Alentejo is a DOC (Denominação de Origem Controlada) in the Alto Alentejo province in the center of southern Portugal. Surrounding the DOC is VR Alentejano, which covers 30% of Portugal’s landmass. “Alentejo” translates as “Beyond the Tejo,” indicating its position south of the Tejo/Tagus River.
Alentejo consists mostly of plains and hills, with the São Mamede Mountains rising up in the northeast along the border with Spain. Its growing season is hot and dry, though cooler in the northeast, and irrigation is almost always needed. Because the region is so large, soils vary greatly, consisting of schist, pink marble, granite, or limestone, often laid upon a sub-layer of water-retaining clay.
The region has long been responsible for producing the majority of Portuguese wine for domestic consumption. It is also where most of the world’s cork comes from. The region received DOC status in 2003.
Anyone who questions the length of time that humanity has lived in Portugal needs look no further than Alentejo. During the Neolithic and Chalcolithic ages (around 7,000 BCE), inhabitants of the modern-day Alentejo constructed hundreds of monoliths replete with geometric and astral engravings. Rome also had a major presence in Alentejo, and today visitors can visit the still-bustling ancient Roman city of Èvora and visit archeological ruins including the Temple of Diana. Few relics of the Moorish occupation remain, but the port city of Mértola boasts the only remaining Moorish mosque in Portugal. It has since been converted to a Christian church, but its architectural underpinnings are unmistakable. Following the Reconquista and development of the Kingdom of Portugal, the Alentejo shared a long border with Spain which the monarchy fortified with hundreds of castles and fortresses that still stand today.
Today, the northern part of Alentejo raises cattle, sheep, and pigs while to the south crop cultivation is more prevalent. This area produces much of the olive oil that is widely-used in Portuguese cooking. Alentejo is also known throughout the rest of Portugal as pastoral playground full of country estates and a strong culture of horse-back riding and fox hunting.
Alentejan cuisine reflects its rural culture. The food is simple, hearty, and flavorful, revolving around wild game, pork, mutton and the ubiquitous bacalhau (codfish), all of it marinated with huge quantities of garlic and a traditional mix of herbs including bay leaf, cilantro, mint and pennyroyal. Flavorful red wines of Aragonez and Trincadeira match perfectly with this robust fare.
Red, white, and rosado wines are produced from a wide range of native and international varieties, with red production outweighing white. Due to Alentejo’s hot growing season, the region’s table wines tend toward lower acidity and high alcohol. The reds, often rich and fruit easy-drinkers, are to be found in restaurants and wine shops all over the country. Alentejo also has a robust output of fine wine, with a number of producers taking advantage of the region’s varied terrors and microclimates to produce wines unrivaled by anything else in Portugal.
Of the myriad grape varieties grown in Alentejo, Aragonez (Tempranillo) is the most widely-planted red. Alicante Bouschet, Alfrocheiro, Castelão and Trincadeira are found in many red blends, with Moreto, Tinta Caiada and Tinta Grossa present to a lesser degree. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and other imported varieties are also increasingly common.
Antão Vaz is the star white grape, with good acidity and tropical fruit flavors that responds well to barrel-fermentation. Arinto and Roupeiro are also prized for their acidity, while Diagalves, Manteúdo, Perrum and Rabo de Ovelha often round out white blends.
Alentejo is divided into eight different sub-regions, such as Èvora and Borba, which can use the DOC Alentejo designation. They may also append their name to a wine label (e.g., DOC Alentejo-Borba), but this is done only rarely since “Alentejo” alone is widely recognized.