The one place we're anxious to find is the Alentejo, a region in southeast Portugal that occupies about half of the border with Spain and is considered the true hot spot for reds. "The Alentejo is really coming on strong," says Ewing-Mulligan. "It's not as old-fashioned as the Douro, not as mountainous, and has a warmer climate."

The Alentejo's principal crusader is Joáo Portugal Ramos, a charismatic man who worked as a wine consultant for 20 years before deciding to create his own wines because he believed the area possessed the best growing conditions. Ramos' operation, like all of the seven wineries we visit, is expanding. He is planting more vineyards and adding a stomping vat for a more traditional approach to extracting grape juice.

Besides producing traditional blends with native varietals, Ramos has earned praise for his experiments with unusual combinations of grapes. His Vila Santa 1999, made from Aragonez and Trincadeira grapes but finished with Cabernet Sauvignon, pleased New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, who wrote that he enjoyed the wine's spicy aromas and complex berry and chocolate flavors. "We have already convinced the knowledgeable wine people, but now those people need to convince the consumer," says Ramos, who admits the strength of Alentejo is the consistency of its wines rather than the spectacular success of specific vintages. "We cannot presume that we are the French, because we don't have that image. If we did, we would do things dif-ferently. But now we need to make easy, drinkable wines, because we don't have the image we deserve."