In the middle of the Alentejo, about 170km east of Lisbon, lies a garden of earthly delights. The hills relent to reveal an enormous plain; the first glimpse of a 2,000-hectare estate full of olive groves, lakes, fruit and vegetable gardens, remarkable wildlife (spanning otters to five different types of eagle), a fine-dining restaurant, an archaeological site including a necropolis and megalithic ceremonial ground…
…oh, and 500 hectares of vines (covering 204 grape varieties), state-of-the-art wineries and one of the most talented winemakers of his generation.
Contrary to the more romantic instincts of some wine lovers, I'm able to confirm that in this case big can indeed be beautiful.
The beautiful vineyards of Esporão
The (fermented) fruits of this garden, Herdade do Esporão, have taken pride of place in The Society's range for some years now, and at the time of writing three are available in our Portugal offer (including supplier-funded savings on their red and white Monte Velho wines).
Driving from Herdade do Mouchão to Herdade do Esporão with the winemaker of the latter, David Baverstock (Australian born but with peerless winemaking experience throughout Portugal, including a stint at Crasto), yielded a good opportunity to find out some more about this famous name - Portugal's largest privately held wine company and the source of many The Society's best-loved Portuguese bottles.
Jo Locke MW at Esporão
Indeed, both the buildings and the wines at Esporão could not be more different from Mouchão's. Whilst Mouchão has carved its niche with a staunchly traditional approach that is being refined by modernity, Esporão's is a much newer bigger, more diverse and altogether bolder operation, employing around 260 people across its Alentejo estate and Lisbon office.
They also own the fabulous Douro estate Quinta dos Murças, visited earlier in our trip.
The 1974 revolution Esporão's success too, albeit in a different way to Mouchão's. Banker José Roquette had bought the site (whose boundaries were established in 1267) in 1973, but it was only in 1979 that the circumstances were right for him to return to Portugal from Brazil and rebuild the dilapidated estate, putting into practice the various ideas he had doubtless been harbouring throughout the intervening years. Its first vintage was in 1985 and the first winery was only fully finished in 1987, but today they export to over 50 countries.
They make a lot of wine here…
David's maxim that he makes the Esporão wines 'in a new world way using old world grapes' intrigued me, but upon tasting more of the Esporão range and seeing the place, the outlook began to make sense.
Both are designed, first and foremost, to be friendly and enjoyable; the result of a huge amount of thought and effort, but so that they might present in a way that just makes you want to have fun with the ride. 'Appealing and approachable' are the watchwords here, said David.
There is less stringent regulation in the Alentejo than the World Heritage-accredited Douro, giving an enterprise like this greater freedom to experiment, which goes some way to explain how they have managed to achieve so much in such a comparatively short history.
Though the vines are in the process of organic conversion, insurance abounds in the form of a network of weather stations, humidity-measuring probes and biotechnical pest-monitoring. Despite the enormous scale of the operation, it is one that focuses on beauty, not vanity, and efficiency rather than corporate cynicism.
Meeting the staff, I was struck by their infectious enthusiasm: I have seldom met a team so friendly and yet so committed to what they're doing. Here too, harvest was in full swing when we arrived, and David was keen to show us the estate's striking wineries and cellars - and, perhaps even more so, the fruit that was en route inside.
David Baverstock shows Jo Locke MW the day's harvest
As mentioned, a mind-boggling 204 grape varieties are planted here, 37 of which are currently in commercial production. The remainder sit in an experimental vineyard so that they can be studied and monitored for, potentially, the Alentejo wines of the future.
Observing the various vats of fruit and new truckloads arriving seemingly by the minute, it almost became a sport to ask what each of them was.
David presides over a fresh
arrival from the vineyards
(Click to enlarge)
'Rampant diversity' was one of the more curious phrases that leapt from my notebook when reviewing my tasting notes for Esporão's range; then again, what can one expect from a winery with such variety and scale?
From the commercially successful and surprisingly sophisticated entry-level wines to their ambitious and often-esoteric top-end and experimental bottlings, there seems to be an insatiable appetite to try new things. David and his team are making wines that range from the rewarding to the downright fascinating.
The entry-level Monte Velho wines are the top sellers in their price bracket in the Portuguese market. Perhaps given the number of reds poured and pored over during this trip, it was the white wine - a blend of local grapes roupeiro, antão vaz and perrum - that particularly appealed to me as great value. It really does overdeliver, particularly in the generous 2015 vintage, supplementing all the citrus flavours one might expect with a leafy complexity, fullness of body and surprising texture. 'A lot of sophistication for a big-blend wine from a hot climate,' was David's conclusion. He's right. Do give it a go.
The Reserva Branco 2014 is an altogether different kind of white, blending roupeiro, arinto and antão vaz with 10% semillon to create a richer, more structured and food-friendly wine. 40% of this blend spends six months in barrel before being reunited with the unoaked component, resulting in a classy, exuberant but sophisticated wine reminiscent in some ways of a sunnier relation of dry white Bordeaux; with just enough acidity to invite a second glass.
Esporão feels at once like a complex and an oasis in this rugged region, and its balance of natural scenery, produce and impressive modern hospitality is clearly the result of remarkable care and thought. Bumping into their Wine Tourism Centre manager, Antonio Roquette (no relation to the owner of the estate), yielded an extraordinary, passionate five-minute monologue about the myriad little touches that were employed when redesigning and renovating the restaurant, a project that was completed in 2012.
Everything from the selection of on-site wildlife photography (and how and where the results were placed) to the design of the menus had, we were told, been scrutinised in minute detail to immerse visitors in the natural abundance of their surroundings, but crucially without pretension or show-offishness.
In many ways this sums up my first experience of Portugal: every winemaker we met had their own vision, every estate their own niche; and each was pursuing them with meticulous attention to detail and deserved success. I hope their already enthusiastic audience among Society members continues to grow.
Spending such a degree of time with our Portuguese buyer also confirmed something I already knew: the future of The Society's Portuguese range is in good hands, and there will be a wealth of new infectious enthusiasm and delicious wines to discover for years to come.
Where to go next?
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