For many years visitors have flocked to Portugal for the guarantee of warm sunshine along its long sandy beaches. While the coast still draws the crowds an increasing number of people are coming to Portugal to experience the country’s wines and to visit the vineyards from which they are produced. This is especially true in the Alentejo, a region which covers a third of the area of Portugal and which has a staggering 22,000 hectares of vineyards.
The story of Portugal’s wine is, to a large extent, reflected in the turbulent but fascinating national history. The earliest evidence of viticulture stems from the Tartessians in around the 8th century BC, with the Phoenicians and Greeks having control of the region and its produce long before the Romans arrived and stamped their distinctive mark on the whole business. Many of the Roman innovations persisted for centuries – in fact clay amphoras are still used for wine storage today.
The rapid spread of Christianity brought about great opportunities for wine growers with the constant demand for wine as part of the Catholic Mass. When the Muslim Moors arrived they were initially tolerant and allowed the natives their alcoholic vices, but they eventually outlawed wine and the vineyards fell into disuse.
The golden age of Portuguese exploration saw the kings encourage the growth of wines again and the vineyards of the Alentejo flourished. Many turbulent periods followed with war, crop disease and domestic politics all adding obstacles that slowed and even stopped wine production in the region. But since the 1970s a steady appreciation has grown for the importance of Alentejan wine to Portugal and with national and EU funding the industry has seen investment and modernisation that has helped farmers create the healthy wine growing environment we have today.
There are eight accredited DOC regions (DOC refers to Designation of Origin and is a mark of quality), with grape varieties governed largely by the varying soil types across the Alentejo. The vineyards in the north-east of the region around Portalegre exist on harsh but fertile granite rock. Around Evora the soil is red and chalky. Further east around Estremoz, soils often contain marble chips, while to the south the ground is heavy in limestone. Each soil type provides optimal conditions for different varieties of grape.
The climate too is a factor in the type of wines produced across the region. The Alentejo experiences extreme summer temperatures, yet the cool nights give the vines a chance to rest and allow the grapes to ripen easily. This is ideal for the production of the full-bodied and rich-flavoured red wines for which the Alentejo is recognised.
The vineyards are generally open and welcoming to curious visitors and many have daily tours and tasting sessions. For something a little more involved, the Festa da Vinha e do Vinho (festival of the vine and of wine) in the marbled village of Borba takes place every November and is a colourful celebration of the regional nectar. In the old centre of the village local “tasquinhas” (taverns) offer their wares to locals and visitors, often from traditional clay amphoras.