In the heart of Portugal, just a short drive from Lisbon stands a region that is linked to wine production since time can tell. A land of monasteries, incredible noble farms, the Pure-Blooded Lusitano horse and beautiful cities and towns, the Tejo region is, without a doubt an open-air museum with an incredible winery.
The region, and more specifically its river, was the main waterway between the 2 Iberian capitals of Madrid and Lisbon. This meant that it was where a lot of the trade would happen, making Tejo one of Portugal’s richest regions. It also meant that it would sell a lot of its wines to the rest of the Iberian peninsula and, then, the rest of Europe, really early when compared to most of the other Portuguese wines (starting in the Middle Ages).
When it was first recognized, the wine region was known as ‘Ribatejo’ (meaning something like ‘Above Tejo’), as a way to differentiate from the region of ‘Alentejo’ (something like ‘After Tejo’). In 2009, however, it changed its name to simply the name of the river that crosses it: in English called ‘Tagus’, but in Portuguese ‘Tejo’. This river is definitely a decisive part of the wine production here, since it waters the “Terroirs” and maintains the climate, besides being a defining feature of the region’s culture and economy.
The Tejo region is known to produce a great quantity of wines who are of great quality, but also of great quantity. The quality is ensured by the region’s two labels of Tejo DOC (‘Denominação de Origem Controlada’ or Controlled Origin Denomination), for the higher level wines, and Tejo VR (‘Vinho Regional’ or Regional Wine)
This region is one of the oldest wine producing regions in Portugal. It has unique characteristics that create wonderful wines, for which is known and loved.
History of Tejo Wine
The history of winemaking in the Tejo region can be traced back to 2000 a.C. when the Tartessos started to plant vines next to the river. It is said that Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, referred to the wines in the ‘Foral de Santarém’, in 1170, the document that gave the statute of city to Santarém.
Around this time, after the conquest of the region by Portugal, the King gave land to trustees that would plant olive trees and vineyards in them, which kickstarted the production of this good in the region.
Fast-forwarding to the Age of Discovery, in the 1400s, the region gained a new importance. Portuguese explorers traveled the trade routes from Europe through Africa and Asia. These ships came out of the Tagus (Tejo) River estuary, in Lisbon, packed with Portuguese wine and supplies.
200 years later, Santarém, a city in the region, developed new economic importance, becoming the main supplies of goods to Lisbon, all from ships sailing the Tejo. Some of these suppliers were agricultural estates owned by the Portuguese royalty itself, like the Companhia das Lezirías, which now has wonderful agricultural farmland, bird sanctuaries, cork forests, and vineyards.
In 1765, just like with the wines of Alentejo, the vines disappeared due to the order by the Marquis of Pombal, Portugal’s “sort of” Prime Minister at the time, which was scared that these wines would destroy the traditional wines of Douro.
Thankfully, they came back, and, in 1989, six ‘Indicações de Proveniência Regulamentada’ (Regulated Provenience Indication) were created for wines in the region. Then, in 1997, this grew to encompass the whole region and the Regional Wine Commission of Ribatejo was created, named Regional Wine Commission of Tejo in 2009. All of these organs protect the region’s wines and assures their quality.
The Tejo region can be further divided into 3 areas, each with its own particularities: Bairro, Charneca, and Campo.
The Bairro soils are on the north of the Tagus River. It’s an irregular terrain, characterized by hills and plains, with altitudes not bigger than 200 meters. It’s rich in limestone, clay and, if we go a bit more north, also schist.
This zone is placed south of the Tagus. It’s dry and flat, with poor and sandy soils, which makes the vines struggle, producing a more complex grape. It’s also an area of high temperatures, which makes the grapes mature faster.
The last zone is on the edges of the Tagus, on the riverbank. This means it has a more maritime climate, with moderate temperatures, which helps contribute to the acidity of the wines, as well as making it fresher and fruitier. The soils in the region give good drainage, sustaining the vineyards.
These zones are further divided into 6 subregions. These are Almeirim, Cartaxo, Chamusca, Coruche, Santarém, and Tomar.
Tejo Wine Traditions
In Tejo, there are many local winemaking traditions but also many Portuguese winemaking traditions that have begun to disappear all over the country but that remain intact here. Some of these are:
Harvest by the Community
In the Tejo region, most of the harvest continues to be taken care of by the local community. The local women from the villages hand-harvest the grapes while singing traditional folk songs.
