Hot, hotter, Alentejo - this or something similar can be used to describe the Portuguese region, which is located in the south-east of the country and makes up about a third of Portugal. Although the Alentejo is the largest province in Portugal, the region is sparsely populated. Only 5 percent of the population lives here, which is probably due to the unbearable heat that prevails there, especially in the summer months.
Agriculture is very important in the Alentejo. In addition to 20,632 hectares of vineyards, there are also many olive plantations, grain fields and cork oak forests. Although the Alentejo wines have only gained popularity and potential in recent years, viticulture in the Alentejo is really old and can be dated back to the time before the Romans.
Viticulture - an old tradition in the Alentejo
It is said to have been the Tartesians who planted the first vineyards in the Alentejo before the Phoenicians and got wine production rolling. The history of viticulture in the Alentejo is characterized by ups and downs.
Thus, under Moorish rule and the increased cultivation of wheat, viticulture was strongly suppressed. For a time, the region was known as the “land of bread” due to the many wheat fields.
Cork - an important part of wine culture
Even in the wine decline period, the Alentejo participated indirectly in the world of wine through cork. Because more than half of the world's cork production occurs in Portugal and the largest cork yields are produced here, in the Alentejo, in the impressive cork oak forests. The trees can also be found occasionally in the wheat fields.
Here you can find more information about the function of the cork .
In 1974 and 1975, the military-led revolution in southern Portugal smashed Lisbon's establishment. Large cork lands were occupied by workers and formed into cooperatives in the hope that things would soon get better.
Unfortunately, the plan didn't work out: the cooperatives couldn't manage well, which is why they lacked capital. So they began to harvest the cork oak bark before their time and the vineyards were also driven to maximum yields. The result was a lack of quality in both areas.
With water to boost the wine
But in the 1980s, wine in the Alentejo got wind under the sails again. On the one hand, this was due to the significant drop in wheat prices, which made room on the market for grape products again. On the other hand, the ban on artificial irrigation was lifted, which meant the green light for viticulture.
Alentejo is also known as the "California of Portugal" due to the persistent heat during the summer months. Last year (2017) not a drop of rain fell on the country between March and October, which has unfortunately become a habit in recent years due to climate change. In the Alentejo there is aridity and drought. The heat is not a condition for professional viticulture and so the “go” for artificial irrigation at the end of the 80s came at just the right time.
Artificial irrigation requires an unbelievable 60 liters of water per week per plant, which is an enormous effort. Therefore, some winegrowers create small lakes that are filled up in winter in order to be able to access the water reserves in summer.
The lifesaver for plants, animals and people in the Alentejo is the artificially created Alqueva reservoir. This is 85 km long and thus the largest artificial reservoir in Europe.
The wine sub-regions of the Alentejo
Even before the revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, wine-growing regions formed in the cities of Portalegre, Borba, Redondo, Reguengos de Monsaraz, Granja and Vidigueira. There, state-sponsored cooperative wineries were built, which initially produced conventional wine for the local market.
That changed when Portugal joined the European Union. Investments in the expansion of wineries and cellars, as well as in modern machinery, made it possible to produce quality wines, even with the old vines.
Some old companies still make their wine very traditionally in huge clay jars. But there are also the fresh, new wineries that rely on modern processes. A combination of both is what gives the wine from the Alentejo its special charm.
Although there is a lot of land available for viticulture in the Alentejo, only a small part is occupied by actual vineyards. However, “small part” is relative here, because almost all wine-growing regions in the Alentejo are home to huge areas. A 100 hectare vineyard is not considered large by local farmers.
Most wine companies in the Alentejo are mixed companies. This means that tomatoes, sunflowers, olive trees and other agricultural products are also grown here to a large extent. However, the wine always remains in the foreground because it is more profitable.
Alentejo DOC - highest wine quality
Wines with the Alentejo DOC designation are wines of the highest quality and may only be produced within the defined areas. For this purpose, the Alentejo region has been divided into eight different sub-areas in order to better regulate them.
Six of these areas, namely Portalegre, Borba, Redondo, Reguengos de Monsaraz, Granja-Amareleja and Vidigueira, have existed since the 1960s. Two new ones, Évora and Moura, have since joined.
However, not only DOC wines are produced in the Alentejo, but also a whole range of Vinho Regional Alentejo, because not all wine regions in Alentejo are located in the regions mentioned above.
The much more flexible regulations of the VR wine category also speak for the growing number of VR wines. The space for experimentation is much larger and international grape varieties such as the popular Syrah are also permitted within the Vinho Regional.
In this article you will find more information about the different categories of wine in Portugal .
The main grape varieties of the Alentejo
The grape varieties vary depending on the sub-region and its own microclimate. The red wines are characterized by their fruit and elegance, are powerful and have a lot of body. The most important grape varieties among the reds are:
- Tinta Roriz
- Alicante Bouschet
The white wines were not present in the Alentejo for a long time, but now they are also very popular. They are soft and easy to drink. Among the white, the following main grape varieties have prevailed:
- Antao Vaz
- Fernao Pires
You can find out more about the Portuguese grape varieties and their different qualities in this article.
In addition to wine, cork and bread, the Alentejo is famous for excellent beef and above all for what is probably the best and most aromatic ham in the world. It comes from the famous black Ibérico pigs that live in the cork oak forests and eat their fill of acorns there. Appropriately, they are called "Porco à Alentejano".
Sustainability is very important in the Alentejo, even if the enormous amount of water used doesn't seem to suggest it at first glance. A sustainability program for wine, which is carried out in the region and to which almost all large companies already belong, has set itself the task of finding methods to save water, but also to drive out the use of pesticides from wine production and to replace other energy guzzlers .
What at first glance seems to be in the artificial irrigation is actually hidden in the wine bottle production. Because the energy and material costs in the production of the wine bottles seem to be excessive.
And indeed, good quality wine tends to be sold in the larger and heavier bottles, ranging in capacity from 1 to 1.5 litres. However, that has no need for the quality of the wine. If you reduced the weight by just 300 grams, you could save a lot with a hundred thousand bottles sold.
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