Alentejo Wine Region Guide

Discover the Rich Flavors of Portugal's Alentejo Wine Region


Last updated: November 27, 2023


Often described as ‘the new Tuscany’ (minus the crowds), Alentejo is a paradise for those who want to escape the hustle and bustle of modern life. Its attractions are numerous: endless sunshine, superlative gastronomy, beautiful scenery, and a surfeit of luxury hotels. Yet, compared with the tapestry of vines that have covered northern Portugal for centuries, Alentejo is a relative newcomer to high-quality wine production. As a result, some collectors and connoisseurs refuse to take southern Portugal seriously; prejudice can be a stubborn force in the world of fine wine. But, as the awards pile up and local quality soars, even the most intransigent voices are reconsidering their position on Alentejo wines.

For decades, Alentejo was known as the “breadbasket of Portugal” – a sparsely populated, economically underdeveloped region. Its livelihood was based on producing various cereal crops and the cork for which Portugal is famous. Indeed, the region is still full of the thick-barked Quercus suber trees (Cork Oak) that seem to sprawl out all over the landscape. However, they have been joined over the past 25 years by global investors, modern cellars, rapidly expanding tourist facilities, and the latest winemaking equipment. Visitors who became familiar with Alentejo in the 1990s would scarcely recognize the region today. It deserves an encore.

Winemaking and regional classifications

Talha wines, fermentedin clay pots
Talha wines, fermentedin clay pots

This is frontier wine country: experimentation with weird and wonderful esoteric blends regularly occurs in Alentejo. For that reason, a large proportion of the region’s wine – although some of it does qualify for a DOC – is sold as Vinho Regional Alentejano. This framework is one of Europe’s most liberal and progressive – winemakers can mix and march varieties, such as Syrah and Trincadeira, in ways that would horrify Gallic traditionalists in the Rhone. Thus, it isn’t easy to pigeonhole the wines of Alentejo. The only broad generalization we can make is that ripeness and concentration come all too easily to winegrowers in southern Portugal – achieving freshness and poise is another matter.

Fortunately, the best labels showcase stunningly ripe fruit balanced by ripe acidity and silky tannins. These are red wines that can always be enjoyed from the get-go. Portalegre, meanwhile, is the place to go looking for fresh and aromatic whites. Again, the freedom to blend indigenous grapes with imports is one of the region’s greatest strengths.

However, one increasingly popular specialty of the Alentejo region is the traditional talha wines. The Vinho de Talha DOC, introduced in 2010, regulates the production of these unique wine styles. According to the rules, destemmed grapes are vinified in impermeable clay pots or talha; the wine is left on its skins until 11 November, traditionally sealed under a layer of olive oil. Historically, talha wines were not usually bottled: a drinking tap installed at the base transferred the wine directly to your glass in the taverns of Alentejo. Modernity, it seems, has to make some concessions to the past.

Alentejo Wine Map

Alentejo Wine Region Map
Download Alentejo Wine Map

Geography and terroir

Rustic charm of the Alentejo landscape
Rustic charm of the Alentejo landscape

Alentejo is vast. The region extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Spanish border, stretching about a third of the country’s length. The name refers to its position south of the Tejo River, which bisects Portugal, entering the ocean near the nation’s capital. Today there are approximately 22,000 hectares of vineyards in Alentejo, planted on rich loamy soils interspersed with granite and schist, to which vines are more suited. Ranch-like estates dot the landscape, joining the silver olives, sheep, and endless vistas of undulating hills. It is a dreamy and captivating place to make wine.

However, Alentejo will not appeal to lovers of cool weather. Even in midwinter, this is a land of sun and scant rainfall. The summer, meanwhile, can routinely see temperatures rise above 40 degrees centigrade; the undulating topography protects much of the land from the cooling effects of the Atlantic. As a result, it is normal for growers to start picking in mid-August, if not before. Over 60 percent of Alentejo’s vineyards are concentrated in four key subregions (there are eight in total); Borba, Redondo, Reguengos, and Vidigueira. The climatic conditions in each of these four areas are broadly similar.

Yet there are some cooler subzones to be found in this parched vineyard. In the northeast of Alentejo is the (relatively) inclement destination known as Portalegre. It has become fashionable with elevation-obsessed winegrowers who seek finesse over raw power; certain vineyards rise to above 750 meters above sea level, while average rainfall can hit 600mm a year. But, the key advantage here is diurnal temperature variation (a large difference between night and daytime temperatures), which helps preserve the grapes’ acidity. For that reason, both the Symington family and Sogrape have purchased estates in Portalegre; many producers in the south buy grapes from these higher vineyards to add freshness to their blends. As a result, expect the area under vine to increase significantly over the next decade!

The lowdown

The Alentejo region is anything but static. Over the past decade, investment has flowed into its vineyards and cellar doors while new climats (individual sites) continue to be explored and exploited. Yet the catalyst for this shift into emerging terroirs is, regrettably, the malign spectacle of climate change. It is the principal reason behind Cortes de Cima’s decision to plant varieties – including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – near the charming town of Vila Nova de Milfontes, just three kilometers from the coast. Benefiting from marine air courtesy of the Atlantic, these exceptional vineyards yield small berries packed with crunchy acidity. They represent, without any doubt, the future of Alentejo winemaking.

However, vines planted in the interior of the region, of course, enjoy no such privilege. From the perspective of their owners, the increasingly hot and dry growing conditions cannot simply be managed with a wholesale move into cooler terroirs. Fortunately, the region’s key stakeholders are not resting on their laurels.

