The art of wine-making in the Alentejo was already well established when the Romans occupied the country’s vineyards, but it is only relatively recently that Alentejan wines have become widely recognized as some of the best in Europe. Many of the region’s vineyards were torn up in the eighteenth century to protect the newly demarcated port wines from the Douro region, while during the last century the Salazar regime encouraged farmers to replace their vines with wheat. It was only in the 1970s that wine co-operatives were re-established, and heavy investment in modern wine-making techniques saw the quality rise dramatically. What makes the wines stand out from elsewhere is that they are made from local grape varieties which thrive in the harsh soils: Touriga Nacional, Aragonez and Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira and Periquita for the reds; and Antão Vaz, Arinto and Roupeiro for the whites. The region’s cool winters, warm summers and perfect conditions for ripening grapes give the wines a full-bodied if youngish flavour.
Many of the producers allow visits, where you can find out about the wines, then sample them over dinner – several of the vineyards have restaurants as well as tasting rooms – while the larger ones, such as the Herdade dos Grous, offer tours of their estate by jeep or even horseback. The best place to start is the headquarters of the Rota dos Vinhos do Alentejo in Évora, which can arrange tours to most of the nearby vineyards. Recommended estates to visit include Esporão; Quinta do Carmo near Estremoz, which is part-owned by the Lafite Rothschild group; and Adega Mayor in the Serra de São Mamede, whose landmark heaquarters is a stunning white edifice designed by Portugal’s most famous architect, Álvaro Siza Viera.