Portugal's Alentejo Wine Region: One Region, Eight DOC Labels

Alentejo is Portugal's largest political region, encompassing about one-third of the country.  It's also the least densely populated region in Portugal.  About 10 percent of Alentejo is devoted to vineyards.  Much of the rest is used for growing cereal grains and olives.  Alicante is located in southeastern Portugal, stretching from the River Tagus, north of the city of Portalegre, south to Serpa and the Algarve.  The area's extreme climate has challenged winemakers for centuries; summer temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and lack of rain is a chronic problem.  Fortunately, irrigation systems and updated harvesting and winemaking equipment are tipping the scales in favor of winemakers, and the quality of Alentejo wine is improving as modernization and innovation spread.

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Early records show that the Phoenicians and Romans made wine in Alentejo as early as the 7th century B.C.  Although winemaking has always been a part of Alentejo's agricultural tradition, it was never the region's main focus.  When phylloxera hit Alejento, many farmers replaced vineyards with olive trees.  Vineyards were deliberately replanted with wheat and other cereals during the Estado Novo period, with the intention of making Alentejo Portugal's breadbasket.  By the 1950s, little commercial wine production existed in the area.  Some towns built cooperatives, allowing growers to produce some wine, but the Alentejo wine industry merely limped through the 1960s and 1970s.  A few farms were even taken over by workers during the reign of Portugal's military junta (1974 – 1986), but were later given back to their owners.  In 1986, Portugal joined the European Union and installed its first non-military president since the 1920s, and these watershed events changed Alentejo's wine industry.  As in many other parts of Europe, Alentejo was able to modernize with EU funding.  Although the region's wines still have room for improvement, Alentejo is beginning to make its presence known on the world wine stage.

Geography, Soil and Climate
As mentioned previously, Alentejo's southeastern, interior location and continental climate mean that the region has extremely hot summers with little rainfall.  Alentejo's abundant sunshine is an asset, especially now that irrigation is permitted.  Europe's largest man-made lake is here in Alentejo, a byproduct of the Alqueva Dam project, and other irrigation projects have been built here.  The region's soils are mainly granite and schist, with a few pockets of clay and limestone.

Sub-Regions of Alentejo
Alentejo has been divided into eight sub-regions, each with its own DOC.  On wine labels, you'll see the sub-region's name after the regional appellation, e.g. "Alentejo Borba." Wines can also be labeled as Vinho Regional, under the "Alentejano" designation.  Growers in each sub-region favor different grape varieties.

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The Borba sub-region includes the towns of Estremoz and Vila Viçosa as well as Borba itself.  Borba is Alentejo's second-largest sub-region.  The soils are mainly limestone and schist.  Popular grape varieties include perrum, rabo de ovelha, roupeiro and tamarez (white) and periquita, aragonez and trincadeira (red).