Authentic Alentejo: Where the Portuguese Buy their Wines | Wine Enthusiast
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Authentic Alentejo: Where the Portuguese Buy their Wines

When the Portuguese shop for wine, they shop Alentejo (ah-len-TAY-zhoo). They know their country’s southern region has red and white wines that combine tradition, value, and reflect the area’s rich local culture. With a wine-growing history dating back over 2,000 years, there’s an unbroken custom of making wines in amphora, while integrating along the way best practices from the outside world.

Alentejo’s regional capital, the UNESCO heritage city of Évora, is an easy 90-minute drive from the nation’s capital of Lisbon. Lisbon residents come here to enjoy farm-fresh food from the country’s breadbasket, to wander through its picturesque narrow cobbled streets, or to hike through Alentejo’s national parks and relax on its uncrowded beaches. Come join them!

Native grape varieties are prized and often blended, both with other local and international grapes, to make out-of-the-ordinary wines. Meet inky structured Alicante Bouschet (Alentejo’s flagship red), juicy red currant Castelão, plummy Trincadeira and nutty Moreto, among others. A surprising one-fifth of Alentejo wine production is from white grapes. Perfumed Antão Vaz is the full-bodied white star, while Arinto offers lemon-lime freshness.

Evora Roman Temple of Diana

The stunning Alentejo capital Évora features buildings with a fantastical blend of flamboyant gothic and nautical themes. An homage to Portugal’s famed maritime history that brought the country boundless wealth, Évora’s 16th century “Manueline” buildings appear encrusted with coral and carved barnacles, and are decorated with stone ropes, anchors, and navigational instruments. Other historic towns include Portalegre, Santarém and Castelo de Vide.

Alentejo is home to about one-third of the world’s cork tree forests, whose bark is carefully harvested by hand just once every nine years. Learn about cork, as well as wine made in talhas de barro. These clay pots can be as large as seven feet in height, hold up to 520 gallons of wine, and weigh a ton (literally!). Though a bit large to bring home, smaller souvenirs include wonderful pottery and tiles, as well as CDs of Portugal’s version of the Blues, Cante Alentejano (Alentejo Song). Performed a cappella by a choir, the songs are recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Alentejo Cheeses

In the Alentejo three culinary influences converge: Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Mexican! Cod, octopus, and clams are found in dishes combining “surf and turf” in exciting ways. The “turf” includes the famous porco preto (black pork), wild pigs fattened on acorns from the cork oak trees. And Cozido, a national dish of meat, cabbage, and other vegetables, comes here with lamb raised on the Alentejo plains. For vegetarians there are dishes made with purslane, as well as “Conquistador imports” of tomato, pepper, sweetcorn, beans, and pumpkin. Of course, nothing goes to waste, even at dessert time. The egg yolk and sugar tartlets were invented by nuns, from egg yolks left over after starching their veils with egg whites.

Most attractions are reachable via spectacularly beautiful drives, such as through the São Mamede Natural Park. Fans of the outdoors can also hike, cycle, or horseback ride through flatter areas, combining it with birdwatching in the plains of the Castro Verde. And thanks to its lack of light pollution, the Alentejo also boasts Europe’s first Starlight Tourist Destination – the Dark Sky Alqueva Reserve.

Sunny, safe, surprisingly inexpensive, and accessible, laid-back Alentejo is the same size as Massachusetts. Everything is within easy driving distance and rush hour is non-existent. Accommodations range from cozy homestead-stays to luxury resort hotels and spas. Authentic Alentejo offers vacations to satisfy lovers of the arts, history, outdoors and of course, food and wine. There’s something for everyone.