy reception, I couldn’t have been more surprised to discover the winemaking team hard at it next door, shovelling just harvested Alicante Bouschet into a fermentation tank (pictured).  I’m not sure how long those walls will stay white!

Thirty tiny 1000l gravity-fed stainless steel fermenters tell you that this is no ordinary winery. As well as making L’AND’s own wine with consultancy from renowned winemaker Paulo Laureano, former sommelier and resident winemaker Patricia Ramos (ex Esporao) helps L’AND’s wine club members to customise wine from their very own vineyard plot. 

Members, principally the estate’s villa owners, decide how they want their wines vinified and, within reason, which varieties to plant – a request for Gewurtztraminer didn’t fly!  It’s a grape to glass experience of which Friday night’s harvest was a fun feature.

It’s not just L’AND’s villa owners in Cunhal Sendim’s sights.  He wants to engage hotel guests too, hence the location of the winery.  A complimentary tasting led by the straight-talking but approachable Ramos (pictured) is part of the hotel package.  She also hosts a half day vineyard and winery visit which concludes with a tasting of wines matched to Portuguese cuisine with a contemporary twist. 

Judging by my beautifully balanced and presented lunches, Michel Laffan is a gifted chef.  I particularly enjoyed super-tender octopus and Setubal clams with perfectly cooked and seasoned rice, garnished with samphire and crispy seaweed.  Down the track, it’s intended that Laffan will present cookery courses too. 

As well as imbibing the fruits of the vine, guests can indulge in the Caudalie vinotherapie spa where treatments utilise estate grown grapes.  I didn’t take advantage of the spa but you don’t even have to stray from L’AND’s Sky View Suite to indulge.  Exceptionally comfortable, mine was equipped with an outdoor hot tub, impressively hewn slate bath and a rain shower with a head so large it might properly be called a storm shower!

For Cunhal Sendim, bringing together tourism, wine and food is key to raising the profile of Alentejo’s and Portugal’s table wines and winning converts.  It’s a commendable approach and I’ve been excited by the emergence of stylish modern Portuguese hotels, restaurants and cellar doors aimed at the gourmet traveller.  Given the parlous state of the economy, Portugal must do all it can to get its wines better known on the world stage. 

On that note, the restaurant’s well-chosen wine list (compiled by Ramos) focuses principally on Portuguese wines and is innovatively listed by variety (or lead variety), with a thumbnail sketch of the grape’s chief characteristics.  It’s all part of the educational process.

As for L’AND’s own wines, the vineyard was only planted in 2006 and the first wine released in 2009.  Though it’s early days, maiden vintage L’AND Vineyards Reserva 2009 respects the youth of the vines and doesn’t go all out to impress with heavy extraction and oak (as can all too often be the case with ambitious new projects).  Rather it’s a promisingly characterful, balanced blend of Touriga Nacional, Alicante Bouschet and Touriga Franca.  As the vines hit their straps, no doubt it will gain in concentration and depth. 

With small quantities and wine club members plus the hotel to service first, it will be challenging for the wines to achieve recognition in their own right, but I’m not sure that’s top of Cunhal Sendim’s agenda.  For the former environmental lawyer whose family started converting their farms to organic production in 1999, the L’AND project is about a bigger vision.  It’s about reflecting what modern Portugal has to offer while preserving Alentejo’s landscape of vines, olive and citrus trees through sustainable tourism and agriculture.

In this, L’AND Vineyards is highly successful.  It may not have the wild and remote beauty of Herdade de Malhadinha Nova’s  luxury retreat down south in Alentejo’s Beja region (see the link to my review below) but, located just an hour’s drive from the capital and Lisbon airport, it’s the perfect haven for city-lovers keen to explore the countryside and find out more about Portuguese food and wine in a relaxing environment.

Click here for an earlier blog about holidaying in the Alentejo.

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