In 2015, Alentejo’s Regional Wine Growing Commission launched the Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Programme (WASP), a project designed to encourage best practice among wineries and growers. Its expansive remit covers sustainable viticulture, water, energy and waste management, pests and diseases, human resources, air quality, ecosystem management, and community involvement. “Our long-term goal is to have a region that is resilient to climate change. An area that will be able to endure dry summers, more regular, longer and more intense heat waves, shorter winters and intense short rainfall periods, and still make the unique, stylish and beautiful wines that our customers expect,” explains project coordinator João Barroso.

He continues: “There was a clear urgency to create a regional movement towards best practices, resource savings, efficiency increases, and prosperity aligned with the adaptation to climate change. This is key for the producers to have a competitive advantage in the global market. In addition, a rigorous certification process ensures that consumers are guaranteed authenticity – no one can ‘breeze through’ the requirements.”

This bold endeavor represents a progressive and dynamic response to global warming. It is also highly ambitious, with goals that extend far beyond a simple carbon footprint reduction. Today, WASP empowers winegrowers with the vital tools to mitigate the most pernicious aspects of climate change. It has become an exemplar for others to follow in our capricious world.

Alentejo gastronomy

Hand in hand with Alentejo’s winemaking revolution has come a significant gastronomic and hospitality shake-up in the wider region. Traditional taverns have been joined by luxury wine hotels, Michelin restaurants, and fashionable evening haunts, propelled by continuing investment and an unprecedented level of interest in the region from international tourists. Évora, the region’s capital, is captivating – a Unesco world heritage site boasting abundant history and food. Strolling through the traverses of this labyrinthine city is a real delight, especially as they’re full of quaint, family-run restaurants. Inside, you’ll find a gastronomic tradition that has remained much the same for centuries; the food is not sophisticated but rich with delicious local ingredients such as sheep’s cheese, black pork, salt cod, wild mushrooms, and asparagus. Boisterous locals enjoy the hospitality of the many excellent taverns and restaurants filling this beguiling region. And so will you.


Traditional House
Traditional House

Ruled by the Romans, the Visigoths, and then the Moors, Alentejo has been at the center of Portuguese history for centuries. Some would describe the landscape, even today, as an outdoor museum: several Neolithic Dolmens (ancient stone tomb structures) dotted across the arid plains of Alentejo. Yet the Romans promulgated viticulture in the region, planting scores of vines and other crops. It became a key agricultural resource in the expanding Roman Empire, generating vast wealth that funded the creation of lavish estates and ornate villas. Before they arrived in 218 BC, Alentejo was a very sparsely populated and backward province. At the peak of the Western Roman Empire, Alentejo had been endowed with a ‘modern’ infrastructure, including roads, dams, and aqueducts.

However, Rome’s hegemony was fated to collapse in 476 AD after decadence and corruption opened the door to rival powers from northern Europe. The Visigoths briefly controlled the Iberian Peninsula before the Moors conquered Hispania (modern-day Spain and Portugal) in 711. Their great civilization endured for centuries, transforming the social and cultural life of the Iberian Peninsula, with the notable exception of secluded provinces in the north. Yet by the 1100s, Portugal was back under Christian control, following a series of campaigns led by the monarch Alfonso Henriques in the 12th century. Aided by a group of English knights, Henriques recaptured the capital Lisbon in 1147 – the Christian forces then consolidated their hold over Alentejo and the Algarve.

Thus began Portugal’s golden age, defined by exploration, rapid urban development, and the acquisition of unprecedented wealth from their South American colonies. During the 1500s, Alentejo’s capital Évora was transformed by an order of Jesuits, who built a number of architectural masterpieces in the burgeoning city. Meanwhile, viticulture had once again become important to the local economy – farmers could easily ripen grapes in the warm and sunny climate of the south.
Yet the region’s fortunes declined significantly in the 20th century. After the dictator, Antonio Salazar, assumed power in 1932, lazy and ineffectual co-operatives dominated wine production in Alentejo. Inevitably, the quality of their output was mediocre at best. Only towards the end of the last millennium did private investors begin to transform Alentejo’s ailing vineyards and infrastructure, investing much-needed capital when the south was in dire economic straits.

Of course, there is much to tempt outsiders in Alentejo’s wild, untamed landscape: there are few hard and fast rules here. So this is an excellent pioneer country with the added advantage of low land prices. However, bureaucratic hurdles exist in Alentejo, as elsewhere – when Cortes de Cima released their sumptuous Syrah in 1998, the appellation rules wouldn’t allow them to reference the grape variety. So they called it ‘Incógnito’ and presented it to the world.

The estate is one of Alentejo’s most important trailblazers. It was founded in 1988 by Dane Hans Kristian Jorgensen and his wife, Carrie. Since 1997 the wines have been consistently excellent, fruit-driven with good varietal expression, particularly from the Portuguese grapes. In 2002, the first vintage of an outstanding, enticingly aromatic Touriga Nacional was released, made with exceptional fruit. It remains one of Portugal’s finest red wines.

Meanwhile, when the Lafite Rothschilds invested in Quinta do Carmo in Borba in 1992, the world took note, and Alentejo was placed firmly on the wine map. By 2006 Alentejo could boast over 150 wine producers who continued to work with local and imported grape varieties. Today, there are over 280 wineries and 1800 growers working these vineyards. The days of depressing mediocrity, thankfully, are long gone.


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James lawrence

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