When, on February 8, 2002, the order was given to close the floodgates of the Alqueva dam a cycle of profound transformations in the Alentejo began, which was not irrelevant to the left bank of river Guadiana and, particularly, the triangle formed by the parishes of Amareleja, Granja and Póvoa de São Miguel. As the reservoir of the dam filled, the landscape began to change radically and when it reached the maximum level, in 2010, there were about 1100 km of shore on one of the largest artificial lakes in Europe. The parched landscape, of suffocating summer heat, without a soul in the heat, gave way to a huge mirror of water, with boats plying the waters and fishermen, on the banks, trying their luck.
However, apart from the strong presence of water, the landscape of the left bank of river Guadiana has changed little, as the construction of the irrigation network that would allow the use of water so close by was not part of the defined priorities.
The ever-recognized individuality of the left bank of river Guadiana owes its interiority to the corset caused by the river and an artificial border wih Spain, with no physical obstacles to justify it, but with indelible historical barriers, which have always contributed to the isolation of both sides of the dividing line. This isolation, the demographic drain and the aging of the resident population continue to contribute to an old-fashioned landscape dominated by smallholdings with olive groves, holm oak forests, rare cornfields, dry farming vineyards planted in squares at the medieval-style, rare fruit trees, small vegetable gardens around the farmland and some livestock.
This strong identity, resistant to the pressure of globalization, is also reflected in life habits, in the preservation of ancient memories and in popular wisdom in perfect harmony with nature and a
sustainable agriculture system.
You have to walk along the beaten earth paths, away from the main roads, to find the scruffy vines, low in height, with many faults and venerable twisted vines, of many and varied grape varieties. Still there stand the Moreto “manso” (ungrafted), the Alfrocheiro, the Rabo de Ovelha, the Roupeiro, the Pendura, the Perrum, the Manteúdo, among other grape varieties, to remind us that the old staging was different. These old vines, contrary to what was common in the recent past, are no longer understood only as underdevelopment, which must be eliminated as soon as possible, but as a viticultural, historical and anthropological heritage, which is opposed to the steamroller of globalization and urgently needs to be recognized and safeguarded.
In addition to the ancestral techniques with which they are cultivated, these vineyards are fields of invaluable ampelographic biodiversity, where you can still recognize the ancient grape varieties and some unknown ones. Part of these vineyards should be recognized as heritage of public interest and integrated into the historical wine tourism circuits of the Alentejo.
The geographical area of Granja-Amareleja sub-region, entitled to the certification as of Alentejo Protected Designation of Origin (DOP Alentejo), is located on the left bank of river Guadiana and encompasses all the parishes of Amareleja and Póvoa de São Miguel and part of the parishes of Santo Amador and São João Baptista, in the municipality of Moura, and all the parishes of Granja, Luz and Mourão, in the municipality of Mourão.
When you walk along the agricultural paths that serve the countless small farmers' plots of the sub-region, especially those in the parishes of Granja, Amareleja and Póvoa de São Miguel, you discover an ancient world on the verge of extinction, but full of history and honoring the most lively Mediterranean agricultural traditions. The vineyard and the olive grove stand out from the other crops, but there are also fruit trees, vegetables and holm oaks, which often welcome a few heads of cattle in their shade, in the heat pick hours.
When visiting the old vineyards of Courelas dos Aleixos in the pick of summer, one is surprised by the vigour of the strains and the load of the bunches, as if they were indifferent to the drought and the various heat waves that hit the region between June and August. In effect, the Amareleja is reputed to be the hottest land in the country, to the point where the harvest is only done in the morning, in the old vineyards, or at night, with machines, in the modern vineyards, because no one can stand the afternoon sun heat.
How can it be explained, then, that the vines, and even the olive and fig trees, are so luxuriant, being rainfed crops?
When we ask what the secret of the soil (or subsoil) is, everyone talks about “selão” - a misrepresentation of the technical term “solão” - which designates sedimentary formations of a clayey and sandy nature. You can't even see the clay, but the sandy and gravel terrain is a constant, indicating the low fertility of the soil and making it difficult to understand how it is possible to extract such profitable dry farming productions from there. Everything points to the secret being the “solão”, a layer of yellowish material that exists underground at greater or lesser depth. The high percentage of clay that guarantees a high water retention capacity and fertility, that the sandy surface of the soil does not allow us to foresee. Phylloxera, in turn, does not have an easy life either, as the sandy surface layer prevents the malefic insect from reaching the roots of the strains, which quickly dive into the soil in search of moisture retained in the soil clay. Although there are no scientific studies on the soil of Courelas dos Aleixos, it is very likely that this clayey formation of a sedimentary nature is responsible for the exceptional resistance of crops to summer sun heat, the generous production of most crops and the distinctive quality of the Moreto wines, much more famous than wines from this grape variety elsewhere in Alentejo.