Alentejo is a well-known, highly respected wine region in eastern Portugal. This hot, dry area is best known for its red wines, the best of which are sold under the and Alentejo DOC (Denominacao de Origem Controlada) title. These wines are typically made from Aragonez (Tempranillo), Castelao, Trincadeira or a rich, ripe, jammy blend of the three. Although famously diverse in its portfolio of wine grapes (navigating the many names and their synonyms is a challenge), Alentejo has not been sluggish to adopt such globally popular varieties as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. One of the most remarkable things about modern Alentejo winemaking is its ability to create a uniquely Alentejano wine style from quintessentially French grape varieties.
The region is named for its position south of the Tejo river, which bisects Portugal, entering the ocean near Lisbon. Alentejo extends across about a third of Portugal, with only the Algarve region separating it from the southern coast of the country. Even the briefest of glances at a population density map of Portugal shows that this area of the country is only very sparsely populated, in stark contrast to the northern coastal areas around Oporto. Land here is used (somewhat intensively) for the production of various cereal crops, and the cork for which Portugal is so famous. Whereas the cork plantations of the north are quite small, here in Alentejo there is sufficient free space for the thick-barked Quercus suber trees to sprawl out all over the countryside.
The size of Alentejo means that there is a wealth of terroir, and it is fairly difficult to generalize about the region as a whole. Broadly speaking, Alentejo has a gently undulating topography, which protects much of the land from the cooling effects of the Atlantic. This lends the land to the production of rich, easy-drinking red wines, as ripeness is easy to achieve in these conditions. However, there are some anomalies – the subregion of Portalegre is in the foothills of the mountains in the northeast of Alentejo, where the climate is considerably cooler.
Alentejo has its own DOP title, as well as a wider Vinho Regional Alentejano designation. The DOP has eight subregions, which span from the mountains to the hot, dry center of the region: Portalegre, Borba, Évora, Redondo, Reguengos, Granja-Amareleja, Vidigueira and Moura.
Alentejo has been a key center of Portugal's wine renaissance over the past few decades. Although wine production here was once dominated by a handful of government-supported cooperatives, the quantity of premium wine now generated by the region's independent smallholdings is impressive. The European Union, which has been involved in various wine improvement schemes around Europe (most obviously vine-pull schemes in France and Italy), has been quick to provide assistance here. Few in the wine world can be ignorant of the impact that Portuguese wine is now having in the market place, a great deal of which is down to this aid, and the new focus the country's wine industry has adopted. Proudly, Alentejo is leading the charge. Although temporarily suffering from the "value for money" tag that dogged Chile and its wines for so long, Alentejano wines have already shown their ability to take on the crus of France, the big-name reds of Spain, and even the most highly respected DOCG wines of Italy.
How Alentejo's upwards trajectory continues is something only time can tell. Similarly, whether the region's wine fortunes are inextricably linked to those of Portugal as a whole remains to be seen. For now, whatever the case, Alentejo continues to offer some of the best value Old World wines available.
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