Like in many parts of Portugal, at least in the old days and in the traditional wineries, the communities use large stone tanks known as ‘lagares’ and crush the grapes by foot. This is considered a more gentle way to process the grapes and prevents the seeds from being crushed with the pulp, which is said to compromise the flavor.
Use of Cork from the Local Forests
The wines are usually sealed in the bottle using native cork from the nearby forests. Cork is native to Portugal, with the country producing nearly half of the world’s demand. The Tejo region itself has over 30.000 acres of cork forest, with the Coruche municipality (also in the region) being the largest cork producing area in the country!
This product is also harvested by hand, just like traditionally it was.
The soils are usually of 4 types:
- Schist (near Tomar)
- Alluvial soils: very fertile in an area periodically flooded by the river)
- Clay and limestone: on an irregular zone, with more vineyards and olive tree production
- Sandy: a soil with low productivity, since it’s in a very dry area with high temperatures compared to the rest of the region (making the maturing process faster).
Tejo Wine Types
There are many wine types in Tejo, from white to red, passing through the sparkling and liquory. All of these wines are unique due to the region they grow in, but especially because of the soils and grape varieties that they are made with.
The white wines produced in Tejo are diverse wines with lots of aromas, depending on the varieties and soils in which they are produced.
Preferencial soil: Campo and Charneca
The Tejo red wines are linked to several Portuguese grape varieties and, more recently, to a mix between these and international varieties. These have started to become very well-known both in Portugal and outside.
Preferencial soil: Charneca and Bairro.
Preferencial soil: Campo and Charneca.
This wine is a wine that, traditionally, obtains its effervescence from a second alcoholic fermentation process that happens inside the bottle, getting a pressure due to the CO2 that builds up there (over 3 bar).
A fizzy wine has less gas than sparkling wine (between 1 and 2.5 bar of pressure, while sparkling wines have 3 bar), with this process occurring naturally or with the addition of carbon dioxide. It has an alcohol content of at least 9% and, like sparkling wines, it can be more or fewer sweets. It’s mostly common on Vinho Verde, in the Minho region in the North of Portugal, but also here in Tejo.
Preferencial soil: Campo.
Made by adding alcohol (pure, ‘aguardente’ or brandy) during the fermenting process. This suspends the transformation of the sugar into alcohol and makes the wine sweeter and more alcoholic in content.
Preferencial soil: Charneca and Campo.
A wine made with the over-mature grapes almost turned into raisins in the vine tree. This natural aging makes the grapes have a high volume of sugar.
Preferencial soil: Bairro, Charneca and Campo.
Tejo Grape Types
For red wines, most of the grapes used by the producers are Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Castelão, and Aragonês. Syrah, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are international grape types also planted in the region.
As for white wines, the main grapes used are Arinto, Fernão Pires, Alvarinho and Verdelho. We can also find Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay among the international grapes used in Tejo.
Tejo Wine Suggestions: Best Tejo Wine
If you’re looking to try these wines that grow from the waters of the mythical Tagus, here are some brands that have excellent wines according to the 2021 ‘Concurso de Vinhos do Tejo’ (Tejo Wine Contest):
- Quinta do Casal Monteiro
- Casa Cadaval
- Quinta dos Penegrais
- Terras do Ribatejo
- Terra Silvestre
- Quinta da Alorna
- Joana da Cana
- Solar dos Loendros
- CTX Vinho Licoroso
- Cabeça de Toiro
Tejo Wine Tours
This amazing tour allows you the opportunity to explore the vineyards of a 12th-century winery on a horse-drawn carriage in the wonderful Tejo region. You will also try the estate’s wine, together with some Portuguese bread and sausage. After that, you will see the traditional cities of Almeirim and Vieira do Escaroupim, in the Tagus Estuary Natural Reserve, before going to another wine estate to see the Lusitano horses, unique to Portugal, and enjoy yet another wine taste.
If you’re around Lisbon and want to get a taste of the Tejo (literally), this is a great trip. You will have the opportunity to horseback ride yourself, under the guidance of a professional, of course, together with a wine taste of the region’s wines and a delicious Portuguese lunch!