Wines of Alentejo

The Alentejo region was elected by USA TODAY readers as the best wine region to visit in the world. It is a vast and one of the largest regions in Portugal with delicious gastronomy and great wines.

It is a region that arouses passions, that awakens our soul and makes us want to know more and better. Its history is vast as the landscapes, there are many places where we can find traces of the Phoenician civilization, for over 3000 years. Also the Celts and, specially, the Romans, who left an important legacy through their writings, mosaics, teachings, cities and monuments. Deeply specialized in major farmer techniques, they turned to the culture of wine and vineyard in Alentejo.

A wine producing region with a long tradition, the Alentejo boasts wines that will surprise you for their excellence, aromas and colours as unique as the landscape and the cuisine.

This region, where the skyline extends as far as the eye can see, on which the cork oaks bestow a sense of strength and durability, was once an expanse of wheat fields. Today, the wheat fields have been replaced by vast vineyards, whose wines take in the power of the landscape and the heat, and can be counted amongst the most celebrated in Portugal.

Besides the Alentejo Regional Wine, which is found all over the region, wine producers are spread across 8 areas bearing a designation of origin – Portalegre, Borba, Redondo, Reguengos, Vidigueira, Évora, Granja/Amareleja and Moura, which allows for a diversity of choice anywhere in Alentejo.

The distinct characteristics of the soils according to area (granite, limestone, Mediterranean or schist), the long hours of exposure to the sun and a group of selected grape varieties enable high quality production, combined with the ability to preserve the tradition of flavour, while innovating in the art of winemaking.

Today, Alentejo is renowned for red blends, which are as warm, generous and easy-going as its people (of whom it is said have three speeds – slow, very slow and stationary). These blends might well feature Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon in addition to the native varieties like Touriga Nacional, Tricadeira, Aragonês and Touriga Franca. Whites, are on the up now that the local grapes Antão Vaz and Roupeiro are being made in a fruitier style and blended with Arinto for freshness; and Verdelho and Viognier show promise.

‘Fruity, easy-drinking wine with soft tannins was a new way for Portugal, which started in Alentejo,’ says João Portugal Ramos. It inspired an army of followers – between 1995 and 2010 the number of producers exploded from 45 to 260, more than 60 of whom open their doors to visitors on the Alentejo Wine Route.

Alentejo DOC comprises eight inland regions within the broader Vinho Regional Alentejano labels.

Of these, Granja-Amareleja’s and Moura’s scorching summers can make for strapping, rustic wines. Moderating factors (elevation, cool nights) in Borba, Evora, Redondo, Reguengos and Vidigueira produce full-bodied yet balanced reds. With its old field-blend vines (a rarity in Alentejo), the cooler northern outpost of Portalegre is a region with old vines planted in altitude and produces generally fresher more mineral wines, with less concentration. Nowhere is the quest for elegance more apparent than in Portalegre, high on the Serra de São Mamede’s slopes. The region’s cooler conditions have attracted new winemaking talent – the Decanter World Wine Awards Regional Chair for Port & Madeira Richard Mayson, for example, and the Lisbon chef Vitor Claro – along with the experienced Rui Reguinga, Susana Esteban and  David Baverstock. Claro says Portalegre is perfect for making food wines, which is important given his inspiration – the hearty ‘peasant’ fare of the region’s taverns (tascas) and classic egg-yolk-based convent desserts. It’s a creed of cuisine to which top restaurants remain faithful, albeit taking it to the next level. Describing Evora as Portugal’s Lyon he says that, born out of poverty, it capitalises on terrific local ingredients – meats, notably black pig, game, wild herbs, sheep’s and goat’s cheeses, and wood-oven baked breads. Try migas (stale bread, soaked or fried in olive oil or pork fat which bulks up other leftovers) as well as and filling dishes, such as açorda de bacalhau.

Limestone, schist and granite (the stone of choice for the megalithic monuments dotted around) distinguish the best vineyards, the exception being the Alicante Bouschet, Alentejo’s adopted flagship grape – a red-fleshed French crossing high in tannin and acid – that thrives in deep clay.

Forty minutes south of Evora, Vidigueira marks the dividing point of the upper (Alto) and lower, hotter (Baixo) Alentejo. However, Vidigueira’s proximity to the coast and the cold air descending from the Serra de Portel escarpment tempers the heat, hence the region’s white tradition.

Bound in the north by the Serra do Mendro mountain range, which creates a natural frontier between the Upper Alentejo and the Lower Alentejo regions, the average annual rainfall here is higher and temperatures more moderate, despite its southerly location. The schist soil too, offers perfect conditions and adds mineral notes to the wine. The Romans made wine here 2 000 years ago (the amphorae wines still produced nowadays on the red and whites) and over the last 20 years winemaking has become an important factor in this region, producing wines that are renowned both in Portugal and worldwide for their exceptional quality.

In short, the Alentejo wines offer tremendous pleasure, be they white, rosé or red wine. They are full of strong aromatic exuberance, round and smooth, with a unique ability to be drunk while young, but knowing how to age with distinction.

 

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