Alentejo, Portugal Regional Profile
Just a 90-minute drive from Lisbon, and you are in the highly respected wine region of Alentejo in eastern Portugal, which is about the same size as the U.S. state of Massachusetts. This region covers one-third of Portugal and is home to many of the extremely popular red wines you’ll find on wine lists in cafes and restaurants around the country. Alentejo was once part of the Roman province of Lusitania, and is the only wine region in Portugal where winemakers still practice the ancient Roman technique of fermenting and storing wine in clay pots called “talhas de barro,” which hold up to 520 gallons of wine and can be as large as seven feet tall.
Though it produces many of the popular table wines enjoyed in and exported by Portugal, Alentejo is not necessarily known as a volume wine region, as the hot, dry climate keeps yields lower than in other places. With 51,000 acres of land under vine, most of the wine made in this region is red, with only about one-fifth of the total production number being white wine.
Alentejo Climate & Terroir
The region of Alentejo is largely a hot and arid land and enjoys 3,000 hours of sunshine annually, which is the highest average amount of time in Portugal. Annual rainfall averages only about 23 inches, compared to 25 inches in Napa Valley, California. The area is threatened by global warming, so it has made sustainability a top priority (see WASP program below), including practices such as nature protection and conserving water by limiting chemical runoff into streams. Most of the region is marked by plains and gently rolling hills, with valleys and mountains making an appearance as well. The soils of Alentejo are more varied than anywhere else in Portugal, and much of the soil quality is “poor,” which is perfect for grape vines. The soil types found throughout the area include, schist, pink marble, granite, limestone, and a sub-layer of water-retaining clay.
Grape Varieties of Alentejo
Portugal has the highest density of native grape varieties per square mile of any country in the world. In fact, the country is home to 250 + native grapes, which are often used in blends of various kinds.
The most common grapes used in the region of Alentejo include the following:
For white wines, blends are usually dominated by the Antão Vaz variety, which contributes great acidity and tropical fruit flavors. Other white grapes used in blends include Arinto and Roupeiro (Malvasia, Siria), which also provide excellent acidity, as well as Verdelho, Diagalves, Manteúdo, Perrum, Rabo de Ovelha, and Fernão Pires.
Subregions in Alentejo
The entire DOP of Alentejo is further divided into eight sub-regions. Some producers may use these regions on their label, while others choose to label their wines as Vinho Regional Alentejano, noting the larger more well-known region. Portalegre is the region furthest north and is found northeast of the foothills of the São Mamede mountains. In this area, there is higher annual rainfall and cooler temperatures at night than in other parts of the region overall. Additionally, in Portalegre, many vines are planted on steep slopes of up to 2500 feet, and there are segments of older vines, some up to 70 years old, which can create more elegant and complex wines. One of the more unusual predominant red grapes here is Grand Noir, related to Alicante Bouschet, although the region also produces white wines of great quality.
The regions of Borba, Évora, Redondo, and Reguengos are where some of the more typical, easy-drinking Alentejano wines are made. In Borba, there is marble bedrock, which helps with water retention and gives a mineral quality to the wines. Évora is where some of the most prestigious red wines are produced, and it is considered the birthplace of Alentejo’s most sought-after wines. Redondo is known mostly for fruitier red wines, and Reguengos is the largest subregion with some of the oldest vineyards in the whole Alentejo area.
The Granja-Amareleja subregion is one of the aridest and inhospitable regions in the country. The area has poor soils and extremely hot summers, which call for early ripening of the grapes. The red grape, Moreto, does well here, as it is suited to the harsh climate.
Moura wines are usually softer with high alcohol. The Castelão grape grows well in this continental climate.
Finally, Vidigueira is the southernmost subregion of Alentejo, and it has the mildest climate due to cool air from the nearby Algarve Coast. This region is home to the Tinta Grossa grape, and winemakers here are known to focus on reds, despite the fact that the region has a tradition of producing great white wines using the Antão Vaz grape.
Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program (WASP)
In 2015, the CVRA (Comissão Vitivinicola Regional Alentejana) launched a regional sustainability program with the mission to “reduce costs and increase economic viability through a proactive approach to environmental pressures and social concerns.” This is a voluntary program for producers in the area, but it has seen tremendous growth since its beginnings in 2015. The program started with only 96 members, and as of 2020, includes 396 members out of 1,800 winegrowers, and 260 wineries. This represents 45% of Alentejo’s vineyard area.
In just five short years, the WASP program has become a model for others around the world who are interested in prioritizing sustainable practices in their vineyards and beyond. The model encompasses more than just producers but also works with regional and international universities, the Portuguese EPA, and the Portuguese chapter of the Forest Stewardship Council. The WASP program has been recognized for its contributions to sustainability as one of 15 winners, out of 200 applicants, of the European Commission´s European Rural Innovation Award 2019, and the program is one of the EU’s Rural Innovation Ambassadors for 2020. In January 2020, WASP earned a national award for Innovation/Investigation from Portugal’s Revista de Vinhos (Review of Wines).
According to the WASP program, a few of their successes include the following:
Over five years of the program, members have worked to reduce dependence on pesticides and sprays by planting cover crops and hedgerows to attract insect-eating mammals and installing nest boxes or perches for insect-eating birds. The growth of this initiative is 18% of members versus 5% in 2015.
When it comes to water conservation, the WASP program encourages renewable energy and water conservation through free training, largely conducted by WASP’s Sustainability Coordinator João Barroso, an environmental engineer. Over four years, Barroso has trained 400 people in this initiative.
A full sustainability program goes beyond the vineyard, especially considering the fact that 80% of the employees of the winery live in the village where it is located. Through the WASP program, there has been a focus on integrating the winery into the community. This includes assisting with school programs or firefighting, donations to charity events, or hosting “open house” days for families to visit the cellar.
The WASP program also encourages its members to obtain a third-party certification for sustainability in order to advertise their sustainable practices. Members have the option of working with organizations such as SGS, Bureau Veritas, Certis, and Sativa.
These are just a few of the accomplishments of the WASP program over five years in existence. It’s clear that the region of Alentejo and the leadership of the WASP program are paving the way and creating a global model for sustainability in the vineyard and beyond.
Some producers in Alentejo participating in the WASP program include:
Herdade de Coelheiros
Herdade do Esporão
Herdade Dos Grous
*Information and statistics courtesy of Wines of Alentejo.
Written By Jacqueline Coleman
Jacqueline Coleman is a professional wine + travel writer, wine judge, columnist, and consultant based in Miami, FL.