Sure enough, we can't get a table there, so we head for Évora, a romantic regional center, for a late lunch at the venerable Fialho, a self-styled cervejaria, or beer hall. Fialho is not only Évora's most celebrated restaurant but also one of the most revered in all of Portugal. This does not translate into fussy cooking or standoffish service. Quite the contrary—the atmosphere is that of a family tavern, although the staff remains professional and polished. Fialho is where you will find a homely-sounding dish like pork and clams, the region's specialty, raised to its highest level, a sensuous mix of rich, tender meat and ascetic, chewy shellfish.
Back in our monk's cell at the Convento, we collapse on our four-poster, resting up for another adega, near Sousel, just a bit north of Estremoz. More picturesque and quirky than Esporão, the Herdade do Mouchão, a family-run estate established in 1901, is a deliberate anachronism. The owners, Ian and Emily Richardson, make wine as if electricity and modern oenological advances had never blemished God's green earth. This is the place to go to sample authentic heavy vinifications of native Alentejo grapes, such as Trincadeira or Aragonês. Elsewhere in the high Alentejo, however, stainless-steel vats have replaced their wooden predecessors, and oenologists from Australia, France, and California's Napa Valley are transforming wines dramatically, and for the better. An infiltration of methods and grape varieties similar to those that revolutionized sleepy vineyards in Tuscany and southwestern France is turning around a region proverbially known as the "land of bread and bad wine." There is still plenty of $5 paint thinner in the bottle shops, but a quick scan of wine lists in restaurants reveals the change taking place. You pay globalized prices for these spiffy newcomers, of course— $30 to $40 for labels you have probably never heard of.
That's about what we pay for a superlative red Esporão '99 at the Luar de Janeiro bistro in Évora, which drew us in with its display of high-end local wines at the door—a good sign. As are the appetizers, especially the mushrooms in oil and mint, the oil swelling the mushrooms with unction, the mint adding its tang as a grace note. But all of this is merely a prelude to the extraordinary cabrito, kid roasted brown and crisp, cut in many pieces from the leg and shoulder but still on the bone. If this is Alentejan peasant cooking, I want to sign up for a job on a quinta, one of the big landholdings that survived the antifascist revolution of 1974.
Perhaps the cushiest of these estates is Quinta do Carmo, where every vine looks as well tended as a bonsai. The property, which dates from the 17th century, is now in partnership with the Rothschilds of Château Lafite. The reserve is roughly 75 percent local grapes, with Cabernet and Syrah accounting for as much as 40 percent. This is a big wine that will stand up to Alentejan food—or a juicy American steak. Without an appointment at the vineyard, we resign ourselves to tasting the wine over lunch at the Pousada Rainha Santa Isabel in Estremoz on our last day in the Alentejo. We are once again reminded that one of the best—not to mention most convenient—ways to sample the new Portuguese vintages is at local restaurants, where they pair effortlessly with the rich cuisine of the region.
Such is our luck that we manage to dine on our last night at Tasquinha d'Oliveira, an excellent small tavern in Évora. Owners Manuel and Carolina d'Oliveira follow the local custom of beginning the meal with a couvert. This is not just a descendant of the bad old European restaurant gimmick of charging for the bread and the place setting (couvert in French). In the Alentejo, couvert indicates an hors d'oeuvre not on the menu. Tasquinha serves 10 small plates—salads of roasted pimientos, rabbit, octopus; a sort of chicken quiche; breaded lamb riblets; goat cheese with quince paste—all of them delicious. We try some of each, not understanding that we're expected to choose one or two and send away the rest. The waiter, unfazed, lets us nibble freely—then charges us for everything we have touched.
The main courses are hearty, even sumptuous. I order the ancestral migas à Alentejana: tender little spareribs tucked into the coarse-grained local version of polenta. My wife orders a mildly gamy braised hare with white beans. This may sound like home cooking, and it is certainly sturdy fare, but it's presented with three-star panache, and the ingredients are brilliantly fresh. We round out the meal with a memorable Adega de Pegões, red, light, and as seductively bouqueted as a fine Burgundy.
To recover, we coax the Punto to take us a few miles out of town to a clearing in a cork oak grove, where we see the cromeleque dos almendres (cromlech of the almond grove), a neolithic stone circle. Here is Old Europe going strong. And if we'd had our wits about us, we would have brought a bottle of Quinta do Carmo Reserva, to toast the Alentejo's new take on its long and rich heritage.
RAYMOND SOKOLOV, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal, is the author of The Cook's Canon.