A Brief History of Alentejo Wines
The history of the vine and the wine in the region now known as the Alentejo requires a long, meandering narrative, with detailed descriptions of time and place. It is a long and largely unknown history of achievements throughout thousands of years in which the region has seen turbulent epochs alternate with periods of calm and prosperity — cycles of uncertainty followed by cycles of enlightenment and vanguardism.
It is a magnificent and enduring history. Archaeological artefacts scattered across the region attest to the uninterrupted presence of the wine and vine culture on the quiet Alentejo landscape. Unfortunately, the veil of time still hides the identity of those who brought the cultivation of the vine to the Alentejo. Neither can we accurately identify when it happened. What is known, however, is that when the Romans arrived in the south of Portugal, vine growing and wine making were already a vital part of the customs and traditions of the local population. It is suspected that the Tartessians, an ancient civilisation based in the south of the Iberian Peninsula and heirs of the Andalusian Megalithic culture, were the first to domesticate the vine and later introduce wine to the Alentejo.
The Phoenicians, a civilisation of maritime traders, appeared later in search of new sources of minerals to supply the eastern Mediterranean markets. Navigating the estuaries of the Guadiana, Sado and Tagus Rivers, they slowly but inexorably took over the commercial interests of the Tartessians, forcing them into decline.
The Greeks, whose presence is reflected by hundreds of amphorae (two-handled pitchers) in archaeological sites throughout southern Portugal, took over from the Phoenicians in the development and trade of Alentejo wines. By that time, the region had already witnessed two hundred years of vine growing. The existence of a vine and wine culture since classical antiquity suggests, with a high degree of certainty, that the first vine varieties in Portugal were of Mediterranean origin and were most likely introduced to the Alentejo.
However, it was the Romans, with their farming expertise, who made the cultivation of the vine and the making of wine mainstays of the Alentejo lifestyle.
In fact, historical records strongly suggest that the first Portuguese wines exported to Rome may have come from this region — the Alentejo may very well have been pioneers in the globalisation of Portuguese wine! Roman influence was so critical in the development of Alentejo viticulture that even today, after over two thousand years, signs of their civilisation continue to be seen in day-to-day tasks. The podão, for example, a traditional pruning knife, was widely used until very recently.
However, the most enduring tradition left behind by the Romans, and still an integral part of the Alentejo winemaking process, is that of fermenting must and storing wine in talhas de barro - clay vessels, produced in all shapes and sizes. The Romans introduced the practice into all their territories, but only in the Alentejo has it prevailed. Some of these clay vessels weigh up to a tonne, reach two metres in height, and can store up to 2,000 litres of wine. The porous vessels were treated with pês, a natural pine resin, to prevent leakage, using ancestral methods passed down along successive generations of artisans called pesgadores, a profession almost extinct now. Each clan of pesgadores had their own secret pês recipe, magic formulas that conferred their own distinctive flavours and characteristics to each talha de barro.
With the rapid spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire, the obligatory use of wine in the celebration of the Eucharist opened up new appetites and new markets for wine. The Catholic faith was a factor, albeit an indirect one, in encouraging the establishment and development of the Alentejo vineyards.
The early eighth century brought the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, bringing Islam and the Muslim influence to stay for centuries. In the early days of the occupation, tolerance was shown for the customs of the conquered populations. Vines continued to be permitted, although heavy taxes were levied. However, with time, intolerance for Christians and their customs grew and led to a more rigorous application of Koranic law. The Alentejo relationship with wine inevitably began to wane and the vineyards were first neglected and then abandoned. This was the first serious setback to the culture of the vine in the Alentejo.
The following years witnessed frequent skirmishes throughout the peninsula, between the Christians based in the north and Muslims in the south. These vagaries further threatened the cultivation of the vine, which, being a perennial species, requires continual care and constant populations. Vine growing was progressively abandoned.
As a result, the wine culture remained almost absent in the southern territories. Only after the Lusitanian kingdom was established did the cultivation of vines and the making of wine see a renaissance in the Alentejo, with the blessing of the royal family and the new religious orders. By the sixteenth century, vines flourished as never before in the region with the production of the famous wines of Évora – the wines of Peramanca – as well as the whites from Beja, and the palhetes from Alvito, Viana and Vila de Frades.
In the mid-seventeenth century, Alentejo wines, together with those from Beira and Estremadura, were the most famous and renowned Portuguese wines. Unfortunately, the War of Restoration put an end to this success. However, it was the creation of the Real Companhia Geral de Agricultura dos Vinhos do Douro - an organisation established by the Marquis of Pombal to protect Douro wines - that prompted the second great crisis for Alentejo wine. One of the measures put in place was the forced uprooting of vines in many regions, including the Alentejo. Consequently Alentejo wines were plunged into obscurity.
This challenging period only came to an end in the mid-nineteenth century, with a campaign to cultivate heathland and reinstate agriculture in the region. A new generation of farmers settled in, and the vineyards saw a second renaissance. A new golden age for the Alentejo gradually emerged, and there was great excitement when a white wine from Quinta das Relíquias, located in Vidigueira, championed by Count Ribeira Brava, won the Grand Medal of Honour at the Berlin Exhibition in 1888 – the most important award at the event. Wines from Évora, Borba, Redondo and Reguengos also received honours.
A few years later, in 1895, the first Adega Social of Portugal was set up in Viana do Alentejo, guided by Antonio Isidoro de Sousa, a pioneer of the cooperative movement in Portugal.
Unfortunately these glorious times were to come to an abrupt end. The phylloxera epidemic was followed by one and then another world war, successive economic crises, and a campaign to replace vineyards with wheat and other grain fields (in an attempt to turn the region into Portugal’s ‘bread basket’). Once again Alentejo wines fell into decline. Vineyards were reduced to small plots surrounding the hillsides or on the outskirts of villages and towns. Wine was produced for home consumption only and commercial production diminished significantly.
It was under the patronage of the Junta Nacional do Vinho — the national wine planning agency — towards the end of the 1940s that Alentejo viticulture took its first, faltering steps towards recovery. Bringing together several wine industry institutions and taking advantage of their synergies, the association instilled a spirit of cooperation and mutual assistance: a characteristic that remains one of the hallmarks of Alentejo wines today.
With the establishment of PROVA (Projecto de Viticultura do Alentejo) in 1977, the technical requirements for implementing a quality control system were put in place. In 1983, ATEVA(Associação Técnica dos Viticultores do Alentejo) was established to promote vine growing in different terroirs within the Alentejo. The first Alentejo DOCs (Protected Designation of Origin) were regulated in 1988. Finally, in 1989, the CVRA (Comissão Vitivinícola Regional Alentejana) was set up to certify and regulate all Alentejo wines.
EU financing came together with the entrepreneurial spirit of regional producers leading to the rapid implementation of modern winemaking techniques, with stainless steel vats and temperature control enabling the production of modern and attractive wines. It is only fair to praise as well the vital role played by the cooperative wineries across the regions who are responsible for the initial success in producing Alentejo wines of exceptional value for money that have won the hearts of the Portuguese people.