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History of wine in Alentejo

The history of winemaking in Alentejo is nearly as old as the region itself. It has experienced its high times and its low points. There have always been successes here in viticulture – then followed yet again by developments that made things difficult for the wines of Alentejo. But today, Alentejo is one of Portugal’s most highly regarded wine regions.

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

It remains unclear exactly how wine came to the region. But already starting in the ninth century BC in the age of the Tartessos – an ancient civilisation in the south of the Iberian peninsula – vineyards had been laid out and organised methods of viticulture introduced. Later on the Greeks came to Alentejo, bringing with them amphoras, used in production of wine.

And most significant to the further development of viticulture in Alentejo? No surprise; it was the Romans. They improved grape-growing and vinification methods in addition to bringing the first noble grape varieties to Portugal and thus to Alentejo. Still today, more than two thousand years later, one encounters evidence of this stage of civilisation – for example, the maturation of wine in alhas de barro. These clay vessels, made in all shapes and sizes, remain in use. For today, this method of vinification is still (and once again) employed in Alentejo. These receptacles can contain up to 2,000 litres of wine and stand up to two metres tall.

CONQUEST AND RECONQUEST

At the beginning of the 8th century, the Iberian Peninsula found itself in possession of the Moors. The introduction of Islam led step by step to the disappearance of winegrowing in Alentejo. It was only during the reconquista – the re-conquering – that viticulture began to re-establish itself in the 15th century. Here the brotherhoods of monks led the way. And even the royal family strongly supported winegrowing in the region; thus the 16th century became a golden age for wine in Alentejo. The wines of Évora were well known outside the region’s borders, and in the 17th century, the wines of Alentejo were the most highly prized wines of Portugal, along with those from Estremadura and Beira.

But then there unfolded another crisis for viticulture in Alentejo, namely, with the founding of the Real Companhia Geral de Agricultura dos Vinhos do Douro, an organisation created in the middle of the 18th century by the Marquis of Pombal to protect the wines of the Douro. In the course of which the Marquis set political machinations in motion that even were able to bring about the pulling-up of vineyards in many Portuguese regions, including Alentejo.

In the mid-19th century, though, a renaissance began for viticulture in Alentejo. A new generation of winegrowers settled in the region, and the vineyards once more came to life. In 1888, a wine from the Quinta das Relíquias in Vidigueira won the top prize of the entire event at Berlin’s Exhibition 1888. A short time afterwards, the first winegrowers’ cooperative in Portugal was founded in Viana do Alentejo.

With the phylloxera epidemic, winemaking in Alentejo experienced a further setback. And after this, the two world wars led to an economic crisis. A campaign for the planting of wheat and other grains instead of grapes (whereby Alentejo became Portugal’s ‘breadbasket’) led to an appreciable reduction in the area under vines.

During the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazer, the wine industry in Alentejo began to recover once more. This re-blossoming of the industry was supported by the Junta Nacional do Vinho (JNV), which coordinated the activities of various institutions connected with winegrowing and was able to take advantage of the synergies it created. At the same time, the JNV compelled many small growers to organise themselves into larger winemaking cooperatives.

In 1997, PROVA (Projeto de Viticultura do Alentejo) was founded, in order to establish a system of quality controls. The ATEVA (Associaçao Técnica dos Viticultores do Alentejo) had been created in 1983 to promote viticulture in the various subregions within Alentejo. The first Alentejo DOCs were laid out in 1988, followed in 1989 by creation of the CVRA (Comissão Vitivinícola Regional Alentejana), which today certifies all wines produced in Alentejo.