The Bread Basket of Portugal

Alentejo, Portugal’s wine country, also boasts historical and architectural splendours

Alentejo in Portugal is separated from the north of the country by the Tagus river and covers nearly a third of it—one could fit Belgium inside its borders—yet it is home to just five per cent of the population. Its 182km of pristine coastline, much of which is designated as parkland, has long been a draw for sun worshippers, especially the sand dunes around Comporta. Yet recently attention has turned inland to the region’s sweeping plains, dotted with whitewashed villages and fields populated with rows of oaks that are harvested by hand every nine years to supply much of the world’s vintners with a naturally made bottle stopper, for the area produces more than half the world’s supply of cork. One tree alone can provide 4,000 bottle corks and the industry employs 60,000 in the region.

Wine, in fact, is helping to pull in more visitors as connoisseurs look beyond the better-known Douro producers in the north for novelty. Those keen to develop their palate and sniff out interesting bouquets have been nosing around the gentle hills of Alentejo, known as the “bread basket” of Portugal. It yields indigenous grape varieties grown in soils varying from the mineral rock schist and pink marble to granite and limestone.

The sun-soaked countryside of Alentejo boasts vines with Antao Vaz grapes, the base of white wines with good acidity and tropical fruit flavours. Reds range from Aragonez, the most widely-planted, to varietals such as Alfrocheiro, Trincadeira and Tinta Caiada. Among the eight sub-regions that demarcate the Alentejo wine-making zone is Reguengos, an area that was last year proclaimed a European wine capital.

Just two hours from Lisbon by car, the landscape of Reguengos is marked by red soil, grey boulders and trees and chimney tops with stork nests. The land is a step back in time, its territory punctuated by large monoliths that bear testament to Neolithic settlements. History is tangible as one ventures past fortified Roman towns, Moorish ruins and hilltop castles, the latter having been constructed to defend against a Spanish invasion from the east.

Amid this unspoiled countryside are towns and villages where, when hunger calls, travellers can be sure to get proper sustenance. Herbs, both fresh and dried, are used liberally in the local cuisine, including coriander, which frequently appears in kitchens in Portugal and testifies to the nation’s historic trading routes to exotic corners of the globe. Coriander seasons the dish acorda, a soup that calls for day-old bread, olive oil, poached eggs and garlic. Herds of cattle and sheep supply eateries with hearty fare along with game such as partridges, hare, rabbit, quail and woodcock. Not to be overlooked are the regional conventual sweets like pao de rala, made with egg yolks, lemon zest, almonds and sugar, which can be enjoyed in Evora, the regional capital, located about a half-hour drive from the Reguengos vineyards.

There is architectural splendour found in the streets of Evora, a Unesco heritage site, where one can sit with a refreshing drink in summertime in one of the many esplanades and admire beautiful neoclassical and romantic facades. For those seeking products with a local provenance, search out the rug-makers in nearby Arraiolos, where craftsmen have hand-embroidered wool artefacts since the 17th century. Farther afield in Estremoz, famed for its marble quarries, one can lodge in a 700-year-old castle at the local pousada, a network of traditional inns throughout Portugal that have transformed historic landmarks.

Where to Go 

Herdade do Esporao
Alentejo’s leading vintner Esporao is known for its exceptional vintages. Its 2014 Verdelho was voted Portugal’s best wine last year. The estate’s restaurant offers views of sweeping vineyards and dishes made from seasonal ingredients in a wood-burning oven.

One of southern Portugal’s oldest settlements, the hilltop medieval town boasts a 13th century castle and charming whitewashed homes with red roofs and elongated chimneys. It is the perfect place to enjoy stunning panoramas of the Alqueva reservoir.

Europe’s largest artificial lake with more than 1,000km of coastline is lined by several castles and has many islets and hideaways for canoeing, kayaking and sailing enthusiasts. Its clear night skies are ideal for stargazing.

Cobbled streets are home to a rich architectural legacy that includes a Roman temple and 16th century patrician residences decorated with traditional azulejo painted ceramic tiles and wrought-iron balconies. Stay at the Pousada dos Loios hotel, a former 15th century convent next to the ancient monument.

Where to stay

Sao Lourenco do Barrocal
Set on 800 hectares of property marked by olive groves, vineyards and holm and cork oaks, the newly opened Sao Lourenco do Barrocal is a 200-year-old farming estate that has been meticulously refurbished by Pritzker-winning architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, who used regional marble, granite and traditional terracotta tiles to remodel the property as a 40-room resort with suites and cottages occupying former stables and barns. The restaurant focuses on regional delicacies and ingredients sourced from its garden. There’s a shop selling contemporary Portuguese crafts and rooms feature blankets fashioned out of mountain wool from Serra da Estrela. To unwind, there’s a Susanne Kaufmann-run spa with organic treatments and swimming pool set in a citrus orchard, while active types can explore the land on horseback, foot or bicycle.