The Alentejo region has about 21,000ha of vineyards planted on predominantly low vigor gently sloping soils. Located between 38º and 39º latitude north of the equator it provides a desirable mix of winter chilling and summer heat and is an excellent climate for growing wine grapes. Cooler Atlantic air moderates the region, which would otherwise be much colder in the winter and even hotter in the summer.
The climate zone is classed as Mediterranean, with typically 3000 hours of annual sunshine and 600mm of annual rainfall, of which usually less than 15% falls during the growing season. Near guaranteed frost-free nights extend from early March to early November. The summer months are characterised by marked diurnal temperature variability with daily highs of over 33ºC followed by nightly minimums of less than 15ºC. This temperature range produces excellent fruit with a natural combination of maturity and freshness. During the harvest months of late September/October, humidity rises and daily mean temperatures begin falling, enabling the grapes to slowly attain full phenolic maturation under less stressful conditions.
It is not yet possible to determine with historical accuracy when and who introduced vine growing to the province. What is known is that when the Romans arrived in the southern lands of Portugal, in the area we now call Alentejo, vine growing and winemaking were already part of the customs and traditions of the local populace.
However, it was the Romans, with their skilled knowledge in farming techniques that brought widespread winegrowing to the Alentejo. It is even probable, going by existing historical registers, that Alentejo wine could have been the first wine from Portugal to be exported to Rome; Roman influence was so decisive in the development of Alentejo viticulture that even today, 2000 years after the annexation of the territory, we can see the effects of Roman civilization in everyday tasks. The most visible are the talhas de barro (clay amphoras), a practice made commonplace by the Romans in the Alentejo, and it is still now used for fermenting must and storing wine is a practice still followed today and is an integral part of Alentejo culture.
The beginning of the 8th century saw the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula and the vine in Alentejo suffered its first serious setback under Muslim occupation and subsequent spread of Islam, a movement which was to remain for centuries.
Only after the foundation of the kingdom of Portugal, thanks to the Crown and new religious orders, did winemaking make a determined return to the Alentejo. By the 16th century vines were flourishing like never before, giving rise to eminent and acclaimed wines from Evora – Peramanca – as well as white wines from Beja and clarets from Alvito, Viana and Vila de Frades. By the mid-17thcentury Alentejo wines, along with those from Beira and Estremadura, were enjoying the greatness fame and prestige in Portugal.
Unfortunately, it was to be short-lived! The creation of the Real Companhia Geral de Agricultura dos Vinhos do Douro instigated in the 18th century by the Marquis of Pombal to protect Douro wines to the detriment of the other regions. The result was forced uprooting of vines in many regions plunging its vineyards into obscurity.
The crisis lasted till the mid-19th century for the revival of Alentejo vine growing to take hold, with a campaign to cultivate heath land and attach new generations of farmers to the land. Thus, a new golden age for Alentejo wine was born, a period that would unhappily come to a premature end. Enthusiasm was sparked when it became news that a white wine from Vidigueira, shown by Count Ribeira Brava from Quinta das Relíquias, had won the Grand Medal of Honor at the Berlin Exhibition in 1888; the highest award of the event. Other wines to receive honors were from Evora, Borba, Redondo and Reguengos. Regrettably, this glorious period would have an abrupt end.
Two decades later – in the first half of the 1900s. The phylloxera shock was followed by the First World War, successive depressions and, above all, the great campaign of the Estado Novo to plant cereals instead of vines, fostering wheat farming in order to make Alentejo the bread basket of Portugal. Vineyards were gradually reduced to the edges of wheat fields In a few years Alentejo wine had all but disappeared from the commercial market.
It was under the patronage of the Junta Nacional de Vinho at the end of the 1940s that Alentejo viticulture was given its first, faltering steps to recovery. Entrepreneurs followed in success story of recovering one of the last treasures of old Europe. The market reacted in what is now the preferred wine in the domestic market representing in preferences as much as the rest of all the other Portuguese wine regions together.