Discovering the Mystical Wines of Alentejo, Portugal
Discovering the Mystical Wines of Alentejo, Portugal
The wines Alentejo region comprises about a third of the country and truly steals the show with wine production. The region bears the distinction of the Vinho Regional designation of Alentejano VR while some are bestowed a higher classification of Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC).
While it brings the world some of the most spectacular wines, it does so with great challenges. It’s important to understand what makes the wines from this region so reverential in composition while looking back at history to discover how it came to be and could overcome future obstacles.
History of the Alentejo Region
With archaeological artefacts found throughout the entire region, it’s evident that wine culture has always been important to Alentejo. Still, experts aren’t quite sure who brought the cultivation of vines here or how it happened. By the time the Romans arrived in southern Portugal, the growing of vines and wine making were already an integral piece of the culture of Alentejo.
Greek influences certainly abounded as well. Archaeologists found hundreds of amphorae, vessels with two handles, all around the region. Experts assess that the first vines in Portugal were of Mediterranean influence and the Romans influence took it to the next level. Historical records seem to back this up with the first exports of wine from Portugal to Rome coming from Alentejo, kicking off the start of globalization in the region.
Roman influence is still present today as traditional tactics are still so often employed for winemaking. Perhaps by Greeks as well, the Roman tradition of storing wine in clay vessels of various shapes and sizes. It was introduced to other Portuguese wine regions but only in Alentejo has it endured.
The beginning of the 8th century Alentejo saw invasions from Muslims invading the Iberian Peninsula. The vines continued to grow though they were subject to hefty taxes. All this turmoil eventually led to the neglect of the vines in Alentejo.
Wine culture all but disappeared until the Lusitanian kingdom took the reins. And once it did, Alentejo went through a stunning renaissance. Start of the 16th century, things were looking grand, but the mid-17th century brought with it more turmoil. A rebirth came in the mid-19th century and then another period of collapse until around the end of the 1940s. What we can learn from Alentejo is that starting over again and again is always a possibility, one that can truly reveal spectacular results.
Alentejo Climate, Soil, and Varietals
Alentejo is too far from the influences of the Atlantic with exception to the lower parts of the region. Here, the plains see exceptionally hot summers and cold winters. This influence gives the wines a ripe and sun-kissed taste. Irrigation makes it possible, and the largest man-made lake in Europe can be found here to help fuel the vines.
Much of the region with its series of plains and soft hills features greener countryside lands. The soils vary throughout the subregions, pink marble, limestone, granite, or schist, often atop water-retaining clay, which add complexity to the wines. All told, there are 8 subregions of Alentejo: Portalegre, Borba, Redondo, Evora, Reguengos, Granja-Amareleja, Vidigueira, and Moura. You’ll find a variety of grapes growing here too, most of them of the red variety. It’s not that you can’t find whites; they are merely a bit trickier to grow in this intense climate. Often, you’ll see reds- Aragonez (tempranillo), Trincadeira, Castelão, Grand Noir and Alicante Bouschet and whites- Arinto, Antão Vaz, Roupeiro, Fernão Pires, Perrum to name a few.
About the Esteemed Wines of Alentejo
Reds are indeed the stars of the region. They bring forth rich and fruity tastes, though with careful skills in the vineyards and cellars, there are a few white wines that stand out. For the reds, Borba, Redondo, Évora, and Reguengos are a perfect showcase of Alentejo, where smooth, very drinkable reds are born and bred.
In Granja-Amareleja, Moura, and Vidigueira, the conditions are a bit of a challenge, especially given the intensity of the hot climate. Newer producers welcome the challenge though and are starting to emerge with tremendous success. The exploration of new and old varietals is certainly coming into play here, making for new generations of reds and styles for the world to enjoy.
Talha Wines of Alentejo
As Alentejo is now noticed for still wines, table productions as done in the Roman times are still of great importance. Only in this region of Portugal’s esteemed wine countries has it continued with such fervor. Wine carving within earthen vessels can be found even in modern cellars, a tribute to the ancient wine culture that began in the region.
While there’s more than one way to craft Talha wines, named as such for the Portuguese word describing clay amphorae, the traditions are all still quite the same. In each region, some slight variations occur though it is roughly the same. However it is crafted, it is the founding flavor of the region, one that even modern winemakers are adopting in their spaces to round out their offerings to feature both classic and modern wines, each of which is truly sublime in its own right.
My 7 Shining Producers from Alentejo
Some of the special wineries I visited and stood out as outstanding producers of native and traditional varieties. Not in any particular order.