Most travelers to Portugal focus their sojourns on Lisbon or the star-studded Algarve, the 100 miles of sun-splashed southern coastline where dazzling limestone cliffs glance downward at chiseled rock arches with secluded grottoes for a beach holiday.
Oenophiles flock to Porto, the nation's second-largest metropolitan area in the north, to follow the Douro Valley wine trail. Porto's recent rebirth has put Port wine and Douro on the culinary connoisseur's radar.
Portugal's wines are one of Europe's best-kept secrets. If your focus is on palatable, bright-fruited red blends, with tasting notes that include cherry and sweet blackberry fruit, I urge you to take a detour to savor the Alentejo (Ah-len TAY-zhoo), translating to "beyond the Tejo," the river that begins in western Spain and meanders through Lisbon to the Atlantic.
This bewitching and seemingly endless region less than two hours south of Lisbon is where you'll savor the reds, mostly blends with intense berrylike blends, in a region that remains largely undetected by American's seeking out Europe's stellar route routes.
Despite its size, Portugal ranks 10th in the world among wine-producing nations, but much like Portuguese cuisine, which may not receive the accolades provided by neighboring Spain's gastronomy or wine production, the Alentejo wines remain little-known outside the country.
Visitors who do immerse themselves in Portugal's largest province, which extends across almost one-third of the country, find a more relaxed way of life. You're close, yet worlds apart from the bustling capital of Lisbon. And in Alentejo you'll discover an authentic uncrowded Portugal welcoming visitors with open arms.
Its inception as a wine region did not get started until the 1960s and '70s. It's the biggest wine region in terms of area, but it's not hugely populated with grapevines.
As for terroir, its wide range of geology is granite and basalt rock in rolling countryside.
"In this sense, the climate is like the Barossa Valley in Southern Australia," said Australian David Baverstock, who has managed the winemaking at the consistently superlative and responsible Herdade do Esporão winery since the early 1990s.
Time stands still
The time-stands-still history of the Alentejo dates back to medieval times. Visitors will find remnants of walls that have withstood centuries of passage, castles, and historic villages, throwbacks like the medieval walled town of Monsaraz and Estremoz, and the UNESCO World Heritage citadel of Evora.
All provide glimpses into Roman conquerors and Moorish-influenced enclaves with mind-boggling fortresses and churches. Some have turned into boutique hotels, dating back to Greek civilization; all have retained their mark on the region.
Scorching summers see temperatures reaching over 100 degrees, leading to a slower pace of life and honorable traditions. The locals cling to their rich heritage handed down from generation to generation -- timeless traditions such weaving hand-made carpets and embroidery, and the century-old work of harvesting cork from trees using only a hammer. Nearly 60% of the world's cork production comes from Portuguese forests, mostly from the Alentejo.
"Rural and rustic yet with style and substance, the Alentejo's warm and generous reds are much like its people," writes Sarah Ahmed, a consultant on Portuguese wines who is known as the "The Wine Detective" at Decanter.
The region has its own DOP (Denominaciones de Origen Protegidas), similar to the French appellations. The wine is regulated to standards in quality and in accordance with specific laws of the European Union.
Despite its relatively small size, Portugal encompasses a wide range of climates. The portfolio of grape varieties, many indigenous to Portugal's numerous microclimates and soil types counts to 250.
Alentejo consumes more than 50,000 acres of vineyard space, larger in acreage than the Napa Valley, at near 45,000 acres. With more than 3,000 hours of sunshine annually, the climate is similar to the mainland of Greece.
In the past 20 years, the Alentejo has nearly quadrupled its wine production.
Two of its lofty grape varieties are Touriga Nacional and Alicante Bouschet. The latter, which arrived from France, fairs much better in the Alentejo where its excellent acidic structure makes it ideal for blending.
Portugal's most noted grape is Touriga Nacional, brought to the Alentejo from the Douro and Dao regions. It's fruit-forward with leathery and savory rustic notes.
Alicante Bouschet has thrived in the region since the mid-19th century and has managed almost single-handedly to put the Alentejo on the wine map. It is most ideal for blending with the leathery and licorice notes of Syrah grapes in American oak barrels, which softens it a bit, allowing for the wine to mature well in the bottle. Because of its intense flavors, Alicante, with its soft tannins, is easy to manage with fermentation, cutting back on maturation time.
The scorching hot Alentejo has also embraced exciting whites. Ervideira Winery, a family enterprise winery dating back to 1880, makes Invisivel (Invisible). The harvest is totally done by machine, and during the night to avoid oxidation fermentation, as during the temperatures can reach up to 42 degrees Celsius, said Ervideira winemaker Duarte Leal da Costa.
The 19th-century farm-estate Sao Lourenco do Barrocal is a luxury wine-hotel within nearly 2,000 acres in the foothill outskirts of the medieval village of Monsaraz. The grounds have been in the same family for more than 200 years.
Located in the ancient farming village of the Monte, it comprises a winery, two farm-to-table restaurants, with agri-tourism resonating to the simplicity of the farm-life world of the Alentejo.
"Portuguese wine has evolved radically in the past 15 years," said José Rogel, resident winemaker at São Lourenço do Barrocal. "This is mostly due to the efforts of a new generation of winemakers who have recognized the land's unique potential.
"It's other distinction, and this is what gives Portugal so much of its winemaking personality, is its numerous and very distinct wine regions, that offer a surprising number of indigenous grape varieties, of which Touriga Nacional is the most well known. For a relatively small country, Portugal has a remarkably wide range of climates and growing conditions."
As the region grows in popularity, there are nearly 70 wineries to visit on the designated wine routes known as Rotas dos Vinhos do Alentejo. The area is easy to navigate by car traversing and discovering the diversity of its sizable terrain.