Writing for this site has been an incredible learning experience. My job is to travel around the peninsula discovering wine unknown to you, and then go about convincing you that these Bodegas are worth learning about for yourself. This past week, while I was in the Alentejo, I continually felt as if I was discovering Bodegas new to the international wine market and of great importance to you; however, visiting a Bodega with a 700 year old history of winemaking makes the idea of “discovery” a bit like saying I’ve “discovered” the bottom of my cereal bowl each morning at breakfast. Such is the case with Quinta Esporão. If you suggest to a Portuguese wine lover the idea of this Bodega being a novel “up a coming” winery, they would probably respond by stating that pork is part of the Noveau cuisine in Portugal.
Bought in 1973 by Finagara, the Esporão Estate totals over 1500 hectares, including: 600 hectares of vines, olive trees, a 100 hectare reservoir, as well as archeological monuments relating the ownership of the property dating back to 1267. It is of no doubt that a lot has changed over the past millennium, but one thing has remained the same: incredible wine has been produced here for generations. But enough about the past, the present is a bit more relevant. With all the fame this vineyard has accumulated in Portugal, I felt a bit ashamed not to have known more about them before stepping foot on their Bodega. Sure, I had had a wine or two of theirs either during my wanderings in Portugal or at a trade show, but I didn’t realize how much they had contributed to the success of the entire region as a whole – that was until my appointment last Tuesday.
According to the map, it was a quick drive about an hour South of Évora, passing a few historic villages along the way. Seemed easy enoughover a cup of coffee and a flat paper map, but driving in the Alentejo is a dangerous endeavor. Not as much for the traffic or the poor quality of the roads for they both tended to be quite good, but instead, as a result of the two-laned roads that lacked visual barriers to the beautiful countryside. In my opinion, this was a major oversight.
Allow me to put this simply, the Alentejo is gorgeous with rolling grassy hills blanketed in patches of yellow and white small flowers that stain the soft countryside with spotted cork oaks popping up every so often. For me, not having the barriers was basically an invitation to run off the road in a desperate effort to be closer to nature; and to make matters worse, because I thought I was running late, I didn’t have time to take a picture or two. Hence, you’re going to have to take my word in how stunning the scenery actually was.
The directions I received were superb, affording me a few minutes to spare as I pulled up to the tall white gates that stood guard over the vines held within. “Here is my chance”, I thought, as I jumped out of the car, took out my camera and inhaled the sweet flower perfumed air. Getting back into the car, I reflected on how impressed I was by the time I had made as I slowly followed signs down the grapevine bordered roads in search of the main bodega. Having the great fortune of meandering directly though a tiny little village directly into an olive tree that had a trunk larger than my 2 winemakers barrels, most likely taking root well before Columbus was even born. In fact in this “village” that seemed nesteled into the vines was acually part of the old residence from when this poperty was first created. Here there was a tower, fountain, and small chapel, all objects that dated to 13th century and all recently restored for visitors such as myself to learn something of the regions historic past.
But enough of this on to the wine. So off I went through the village and up the road in search of the infamous Bodega when I quickly received a lesson as to how large a hectare actually is. Up until this point, I had been making good time, but I somehow I missed the memo that informed me of how gigantic this Estate actually was. Winding back and forth through vines, it felt like hours before I pulled up to the front gate of the main building which was perched on top of small hill not only overlooking the entire winery, but also the an impeccable view of the reservoir. I don’t know what it is about grapevines, but no matter how many times I see them, they always seem magical.
Content with my own personal tour, I was excited to actually see the inside of the Bodega. My contact, Ricardo Gomes, greeted me with a warm smile and welcoming voice proceeding to explain a little of the history that I have so far explained to you. After a brief conversation, he introduced me to Sandra Alves, one of the two winemakers for Esporão’s white wines, who proceeded to guide me through their Bodega. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to meet the main winemaker, David Baverstock, but I assume he was busy creating some wine magic behind the scenes.
Until very recently, the Alentejo has been dominated by large Cooperatives, prohibiting privately owned Bodegas, such as Esporão, to thrive on its own. Currently, Esporão is one of the largest privately owned Bodegas, producing approximately six million liters of wine a year and have over seventeen different labels spanning across seven diverse styles. As usual the winemaking here is state of the art with cost playing second fiddle to quality. Although the technology was impressive and memorable, it was their organizational skills that truly took me by surprise. If you want to learn about the process of winemaking, this is a great place to start. Why? Because the tour offered takes you through the entire process from a simple bunch of grapes all the way to bottle aging.
In fact, the tour was so well organized that like a museum, your last stop is in the main building where you can try some different wines, have an elegant meal or purchase some of their products. For me though it was to be a private tasting of some of their finest wines.
Up until this point, I’ve could be accused of focusing a bit heavier on the “good points” of the Bodega I cover, rather than being objective. While traveling to Bodegas, I do find both good and bad examples of winemaking, and to be fair to you, I feel that I need to be more consistent in covering the entire spectrum. On the positive side, Esporão tries to improve upon past successes, consistently experimenting with new styles and grape varietals in hopes of producing an even more exciting wine. On the other hand, Esporão’s main weakness could potentially be their size. While size has not weakened Esporão’s portfolio as of yet, there is a potential for a gigantic Bodega, such as this one, to spread themselves too thin – eventually leading to mediocre wines that lack any zest or luster.
More specifically, of the ten wines I sampled, I found them all to be both interesting and capable of being paired with a wide variety of international cuisines. Although I didn’t try the Espumante (sparkling), I was intrigued to find out that it only goes through the first stages of production on the property, and then is promptly finished offsite, giving me the sneaky suspicion that the wine was created more as a means to round out their portfolio than as a stellar example of a sparkling wine. Of all the wines they produced, I was most disappointed with the “late harvest” style they offer, which was simple and straightforward without the complexity that I come to expect in a wine of this particular style. On the other hand the Late Harvest is actually the biggest seller at their restaurant, not so much as a dessert wine – as I would have expected, but more often as an aperitif before the meal. The short finish and clean palate that you are left with made sense that it would find it’s way into this niche.
Most of the wines were incredibly well made, very tasty, and like I said, offered a different take on wine as a whole. I was also quite excited to have had the chance to try some of their mono-varietal wines – all of which employed one grape variety in an attempt to show what it was capable of. The most notable of these varietals being the Alicante Bouschet grape, but we’ll leave this conversation for later.
As my time came to a close, we meandered our way into the subject of wine tourism. Esporão is a leader in regional wine tourism and the future holds some bold projects that have yet to be announced. Currently, the Bodega is set up to accommodate anyone who is interested in visiting, and with a quick dial of their number, you can even get an appointment for a tour and/or a reservation in their restaurant renown for its fantastic local cuisine. Actually, the restaurant is quite a legend in the region, and it would be considered a waste for you to tour the region without taking a moment to swing by the restaurant for a fabulous meal.
Overall, it was an incredibly enjoyable experience to see such a well laid out winery considering the amount of resistance I have encountered by Bodegas who fear the time and effort it takes to make a tourist friendly Bodega a reality. Esporão obviously understands how imperative it is to create a well organized and tourist friendly Bodega in order to reap the rewards in the future. I only wish other Bodegas would follow suit.
This week, I’ll continue to cover the Alentejo; however, allow me to stress how amazing the Alentejo has been in its efforts to develop a tourist friendly wine region that caters to its visitors having a very personalized and special experience.
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