Southern Portugal is dominated by the Alentejo wine region. Located just an hour and a half east of Lisbon, Alentejo is a perfect destination for wine lovers and history buffs. It is home to a large array of indigenous grapes; the red wines are rich and full body, the whites are crisp and aromatic. Alentejo embraces the old with the new. Its capital city, Évora, is steeped in history, and Alentejo is cork country!
The Tejo River cuts through Portugal flowing east to west into the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon. South of this river lies Alentejo, which means “beyond the Tejo.” Historically, this region was part of Roman Lusitania and believed to be one of the first regions to export wine to Rome. Ancient wines were made here using clay pots called amphorae. Today, Alentejo is the only wine region in Portugal that still uses this practice in some places.
This land of undulating hills has also had an undulating history. From the 8th – 13th centuries the region was occupied by Arabs. Wine production ceased and vines were removed and replaced with wheat. Once the Arabs were removed, the Portuguese royal authority ordered replanting of vines and wine to be donated to the government once the vines were able to produce commercially viable wine. During this time estates such as Quinta do Carmo were founded, this winery still makes wine today. In 1756, Protectionism began of the Douro; resulting in farmers having to remove their vines by order of the government. Most of the 19th and 20th centuries saw phylloxera, wars, and economic depression in Alentejo. In the 1970’s a reversal of fortune began and by the end of the 20th century the DOCs were formed and Alentejo’s modern reputation for high quality wine was on its way.
Alentejo is spread across eight sub regions in southern Portugal. It enjoys a warm growing season but small climatic differences among the sub-regions allows for a range of styles in the wines produced. Alentejo is about the size of the state of Massachusetts. It contains 51,000 acres of vineyard plantings, slightly more than Napa Valley’s 45,000. It enjoys over 3,000 hours of annual sunshine, similar to San Diego, making it the highest in Europe. Its main natural concern is drought.
Sustainability is a way of life in Alentejo. Due to the low rainfall, less than 23” annual compared to Napa Valley at 25”+, pests are not much of an issue, allowing for organic and even biodynamic farming practices. During certain times of the year irrigation is necessary. Producers employ the use of expensive drip irrigation to conserve water and provide it to only the vines in need, rather than watering an entire area unnecessarily. Due to healthy environment an array of flora, fauna, and wild life intermingle amount the vines, creating a natural rather than forces sustainable ecology.
Wine production has quadrupled in Alentejo since the 1990s. For every two bottles of wine consumed by the Portuguese, one of those bottles is from Alentejo. It is also home to over 1/3 of the world’s cork forest. Once every nine years this cork is carefully harvested by hand. Corks are natural, renewable, and recyclable.
With so many diverse microclimates, Alentejo is home to a mosaic of soils. There are locations where the soil varies by the foot. In fact, it is the most varied soil region in Portugal. Still home to a vast amount of wheat, the fertile soil is ideal. Where the soil lacks fertility you will find the vines.
Geek wine alert: below is a partial look at the soils of Alentejo. If you don’t get into dirt like I do just skip the following sentences and move to the grapes.
- Decomposed granite soil: Alentejo is warm and dry, this soil retains water
- Marble: Once the dynamite has cracked the marble and the vines are planted, the marble is calcium carbonate, which gradually dissolves, leaving tiny fissures for water to gather and nourish the vine.
- Schist: cooler on the surface aids in slower vine ripening, creating more structured wines
- Clay soil: cooler soil that retains water; think Right Bank Bordeaux
- Clay and Limestone: produces lighter body, more elegant wines
Alentejo is dominated by red wines; however, the distinctive whites of the region, which account for less than 20% of production, are gaining notoriety for their unique qualities. The red wines are generally rich, bold, earthy, tannic, balanced, concentrated, and structured. The whites tend to be aromatic, tropical, medium to high acidity, and vibrant. Here are a list of the most prominent varieties:
Black grapes: Alfrocheiro, Alicante Bouschet, Castelao, Touriga Nacional, Aragonez (Tempranillo) and Trincadeira
White grapes: Antão Vaz, Arinto, Fernao Pires, Roupeiro (aka Malvasia), and Verdelho
Don’t be surprised to see international varieties such as Syrah as well. Here is a small sampling of some of the wonderful wines produced in Alentejo.
2014 Herdade do Rocim Olho de Mocho Branco Vidigueira ($30): 100% Antão Vaz; pale gold; medium aromas of ginger, elder flower, pineapple, ripe stone fruit, cedar, and almonds; ripe and vibrant with high acidity and textural complexity from 20 days of oak fermentation; medium body, medium+ finish; unique yet delicious
2014 Piteira Tinto de Talha Alentejo DOC ($23): Crafted of 100% Moreto; medium ruby; delicate aromas of fresh raspberry, black raspberry, cherry, and blueberry, along with fresh violets, black pepper, and baking spices; this unique wines was made from 30-80 year old ungrafted vines, destemmed, hand crushed, 3 months skin fermentation in 520 gallon handmade clay jars, followed by six months aging with skins in clay jars; resulting in a wine that is light in body with evident yet supple tannins, ample flavors on the palate, and a touch of bitterness that lingers on the back of the tongue after a medium finish.
2015 Malhadinha Nova Monte da Peceguina Tinto Vinho Regional Alentejo ($18.99): A blend of Touriga Nacional, Syrah, Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet, and Cabernet Sauvignon; medium ruby; a bright and inviting nose pronounced nose of black and red cherry, black berry, black raspberry, cranberry, some baked notes, dried violets, licorice, black pepper, toast, walnuts, vanilla; modern and approachable on the palate, supple with medium tannins, medium+ acidty, medium+ body, and a juicy medium finish; elegant and enjoyable.
2014 Esporão Reserva Tinto Alentejo DOC ($25): A blend of Alicante Bouschet, Aragonez, Trincadeira, and Cabernet Sauvignon; medium ruby with purple highlights; medium aromas of juicy black cherry, black berry, raspberry, plum, violets, fresh sweet tobacco leaf, baking spice, vanilla; ripe and juicy on the palate, well balanced, medium+ tannins, medium acidity, well-structured, medium+ body and finish; elegant and modern.
2013 Cartuxa Evora Tinto Colheita Évora DOC ($25): A blend of Aragonez AKA Tempranillo, Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira and Cabernet Sauvignon; medium ruby; medium fresh aromas of black cherry, blackberry, black raspberry, dried roses, baking spice, black pepper, black tea; as a 2013 this wine is the most integrated, it is supple on the palate with medium+ tannins, medium acidity, medium- body, medium finish; elegant, refined and lovely.
These wines are available nationally in the US. I encourage you to seek them out and embrace your new favorite wines.