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Portugal's Alentejo
Part 1: Introduction

An Alentejo cork forest, plus sheep

As a wine-producing country, one of Portugal’s great strengths is its diversity. At one extreme lie the fresh, light, zippy Vinho Verde wines from the damp, green, northern Minho, and at the other there are the rich, concentrated red wines from the hot Alentejo in the south, with a whole spectrum of flavours in between. The Alentejo is where Portugal’s climate finally escapes the Atlantic influence, and the scenery changes to large, gently undulating plains that experience baking hot summers and cold winters more typical of continental weather systems. Think of it as Portugal’s ‘new world’, with the potential to make extrovert, ripe wines with a taste of the sun about them. This is the least populated of Portugal’s regions, and instead of the smallholdings that typify the agricultural landscape elsewhere, the Alentejo has many large estates. Referred to as the ‘bread basket’ of Portugal, wheat is the most important crop here, with the poorer soils being reserved for olive trees, cork oaks and vineyards. If you want to locate the Alentejo on a map of Portugal, it's inland and down a bit from Lisbon, touching the Spanish border on the east and the Algarve is at its south end.

Aside from the many tourist attractions in the region (such as the towns of Evora (left), Borba and Estremoz), it is wine that is currently putting the Alentejo region on the map, and more specifically, its red wines. There are two distinct styles of Alentejo red. First, there is what can loosely be termed the traditional style. These often combine earthy, herby, undergrowth-like savoury flavours and aromas with the fruit. Traditional Alentejo wines are often complex and reasonably age worthy. Then there is the modern style, perhaps best demonstrated by the wines of Esporão, João Portugal Ramos or Sogrape’s new Alentejo Reserva. These wines show lots of intense fruit, with a richness that is quite ‘new world’ in character, and not a million miles away from the style that has made Australian wines such a success over recent years. Both Alentejo styles are interesting and worthwhile, but it is the latter, more modern group of wines that has been largely responsible for putting the Alentejo on the map as one of Portugal’s most important red wine regions. 

Traditional Portuguese grape varieties dominate the region, but newcomers such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon are beginning to make inroads, often blended with the local varieties. Some white wines are made in the Alentejo, but it’s the reds that are forging the region’s reputation. Demand for Alentejo wines, with their ripe fruit and full-bodied character, has been such that vineyard land here is among the most expensive in the whole country. Because many of the estates are fairly large and the climate is so reliable, economies of scale mean that Alentejo wines can combine quality with affordability, which is more of a challenge in Portugal’s more northerly regions.

I visited several of the leading estates in June 2005 to try to get a fuller picture of the new wines emerging from this interesting region, and this series takes an in depth look at what I found. 

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