Algarve ('the Algarve' to most English speakers) is the southernmost wine region of Portugal, and the far southwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. It is more widely known for its beaches and thriving tourist industry than its wines. Although a small quantity of fresh-styled white wines are made here, the wines of the Algarve are predominantly red, and made from classic Portuguese varieties like Castelão and Touriga Nacional, as well as more international varieties like Syrah.
The region's wines are produced largely by a by a small number of upscale co-operatives, although the fashion for independent producers is catching on quickly. Traditionally Algarve wines have been high in alcohol, the result of a warm, maritime climate – just 125 miles (200km) separates Algarve's easternmost vineyards (in Tavita) from Tangiers, on the north coast of Africa.
The Vitis vinifera vine thrives here in the Algarve climate, which is as well suited to the vine's long-term needs as it is to the short-term needs of humans. The same bright sunshine, warm air and sea breeze which brings tourists here in their droves is precisely what grape vines require to give prolific yields and fruit with sky-high potential alcohol. But while the human contingent here is happily self-irrigating, and retreats to air-conditioned comfort at night, the vines are left outside to swelter in the warm night air.
Although seemingly perfect, these climatic conditions serve to accelerate the vine growing season, bringing the grapes to their juicy, sweet potential before they have had a chance to develop much depth of flavor. They also trade their natural acids for sugars as they ripen, so by the end of the season their juice is full of sugar (potential alcohol) and little else. Thus the type of wine traditionally associated with the Algarve is highly potent, lacking in the refreshing acidity which would come in so handy here, and tastes slightly 'baked' – the result of all those hot nights.
The soils here in the Algarve are highly varied, and include limestone-rich clays, sandstone and sandier soils closer to the coastline. Some vineyards even benefit from free-draining, mineral-rich schists. These are the lucky few, as they also benefit from reliable rainfall blowing in from the Atlantic and the higher diurnal temperature variation which is standard for any elevated region.
Algarve has four DOCs – Lagos, Portimão, Lagoa and Tavira – whose catchment areas stretch along the coast from west to east. The name Algarve derives from the Arabic Al-Gharb Andalus, by which it was known to the Moorish invaders of the Middle Ages. Al-Gharb means 'of the west', while Andalus was the Arabic name for Moorish Iberia, and survives today in modern-day Andalucia.