Olveira da Silva exemplifies the how and why of the increasing popularity of Portuguese wines - and reds in particular - as they stake their claim as the affordable, notable, and distinctive wines of the moment. Six years ago, Olveira da Silva left his prestigious banking job in Lisbon for the life of a winemaker in the Estremadura region, about 60 miles to the north. It was perfect timing. When Portugal joined the European Community in 1986, a lot of money was made available for agricultural improvements in the country. Growers became entitled to compensation for pulling up less desirable vineyards, and many took advantage of new government loans and began replanting, modernizing wineries, and expanding or building new ones. Today, the three regions on our itinerary boast a total of 184 wine producers, the largest number being Alentejo, with 70.

"Their grape-growing and winemaking has improved tremendously in the past five years," says Mary Ewing-Mulligan, co-author of the bestselling Wine for Dummies series (and the only American woman to earn the title Master of Wine). "Portugal's wine industry was on hold for all those years of political difficulty and got a fresh start only in 1986 when the country joined the European Community. In a way, Portugal is like a late child, who has the chance to learn from the other EU nations, see how their winemaking has changed in response to the new world market, and decide where to go."