The northern part of the Alentejo (literally, “beyond the Tagus”) is a true medieval gem, with its fortified towns (Elvas, Estremoz) and its castles perched up high (as in Marvão or Castelo de Vide). Embedded between the Muslim South and Spain, from the 12th to the 17th centuries this territory was crucial, in military terms as well, in defining the Portuguese frontier and in forging its identity as a nation. Suffice it to recall the military Order of Knights Hospitaller (afterwards Order of Malta), which was of major importance in the conquest and defence of the territory and whose headquarters in Portugal were located in the town of Crato, or Elvas, a military town par excellence, with the most extensive system of fortified bastions in the world, classified by UNESCO in 2012 as a World Heritage Site.
THE ALTO ALENTEJO REGION
In geographical terms, the region of the Alto Alentejo is bordered on the East by the Serra de São Mamede, a granitic mountain range – the highest south of river Tagus – with peaks that can reach one thousand metres high and wide and noble landscapes, interspersed with granitic outcrops, between which nestle vines and olive groves amidst the largest extent of cork oak trees in the world. The weather, which is sweet in the spring, dry in the summer, sumptuous in the autumn and ‘cold’ and rainy in December/January, favours a particularly varied flora and fauna – and, naturally, innumerable species of birds.
And yet, despite a rare combination of natural and man-made riches, the Alto Alentejo remains, even today, one of the wildest and least known regions of the Iberian Peninsula – a wonderful stretch of nature, far away from mass tourism, where one can discover what is most authentic, in the country with the oldest frontiers in Europe.
A land rich in olive trees, and with the largest extent of cork oak trees in the world, the Alto Alentejo remains, even today, one of the wildest and least known regions of the Iberian Peninsula.
The strong and authentic tastes of Alto Alentejo cooking have always been linked to the land and to what it offers, based on a fundamental triad: bread, olive oil and aromatic herbs – among them coriander, parsley, oregano, pennyroyal and spearmint.
As regards meat, it should be noted that grazing is a widespread practice in the region. Herds of black pigs, with their incomparable meat, wander through the montado, forests of cork and holm oak trees, searching for acorns, which constitute their sole food; this gives the local smoked sausages, made according to traditional methods, a unique and delicious taste. As for cattle and sheep herding, which are also noteworthy, mention must be made of the different varieties of cheese, in which the milk is curdled with wild cardoon flower according to an old Iberian custom.
As for desserts, the main ingredients of the Alto Alentejo’s delicious pastry are sugar, eggs, herbs, but also cinnamon and other spices, whose trade and production, like that of cane sugar, expanded during the maritime Discoveries. Their ancient recipes, most of them originating in nuns’ convents and kept secret for centuries, are extremely varied and bear the most imaginative and suggestive names, such as “Heavenly bacon” (toucinho do céu) and “Nun’s belly” (barriga de freira).
Though the vine was not unknown to the peoples inhabiting the region well before the Roman occupation, it was with the Romans that its cultivation and the making of wine became generalized in the Alentejo. Significantly, two thousand years later, its marks can still be
seen, as in the process of vinification in amphorae (the talhas), huge terracotta recipients sealed with a natural
resin (pez), descendants of the Roman doria.
The accession of Portugal to the European Community, after a long and contrasted history, marked a new era for the Alentejo wines, as it brought with it modern methods of vinification. Today, 22,000 hectares of planted vine in the region generate about 88 million litres of wine per year, and are responsible for the greater part of Portuguese wine production.
The terroir of Portalegre, capital of the Alto Alentejo
Portugal is one of the countries where more native vine varieties are to be found: nearly 250 species.
During the first half of the 20th century, the greater part of the vines in the Alentejo was uprooted, with the aim of transforming the Alentejo into a large cereal region.
Because the land was too poor and difficult to access, the territory of Portalegre escaped the eradication of the vine. For that reason, we can still find there a significant number of ancient native varieties, some of them almost one hundred years old.
Different factors contribute towards making this a unique terroir in the context of winemaking in the Alentejo, and even in Portugal. The acidity of its granitic soil is one of them; but also cultivation at high altitudes – some of the vines are grown at almost 800m, being among the highest in the country – which allows them to grow at lower temperatures, and with more rainfall, than in the rest of the Alentejo; and, finally, the system of cultivation in small plots and on the slopes of the Serra de São Mamede, which makes mechanization impossible.
The best wines in the region reveal a character that is at once both powerful and subtle. As Rui Reguinga, an enologist in love with the region, explains, “this terroir, so special and so different, is capable of producing elegant and harmonious wines, both fresher and lighter than in other regions of the Alentejo”.