Alentejo Wine Region: Progressive, Sustainable, Radical (Yet Rooted in the Past)

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Alentejo Wine Region: Progressive, Sustainable, Radical (Yet Rooted in the Past)

Portugal is in the worst drought it has faced in more than 1,200 years. This year in Portugal’s Alentejo, considered one of the wine regions most vulnerable to climate due to its baseline hot and dry conditions, grape yields were down by about 5% due to the even drier and hotter-than-usual conditions.

The future doesn’t look much brighter: The ongoing effects of climate change are expected to impact Portugal more severely than other European countries, with potential losses of 2% to its GDP by 2040, according to new findings from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. Alentejo in particular, scientists warn, will bear the brunt of the losses, because the agricultural—especially wine-growing—industry is so dependent on regular rainfall and a temperate climate to thrive.

While the outlook is indubitably grim, the mood and spirit in Alentejo is anything but. This is, after all, a region with a history and a wine culture that’s been shaped and defined by challenges.

Invaders—from the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. to the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate in the 8th century—influenced and severely curtailed wine production, respectively. (The Tartessians reportedly introduced wine-growing and making to Alentejo around 2000 B.C.) During the 19th century, Alentejo wine was considered some of the best in the world, earning key accolades at international exhibitions in Paris, Vienna, London and Berlin and landing in the choicest cellars in the world.

But increased political and economic instability in the 20th century plunged Alentejo into an existential crisis. During Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship, he completely isolated the country from the world and instituted complete control of the country’s economy. He introduced a measure called Campanha do Trigo in 1929, which replaced grape estates with cereal farms. He died in 1970, but a subsequent Communist revolution turned remaining estates over to the people.

It wasn’t until the 1980s when previous wine-growers and producers (or their children) returned to Alentejo to rebuild and replant that the region began to reclaim its place on the world stage. And… cue the launch of the climate crisis.

While anyone could be forgiven for throwing in the towel—or at the very least, simply mechanically moving forward—under these circumstances, that’s not Alentejo’s style. In true lemons-to-lemonade fashion, Alentejo is combatting the climate crises with an array of colorful and inspiring weapons, from carbon-eliminating biodiverse farms to teams of pest-munching bat assistants, ensuring not just a tasty today but a viable and more valuable tomorrow.

Wineries in Alentejo Are Tapping the Natural Ecosystem

Wine regions around the world are generally filled with, well, vineyards. In Alentejo, vineyards are simply part of a mosaic of living and growing things—within the region, and frequently, on estates themselves.

At Herdade de Coelheiro, a farm dating back to the 15th century, vineyards aren’t even the first thing you might notice. There are about 1,500 acres of cork forest and about 125 acres of vineyards plus fruit orchards, olive trees and walnut trees.

“We feel like we have created a perfect ecosystem here, a mosaic that works in harmony,” said winemaker Luís Patrão, adding that the cork trees are an essential part of the estate and Alentejo’s future. “They are part of a fragile ecosystem, and they are foundational to preserving biodiversity.”

In fact, studies show that cork oak forests support more than 200 animal and 135 plant species; they also retain up to 14 million tons of carbon, which can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, one of the top drivers of climate change.

“The trees help bring in animals, birds, insects and plants that are helpful in combatting pests naturally in our orchards and vineyards,” Patrão said. In addition to the natural draw of the forest, Coelheiros has installed dozens of bat and bird boxes and perches for eagles and falcons, all of whom target grape-munching insects and small animals, reducing the need for synthetic pest control.

“We are also using the natural stream corridors in the estate to introduce plants and trees native to the region,” Patrão said. “It increases the biodiversity and health of the estate, helps retain the stream’s humidity and provides snake, frog and insect corridors.”

Futuristic Farming Techniques in Alentejo

Farming for the future has become de rigueur almost everywhere. But at Cortes de Cima, future is arriving at warp speed.

The winery was founded in 1988 by an American-Danish couple, Hans Kristian and Carrie Jorgenson, who settled there after a tour via sailboat in search of the perfect place to plant a vineyard and raise a family. From the beginning, their approach was a bit different. The Cortes de Cima estate as they found it was unproductive land and a series of elderly buildings in various states of disrepair.

The Vidigueira pocket of Alentejo, where Cortes de Cima is located, was known for its indigenous white grapes. So, they planted Syrah, believing it would thrive in the terroir there, even though it wasn’t a traditional choice.

“We’ve also done things a little bit differently here,” admits winemaker Hamilton Reis, who adds that the international variety was not approved for DOC Alentejo until their bottling—labeled, wittily, Incognito—garnered a cult following. On the back, there was a list of five words that spelled out Syrah with their initials and a Bob Dylan quote that reads: “to live outside the law, you must be honest.”

“But now, as successful as our Syrah has been and how proud we are to have inspired others to plant it and have it now approved as an Alentejo grape, we are looking at interesting Portuguese varieties like Loureiro, which we believe has the potential to stand up to the changing climate,” Reis said.

In addition to carefully considering future grape plantings—currently 225 acres are under vine, with 25 acres pulled out and destined for a replant, likely to indigenous varieties—Cortes de Cima is also laser-focused on optimizing every inch of its vineyard. That means relying on a team of geese to eat snails and other vineyard pests, sheep to manage soil and weed and careful cover crop plantings.

“Next year, we’re going to plant local wheat as our cover crop and harvest and sell it,” Reis said. “We’ve also thought about adapting the concept of agroforestry by bringing a few of our olive trees into the vineyard to keep grapes cool and protect them from the extremes of weather.”

Below ground, Cortes de Cima is working with famed wine terroir consultant Pedro Parra to analyze the soil.

“We have dug 60 pits so far to map out the soil types across the vineyard,” Reis said. “We have a lot of granite and limestone, and they hold water very differently. We also test the electroconductivity to figure out how much clay there is. By understanding the micro-terroir of our site, we’ll be able to understand what grapes should go in when it’s time to replant, best rootstocks and clones and different water needs.”

They are currently working on a series of micro-vinifications, determining how to leverage techniques like skin contact and fermentation length, depending on the soil type.

Invaders, dictators and intemperate conditions can’t break the spirit or imagination of the people of this region. Rest assured, it will be a bom dia in Alentejo tomorrow, come what may.

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