Alentejo is one of Portugal's wine regions and is divided into eight sub-regions: Portalegre; Borba; Redondo; Vidigueira; Reguengos; Évora; Granja-Amareleja and Moura. Renowned for its red wines, the Alentejo region gained visibility at the end of the 1980s, when consumer appreciation for the wine potential of this region grew and which has remained one of the most sought-after regions in Portugal to this day.
The Alentejo is located between latitudes 38º and 39º north of the equator, in a region in central southern Portugal and includes the districts of Portalegre, Évora, Beja, half of the southern district of Setúbal and part of the district of Santarém. The Alentejo region is the largest in Portugal and has around 21,000 hectares of vineyards planted on predominantly gently sloping, low-yielding soils. The topography is not very uneven, with three main mountain ranges: Serra de S. Mamede, Serra d'Ossa and Serra de Portel.
The climate in the Alentejo is great for growing wine grapes, due to its location, it provides a desirable mix of cool winters and warm summers.
Cold air from the Atlantic moderates the Alentejo Climate, which would otherwise be much colder in winter and warmer in summer.
The climate zone is classified as Mediterranean, typically with 3000 hours of sunshine and 600 millimetres of annual rainfall, of which generally less than 15% falls during the growing season. Frost-free nights extend from early March to early November. The summer months are marked by high temperature variability with daily averages above 33 ºC followed by night-time lows below 15 ºC.
This thermal range of the Alentejo Climate allows the production of excellent grapes, with a natural combination of maturity and freshness. During the harvest months at the end of September/October, the increased humidity combined with decreasing average daily temperatures allows the grapes to slowly reach full ripeness under less stressful conditions.
It is not yet possible to determine with historical accuracy when and who introduced vine growing and winemaking to the Alentejo. What is known is that, when the Romans arrived in the southern lands of Portugal, in the area now called Alentejo, viticulture and vinification were already part of the customs and traditions of the local population. The Alentejo was known as the land of bread (cereals) and it was near the villages and communities, in small plots by the water, that vegetable gardens were planted first and then the grape vines.
Winemaking in the Alentejo has grown substantially in recent decades, becoming a more intensive crop in the Alentejo, where labour has become a livelihood for local communities.
By the 1980s, there was a trend towards growing international grape varieties such as Alicante Bouchet, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. As of the 21st century, we have witnessed the recognition of indigenous and national grape varieties and, consequently, an increase in the planting area in the Alentejo region.
However, it was in the Roman Period that the Romans with their specialised knowledge in agricultural techniques allowed the Alentejo wine-growing area to expand. It is even likely, looking at existing historical records, that Alentejo wine may have been the first Portuguese wine to be exported to Rome.
The influence of the Roman Period was so decisive for the development of viticulture in the Alentejo that even today, 2,000 years after the annexation of the territory, we can see the effects of Roman civilisation in daily tasks. The most visible from Roman Period is the clay jar (amphora), a common practice created by the Romans in the Alentejo, which is still used today for the fermentation process. Wine storage is still a common and integral practice in Alentejo culture.
The beginning of the 8th century saw the Muslim Conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, and vineyards in the Alentejo suffered their first setback under Muslim occupation and the subsequent spread of Islam, a movement that continued for centuries in the Iberian Peninsula.
Only after the foundation of the Kingdom of Portugal and thanks to the Portuguese Crown and the new religious orders, did winemaking make a strong comeback in the Alentejo. In the 16th century, vines flourished as never before, giving rise to the acclaimed wines of Évora – Peramanca – as well as the white wines of Beja and the clarets of Alvito, Viana and Vila de Frades. In the mid 17th Century, Alentejo wines, along with those from Beira and Estremadura, enjoyed fame and prestige in Portugal.
Unfortunately, this period was short-lived. In order to protect the Douro, particularly the wines from the Douro to the detriment of other regions, the Real Companhia Geral de Agricultura dos Vinhos do Douro was created, in the 18th century, by the Marquis of Pombal. The result was the destruction of vineyards in the remaining areas of the country, plunging producers into obscurity.
The crisis lasted until the mid-19th century with the revival of the Alentejo, and a recovery campaign to farm on fertile land and "hold" a new generation of farmers to these lands
Thus, a new golden age for Alentejo wine was born.
Enthusiasm surged when news broke that a white wine from Vidigueira, shown by the Count of Ribeira Brava Quinta das Relíquias, had won the Grand Medal of Honour at the 1888 Berlin Exhibition, the event's highest award. Other wines received honourable mentions such as wines from Évora, Borba, Redondo and Reguengos. Unfortunately, that glorious period would come to an abrupt end.
Two decades later – at the beginning of the 20th century, the grape phylloxera plague was followed by the First World War, with successive depressions and, above all, the Fascist State's great campaign to plant cereals instead of vines, promoting wheat cultivation to make the Alentejo the Granary of Portugal. The vines were gradually reduced to the edges of wheat fields, and within a few years Alentejo wine had disappeared from the commercial market.
It was under the auspices of the Portuguese National Wine Board in the late 1940s that viticulture in the Alentejo took its first faltering steps towards recovery. Entrepreneurs bet on the recovery of one of the last treasures of old Europe. The market has reacted and Alentejo wine is the preferred wine for Portuguese consumers, being consumed as much as all the other Portuguese wine regions put together.