Alentejo is becoming famous for its wines and rightly so. The North of Portugal, specifically the Douro region, has a long history in wine production. Alentejo is catching up quickly both in terms of quantity and quality. Wine is Alentejo’s biggest export accounting for nearly 40% of their exports to a wide variety of countries, including Australia, China, Angola and the Americas.
Most of Alentejo’s wine production is centred in the area of Vidigueira to the east of the region in the hot centre of the country although some producers are now expanding to the coastal area where we currently live.
The local vineyard produces my favourite white from this winery — a floral Sauvignon Blanc — a perfect accompaniment to seafood and fish.
Further up the coast in the Setubal area is one of the more interesting vineyards where Pinheiro da Cruz wine is made by the inmates of the local prison. They have an excellent reputation and produce award winning wines for which there is a high demand and a higher than usual price due to the limited amount of land available for production.
Another of my favourites from this area is Joao Pires White — a softer floral fruity white — a little on the sweet side though so if you like your white wine dry, this is not for you.
Vidigueira has a huge cooperative that produces a wide range of wines both red and white from table wines right up to speciality reserves. Portugal uses the cooperative system far more than the UK and it works really well for the smaller local producers who can share in the investment in machinery and overheads.
There are a number of vineyards in the Vidigueira region from the older smaller family units to the ultra-modern facilities at Cortes de Cima or Herdade do Rosim.
We visited Herdade do Rosim last year for a tour and a tasting. They have worked as hard to lessen the impact of their facilities on the environment as they have on developing their wines.
If you fancy a long weekend discovering Alentejo wines and the beautiful countryside in the region there are a number of coordinated wine tours available where you can travel from one vineyard to another to meet the owners, learn how wine is made, watch production and of course taste the results. The “official” Alentejo wine tour can be found here.
Other vineyards are happy to show visitors around — it is best to make an appointment for these.
Thanks for the great article and images, Nicola!
I’m curious how you feel about the prison labor wine. Does using the incarcerated to produce goods concern you or others in the area? Do other wineries think using prisoners to make wine is an unfair business advantage against which they cannot compete?
From what I have heard this particular prison project benefits both the inmates and the local area. I think in the UK it would be termed more as a rehabilitation project than incarceration. It is considered a huge sucess by the Prison system here – they have very little “trouble” which is quite remarkable as it is one of the least armed prisoned. Prisoners benefit from the fruit of their labours – they get pay and wine rations.
I think it is quite clever as a lot of rural prisoners who are used to working in the fields/being outside all day would quite literally go “stir crazy” if they were in some of the prisons in the UK or USA.
I understand that the state prison service pays little or nothing towards the running of the establishment as it is self funding.
I am not sure what the other wineries feel about them – I think the prison winery has been there longer than most.
In the USA, that sort of prison-labor-for-profit is starting to be frowned upon because the prisoners make around 0.13USD cents a hour when the Federal minimum wage is $7.25USD. Some of those who do slave labor in prison actually get billed for their prison food and housing — making them a debtor the prison system when they are released.
I realize all this isn’t the point of your article — but you did mention the prisoner winery — and since I don’t drink alcohol, I became intrigued by the local economics of it all. SMILE!
I will now back away and let others celebrate your fine Alentejo wines!
It is a very valid point – and I know that some prisons in the world are akin to slave labour and have human rights activists and many others concerned and quite rightly having looked at those figures.
I think this particular prison is one of the better exmples of social rehabilitation.
Great imagery! I love a good bottle of wine and learning its story. 🙂
I am hoping to do the wine tour – or at least some of it – there are some weird and wonderful vineyards out there.
Great pictures! I’m as green as could be when it comes to wine — I’ll only be of legal drinking age this August– but being Italian, I’ve grown up surrounded by it. I’m interested in the contrast between old family places and the ultra modern ones you mentioned. Do the seasoned vets or natives to Portugal prefer one over the other?
The natives are split Emily – the poorer families drink table wine , which is the cheapest often made by the smaller local vineyards and the cooperatives – the emerging wealthy who have more to spend will buy the reserves or the new wines from the ultra modern wineries. A lot of the new wines also go for export – they are speciafically made to challenge the “new wines” of Australia, New Zealand, The Americas and South Africa.